Saturday, February 14, 2009

Steel is Real

In our announcements of the launch of the new line of Masi Bicycles, we mentioned how we are especially enamored of their steel-framed models. This prompted a question/comment from one of our loyal blog readers, Mars Girl, who wrote:

"What kind of rides would one use a steel bike on... I mean, I thought the point was carbon-fiber and all that for getting as light as possible. Would having a steel-framed bike make it harder for me to climb up Ira Road?"

Ah yes, young Grasshopper, what kind of rides indeed? The short answer is, any kind of ride.

A heavier bike will make it harder to climb up Ira Road, as well as Everett Road, Oak Hill, etc...but a steel bike it not necessarily heavier in all cases.

First of all, not all steel is created equal. There's cheap steel, there's middle-of-the-road steel, and there's high-end steel (and then there's Hattori Hanzo Steel, but that's another story...).

Plus, while the frame is major factor in the overall weight of a bike, the wheels and other components play a large role. So, it's not too difficult to find a carbon-fiber framed bike with less-than top-of-the-line components that is heavier than a decent steel-framed bike with reasonably-quality components.

In the burgeoning cottage industry of American custom bike frame-building, the overwhelming majority of the work is being done in steel, because it's easier to work with than other materials, and the machinery to do the work with is a lot cheaper and easier to acquire. Some of these custom frames are light, some are not, but either way, there is some high-quality work being done in steel these days, and some of these custom builders have waiting lists for their frames that extend into the next several years.

Getting back to your original question...there are some cases where you don't necessarily want the lightest bike you can possibly find. A super-light racing bike is great if you're riding from your front door and back, or from where you parked your car and back. Or, if you're riding in a fully-supported tour, such as GOBA or Pedal to the Point; any case where all you need to carry is what you can stuff into your jersey pockets.

What if you're riding to work or school every day, and you need to carry your sack lunch, change of clothes, foul weather gear, maybe even your laptop computer? Or maybe you're riding the TransAmerica Route, camping and cooking on your own all the way, so you need to carry that gear, too? In these and similar situations, you want a bike that is durable, as well as designed for carry those loads and continuing to function under less-than-ideal conditions.

You may ask, "Do I need to worry about how durable my frame is if it's covered by the manufacturer's warranty?" Well, yes, because the warranty covers your frame if it breaks due to a manufacturing defect. The warranty does NOT cover it if you crash, back it into a fence, or forget that it's on your roof rack when you pull into the garage. Regardless, a warranty doesn't do you much good when you're screaming DOWN Ira Road, or sitting by the side of the road in the middle of the prairie in Wyoming.

In addition to weight savings, carbon-fiber has characteristics that help it provide comfort; it can absorb small vibrations, and it can be formed to be stiff where needed, and flexible where needed. However, there are many people who feel that nothing compares to the feel of steel when it comes to comfort for long days on the road or trail. If you haven't tried riding a steel bike, I suggest you stop in for a test ride!

In conclusion, the point is not how much your bike weighs, or what it's made of. The point is choosing the right tool for the right job. We can help you with advice on the bike to use for any ride, whether it's around the block or around the world!


  1. I have just switched my Towpath/trekking bike from a lightweight aluminum/carbon fork to a slightly heavier steel/steel Masi. So far the Masi seems much more comfortable to ride and carries loads better. The longer chainstays, wheelbase and heavier frame means that this bicycle balances better and is not trying to "pop a wheelie" when the rear rack is loaded up.

  2. What are your feelings about lead framed bikes? A real drag going up hill, but, man can you really haul the mail going down hill.

    Aside from the potential health problems and the need to straighten the frame after every ride, I believe this is a completely misunderstood bike frame material.

  3. The main advantage of a lead-framed bike is that if you are being chased by Superman, you can hide your Kryptonite inside the bike and he won't be able to see it.

  4. Hmmm... you may be onto something there. My commute to work--which I plan to start doing a few days a week during the summer--consists of riding into the valley and back out, since I live in Stow and work in Brecksville... So I will be at least climbing Snowville and sometimes Columbia "for fun" with a trunk pack.... Of course, I can do that now with my OCR... it's made for that kind of in between riding--it's great for fully supported tours and also rides where I need to support myself.

    But I promise to stop poo-pooing the steel bikes now. =) I'm trying to avoid demoing them, though, because I dont *need* any more bikes... ;) I'm trying to keep this habit under control! (Forget that I dream of a bike for every occasion lining my garage where a second vehicle should be parked...)

  5. You are correct; the Giant OCR's are decent in-between bikes. Most of the have rack mounts, so can handle light loads. The advantage of a more touring-specific bike would be that it can also handle full coverage fenders.

  6. So you're saying I should buy a steel bike before I make my cross-continental trek of the US? ;)

  7. If you're going self-supported, then yes. If you're going with a group with baggage support, then your Giant OCR will do fine. Another option if you're going self-supported is to use a BOB cargo trailer, which would also work fine on your Giant OCR.

  8. My uncle who is 96! is still riding his Woodrup, steel, lugged frame road bike built by Maurice Woodrup in 1957 in Leeds (uk). Just before Christmas I ordered my full touring bike from Steve Woodrup, his son. It's steel of course built in Reynolds 631. There is a sixteen week lead in time but I know it's worth waiting for.

  9. earlier this year i built up a Moser Leader AX with a steel frame. Final weight 19.04lbs.