Once upon a time buying a bike was a simple affair. You went to the shop, found the right sized frame, paid your money and rode away. If you had a bit more money there was the option of having a frame made to measure from a custom builder. The common theme throughout though was that the frame would be steel. Usually Reynolds 531 tubing, perhaps a bit of 753 thrown in for good measure if you were feeling flush.
The thing was we were happy with those steel frames, but somehow technology and marketing have gotten a hold of us and now we have a myriad of material choices. Steel has taken something of a backseat as first aluminium and then carbon fibre have become the material de jour. Let’s not forget that there’s also titanium floating around making an appearance every now and again as it’s touted as the material that will never corrode and, therefore, will make a frame for life. Then again believe the hype and a stainless steel frame can fulfil the same role and cost less. So which material do you go for?
It’s obvious, I know, but I’ll start by taking a look at steel. If you’re looking for an off-the-peg frame or complete bike then your choices are limited, as the ferrous material has fallen from favour some much in the mainstream. However, take a look at the custom scene and it’s never been more popular. No doubt, a major reason for this is that it is so easy to work with, not to mention easily accessible. Then there’s the way the ride of a steel frame can be tuned using different tube diameter, butt lengths and wall thicknesses, and that’s before you get into choosing different tubes from different manufacturers.
A well thought out steel frame put together by someone that knows what they are doing is a joy to ride. It’s no without reason that the term ‘steel is real’ was coined as these frames have a definite spring to them. Not springy as in flexible but able to shrug off the vibrations from rough surfaces.
The inability of aluminium to act in the same way was one of the issues that used to plague those frames before the industry started to really push them. It’s a very different story today with aluminium tubes not only featuring butts like their steel counterparts, but also ever increasingly complex profiles thanks to hydroforming that allows manufacturers to heavily manipulate the tubes. Yet such is the fickle nature of cycling that now aluminium too is considered old hat thanks to the dominance of carbon fibre frames in the peloton.
The rise in popularity of the fibre frames means you can now pick up a bike with a race ready specification for under a £1000. Are they any good? Well, it all depends on what you want from your bike. My current number one road bike is a RR1 from Handsling Bikes and it is without a doubt the stiffest frame I’ve ever ridden. Then there are other companies making frames that have the carbon wrapped in different ways that allows for more flex, making their frames more suitable for leisurely Sunday spins.
Could the ‘plastic bikes’ days be numbered though with the slow but steady rise of stainless steel. Currently, the preserve of custom builders it has the feel of a conventional steel frame but without the associated worry of rust. Some are suggesting that stainless frames could be a frame for life. Then other people say the same thing about titanium, but that doesn’t change the fact that ever-changing standards for headsets, bottom brakes and more means that older ti frames are now becoming redundant.
So if money was no object what would be my personal choice of frame material? Well, I’m in the fortunate position that I’ve ridden frames made from all of the materials talked about above, and in some cases combinations of them. I still regret selling the two titanium frames I’ve owned, but the one frame I’ve vowed never to sell is a hand-made steel one.