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Four grand is a serious lump of cash to stump up for a bike, but many of us do, it seems. Much research will have gone into purchasing your pride and joy: reviews scoured, magazines perused, bike shows visited. You may have even – old school style – dropped in at the local bike shop to see some options in the flesh. How very 20th century.

I recently went through the process myself, after decades of making do with second best. Finally, I could have my heart’s desire. The lengthy process of narrowing down the contenders was thoroughly enjoyable. There was a palpable thrill as the order was placed that gradually diminished over the summer as the frame failed to arrive. Not wishing to dish the dirt on the tardy builders but suffice to say they are American and also make excellent headsets.

So a stopgap cheap steel frame was bought to tide me over for a few months and an adequate bike cobbled together from various odds and sods, with some flash carbon wheels for Sunday best.

Having the good fortune to be invited to spend four days riding in the Alpine Challenge, based at Annecy in September, I’m riding along in the bunch when the fella next to me has a good look across at my bike and complements me on owning such a handsome machine.

After a double take and an inquiry as to whether he was taking the piss, he assured me he was not and that, despite riding several thousand pounds worth of carbon bling himself, he found my cheap and cheerful steel steed very pleasing to the eye. Good to know but a one-off, I figured, except it happened again later that day after the ride.

“Ah, but it’s steel,” this guy says, “so it’s heavy.” I hand it over, he jiggles the bike around in that time honoured weight-determining fashion, and concludes it is perfectly acceptable.

This process carried on repeatedly for the duration of the stay, usually accompanied by a catch-all disclaimer why steel does not match carbon: too heavy; too flexy; just plain old-fashioned. But it looked lovely, they all agreed, staring wistfully at the deep red paint of my Genesis, then back to their dull black stealth weapons. Which was fine by me, but baffling nonetheless. How much research do prospective buyers put in before laying down hard-earned cash?

It seems to me many plump for what the pros ride, which is understandable – it’s the whole point of sponsoring a team, after all. But those super-fit, whippet-thin young guys are racing for a living, using the best tools for the job. Most of my riding acquaintances race once in a blue moon, are carrying a few extra pounds but do a lot of miles for pleasure. Do they really want a stiff-as-a-board carbon frame that nudges the UCI weight limit when built up? 

I wouldn’t attempt to argue the virtues of one frame material over another and am certainly not anti-carbon. The Parlee I tested a few years back is still the finest bike I have ever thrown a leg over, and it pained me to give it back. All frame materials are good when used correctly and have their inherent advantages and disadvantages.

But I would maintain there are lots of people out there buying the wrong bikes for the type of riding they intend to do. Whether that is down to the power of advertising, product placement with pro teams, hard-selling bike shop staff, or the age-old method of asking mates’ advice (to be told steel is too heavy and too flexy…) or a combination of all four is unclear.

With new British domestic squad Madison Genesis on frames contructed from Reynolds’ finest tubes (see Guy’s piece in issue 35), it is time to quash the idea that steel is not up to it.

Two of the Rapha-Condor-Sharp team rode the Condor’s Super Acciaio last season – out of choice, I should add, not contractual obligation – and they love them. Steel is, once again, a viable option for a top-quality machine, even if you race, and you’d be a mug to discount it out of hand. That’s all I’m saying. 

Take a long, hard look at what’s out there, take into account what you will be using the bike for, then make an informed decision. It is a big outlay of cash, so make sure you get it right.

And remember, aesthetics are part and parcel of that judgement. If, like me, you get a buzz out of people riding alongside and waxing lyrical about your handsome bicycle, steel beats carbon every time, even a bargain basement stopgap.

