Carbon fibre. It’s like putting a magic wand in the hand of bike designers. You can make it very light. You can make it very strong. You can make it stiff in one place, flexible in another. You can mould it into aerodynamic shapes. Tune into the Tour de France this year and every rider will be on a carbon fibre bike. It’s easy to get the impression that bikes made from other materials—such as steel—are simply inferior. But steel bikes have made a resurgence in recent years. Brands such as Surly and Soma, plus countless small frame builders have ushered in a new era of popularity for the humble iron and carbon alloy. So what’s making this old-school material popular again? In an age of carbon fibre, why would you choose a steel bike?
The first thing to keep in mind is that most of us are not professional racing cyclists. We use our bikes for a number of different purposes. We might ferry a kid to childcare. We might lug home a load of groceries. We might pack our life up and pedal across the country, or across the world. For many of these activities, steel is still a standout material. But even if you do race, there are some very fast steel road bikes out there. The pro team Madison Genesis, for example, race on steel bikes. It’s a versatile material.
What makes steel such a good material for bike building?
First, a disclaimer: the following properties are generalisations, which can vary somewhat depending on the design and build quality of an individual steel bike.
Steel bikes are cheap
Ok, this point needs a little qualification. There are some cutting edge ‘super steels’ around today that are very expensive, but in general, steel bikes are good value for money. It’s much easier to make a decent quality steel bike at a reasonable price than carbon fibre.
Steel bikes are durable
Adding to the value factor is the potential longevity of steel. Within the tolerances that it was designed for, steel doesn’t fatigue. This means that, barring major damage or rusting, a steel bike can last a very long time. That’s why you sometimes see 70-year-old steel bikes still being ridden around. Compared to carbon, steel is also less susceptible to damage from the rough and tumble of everyday use. If you ever need to throw your bike in the back of a ute, or sometimes park it a bit roughly against a bike hoop, a steel bike may be a better option. This durability makes steel the prime choice for load-carrying bikes such as touring bikes or cargo bikes.
Steel bikes are safe
Due to its durability, steel bikes are less likely to crack or fail than other materials. Just as important, though, is the way in which steel fails, if it does. If a steel bike is structurally compromised, there will be visual evidence. It may be hard to spot, but there will almost almost certainly be a dent, bend or crack somewhere. Second, if something is giving way, it tends to do so over a period of time. This often manifests itself in ‘weird’ handling—you turn into a corner and it doesn’t track quite right, you pedal hard and the bike ‘squirms’ slightly. Other signs include otherwise inexplicable gear shifting problems, or brake rub. The point is, if you’re reasonably attentive, you can pick up on these signs before the bike falls apart on you.
Carbon, on the other hand, can be damaged without any visual evidence. If you’ve, say, had a crash and you want to be sure it’s not damaged, the only way to find out is to get it scanned, which can be expensive. Also, carbon can fail without warning, suddenly and catastrophically. My aim here isn’t to scare people; lots of people ride carbon bikes every day quite safely. But it does, very occasionally, happen.
Steel bikes have a good ride quality
Ride quality is what steel devotees often get most enthusiastic about, and it’s also one of steel’s least definable properties. People go a little misty-eyed when describing the ride quality of a good steel bike (as I might do in a few sentences). This can sometimes tip over into snobbery—but bear with me, there’s something to it.
The most substantial straw to grasp at is the nature of steel itself. It has more inherent flex to it than other materials, which lends the bike a subtle springiness, or a ‘wider elastic limit,’ as described by our mechanic and frame fabricator Seireadan. This tends to smooth out a choppy road surface, providing a more ‘forgiving’ ride which increases comfort, reduces fatigue, and makes the material good for all-road or gravel-type riding.
But that’s not all. At the same time as smoothing out the road surface, good steel manages to give you feedback about it. You can ‘feel’ the road through your handlebars—how granular the ashphalt, how chunky the gravel stones. I think of it as like running your hand lightly along the road surface as you ride. It creates a subtle simulation of the road for your fingers, and your whole body, if you are alive to it.
This feedback, along with steel’s springiness, lend steel bikes ‘liveliness’ according to many. Some even interpret this as a bike’s ‘soul'(my eyes mist over). Carbon is fantastically light, efficiently rigid, and can be as cold as the dead eyes of a killer. Steel is a little more mercurial.
Steel bikes have a low environmental impact
Steel is among the least carbon intensive of frame materials, and can be readily recycled when at the end of its life. Add to this its longevity, which reduces waste, and steel makes a lot of sense in a low-emission, resource-constrained future.
Steel bikes have style
It’s totally in the eye of the beholder, but steel has a some class to it—that is if you don’t put ridiculous carbon wheels and flouro yellow bidon cages on it, like the trashy example below that happens to belong to your trusted correspondent. Steel’s classic, clean lines contrast sharply to modern carbon bikes that are characterised by weird shapes and loud branding. Like I said, all in the eye of the beholder—carbon bikes can look great too—but steel has a degree of timeless appeal that other bikes can’t match.
Steel bikes have space in the main triangle
Due to steel’s skinny tubing, it tends to leave more room in the main triangle for frame bags, water bottles, pumps and other accessories, as per the example above. This is particularly true of the frame has a traditional shape with a straight top-tube, rather than a more modern ‘compact’ shape with a sloping top tube. Very handy for bikepacking.
The future of steel bikes
It’s clear that, barring the invention of another new wonder material, steel has a long future ahead of it in cycling. With its many advantages, could this ‘classic’ material take back ground from carbon and aluminium? Could it become the new ‘modern?’