The cycling world has always been a series of knee jerk reactions to what fellow competitors have to offer, lighter, stiffer, more aerodynamic and generally just “better”. This endless search for perfection often deviates from the spirit of the sport into a vortex of commercial competition. – Jeandre Fourie
Some caught in this endless search for “better” have paused and asked, “Why do we ride?” Bar the select few who have the predisposition to compete and make a living from the sport, most are left with the sole reason for riding being their love of the sport.
Steel is to cycling what wood is to a carpenter, an untapped mass of potential that can transfer the intention and spirit of the builder to life through their specific skill set. Steel frames, unlike that of alloy and carbon retain their original qualities for many years despite repeated use, it is not unheard of for people to be racing steel bikes that are over 15 years old.
Mountain biking and steel have an unusual relationship, the advent of competitive mountain biking coincided with the popular use of lightweight alloys. It was natural for most “good” bikes to be made of this newer material despite the many advantages that steel had to offer. However when the actual pioneers of the sport, Keith Bontrager, Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher first entertained the notion of moving from the roads to the trails, this was all done on steel. It is a testament to the material that, of these three pioneers, Keith Bontrager still has an active love for the beauty of steel bikes and Tom Ritchey is one of the largest suppliers of competitive steel bikes on the mountain biking and cyclocross scenes.
So why ride steel? One word that keeps being used to describe steel is, “feel”. The feel of a bike is what determines its ride quality. In the numbers game steel falls behind in terms of weight and stiffness compared to the likes of carbon; however alloy and carbon have been known to sacrifice “feel” for weight and stiffness. This completely subjective notion is what has inspired a revival of this magical material. Can we use modern technology and steel to create a bike that somehow embodies the best of both worlds? Yes.
It has become possible to build up steel bikes that are very reasonable in weight, some singlespeed 29ers sit around the 9kg mark whereas geared versions are about a kilogram more. Very few stock standard bikes can claim to be much lighter. Steel bikes generally give a more relaxed feel due to the quality of the ride; however as with all materials the bike should be purchased for purpose, steel bikes are available in XC, trail and freeride geometries and the correct setup and build kits should be considered. Currently very few steel bikes are on offer as a complete bike, Kona do the “Unit” that is an excellent entry into the world of steel mountain biking.
Although the podiums very seldom see a steel bike on display it has become more common to see steel bikes throughout the various major races across the country, brands such as Singular, Cotic, Surly, Salsa, Ritchey, Momsen, Kona and many more have been seen taking on the toughest races that South Africa have to offer. Our terrain is suited to the forgiving ride quality that steel has to offer; this coupled with the smoother ride of the bigger wheels has allowed many to do multi day events on hardtails rather than the bouncier full suspensions that are most common.
So next time the “upgrade” bug bites and you’re yearning for that bike that just won the latest and greatest race on offer, sit back and consider why and how you ride, steel may just be what you have been looking for all along.
Pop past your local bike shop and find out about the various options, most framesets are in the region of R6000-R8000 and are often compatible with parts that are currently on your bike. Steel isn’t a cheap option to build a spare bike, the love and time that goes into the making of most steel frames are not intended as a spare bike but more as a new best friend, a drink at your local pub rather than a six pack from Tops, these bikes are there to form bonds with and above all to enjoy. Cycling is undergoing a revolution on many levels but most importantly on a personal level, ride because you love to ride.
TREAD Magazine is sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 28, 2014 – All rights reserved