Why we “steel” prefer steel bikes
Steel’s appeal as a bicycle frame material is alive and thriving thanks to its versatility, craftsmanship, and durability. But don’t take our word for it, listen to these Fans of Steel…
Tom Ritchey was the first frame builder to custom-design superlight steel tubesets to meet his needs for a new paradigm in mountain bike frame-building. ...
Steel still has appeal
When steel bikes got kicked off the podium in favor of more evolved frame materials, like aluminum and carbon fiber, cyclists raced to get their hands on these new performance-built bikes. Steel never lost its appeal however because – as a frame material – steel is more than just a one-trick pony. Ask any Fan of Steel what’s so great about riding a bike crafted out of this ancient material and be prepared for a passionate lecture on this sensational bike frame material.
We asked a few of these fans who are so loyal to steel that they’ve dedicated time, space in their homes, and resources to exalting the status of steel, why they “steel” prefer steel.
Matthias Cada of Hamburg, Germany started collecting steel mountain bikes from the 80’s and mid 90’s and, at one point owned all Ritchey models, which sparked an idea to publish an online gallery of his collection for the benefit of other fans. He expanded his fleet to include bikes from other brands while always staying focused on steel with only a few exceptions.
“It's a constantly changing number, but I think between 15-20 is a good number,” Matthias said about the number of bikes in his fleet. “My main focus used to be Breezer and Ritchey – to me the inventors. I started restoring them only about eight or nine years ago and also other brands along with them.”
Check out Matthias’s restoration of a mid-90’s Ritchey Plexus
Steel fights back
Those restoration projects motivated him to create Steelfightsback.com, where he could share the results with like-minded fans, as well as give extended life to posts that would otherwise be yesterday’s news on social media. Like most Fans of Steel, Matthias cites its durability, light weight, low maintenance, and craftsmanship (specifically fillet brazing) as its most coveted features. Practical, indisputable, and easy to bullet point on any list of Unique Selling Points, these features only prop up the main appeal of steel.
“In addition, it's clearly the riding experience, I simply prefer how steel bikes react; they’re not too stiff, they move with you and react to what you are doing with a little bit of life of their own, and they are each different, Matthias said.”
Steel feels good
Fans of Steel talk about “spring-y,” “lively,” “elastic,” and with an immeasurable riding sensation when they explain what it feels like to ride a steel bike. Surely these qualities would lend well to racing performance but there’s a more profound motive that drives the choice to ride steel.
“When you take a steel bike out into the world, never mind out into competition, it's a deliberate choice,” said Natalia Gardiol of Oakland, Calif. (USA). “It always felt important to me to know where my bike came from, to understand the design decisions – to see the hand of a craftsperson on these objects that bring us so much joy. At the end of the day, bikes are a vector for relationships: our relationship with the world, with ourselves, and with other people. I want to make the choice that enables and deepens those relationships. Steel makes that easier for me, it turns out.”
Following a dooring incident several years ago that totaled her bike, Natalia collected the insurance money and invested in a road bike that exceeded her skill level (though not for long). She learned how to race it and spoke a truth familiar to all of us, that when you get the race bug, that leads to more bikes.
“When I started road racing, everyone around me was on aluminum or maybe even carbon fiber, but that felt mercenary to me,” she said. “When I got into off-road racing (MTB, ‘cross), I looked for steel bikes, too. Maybe it was just contrariness, or anticipating I would never be a real champion, that let me focus on the story behind each bike rather than needing to relate to them as tools to get a job done. And it turns out steel bikes have better stories…they do get you onto podiums, as well.”
Check out the Ritchey frameset for a beautiful modern steel road bike!
“I only do steel”
Stefan Scott commutes 100 miles each week from north of Boston, Massachusetts (USA) directly into the city, and he does this year-round. It’s a sure bet each year that Boston will get pummeled by at least a few winter storms, which leaves city roads littered with potholes, broken pavement, sand, and grit. So it would make sense to choose a bike that can master rough conditions and be quick to react to the infamous Massachusetts drivers (called “Massholes”) who like to take their road rage out on cyclists. At one point he was averaging one flat per week due to generally poor road conditions but, throughout a few decades of bike commuting around Boston, he has yet to doubt the endurance of his steel frame. But Stefan’s zeal for steel was forged from his first bike: a 1-speed cruiser, which he modified as a trail bike to ride in the woods. His collection of steel rigs swelled to 27 at one point but has since shrunk to a more modest six models spanning most cycling disciplines. Stefan doesn’t have much of a reason to look for anything other than steel bikes because he says they feel secure, have a phenomenal history, and a classic appeal, which is why he will only do steel.
It’s true what they say – both logically and metaphorically, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The original #BAAW (Bike against a wall)
Fillet-brazed steel frames often elicit the kind of admiration more commonly associated with witnessing a priceless work of art. Clean, unspoiled joints shaped with precision to fit components that were crafted to do their job – not build an elite empire. Thomas Frischknecht emphasized these qualities when he started racing (and winning) for Ritchey in the early 90’s. It was in 1995 when Erik Kwant attended his first World Cup race where he saw Frischi riding the Ritchey Plexus. Kwant couldn’t stop thinking about the Plexus until he found a frame for sale and immediately bought it. He took three years to restore the bike, which then languished in his outdoor shed in Overasselt, The Netherlands until his wife had an idea.
“She said that it was a shame that it was in the shed and that I should put it in the living room so we can see it more often,” Erik said. “She knew it was the bike I loved the most – I still ride the bike sometimes when the weather is good.”
He mounted it on the wall like a piece of art and takes it down to ride every now and then. His other steel bike is a , which he chose for its good looks and lively frame. These two characteristics are the main reasons why Erik prefers steel bikes but a close second is steel’s sustainability; it is the frame material with the smallest ecological footprint.
Ever since Tom Ritchey became the first frame builder to custom-design superlight steel tubesets to yield intended performance characteristics for mountain bike frames, what’s possible with steel opened up equal opportunities for both artisans and engineers who could flex a little vocational muscle without the penalties inherent in other bike frame materials.
Fans of Steel trust in steel as a frame material because, unlike some of life’s consequences, steel has never let them down. Add to that the economy and versatility of steel bikes, the irreproachable durability and eco-friendliness of steel, and the fact that the craftsmanship of steel bikes will sometimes leave us speechless, that’s why we “steel” prefer steel.
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