Friday Group Ride #13

Let’s take a break from the race-oriented blather and talk about our bikes some more, shall we? Some of us watch the Euro races avidly, but probably all of us pedal circles or squares or rhombi with greater regularity, nes pas?

This week’s ride focuses on that age old question: What material to ride?

Are you a “steel is real” rider? An aluminum stalwart? A titanium beast? A carbon-fiber, um, person? Or, maybe, just possibly, a bamboo bandit?

This isn’t a theoretical question either. When we ask what your material of choice is, we don’t mean, “What would you ride if you had a better job and double the free time?” We mean, “What do you ride every day?”

Speaking for myself, I ride steel. This is a function of some vague notion I have that steel was good enough for riders of my ilk (i.e. slow) twenty years ago, and it’s good enough now. Further, it reflects my socio-economic situation. As the father of two and a mortgagee, I don’t feel I have the liquid assets to devote to a more modern material, not that aluminum is very modern. Finally, steel is, I believe, still thought to be the most forgiving of the frame materials in current use, and I can use all the forgiveness I can get. Sure, I dream of a carbon rocket, but I ride steel. Every. Damn. Day.

And so, Group Ride #13 rolls out of the lot.

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  1. James

    My everyday commuting bike is steel. I decided that since I ride home at night and because the roads around here aren’t the greatest that steel was the safest bet. No need to worry about frame issues. My long distance ride bike is carbon fiber…but don’t ask me why, because whatever weight I save on the frame gets made up by my portliness. The one thing I do like about my carbon fiber bike is that it’s a little more upright when in the saddle. Appropriate for my advancing years and lack of flexibility. Allez!

  2. soul_cramp

    When I worked at a shop I had the opportunity to ride entry level steel,two different alu racing bikes and carbon. I’ve spent the longest on a carbon frame from that big bike company in Wisconsin. Easily one of the best riding bikes I’ve been on. It served me well but last year it really started showing its mileage and I decided it was time for another bike. Ideally I would have liked a handbuilt steel from an experienced builder i.e. Pegoretti. But as anyone of my riding buddies can attest to I sweat… a lot. And said sweat had already lead to me sadly retiring my first really nice bike, a Bontrager mtb. And I was looking for a bike to last. I didn’t really compromise though; last summer I bought a Moots Compact and have been loving it ever since. I don’t have to worry about rust and there is no paint to chip and the company’s reputation speaks for its ride and build quality.

  3. MattS

    I ride steel everyday. My commuter is steel, and my fendered road bike is steel, purpose built for 28s with fenders up to big knobbies without. I’ll also be riding an OS steel bike for the smoother road rides this year, such as our local hilly parkway loop. My cross bike is…steel, my 29e is 853 and my fixed gear road flyer is DB 4130. That’s a lot of steel. One might get the impression that I’m a steel curmudgeon. Not really the case; I’ve also got a 6″ travel aluminum trail bike and both carbon (Specialized Roubaix) and aluminum (Cannondale) road frames sitting around. I love the ride quality of the carbon frameset, and the aluminum is nice on the smoother roads, but I’m having a great time trying to find find out how premium steel compares to really good carbon and aluminum. Broad generalizations about one material being superior to another just don’t map onto reality. I think each has its ups and downs, the question is, which is the best fit for your riding style, budget (including customization requirements), and local terrain? If I lived in Switzerland (from what I hear, their roads are buttery smooth) I might never have seen the point of riding a frame that incorporates suspension. Different strokes for different folks.

  4. dvgmacdonald

    I ride a Klein Reve. Aluminum with carbon stays & fork & SPA suspension. The bike rides as smoothly as any carbon bike that I’d be able to afford, it was a steal, and came with Campy (which I love) & a triple, necessary for a slightly out of shape desk jockey like myself who lives in the driftless area (read, it’s all up & down here, no flat) of Wisconsin.

    My next bike will probably be a stoutly built steel touring or cargo bike for towing trailers, carrying camping gear & otherwise handling heavier loads.

  5. Doug

    I agree, MattS, adapt your bikes to the conditions you ride every. damn. day. I ride primarily smooth streets, and I ride aluminum. No flex at all. Climbs and sprints well. People ask my if my aluminum road bike is stiff and uncomfortable. I reply my other favorite bike is my aluminum track bike, and just about any road bike feels like a Cadillac in comparison. But- I love the ride of steel. I had a titanium mountain bike, and I liked that a lot. If I lived near lots of dirt, hills, ruts,and stuff, I’d have a full suspension mountain bike, but since mountains are a drive away, I opted for a steel single speed mountain bike and a steel cross bike to keep things as simple as they could be for having 6 bikes. If the roads near me were bumpy, steel would be the obvious choice. I think for smaller road frames, titanium will feel pretty sweet as well. It’s great to have so many choices.

