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Steel appeal: find out why bike makers and riders still love steel bikes

Carbon fibre might dominate, but steel is still the frame material of choice for many

Once upon a time, all bicycles were made from steel, from shopping bikes to Tour de France-conquering race bikes. Rapid technological developments over the past few decades have seen lighter materials like aluminium, titanium and, most recently, carbon fibre push steel out of the spotlight.

Is steel dead, though? Far from it. If anything, it is enjoying a resurgence of interest. Although racing cyclists no longer favour steel, it continues to be the desired frame material for anyone wanting a bike for comfort, distance and durability. That’s why touring and audax bikes tend to be steel, not carbon fibre.

Despite impressive material advances over the years, steel has refused to disappear into the history books. Material and tube developments from the two main steel tubing suppliers, Columbus and Reynolds, and interest from cyclists looking for something a little different, have fuelled a growth in the number of frame builders, meaning there's now a lot more choice if you want a steel frame for your next bike.

Going bespoke

There has been a surge of new frame builders joining more established names over the past few years, all catering to the increasing number of cyclists wanting to go down the custom frame route. And custom frame building is far easier with steel than carbon and aluminium.

- Great custom handbuilt frames — from makers who can craft your dream frame

donhou dss4.jpg

Jim Walker, the founder of titanium and steel specialist Enigma, puts this renewed popularity down to steel being easy to work with and allowing creative freedoms to be indulged. Though he also suggests it's the attraction of the fabled ride quality of a high-quality steel frame that is drawing in new customers.

“It’s always been a great material for frame builders as it’s relatively easy to work with," he says, "plus it’s great for customisation. Steel allows a craftsman to be creative and to create something beautiful."

There's also the reputation steel has for a springy and indulgent ride character, something Walker feels is also a factor in why more people are choosing it over other materials. “It’s hard to say why steel has seen such a renaissance in recent years, but maybe it’s just that it offers a riding experience that differs from everything else.

"Steel somehow feels more alive than other materials and makes for a wonderful ‘zingy’ ride quality," says Walker. "It’s hard to articulate the ride quality of a well designed and built steel bicycle.”

“It’s the aesthetics and ride quality that makes many choose steel,” agrees Tom Donhou of Donhou Bicycles, one of the new generation of frame builders.

Enigma-Main-Elite-Disc.jpg

While a key attraction of steel for these newer frame builders is that it’s easy, and relatively affordable, to work with, for the customer it means a fully bespoke custom frame, from geometry to paint finish, right down to every little last detail. That is rarely possible from mainstream manufacturers working in other materials.

It's also the relationship with the person building their frame that makes going down the custom route appealing for many, and that's more likely to be steel than any other material. The frame is likely to be made in the UK, and probably not far from where the customer lives. It used to be the case that racing cyclists would go to their local frame builder, when most towns could boast a frame builder, to be fully measured up for a steel racing bike.

Steel bikes back in the professional peloton

Up until the 1980s, most of the professional peloton raced on steel bicycles, before new materials promising lighter weight and increased stiffness made them obsolete. But even in racing steel has enjoyed a resurgence. For a couple of years the Madison-Genesis team put steel bicycles back in the professional peloton with the highly regarded Volare race bike.

GNAB9_lifestyle_01.jpg

“The main driving force [behind the Madison-Genesis team] was essentially to prove that steel, albeit in this ‘super steel’ form, is still a competitive material to build bikes from,” Genesis brand manager Albert Steward told us at the time.

“With the fairly recent developments of the new ‘super steels’ (Reynolds 953 and Columbus XCr), the feeling from inside the product team was that it might be a good time to revisit steel in a race context and see what we could do," he added.

The team and its Volare bikes made a significant mark, though Madison-Genesis has since switched to the Zero SL carbon fibre platform. The siren song of carbon is hard to resist.

Steel goes oversize

Conventional wisdom regarding steel is that the inherent ‘springiness’, which provides superb ride comfort, is largely due to the small diameter tubes commonly used. Steel is also durable and very strong and, provided it’s properly treated, there’s no reason why rust should be a problem. But it’s the latest advancements by Reynolds and Columbus that have opened up new opportunities for frame builders.

