Being a Rider

carbon v steel

As a latecomer to both the industry and riding at 28, I dove in during the spring of 2010 with the unbridled enthusiasm of a five year old at Disney Land. I wanted to learn everything about everything, immediately. My first lesson?

Lighter is better, carbon is lighter, therefore, carbon is better.

Cycling also turned me into a fierce competitor; someone who was obsessed with going faster and getting stronger—than other people. That was key. Going faster and getting stronger than other people. And to do that, I needed the best bike. I needed carbon.

And I did get faster, and I did get stronger, and eventually, I started to become the rider I wanted to be.

Very soon, I scored a job at an amazing bike shop in North Carolina, owned by a man renowned in the biz as The Vintage Expert. When he talked about the old racers and the old bikes, his eyes became brighter, his gestures grander. We sold carbon, but his first love was steel, and so the shop burst with his personal collection. An all original Masi Gran Criterium hung next to a 1950s Hetchins track bike that hung next to a Schwinn Paramount. I spent slow winter Tuesday afternoons studying them, honing my eye and discerning what made each one unique. I came to appreciate an even weld and a well-executed lug.

I even dabbled in vintage steel myself, scoring a beautiful red Gios with SLX tubing. I painstakingly pieced together an entire Dura Ace Black drillium grouppo for it, hubs and all. I found a Nitto Pearl stem and Sakae bars.  I felt a true connection to that bike, but I still never rode it. I didn’t see the practical point, since it wouldn’t make me faster, stronger, or the rider I wanted to be. Eventually, I sold it to get money for a new carbon rig, sad at the loss but knowing it was for a greater good.

After moving to California in 2011, I found the state played the game at a whole new level.  In my opinion, I had become a pretty good rider, but as soon as I saddled up on the West coast, not a single group ride went by that I wasn’t shot off the back. And so I had to up my game. I rode more and rode harder.  I bought a newer, lighter carbon bike so I could benefit from every advantage and stay on track to become the rider I wanted to be.

But steel never went away. I bought a purple vintage Rossin off ebay. I loved the way it rode and preferred it to the feel of my race rig, but still treated it just a nice lark to play around with on rest days, an eccentricity. It wasn’t carbon, so how could it possibly help me be faster and stronger?

Because I was sure the carbon bike had a large part to play in my progression as the cyclist I wanted to be, and as such, I continuously looked for ways make it lighter and faster. Last year’s bike became disposable and next year’s bike became coveted in an endless cycle of discarding and wanting. It felt empty, but also necessary.

Then, my crusher friends Steve and Jason invited me on what would be my first cyclocross/road ride in the Santa Cruz mountains. I accepted, excited to be included on a ride with such strong company. Still, I felt that I needed every advantage possible, and so borrowed the lightest carbon cross rig I could for the occasion.

We started riding.

Two hours later, completely cooked, I looked up at my friends riding 10 meters in front of me, side by side, their hands resting lightly on the tops of their bars and a conversation clearly on their lips. We were one mile into the three mile Empire Grade Road, a name synonymous in that area with steep, unrelenting stair step climbs.

I looked up at their bikes, now 12 meters in front of me.  Jason rode an emerald Gunnar, a bike he had for ten years and rebuilt several times, the parts a mash up of forethought and whatever he happened to have in the garage. Steve rode his all-time favorite bike, a red Rock Lobster built for him by his good friend Paul. He painstakingly chose each component, making sure the overall picture was simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. You could tell that each bike had a relationship with its rider, and you could tell that both bikes were loved.

Then I looked down at my bike. High modulus carbon, lightest of light, stiffest of stiff.  But it wasn’t a bike I chose because I loved it. It was a bike I chose because I thought it would make me faster and better. Except it wasn’t. Jason and Steve rode away from me, while talking, because no bike could hide the truth: they were simply stronger riders than I.

But as their relaxed, upright backs disappeared around a switchback 15 meters ahead of me, that fact was suddenly OK. They were just enjoying their ride, and it was OK to not be as strong or as fast they were. It was OK to simply be the rider I was at that given moment, and to enjoy the ride with them.

With that realization came a sense of freedom. I could finally choose whichever bike I wanted to ride, simply because I wanted to ride it. I didn’t have to rely on a bike to try and turn me into something more, or better, of faster. I didn’t have to constantly strive to be the rider I wanted to be; being a rider was enough.

And my God, did I want to ride steel.

Today, I have two metal whips. A Caletti Cycles custom adventure road bike that will double as a cyclocross bike this fall, and the vintage Rossin. The Caletti is a light blue with black decals, and built with great attention to every detail. When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life. The Rossin is a no nonsense, what you see is what you get sort of partner.  It was a solid bike when made in 1989, and it’s still a solid bike today.  I built it up with a mix of modern Frankenbike components. When I ride it, I feel like it says to me, “All right, ready to play?” I always answer yes.

Some days I’m strong. Some days I’m tired. But I’m always a rider. And these are my bikes.

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  1. Bryan Lewis

    Nice article. I kept expecting it to end with a conclusion that steel bikes can be as fast as carbon. The explanation for the other two riders being ahead of you isn’t necessarily that the riders were stronger or faster, eh?