  6. Cedrik

    Steel and aluminum. My commuter bike is steel, a 1990 Zunow Hummingbird with Tange Prestige tubing. My road bike is aluminum, a Cervelo Soloist Team, which rides comfortably on the often rough roads here in the eastern Sierra (and was the nicest bike I could afford).

  7. Darren

    Commuter: heavy steel frame with triple crank and fenders…capable of pulling trailer/trail-a-long. Ride/race: carbon giant tcr ’08 w/ 105. Latter was available at ‘team’ prices from our sponsoring LBS, and is light (<18 lbs) and stiff enough. Have no idea if higher end carbon or titanium would be stiffer/better for racing. Super long torso and short legs but able to get my position dialed in with larger frame size, forward saddle, and 130mm stem. So another materials question comes into play with considering a custom frame…not sure I'd want to invest $2K for a steel frame, though some seem to say that we're now biased away from steel in racing and that it races/weighs fine enough (I'm no pro….looking to score a win in a cat 4 crit one of these days).

  8. Nerdwin

    If I raced crits, I’d race Alu.
    If someone paid me to race, I’d race carbon.

    As it is, I buy my own stuff, and I’m a “classic inspired” rider. Me likes Ti and Steel.

  9. Forrest

    My “everyday” bike is steel with a frame and fork made by Antonio and Mauro Mondonico, Campy 10 speed and an alloy 53/39 crankset, traditional 32 spoke wheels with box section rims. The bike seems to move with me in a fluid sort of way. It is just what I need for my shorter 60 to 75 minute training rides during the week, even when things get fast.

    I have a “Handmade in the USA” carbon-fiber bike that comes out to play on the weekends. It is more comfortable, stiffer, lighter, has more neutral handling, and in one word, faster. Fast is fun. Being as it is lighter by some three or more pounds, it helps me keep up with my friends when climbing the longer ascents around Santa Barbara. Most of the time.

    I would be making the same climbs this weekend on my Mondonico “if only” I maintained a higher level of fitness. But losing some 30-60+ seconds for every 1,000 ft of climbing, gets to feel a little old.

  10. cowboycramer

    I train daily on a rattle-canned carbon Lemond. But the two bikes I love, my two bikes with soul, are my steel Lemond Fillmore and my Niner SIR9. And, as much as I lust after the newest BMCs, Parlees, Felts and Giants, I think that deep down my hidden passion is steel.

    It felt so good to give up a pound and a half to choose steel over scandium (Niner), and it felt oh so much better to ride it! Steel really is real.

  11. Kuzu

    My everyday commuter is a beautiful steel Puch that my mother brought home for me when I was twelve. Sure it was a little big for me but 11 years later and the thing fits like a dream. That being said, last year I raced Aluminum and thought I would never make the switch to carbon, but I did(Go team!) and may I say riding a carbon framed BMC is amazing.

  12. Pascal

    All of my bikes are steel (winter beater/commuter, road, fixie, MTB). However, I have ridden some very nice riding, very fast CF bikes and liked them a lot. I’m guessing that high end steel would score high on
    Ideal material = (ride quality + dependability) X customization / cost X weight.

    Plus there are not a lot of carbon fiber road bikes with clearance for 700X30C tires and fenders. (I like to keep my options open and hence I embrace versatility)

    No I have never applied that formula, but I’m sure steel would take it.

  13. souleur

    For souleur, it is a daily dose of steel. Bianchi reparto corse Boron XL, recently cleaned, striped clean of all decals and painted a solid color of celeste, her name: Maude. It was rebuilt, w/a 49t front 21/12 rear making her a 1×8 crazy girl w/custom hoops, 32h open pro’s laced up. She came up under 18lbs, which for me is fine. My weekday girl also is my weekend date also at times, and in my first race of the year as well, she broke the top 10 of a group of ~60, well, she and I broke the top 10. How much does she soak up? The other day, while out for a spin, I hit some pave for ~8k, and it was so rough, yet so smooth, i was able to hold speed and be comfy, but she was soaking up so much it vibrated my 12t & lockring off….rode home in my 13t and held it together just fine.

  14. Alex Torres

    Carbon on the road (a ´09 SL2). Titanium off (a ´99 YBB). And a ´96 alu framed Trek with fenders, rack and everything, as a “beater” for the occasional commute or ugly weather riding. But I have a ´95 Mtn. Goat Whiskeytown Racer steel frame waiting for repair and rebuild somewhere, and that´s one sweeeet ride I must say!

  15. SinglespeedJarv

    Ooh! A pet subject. Over the years I’ve ridden pretty much everything. I started out on steel – 531 of course – back in the days when you were either a Reynolds person or a Colombus person and the aspiration was either 753 or SLX. My first 531 frame snapped twice and was repaired twice before I upgraded to a custom 531.