- 18 of the best steel road bikes and frames — great rides from cycling's traditional material

“Working with steel, you’re pretty much confined to tube shaping if you’re wanting to increase stiffness without increasing weight, the obvious quick stiffness fixes being increasing tube diameter or wall thickness,” said Steward, adding that the latest steel tubesets, according to feedback from the race team, were actually too stiff.

“With the Volare version five we’ve actually downsized the top tube, working closely with Reynolds on a new sunk-down, fully oval custom tube with a view of dropping weight and increasing in-saddle comfort,” he said. “They’ll also run a new drawn tapered head tube which is lighter than the previously used straight Ø44mm model, so, yep, there are absolutely still improvements to be made.”

The latest steel tubesets have pushed up the diameter of tubes, and long gone are the days of skinny tubed performance steel road bikes.

Mason Cycles Resolution - riding 3

This visual appearance is another factor in their appeal, reckons Jim Walker. 

“The new lightweight steels - and I don’t include stainless steel here - have certainly brought the weight of high-end steel frames down to a more competitive level, but that’s only part of the appeal,” he says. “They have also given steel frames a more contemporary look which appeals to many. Not everyone likes the look of skinny frame tubes.”

Despite materials like aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre superseding steel on most fronts, steel has refused to slip into the shadows and is still a very good choice for building a bicycle frame.

“I think people are now realising that carbon isn't always the best material for their type/style of riding. A carbon race bike isn't the best bike for all applications and people are now realising this,” says Tom Donhou.

“Carbon is an amazing material, and if ultimate weight saving is what you are after then there really is no match. However, chasing numbers don't always add up to the most enjoyable ride. The steels we now use are truly modern materials and for the riders in the know, to sacrifice a few grams for more comfort and the feel of steel, there really is no competition.”

Fairlight Strael 2.jpg

There's another consideration many cyclists are factoring in when buying a new bike. A carbon frame can look dated pretty quickly, as larger bike brands change models and paint jobs every season. That's not the case with a steel frame, which has a timeless quality to it and will still look good many years down the line. What's more, it's easy to get a steel frame resprayed, so if you get bored of the colour after a couple of years, you can easily strip it down and give it a new lick of paint. 

Are steel frames expensive?

Yes and no. If you want a fully custom steel frame, it's not going to be cheap. The likes of Donhou Bicycles, Saffron, Feather, Paulus Quiros and so on have very limited resources and therefore extremely packed order books, meaning a long wait and slow turnaround time. A frame from any of these builders can start from £1,000 and rapidly rise to several times that.

It's worth remembering that you are involved in the process throughout, from the initial concept to every detail of its build, and eventual completion. You're not simply buying a frame off the shelf. It's like buying a bespoke tailored suit: you have a say in every decision.

If you aren't fussed about a custom paint job or geometry, there are cheaper options. Small UK companies like Condor, Genesis, Rourke and Enigma produce steel frames on a slightly larger scale and that means they are more affordable. Prices can start from as little as £449.99, making owning a steel frame really quite affordable. You certainly can't buy a carbon frame for that sort of money.

For all these reasons, it looks like the future for steel bicycle frames is a bright one.

- Choosing a steel, aluminium, titanium or carbon road bike

Will your next bike be made of steel?

David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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69 comments

Avatar
matthewn5 | 4 years ago
3 likes

Still loving my Rourke 653. Here as set up with dynamo lighting for the Dun Run this year. So smooth.

//serving.photos.photobox.com/9807104661496b57a420e47cca2757e3277b71cfd3b96d5d43b50d9682748082137a4dc0.jpg)

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Nick T | 3 years ago
7 likes

The only thing that will outlast the longevity of steel is this article 

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NZ Vegan Rider | 3 years ago
2 likes

Steet RUSTS and can do so really badly. I took a frame to a sandblaster (he's good and has done other frames for me). He gave it back to me after doing it and showed me the stays had rust holes through them and were dangerously weak. With the paint still on it I didn't know and it would've been DANGEROUS to ride ;-(  A lot of "frame" feel is tyre pressure.