I just hope the new expensive replacement has the same effect…

comments

01/10/2013 - 14:05
Ha! I bought a Singular Osprey frame, just for the ride when i was in UK for xmas. Flew it back with me to the USA, buit it up with spares & new bits, and it has to be the best bike i ever rode. Pure luck, but the geometry just fits me perfect. Feels like i'm riding at 140% now. The bling all-carbon is now in the shed corner. Yes and i've also had a lot of admiring comments.
Richard S.
01/10/2013 - 18:54
I have a custom Cyfac Zona steel bike. Most folks think that it's all about the carbon but this bike, 100% custom-made for me, fits like a glove, makes me ride more and faster than ever before, and cost a fraction of the price of some bling-bling carbon "pro" rig that wouldn't come close to fitting me. With a good set of wheels, it's still under 17lbs so what can I complain about!?
Mike Owen
01/10/2013 - 22:38
Couldn't agree more Ian, steel builds a very usable bike as well as one that's good looking. My straightforward Reynolds 525 bike built by Jose & Jon at Paulus-Quiros weighs just about 20lbs, and that's only because it's got a steel railed Brooks Swift to top it off... The only drawback is that I spend so much time sitting outside cafes' watching other cyclists looking at my bike and feeling quietly pleased with myself Mike Owen
AdamM
01/11/2013 - 18:26
"Take a long, hard look at what’s out there, take into account what you will be using the bike for, then make an informed decision." For people who don't race, this process might also lead to a much greater number of people riding with mudguards rather than suffering through wet weather rides. And possibly 25 or 28c tyres rather than 23, which will be much more comfortable and unlikely any slower on the majority of road surfaces we have to cycle on. But neither of those things are used by the pros, and current marketing speak has us all believing that any weight is bad, so it'll never catch on.
01/11/2013 - 20:08
I've owned carbon, aluminium and titanium bikes over the years, but I suppose it's quite telling that two of my three present steeds are steel. Spending eight to ten hours a day on a bike really makes you appreciate and notice the comfort factor, and steel has no competition in that regard. But many folks will not ride for that long and the weight advantage of modern materials is not to be sniffed at. Horses for courses and all that jazz...
01/12/2013 - 10:00
I could not agree more. Whilst my ability to pay the bills has absolutely no connection with my ability to out sprint Armstrong up the alps, I will always choose steel or ti... And build a nimble and comfortable bike for me, for my rides, my roads, for my days off... I won't buy carbon and become nothing more than a sloppy emulator of pro cycling at best.
DaveS
01/15/2013 - 08:24
My 3 month old Ribble Winter Steelie frame gets the same admiring glances. I needed something to get through my first winter riding in the UK and save my superlight superstiff Carbon pro machine. The Ribble rides well with it's 10 year old 9-sp groupset and wheels and although it weighs 10.5Kg compared to the carbons 6.5Kg I don't care. I really wanted to get a Genesis too but just couldn't source one,
Heather
01/15/2013 - 21:50
Hmm, there is no way I can even afford carbon, so while I am opened minded to try it, no chance of affording it. I had no idea it was that expensive-or good quality anyways. Maybe when I am older it would be fun to just ride around, but as it is my rides are always about going somewhere, doing errands etc as I have no car. Even if I intend to just ride, I will pass the store and remember I need something(yesterday was 4kg of cat litter! Take that Lance, I dare you to ride with a bag of cat litter). I have picked up a lugged reynolds 853 bike that was lighter than an average carbon bike, so I don't buy that lighter thing. 4000 pounds is steep, but at least half that is average for a custom lugged steel bike. I'll stick with second (or third) hand finds for now, but would love a mercian. I have an older longstaff frame that is disgustingly beautiful, will likely turn heads when it is up and about. My steel bikes and my husband's steel bikes although vintage and not exactly flickr worthy regularly draw interest, and positive comments.
JardeRich
01/27/2013 - 15:19
If steel is a bridge too far may I suggest the merits of titanium. Four grand? A little over three for me, made to measure in Russia (yes, Russia) courtesy of www.burls.co.uk. Full Campag Chorus, HED Ardennes and a 3T top line. An absolute joy to ride. I sourced everything myself and, I reckon, saved four figures when compared to going all in with (for instance) and online retailer. If turning heads is your thing I can confirm my ride has the desired effect.
high status hum...
05/09/2013 - 09:21
Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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