There is a lot of debate in the cycling world about the best material for bike frames.
Traditionally, road or racer bikes were made from steel, and these are renowned for their sturdiness and durability.
However, newer additions on the market use the latest aerodynamic technology and tend to be made from aluminum, titanium, or carbon in an attempt to replace steel with something a lot lighter.
However, there is no denying that steel still has its place, after all, 'steel is real' as the saying goes.
Prior to the 1970s, steel was the only option, and vintage racers from this era all feature steel frames.
Steel, while known for being heavy, can be butted at certain points to create strength or cut weight where needed, so it’s more diverse than you might think.
Steel frames will either be Hi-Tensile or Chromoly and while the former is cheaper, the latter is an alloy form, making it significantly more durable.
Manufacturers can opt to braze or use lugs to join the steel tubes. Brazing is similar to welding but uses an additional material, whilst using lugs requires slotting the tubes into joins, which tends to offer more creativity.
The main benefit of steel is that it’s durable, but it also means a heavier and weightier bike, so it may not be your material of choice if speed is your priority.
That said, steel frames are very comfortable and have a springy ride quality to them, which enhances comfort when you’ve covering distance. They’re also easy to repair.
Are steel bike frames heavy?
Steel frames are known for being heavy, as mentioned previously.
However, some cycling enthusiasts claim this is a misconception, and that aluminum is not necessarily a lighter option, despite it frequently being marketed as one.
We could be forgiven for believing steel is heavier though, after all, we make bridges out of it, but use aluminum for things like soda cans.
However, aluminum is lighter by volume as a metal, but when it’s used in bike frames, manufacturers often make the tubes larger and thicker than steel ones to increase the bike’s strength.
So while the material in itself is lighter, if a manufacturer uses more of it in a bike frame, it increases the bike’s overall weight, which is why many aluminum frames can weigh just as much - or more - than a steel one.
You can usually tell from a bike’s appearance whether it’s steel or aluminum. Steel tubes are always cylindrical and will measure between 1"-1.5" in diameter.
Aluminum tubes vary in shape, and can be square, triangular, or fluted, as well as cylindrical, and are usually slightly larger in diameter - 1.5” or thicker - for the reason explained above.
Are steel bikes fast?
Racing cyclists no longer favor steel, but up until the 1980s, most of the professional peloton raced on steel bicycles, before new materials began to crowd the scene, making steel obsolete in the racing world.
These days, titanium and carbon fiber are said to offer greater speed than steel frames.
Aluminum is known for providing a harsher ride, but aluminum tubes can also be hydroformed into a specific shape which means the bike can be designed to be more aerodynamic.
The same is true for carbon - which is the frame of choice for racing - it’s stiff, extremely fast, and can be shaped to provide greater speed.
Titanium is lighter than steel and stronger than aluminum, but it’s also heavier than carbon. It does provide a good ride quality though and is renowned for its durability.
However, while the material of your bike will definitely impact your speed, it’s not the sole influencing factor.
Your experience, ability, and fitness level as a cyclist will also have a significant impact on your ability to generate speed, as well as the fit of your bike, and these factors shouldn’t be underestimated.
Are steel bikes more comfortable?
Steel frames are known for providing greater comfort, as they’re less rigid than aluminum frames and provide a ‘springy’ quality to your ride.
When we talk about comfort, we’re referring to a bike’s vertical compliance or flex, and if you’re after something that will provide comfort on long rides, you want a frame that isn’t completely rigid.
Steel offers some flex which dampens vibrations and absorbs shocks from the road, thus resulting in a smoother and more comfortable ride and less of a jarring impact when you hit a bump or pothole.
On rougher terrain, such as a gravel road, steel frames will absorb more vibration which will reduce arm fatigue.
On the other hand, some researchers claim that frame material doesn’t matter as much as we’ve been led to think when it comes to comfort.
