‘Steel is real’ is something anyone who has been around cycling for any length of time has heard countless times over the years. The steel frame has long been held in an almost reverent regard in cycling circles. But what is it about this seemingly simple material? One that we take for granted on a daily basis and makes grown men go misty eyed with nostalgia. What is it that makes this material so different from any other in the cycle industry? And where does this affection for steel frames originate? Read on to find out more;
First, let’s start with a brief history of steel. For the vast majority of the 20th century there was only one option for all cycle frames, Steel. Every steel frame can trace its roots back to the late Victorian era, when the might of the industrial revolution was in full swing.
Indeed, our very own Ribble Cycles was established in 1897 by a warehouseman and cotton goods packer by the name of Richard Thomas Geldeard. Tired of the daily grind he dreamed of a better life for himself and his family. So, he started the fabrication of steel frames in a premises on 35 Watery Lane, Preston, Lancashire. A premises that were occupied by the Ribble Cycles shop over a century later.
The manufacturing process
The traditional process for manufacturing steel frames was to take separate pieces of steel tubing and attach them to a lug (connector). The tubes were then brazed to these lugs rather than welded. Early steel tubing was adversely affected by high temperatures so made the use of more modern techniques such as Tig or Mig welding an impossibility. Therefore, techniques such as silver brazing were employed instead.
Today’s advancements in the steel hardening process have resulted in a material that is far more tolerant to these higher temperatures. Thus, allowing the employment of Tig or Mig welding to become the mainstay of today’s modern steel frames construction. These techniques also make the use of lugs superfluous, the separate tubes can now simply be welded to each other. This also has the added advantage of reducing the overall weight of the frame.
Modern steel frames are either constructed from cheaper high tensile steel or higher-grade chromium-molybdenum. The latter was utilised by the renowned manufacturers that are now household names (Columbus and Reynolds) . Reynolds of Birmingham for instance have been producing high quality steel tubing for well over a century. Ask many a cyclist in their mid-40’s and above, and they will more than likely tell you that they started their cycling journey on a Reynolds framed bike. Or, at the very least have owned one in their lifetime.
Advancements in the manufacturing process of steel allowed the manufacturer’s to experiment with reducing the width of the tubing walls. Thus allowing them to fabricate frames of a lighter weight for use as racing bikes. Conversely, thicker walls provided sturdier tubes which made them ideal candidates for use on touring bikes and winter training bikes. Reynolds 531 is a prime example, rugged and durable, most touring bikes and winter trainers were constructed from the tried and trusted 531.
Move up from the 531 and you found its popular higher end siblings which were the 631, 653, 753 and 853 series. The higher the grade the thinner the tubing walls became and the lighter the frame became. To the touch you could press an 853 frames tubing and see it flex slightly due to the thin tubing used. The 853 in particular was utilised by riders in the ranks of the pro peloton. Indeed, the last Tour de France victory on a steel bike was secured by a certain Miguel Indurain in 1994.
Towards the middle of the 90’s Aluminium and Carbon announced their arrival. Lighter and stiffer than steel frames these revolutionary new materials transformed the cycling industry. Once the Pro teams adopted these new bikes the rest of the cycling community followed suit. The once ubiquitous steel bike became something that only die hard fans of the material still rode. However, today, steel is experiencing a renaissance. With the once beloved material once again finding favour with cyclists old and young alike.
But what is it about the steel frame that everyone who has ever ridden one loves so much? Well, there are a lot of bespoke frame builders out there that love to work with steel. It is such an easy material to work with and the results are something to behold. Of course there are other factors;
- Compliance – The buzz word for the modern generation of bikes. That ability for the frame to absorb vibration from the road surface so you don’t have to.
- Durability – Steel frames can last a lifetime if cared for correctly. There are bikes being ridden today that were purchased in the 60’s.
- Ease of repair – Unlike a carbon frame and to a lesser degree aluminium a steel frame can be repaired and for much lower costs than a carbon frame.
- Cost – High end steel bikes like a Reynolds 853 will be comparable to a mid to high-end alloy or carbon frames. But should you choose to have a frame custom made, steel is by far the most affordable option.
In short, though there are many advantages to a steel framed bike the over-riding feature that anyone who has ever ridden a steel bike covets above all others, it is the unique ride quality. A steel bike offers unbeatable comfort, reduces fatigue as as result and lets face facts, they look stunning!
Of course some will argue that the ride feel that a steel bike offers is also detrimental in some ways and they’d be correct to do so. The comfortable ride feel that steel affords means it is not as stiff as carbon or alloy. This makes it inefficient at transferring power to the road and the speed and handling decrease proportionally. All of this is true, but if you wish to own a bike that can potentially be a bike for life and helps you to rack up the miles in comfort and at a steady rather than furious pace, Steel is hard to beat.
So…. is steel real? Modern trends to continue to show that the industry is still very much in love with this material. The affection for steel continues to grow and even if it is only as a 2nd or 3rd bike steel still abides and is here to stay.
View all Ribbles range of steel bikes here
This is the reason that Ribble re-entered the steel market in a big way in 2019. There are now steel options available in the CGR (gravel), Endurance road, Adventure / Touring, Urban and Mountain Bike ranges.
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