    I then had a carbon LOOK for a race bike, I can’t remember why I chose carbon, probably because the alu frames in the late 90’s looked awful and bigger riders kept snapping them. I loved that carbon frame and other than in winter it was used daily for three years. After than I returning to steel with an 853, possibly because of some misplaced environmental/sustainable angle to the return to steel. I remember trying – and failing – to do some research into the environmental impact of different frame materials. It was either that or an equally mis-placed sense that steel was real.

    The 853 was, despite the frame builder being an arse, a really good ride and I only got rid of it because I’d retired from racing and gone mountain-biking instead, of which I’ve run various materials: alu, steel, Ti but now have two, one steel and one Ti.

    Most of the time the main factor in frame choice has been cost, followed by what I felt the best style I could afford. In ’98, carbon was different and a bit exotic when most people were buying ugly-looking alu frames. Steel always afforded the custom paint option and a possibility of repair. These last three years since I’ve returned to road bikes I’ve had a alu frame with carbon rear, an alu ‘cross bike and my current race bike which is a second or third hand, 10 year-old alu LOOK. All these I’ve had on cost grounds as I have a mortgage to cover and I don’t race much any more so I don’t feel I can justify an expensive bike.

    Despite the chance to buy an unused Giant TCR advance SL at about quarter retail price I’m back on the sustainable gig again and the next bike will probably be Ti or at least steel that can be repaired. As technologically amazing as the latest bikes are, the one thing they aren’t designed to do is to last. It has pushed cycling and cyclists into the world of buying things for the sake of having the latest and the best; a consumerist existence that doesn’t fit well with a world that is over-consuming resource.

  16. Matt

    I see myself as more of a ‘value’ cyclist, and both my bikes, cx and road are aluminum (as was the Kona Jake I just sold to fund my road bike.)

    The Jake was my entry into adulthood cycling, and at that pricepoint, your choices are pretty much AL or lead pipe. My 2nd bike was a Van Dessel Hole Shot that I bought after being impressed with my dealings with the company, and their proximity to my hometown- it’s now a singlespeed commuter, canal road rider, and occasional cx racer.

    The newest is a CAAD9, which many acknowledge to be the peak of aluminum road frames.

    I figure I’ll get a steel or ti bike at some point, but for now, with young(ish) joints that have no complaints after 8 hours on an AL frame, I am content to ride happily, so long as my wheels (32 spoke, box section clinchers), tires (24c Open Pave), and saddle (Antares) are set up the way I want.

  17. Mike

    I’m very happy to be riding a carbon fiber Specialized – but only because it was inherited. Otherwise, I’d still be riding the roads on my Cro-Moly mtb with road wheels!

  18. Lachlan

    My major rides (the ones I really rode and raced) evolved as such…
    653 custom
    dubious carbon
    utterly brilliant carbon

    My 2007 cervelo R3 made real what I frist read carbon was supposed to do more than ten years past (but it didn’t). Can’t fault a single aspect, and it retains my visual admiration far better than anything I had before.

    There’s steel and steel, and carbon and carbon. But the best of each is awesome, and so far the best of the best for me is carbon.

    I’m no longer fast, but the acceleration from light weight and stiffness is hard to beat (assuming your ride also fits and handles flawlessly)

  19. Souleur

    well said Lachlan, I envy your R3 and hope to make it my first carbon ride, or a dogma…not sure which, but after a long time to think, one will be one day. I agree, there are wannabe’s in each, and the real deals…Pegoretti, waterford, Indyfab, et al…in carbon, I will reserve my opinion til I become more expert and own one outright.

  20. Phat Boye Rouleur

    In the mid to 80’s I had an Olmo. Best handling ever. At my all time low of 180 lbs, I could flex the stays so much with hard, out of the saddle climbing that cable would pull the (first Simplex, then Campy 8sp index) downtube shifters and it would drop a few cogs. Turned me off of production steel. Next was an early 90’s Klein Quantum, Rock solid under power, but a little harsh, even as I went upwards of 230lbs. (now my wintertime fixee commuter w/25c tires). Single speed cross bike in steel, nice, but still a little too flexy under hard accellerations or out of saddle climbing. In 2005, to celebrate the birth of my son, scored a Colnago C-40 (with the B-stay & little diamond cut out in the chainstays). Was leary of carbon with my size, but price on new frame/fork was too good to pass up. Loved it! All the handling and comfort I remembered from the Olmo, but solid under hard pedaling & no mystery shifts, until I snapped the driveside chainstay off the BB shell, lug and all after about 5000 miles. TrialTir’s customer service & warranty policy sucked, after receiving the frame they accused me of dirt jumping & cyclocrossing on it. My LBS dropped them as a result. But I was in love with what carbon could be. After much research, calls & emails to Cervelo, specifically asking about the warranty & my up to 240lb weight, in spring 2006 I bought an R3 Frameset. Everything I could want. Then I broke it in late summer 2008. 10 days later I got another one, a 2008 model, warranty replacement, not even shipping charges. In november of last year, that one cracked as well. 7 days later, a 2009 model came. They even sent a new seatpost, due to the model year change in diameter, FREE!