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Chris Hayes | 3 years ago
0 likes

I took my 1996 Gios out for a spin yesterday morning and it brought an immediate smile to my face.   I've never owned a modern carbon bike (though I have a C50) - and though I'd like a new bike (who wouldn't), I'm not sure I can justify a new C64 or one of those pornographic Wilier's in their copper-painted livery. 

I'm taking her out for a spin again today...

 

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Judge dreadful | 3 years ago
1 like

Steel is real, so is rust.

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wtjs | 3 years ago
0 likes

Over the decades I've had 531, 753, 853 and 725 (which had some tubes, probably the stays, made of something else. I've been very pleased with all of them. However, I can't detect any worsening of ride quality in my recent off the peg Vitus Substance (my best general bike ever) which just has some unspecified Tange 'gas pipe tubing'. The latter may be a bit heavier but that's only a guess.

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sammutd88 | 3 years ago
0 likes

Steel may be great but it's also priced ridiculously. Working with steel isn't as labour intensive as working with titanium, yet this new breed of manufacturers believe they can charge $3k AUD for a frameset. Mind blowing what people will pay. An aluminium frame with nice fat tyres will ride smoother and will be lighter, not to mention kinder on the hip pocket.

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David9694 | 3 years ago
0 likes

all the bikes pictured in the article look to have carbon fibre forks?

I'm mainly a vintage steel man - 531c seems to be the sweet spot and until I get a few lbs off myself, the weight gain from other materials is, well, immaterial.  
I've got a Viner Super Professional, probably one of the Columbus tube sets, that rides very nicely, which means that, more often than not, the bike is saying, "c'mon, let's go..."  sshh - can you hear it?

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ktache replied to NZ Vegan Rider | 3 years ago
1 like

I J P Weigled my new steel frame in an attempt to minimise the invasion of internal rust.

You never know...

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Nick T replied to David9694 | 3 years ago
0 likes

Steel frames already suffer a weight penalty, adding a 1000g fork doesn't help things. Skinny steel forks also look a bit out of place on the tube proportions of modern frames, plus there's the various headset standards to consider today

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Nick T replied to sammutd88 | 3 years ago
0 likes

Depends what you mean my labour intensive, a well made fillet brazed steel frame takes hours of careful mitring, days of hand sanding the fillets, years of experience with the torch to end up with consistent pinhole free brazes, the knowledge to select to correct tube sets, some places even machine custom parts like head tube reinforcement rings or drop outs. You aren't just buying a few tubes bobbed together in a jig, but if that's all you're after then there's certainly cheaper ways to get that. Everyone sees value differently  

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David9694 replied to Nick T | 3 years ago
0 likes

The frame-building course I did was 5 days - forks, a further two. Five days' hard Labour, filing and sanding, if you're not used to it. 

Lugged:  "you can have any frame angle as long as it's 73 degrees".  

No 1 eyeball for siting braze-ons. Trial and error for making /sizing /positioning a brake bridge. 

head tube - no issue - press fit

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franta replied to NZ Vegan Rider | 3 years ago
1 like
NZ Vegan Rider wrote:

 A lot of "frame" feel is tyre pressure.

+1

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Judge dreadful replied to NZ Vegan Rider | 3 years ago
0 likes
NZ Vegan Rider wrote:

Steet RUSTS and can do so really badly. I took a frame to a sandblaster (he's good and has done other frames for me). He gave it back to me after doing it and showed me the stays had rust holes through them and were dangerously weak. With the paint still on it I didn't know and it would've been DANGEROUS to ride ;-(  A lot of "frame" feel is tyre pressure.

Quite right. Also steel often corrodes / weakens from the inside out. By the time you notice you have a really bad case of metal worm, you're in a heap with a broken frame.

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Bigfoz | 4 years ago
1 like

Nearly all my bikes are steel, bar the Ti/Cbn one. I've yet to find a full carbon bike that "lights my fire".  Emotionally, as an older rider, I'm more attuned to the bikes my heroes rode, and I've ridden all my life. And who cares if the Carbon superbike is 3kg lighter than my 1983 Carlton Professional* Unless you're at 5% body fat, you're wasting money in light bikes and components, and will anyway put greater stress and strain through them and have to chnage / upgrade more often.

