I Prefer Steel

These days it seems hip to say “Steel is Real,” but I’m not a big fan of this phrase. Carbon fiber, Aluminum, and Titanium are also real, of course, but the intended meaning is that the “feel” of riding a bike with a steel frame is better than the feel of riding frames made of other materials.

Most of the people who say “steel is real” are either riding 25 year old crappy ten speeds with gaspipe tubing, or modern steel frames made with thin walled but larger diameter tubes. Neither of these classes of bikes have the “steel is real” feel. Personally, I ride a 25 year old mid-range ten speed with high end gaspipe tubing, which is to say, not a bike with a “steel is real” feel. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden one of those bikes. Maybe it would be great, but would it be worth the money to find out?

That said, I do still prefer steel frames. I had a lot of fun browsing Busted Carbon, a blog dedicated to images of broken carbon fiber bike frames and parts. Reading that site provides one reason why I prefer steel.

It’s not because carbon fiber fails and steel doesn’t. Steel doesn’t handle running into walls any better than carbon fiber does (though apparently it lasts longer if you tip your bike over in the living room.) The difference is how steel fails. You won’t find any pictures of bent carbon fiber parts on that blog, because carbon fiber doesn’t bend. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a hairline crack before it’s too late. More likely, a part will suddenly and catastrophically fail and cause a crash.

Aluminum and titanium also break more quickly than steel once they become fatigued. I’m not against riding an aluminum bike in theory. My main problem with aluminum frames is that they’re ugly. Actually, so are carbon fiber frames, but that’s not my primary motive with those.

  1. Hi Alan…

    This strikes a chord, and so a few scattered thots as I have been slowly re-assembling my basement fortress in the new garage here this summer…

    The (your former) Trek 500 is slowly being reborn as a phoenix. Rode it briefly last month as a "quick" fix to check it out – i.e. threw my trusty old Surly-hubbed/QBP-built/SheldonBrown-sold(! 🙁 ) wheelset on and rode around in the suburban night like a brakeless fool – and confirmed it is indeed a quality ride. I don't know exactly quite where 501 tubes rank, but I'd certainly say "up there" against my collection of hodge-podge. Dare I say the thing planes? (ducking toeclip shoes now)

    You recall at all that timecapsule Lotus which I ebay'd sometime in the spring of '08? Black and red, I believe I maiden rode it on our ride with that iBobber from the midwest last year? Finally unboxed and rehabbed the drivetrain into something more sensible – or perhaps, anachronistic – and so now it's my first time on a HS+G. Dare say I'm enjoying it much more now! And, with its Champion #2 tubing, makes another good case for your claims of "high-end consumer steel-is-real, right?"…

    That said, HS+G is something you should test. Though I don't know if it's so ideal for the variable PGH topography as it is for our Hill-en-dell terrain out here.

    So, back to the 500, it's turning into sumthin-sumnthin like-a this classic: http://tinyurl.com/passhunter – i.e. ultra-wide double, designed for climbing. Flat bars? Not so sure. Greasy-finger front derailer? Possibly. Goal here is something light-and-nimble for my own personal "Diablo challenge" goals. Which my attempts on so far have only left me fatigued half way up and cursing my "steel is real?" Miyata 610 tourer. One other aside about California- you don't need fenders here. Hence why am I lugging them up Diablo?!?

    And one last reference: this guy is my new hero – http://bikenoir.blogspot.com/

    So drink a dubbel for me. I do hope the East End still turns out unstoppable product. And although we do have a few good holes here, I still miss the Sharpe Edge. When now are the Ferrencys taking the California road trip?

    =- Joe

  2. I don't know where 501 is in Reynolds' world, but in Trek's world it was mid-high end in the mid 80's. They used 531 and maybe Columbus on the highest end bikes (700's and 600's), 501 on the 500's, and Ishiwata on the 400's, but with hi-ten forks. I'm not sure what the 300's were.

    So, it's at least butted steel and not gas pipe, so that's good.

    I rode 531 on the Trek 620 I traded for my current 400 (I traded better steel for better geometry). I remember watching the fork visibly flex as I rode down through Schenley golf course, but I don't remember anything striking about the ride quality.

    My current preferred gearing is ultra-wide double, but I'm too cheap to get a Real ultra-wide setup. I'd like to do 40/28, 11-28, but that basically requires TA Cyclotourist cranks, or possibly some obsolete things from the early mountain bike days.

    Half step and granny isn't my thing, out here at least. I basically have a "big ring plus granny" instead, I'm not sure I really need the half step. My current best gearing is 48/34, 13-34 on the rear. So the 40/28 setup would really only shrink all of my chainrings and cogs proportionally…

    Don't need fenders? How is that possible? 🙂