    Truly a Lifetime warranty & fast customer service for sure!

    Only Cervelo’s for this family from now on. My 15 year old daughter is now racing. Her next bike will for sure be a Cervelo.

  21. Craig


    I thought highly of a steel (and still ride a steel commuter and mountain bike) until I got a sweet deal on a Ti road frame. I will keep it until the day in the very distant future when it gives up the ghost.

    I have never had any problems with the ‘lack of comfort’ that alloy frames allegedly bring. It is a road bike, roads are smooth when you are used to riding over rocks and roots with a rigid fork. Roadies who whinge about lack of comfort are like the obese whinging about too many calories in a Mcdonald’s meal.

  22. MattS

    Remember Craig, not all ‘roadies’ ride ‘smooth’ roads (and there are very few truly smooth roads around). I’m a mtb rider too (so what am I called on a road bike?) and I like to ride rough stuff on my road bike. Rigid forks on mtbs work well in some locales, but are crap in others. I’ve raced the exact same race course rigid and suspended and was minutes faster suspended. This was no surprise at all, having been on mtbs since before suspension became common. Road bikes are different than mtbs in degree, not kind. As in, they have to deal with the same forces, just typically scaled down. If traction and comfort are important on an mtb, they are also important on a road bike. You just need a lot less ‘give’ on the latter to derive benefit. In my mind, Dave Kirk’s bikes exemplify the importance of beneficial flex.

  23. Adam

    Carbon and aluminium Cannondale. Love it. Alloy bars and stem and open pro (alloy rims). The more I ride the more I think a CAAD 9 is all any racer needs.

  24. J

    Carbon through and through.

    Bikes I’ve owned:

    2003 Trek 5200
    2004 Giant TCR
    2005 Giant TCR
    2005 Orbea Orca
    2006 Orbea Orca
    2008 Trek Madone
    2009 Trek Madone
    2010 Colnago CX-1

  25. thom

    All-aluminum, all-ti, all-carbon, and ti-carbon get rotated through the door pretty regularly. All-ti in crappy weather and winter. All-al when I have a need for hard speed, along with the all-carbon. Those two are the hard ass performers. The ti-carbon is new to the stable and I expect it to see a lot of use, especially for the centuries coming in summer. But all of these are century-capable as far as comfort. Last year, I rode the all-ti frame more than others. It was improved with a new 1″ fork. Next was the all-carbon.

    The all-ti is the oldest and closest to steel. It’s capable of everything, actually. ‘Course it is a Merckx.

  26. Jim

    I like carbon for long rides because it’s comfortable, light, and tends to have great power transfer. I ride a carbon bike (Giant TCR) for most of my focused training. It’s easy on the back. For anything up to 50 miles, I prefer scandium because its road feel – it’s ability to tell the rider how the bike and the road are interacting – is better than aluminum, but it handles the chipseal and square-edged bumps. I have a Redline Conquest Team and a Kona Major One, and both of these are very pleasant to ride on the road. Steel is okay on the road, comfortable, good road feel and handles well, but stiff steel tends to be heavy, and light steel tends to be flexy. My mountain bike is a steel 29’er hardtail, but my next mountain bike will probably be Ti. Ti has a sweet feel to it off-road, the frame seems to flex in a positive way, taking the edge off and absorbing hits.

  27. Dan O

    I’m a little late to this party, but will comment anyway….

    I dig old school steel for many reasons – but like frames made from various materials for various reasons. I wanted to hate carbon, until I rode it – no denying how nice it rides.

    I spend the most time commuting on my ’97 Ibis Hakkalugi. Awesome old school steel frame and fork goodness. Out of all my bikes, this has the most mileage racked up for sure – and it still looks new.

    With no rain in sight, the Ibis Silk Carbon is brought out for action. I really dig how this bike rides. As mentioned, wanted to poo poo carbon as the “plastic bike”. A few test rides on the Ibis and other models convinced me otherwise.

    When in the mood, my ’91 Bridgestone RB-1 is allowed to play outside. I’m always amazed how well this bike rides for being a mid-priced production road bike from that era. It simply feels great.

    For dirt action, I’ve owned many mountain bikes – mostly steel, some aluminum. A few old Fat Chances, a Bridgestone MB-Zip, a full suspension Ellsworth Truth, and my latest steed – the eBay Cannondale hardtail frame, built up with old XTR and Fox fork. It’s been a gas going back to a hardtail again. Pick your lines and take your chances.

    Fun post and comments – great to read.

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