 

* - Carlton Pro mk 5, 531 tubing, Campag Racing -T 3x9 drivechain, everything alloy, mudguard, pump, toolbag and lights, total weight 9.3Kg. Rides sublimely, no creaks, no rattles, makes me smile 20 miles each way to work, and 50-100 mile rides at weekends.  

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bike_food | 4 years ago
0 likes

One of my biggest regrets is selling a genesis croix de fer I'd been using for 5 years and buying a Whyte Wessex, i just don't get on with the Wessex at all, I've spent so much time trying to get it to feel right and changing parts hoping it'll make the difference but it's just a sluggish difficult bike to me.

I chose the Whyte as I wanted something a bit more responsive and lighter for a winter/wet weather bike and as it takes full length guards it seemed ideal.

A few lessons learnt, 10 mins round the road on a bike near the shop is very different to owning one and doing 'proper' rides on it and carbon is not automatically going to feel better and more responsive than steel.

Anyone want a Whyte Wessex?

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michophull | 4 years ago
3 likes

I'm still riding my Freddie Grubb Galibier bought secondhand in 1980. Done some big rides on it in my time including a 100. Bit heavy and would be superb if it was made from 531.

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xerxes | 4 years ago
1 like

I've had a fair few steel framed bikes, both road and MTB, one carbon framed hardtail MTB and just recently bought my first ever aluminium framed bike.

In terms of ride, my least favourite was probably the carbon hardtail, to me it felt a bit dull and lifeless, but how much of this was due to it having fat tyres and front suspension, I couldn't say.

I'm really pleased with my latest, aluminium framed bike, I don't find it harsh or uncomfortable, but it is a gravel bike with fat-ish tubeless tyres at low pressure, so that will have a significant influence.

I think you can make a handsome frame out of any material, and equally, an ugly one. Having said that, I still think there is something aesthetically very pleasing about a well crafted steel frame; the delicate appearance of thin tubes together with beautifully finished lugwork or fillet brazing and nice details in the braze-ons, dropouts and the little finishing touches.

A nice paint job doesn't hurt either, there are far too many "murdered out" black carbon frames and lairy graphics. Steel frames offer a smaller "canvas" for decals, so they are often a little more restrained which is more to my taste, not withstanding the "bomb in a paint factory" colour schemes of many 90s steel MTBs. Having said that, that grey and orange Enigma is rather lovely.

 

 

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paulomac85 | 4 years ago
2 likes

"If you want a fully custom steel frame, it's not going to be cheap. The likes of Donhou Bicycles, Saffron, Feather, Paulus Quiros and so on have very limited resources and therefore extremely packed order books, meaning a long wait and slow turnaround time. A frame from any of these builders can start from £1,000 and rapidly rise to several times that."

 

http://www.bobjacksoncycles.co.uk

 

Frames from 565...laugh

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fukawitribe replied to paulomac85 | 4 years ago
0 likes
paulomac85 wrote:

"If you want a fully custom steel frame, it's not going to be cheap. The likes of Donhou Bicycles, Saffron, Feather, Paulus Quiros and so on have very limited resources and therefore extremely packed order books, meaning a long wait and slow turnaround time. A frame from any of these builders can start from £1,000 and rapidly rise to several times that."

 

http://www.bobjacksoncycles.co.uk

 

Frames from 565...laugh

They're not doing full custom frames currently though and those prices appear to be for off-the-peg frames and ex-VAT.

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adamrice replied to fukawitribe | 3 years ago
0 likes

This is true, although they do offer an amazing degree of customization for an "off the peg" frame.