  2. Patrick O'Brien

    Bravo Irene! Nice piece of writing.

    My experience was not as dramatic, but similar. I retired, and my old aluminum C’dale was stiff and buzzy. So, off to carbon land with a Trek Pilot with full Ultegra drivetrain and brakes, and Mavic Kysrium wheels. Hot damn it was light. First time my partner, and wife, Sandy and I rode 100KM, I was on the old Trek 520 and Sandy was on her Terry Classic. We both noted that nothing hurt, and we could have kept riding. I bought carbon because it rode like steel. Go figure. Now the garage is full of good steel bikes. Some days you ride like a nut, some days you don’t.



    What a great piece of writing that acknowledges that there is FAR FAR more to bikes and riding them than the latest and greatest high tech wonder carbon, or the fact that it isn’t a “race bike.”

    My Lynskey ti, with nearly 23,000 miles after 4 years rides like it did the day I bought it and will be enjoyed until I can’t ride anymore.

    I love this line……”When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life.” That’s exactly how I feel about my Lynskey.

  4. Alan

    My 1980 Trek 720, a touring bike, still climbs and descends with a sure feel that I love. I just wish they knew about compact cranksets back then. The 42 tooth small chain ring + a large cog of just 24 teeth gets a bit painful on my old knees in the mountains. But it’s Campagnolo, and I like it on smaller hills.

  5. Timojhen

    Very nicely put. I’ve been relieved that as I age, it’s less pressing to compete with others. May still get fired up to improve on my PR, but recognize I won’t be setting the world alight.

    My Ritchey Ti is certainly the most beautiful bike I own, but enjoy a bit of carbon as well.

  6. SusanJane

    I don’t haunt the bike nerd sites for the obvious reason that I don’t ride (chronic health issues). But I love pieces like this that capture the intersection between the hardware and the software. Beautifully written.

  7. Dave

    It’s refreshing to read a piece focused more on soul riding. It changes your view from the enjoyment of racing to pure ecstasy of riding with friends. I can relate to your experience as I have several carbon, steel, ti and aluminum bikes. enjoy!

  8. E Gweeley

    Loved your article, I too sold a beloved steel rig to finance a Colnago carbon w/ Campy Record steed, I will use it for many years, but still wish I had that steel bike that I built back. I feel that photos of the Caletti and Rossin would complete your article….I know I’m not alone if you can post them.

  9. Dustin

    My first MTB was a nice dual suspension bike with a 3×9 drivetrain and air shocks and hydro disc brakes…it was the most expensive thing I had ever bought myself. I thought it was the bomb. My first ride with other people was with two older guys on steel hardtails, one of which was a singlespeed. I thought “this is going to suck waiting for these guys.”

    They dropped me on the first incline, immediately, without even trying. They were chatting about vacations, kids, families, etc. Meanwhile, way behind them, I couldn’t get enough air or a low enough gear.

    Looking forward to more of your stuff Irene!

  10. Emil

    A very nice piece! I really like the combination of past/present and inanimate to personal. I hope to read many more!

  11. Howard

    Hi Irene, sounds like you worked for Dale back in NC. I too came from NC and had a hard transition to CA. But the weather is divine, cycling is too, but I still don’t seem to fit in after four years.

  12. Michael

    Bikes are like wine. Who wants to drink a California cab every day? There are a few wines I know I don’t want to drink ever, just as there are some bikes I find truly objectionable, but otherwise, riding different bikes makes things more fun. I can’t have all the bikes I’d like, but I can ride other people’s bikes occasionally, and take my bikes on rides for which they were not designed (and others for which they were). So ride that steel bike, Irene, and maybe someday you’ll feel like riding a carbon bike again, or a scandium bike with carbon stays, or a …. Keeps things fresh and fun!

  13. Wisco

    I am lucky enough to afford a few nice bikes and for awhile was chasing that elusive perfect ride. What did I find? Comfort, ability to swallow a larger tire and style in a sea of sameness is what gave me the most pleasure. I was always adding and frankly I’m happier now that I’ve thinned the herd to the remaining few that really make me happy.

    Don’t waste your time chasing that N+1 bike. Figure out what you really love and love it more

  14. Dr. Ko

    This week Monday to Friday I rode Carbon, yesterday I picked my 90ties Basso Gap, rode as comfy as a couch in comparison. (Very similar classic wheels on both bikes, flat tubular rim, triple crossed).

    Their is something to these older steel frames, Queen would say “It’s a kind of magic”. Maybe they do represent a bit of soul of the person who made them. My second steel frame was made in 90ties by a small German manufacturer. BTW: Both of them are Frankenbikes (as You can read in my blog) based on Ultegra shifting, cheap & reliable.

    Kindest regards from the other side of the Atlantic,


  15. ZekeRide

    Nice article, but it seems to fall on a repeated theme.
    Steel is spiritual, and carbon is for, well…. ‘Posers’ and Pros’. Ok, got it, but what if you just love riding a nice aluminum bike. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of steel, but rather, find a high quality aluminum frame to be efficient and sublime at the same time.

    just my two pesos

  16. Pingback: For the love of the bike | chris aho

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