Let's get rid of the weight prejudice once and for all. Yes, steel weighs more than carbon, titanium or aluminium but since the 1990s this difference is not as big as most people think. Steel has also gone through a lot of innovation and manufacturers of bicycle steel such as Columbus, Reynolds, Tange, Deddacai, and others have succeeded in making the tubes super strong and feather light. A steel race frame will weigh perhaps half a kilo more than a carbon race frame. That's as much as a filled water bottle. However, if we take into account the total weight of the frame and wheels, the components and the rider, this difference in weight is negligible, and building a steel race frame that is too light to pass the UCI qualification is not a problem today.
This argument did not play as big a role 50 years ago as it does today, but still, if you see a 50-year old bicycle driving around today, it will most likely be a steel one. The durability of steel is expressed in a number of ways:
Steel has a certain elasticity in it that makes sure it does not "tear", a phenomenon that you see much quicker with aluminium frames, for example, or crackle like carbon frames. This phenomenon also ensures that steel bikes are more easily passed on from one owner to another. Carbon bikes have a bad reputation on the second hand market.
Steel is a very flexible material and can be easily repaired, anywhere in the world. Suppose one of the tubes of your frame gets damaged by a fall or a dent, then it can be welded again, that one tube can be replaced, or perhaps dented, dropouts can be replaced, etc.
- Recyclable (or circular as it is called these days)
If you know that it takes 2250 litres of water to produce 1 kg of carbon, and that after their relatively short lifespan, the bicycles soon end up on rubbish tips, then you stop and think about the ecological impact. Steel is the recycling product par excellence. Today, the life of steel runs in a largely closed cycle.
It is sometimes said that a steel bike has a soul, that rider and bike become one, that a steel bike gives a unique feeling, "steel is real", etc. Prominent proponents of steel bikes will agree. Due to the elasticity or "flex" we mentioned earlier, the steel partly absorbs the bumps in the road, which provides an extra level of comfort on the road. Admittedly, the choice of tyres, geometry and fit of the frame are of much greater importance here than the material alone, but every bit helps.
The ideas of performance have changed in recent years and with recent technologies. A racing bike with thin tubes was very performant but not comfortable. A travel bike was very comfortable, but at the expense of speed. Mountain bike tyres were great off-road, but did not give any shwung on the asphalt. Now we know that performance and comfort are not contradictory, but intertwined. The peloton has now also discovered this and is, for example, switching back to wider tyres. But also the geometry of the frame and the introduction of the right mix between stiffness and flex will ensure performance. The wide variety of diameters, shapes and qualities of steel tubes allows the frame builder to build a bike with a perfect balance of stiffness and flex for a specific cyclist and thus maximise performance.
In this GCN Video , it is explained how Tom Sturdy, who was also my teacher, created the perfect steel bike for them.
A book could be written on this topic alone, because performance depends on many more things than just frame material or tyre width, and I will certainly come back to this in another post.
Steel is eminently suitable for making customised bicycle frames, adapted to one particular person. It is easy to work and it does not need to be cast in an industrial mould, as is the case with carbon. The machinability of steel also means that the frame can be fitted with all the 'special requests' someone wants: internal cable routing, integrated lighting, attachment points for racks, mudguards, you name it. Or also that the frame can be "folded" around a wide range of tyres. In addition, the frame builder can choose from a wide range of qualities, diameters, lengths and shapes in steel tubes. Just have a look at the Columbus website. You will be amazed by the extensive range. In short, the use of steel gives the frame builder enormous flexibility to focus on what is important for a particular type of bike and especially on what is important for your bike!