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richb2007 | 5 years ago
0 likes

It isn't just marketing and the need to buy the next new thing that killed off the steel frame industry. I grew up on road and mtb steel frames in the 90s and still remember the leap in ride quality with my first alloy frames for both disciplines; they were stiffer, lighter and most importantly, faster and I still ride aluminium now, 25 years on. My first carbon frame was equally a revelation, lighter again, shock-absorbing and (possibly, although Strava says not) faster again and this will always be my go-to for long rides, or special events. Steel has come back on a wave of nostalgia and desire for the hand-made but an artisan in a shed in East London is not going to make you an inherenetly better bike then a company with a massive R&D budget and feedback from the world's best bike riders in the most testing conditions. I overtake well-heeled riders on hand made steel frames on their Sunday outings  round my way and don't envy them. I don't miss steel at all. As for the custom aspect, there are loads of frame refinishers around now-why not buy carbon 2nd hand and get it resprayed.

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Miller replied to richb2007 | 4 years ago
0 likes
richb2007 wrote:

I grew up on road and mtb steel frames in the 90s and still remember the leap in ride quality with my first alloy frames for both disciplines; they were stiffer, lighter and most importantly, faster and I still ride aluminium now, 25 years on.

Yes! Very much agree. In the early 90s alloy was coming in and I was interested. I mail-ordered what was actually a quite badly made welded alloy frame from that long-gone company, Ricci in Cornwall, for cheap money. Built that up and the first few rides were a revelation. I'd only been on 1" steel lugged frames till then, this thing was way stiffer, and the resulting confident handling amazed me. I had not known bikes could feel so exciting to ride.

No more steel for me apart from a later stint with a Scapin Eos Pro but that was a very refined frame indeed.

 

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kil0ran | 5 years ago
1 like

When you can have a hand-built, lugged, classically proportioned stainless steel frame for £599 I think there's only one answer.

https://www.planetx.co.uk/i/q/FRHOPRFIT/holdsworth-professional-italia-s...

(please buy this so I don't and end up chucking a load of money on it & a chrome Potenza group to match) 

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BehindTheBikesheds replied to kil0ran | 5 years ago
1 like
kil0ran wrote:

When you can have a hand-built, lugged, classically proportioned stainless steel frame for £599 I think there's only one answer.

https://www.planetx.co.uk/i/q/FRHOPRFIT/holdsworth-professional-italia-s...

(please buy this so I don't and end up chucking a load of money on it & a chrome Potenza group to match) 

The lugs remind me of some of the plain jane models in the past, nowt wrong with them as such but just not that exciting to look at. And the italianate stays are a bit industrial, again the lugs don't help the look.

Like the Orange colour but the frame/price isn't doing it for me and I'd prefer to spend a bit more to get something a bit more pretty/special, given that's what steel is about for when you're poncing about on a steady ride, more form over function. Well it is for me.

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ajd | 5 years ago
1 like
Quote:

My next bike will be Ti, not for any performance reasons but rather because Ti looks dead sexy with a lot of black components and a hint of pink added in.

Given the Giro is around the corner, that does sound sexy.smiley

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Canyon48 | 5 years ago
2 likes

As for if steel has it's place in a carbon fibre age - sure it does, if there's demand for it then it certainly deserves it's place.

In terms of engineering, CFRP is a vastly better material for making bikes from. The anisotropic properties and ability to layup/mould it into much more complex shapes than metals mean it can be aerodynamic, light and stiff all at once. Metals struggle to achieve even two of these simultaneously.

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StraelGuy | 5 years ago
1 like

Don't be too critical of Lukas, my phone once replied on a thread seventeen times, it happens yes

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StraelGuy | 5 years ago
0 likes

I'm not a 100% apologist for steel. When I was uni, a mate and I spent our student loans (first year ever!) on Dave yates MTB frames. Mine was made of 'normal' Columbus Chrom Or frame with sensible tube diameters. My mate went for Columbus max Or which has very thin walled, large diameter tubing and it was really horrendous to ride. Way, way too stiff.

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Griff500 | 5 years ago
1 like

Interesting that the article suggests steel for "comfort, distance and durability". Starting with durability, absolutely, and if I wanted a bike for the daily commute through traffic, and being jammed into a busy office bike rack for 10 hours per day, I'd go with steel.  But for putting miles behind me on quiet country roads, since I discovered carbon I've never looked back.  I do think its great that we are having the discsussion, that there is choice in the market, and we are not all flocking to buy next year's latest innovation.

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