“Riding a good steel bike, I tell you, is the closest thing to flying without leaving the planet. Go out there and ride that thing, and see what I mean.”
So ended my call with bike builder Bradley Woehl, and so began my interest in steel-frame bikes. Because who doesn’t want to fly?
With one short, wobbly bike share exception, I hadn’t ridden one in ages. A new steel-framed matte black beauty, inherited from an office-mate, had sat in my apartment’s hallway for over a year. Its flabby, tubeless tires and lack of pedals symbolized my two-wheeled inactivity. But no more. Steel was real, I’d heard, and it was time for me to find out for myself.
Woehl, owner of American Cyclery in San Francisco, is one of many cyclists and bike makers today taking part in a steel frame renaissance. Steel’s resurgence is a symptom of a larger change in enthusiast American cycling in the 21st century. What was once summarized by anathema — flashy, overwrought fixies in the mid 2000s — has shifted toward the classic material’s wide, beloved wheelhouse: utilitarian bikes for everyday riding and bike touring; high-end custom frames from big-name bike builders; and even classic bike races that mix romanticism with reality. This shift of the gears has been a good one for cycling. Bike commuting has increased by 46 percent in America since 2005, and as that boom continues today, steel’s influence on cycling’s identity is rising.
It’s been a long ride. Steel tubing was introduced to cycling in the anatomically unbalanced penny-farthing, first ridden by tophatted gentlemen in the 1870s. But by the early 1900s — the beginning of its racing heyday, which lasted until the mid 1990s — it was every bit a modern bicycle. It remained the only viable frame material until aluminum stole the show for a brief stint in the 1990s. Then, at the very end of the ’90s, carbon fiber began its reign, for obvious reasons: The lightest carbon fiber frame in the 2014 Tour de France, the German-made Izalco Max, weighs just 1.6 pounds on its own, and around 12 pounds fully intact for a race (though because the UCI requires a minimum weight of 14.99 pounds for the race, weight must be added); the last steel bike to win the race, a Pinarello ridden by Miguel Indurain in 1994, weighed 19.8 pounds. Since the mid ’90s, bike makers and casual riders have followed the leads of heroic racers and the allure of high-tech materials, buying up aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium rides for their everyday pursuits.
Steel is versatile, strong and relatively affordable — but its popularity has also spawned shoddy versions not worth their cost. “Just ’cause it’s steel, doesn’t mean it’s good”, says Woehl. Start by checking the grade of the steel. Chinese-made frames often don’t list a grade and are heavy and poorly constructed; the best way to tell quality steel from junk is to simply pick it up; steel is heavier than aluminum, but quality frames are still on the light side. Chromoly is a safe bet, as is higher-grade steel like Reynolds 853. Ask your local bike shop to walk you through the range. Classic steel frames and higher-end models often use lugged construction or fillet brazing, both of which are beautiful but expensive. The more modern construction uses a stronger TIG weld, which works just fine.
But where these newer materials excel at traits necessary for speed in racing like lightness and stiffness, they have major shortcomings in characteristics important for everyday riders, like comfort, toughness and cost-effectiveness. “When aluminum came along, it was lighter and stiffer than steel, which, if you’re a good hill climber, you need that out of your bike”, Woehl says. If you’re just riding to work, the coffee shop or even a bike tour down the coast, not so much. “An aluminum bike has a really harsh ride quality — it’s stiff and unforgiving. Every little pebble you run over in an aluminum bike, you feel that bump.” Carbon fiber, meanwhile, has a short lifespan and doesn’t stand up to abuse, especially during crashes. In a New York Times story from 2014, race team mechanics described bagging the remains of carbon fiber bikes after crashes. In essence, they’d exploded on impact.
Since the mid ’90s, the steel bike has waited in the wings, with much to offer outside the racing world. Finally, riders are waking up to a retro trend that, unlike handlebar mustaches, makes a lot of sense.
“The steel bike rides better, it lasts longer, it ages more gracefully, and it’s a more practical thing”, Woehl says. He’s selling Bianchis, Somas, a San Fran-based American company named New Albion, to people who want to commute and bike tour, with space for fenders and rear racks, for prices between $700 and $1,200. They’re heavier than aluminum and carbon fiber, but new frame-building techniques like double- and triple-butted tubes, thicker in stressed areas and thinner elsewhere. Woehl says the extra weight of steel versus aluminum or carbon fiber isn’t a deal breaker for most amateur riders, who, unlike pro racers, don’t need to shed every possible ounce of weight in order to keep up with the peloton. And unlike carbon fiber bikes, steel frames are being custom made around the country without reaching astronomical price tags. (That said, many top-line builders are making top-line steel frames with waiting lists that span years and price tags that are just as much as carbon fiber race bikes.)
Romanticism plays its part. “Perhaps it’s just from the era I grew up in, when I did my first races”, says Woehl. “Some of it is a nostalgia thing — a time in my life when I connected with bicycles happened during the time when steel was on top.” But instead of misleading riders, nostalgia is actually fueling more realistic tests of steel, like the L’Eroica and other Eroicas around the world, where riders must ride classic steel bikes made before 1987. The 209-kilometer test isn’t just an ode to the steel bike, but a test of its mettle.
This frenetic mix of retro gear and modern competitive brawn breeds moments that prove why steel was beloved in the first place. “Things get so much lighter, brakes work so much better now”, says Andy Hampsten, who won the 1988 Giro d’Italia and the Alpe d’Huez stage of the 1992 Tour de France. But when he rode a 1950s-era steel bike during his first Eroica, he couldn’t deny the power of the precursor. “As far as being on a bike and having it just go instinctively where I want to go — through curves — it couldn’t have been a more comfortable bike.”
Cruising down the side streets near my apartment, I understood Hampsten’s and Woehl’s words for the first time. The bike — its flat tires inflated, pedals attached — shot me into the breeze, steady and smooth. I was reminded of skimboarding at the beach as a kid, of the floating feeling that came with jumping on the board after a long, pounding pursuit on foot. I remembered my old trick bike, a yellow, low-slung beast with hulking steel tubes and black pegs that I didn’t know how to use for grinding — only for carrying friends — and how comfortable it felt cruising down the potholed street in search of childhood adventure.
Then the wind quieted in my ears and the past was gone. I turned around and pumped my legs to get back uphill, eager to fly again.