An article from the cycling website Cycling About suggests that bike frames flex very little regardless of whether they’re steel or aluminum and that tires and the seat post play a much bigger role in dictating the comfort of a bike.
However, it’s also worth taking into account fork flex, as steel forks flex vertically and you can clearly see them move on rough surfaces which helps absorb shock.
Aluminum forks are almost completely rigid and provide a harsher feel.
So, while there are certainly other factors that influence comfort, steel bikes are generally understood to have better shock resistance and flex than aluminum frames.
Should I buy a steel road bike?
Whether or not a steel bike is for you depends on what you’re looking for in a bike. If you’re looking for a bike for racing, it’s likely you’ll prefer an aerodynamic-shaped frame, which will be carbon, aluminum, or maybe titanium.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a bike for your daily commute or for touring purposes, a steel bike could be an excellent choice, as these provide comfort, durability, and reliability.
There has also been a renewed interest in high-performance steel road bikes lately, even when it comes to racing, as proven by the Madison-Genesis a couple of years ago with the Volare 953.
While steel isn’t used by large-scale manufacturers these days and is more likely to be found in vintage road bikes and racers, there is a flourishing market for bespoke steel bikes.
Many cyclists are returning to steel frames because they’re highly durable and sturdy, but they’re also easy to work with and repair.
Steel bikes generally offer a smoother ride, too. While they’re known for being heavier than their aluminum counterparts, this isn’t always the case, as some steel bikes are surprisingly lightweight.
However, because steel tubes are cylindrical and can’t be aerodynamically shaped like the other materials can, when it comes to speed, carbon is always the top choice, and steel is the least likely material to feature in racing bikes these days.
So, while we’re a big fan of steel bikes, it really does depend on what you’re looking to get out of your bike.
If you’re looking for durability and a smooth ride that will provide comfort when you’re covering long distances, steel could be ideal.
If you’re looking for speed and aerodynamic technology, go for carbon, aluminum, or titanium.
Why are steel bikes better?
Steel bikes were once the material of choice for bike frames, so there’ll always be an affectionate nostalgia surrounding them.
Steel bikes provide great comfort on long rides as they’re less rigid than other materials, and absorb shock well.
They’re ideal for touring bikes for this reason, and they may also be the perfect bike frame material for a cyclist who wants a custom-made bike without the high price tag of titanium.
Despite being pushed out of the market by carbon, aluminum, and more recently titanium, for custom builders steel remains a material of choice, as it’s easier and less expensive to work with, and provides much smoother riding characteristics.
Steel is also denser and stronger than aluminum, meaning you can use thinner walled tubes, which allow you to design a bike with vertical flex to better absorb shock.
One of the main selling points of steel is its durability, which far exceeds that of more modern materials. It’s highly resistant to fatigue and can be easily repaired, unlike carbon or aluminum bikes.
That said, the downside of steel bikes is that they can be prone to rust, so they require a little extra attention, especially if you live on a coast where your frame is exposed to salt.
Why are steel bikes so expensive?
Even though steel was once the material of choice by manufacturers - making steel bikes far cheaper to produce - steel bikes today can be pretty expensive, and generally cost more than aluminum ones.
Many steel bikes are custom made or designed by bespoke manufacturers so come with heftier price tags.
Though the higher price of steel bikes could also be down to them being more time-consuming to produce, as they’re hand-made.
Aluminum frames were initially introduced to the market because aluminum bikes are cheaper to mass manufacture, and much of the process can be automated with machinery.
Most bicycle shops today, and the majority of the cheaper brands, will feature mainly aluminum frames, and as a result, these are far cheaper to buy.
Steel bikes are less popular today, and therefore when you do find a steel bike, it will probably have a higher price tag because it’s been designed and manufactured to a higher quality.
So even though steel bikes may be more expensive, they could save you money in the long run as they’re more durable and are easier to repair.
Why do people prefer steel bikes?
There are many steel bike enthusiasts who maintain that steel is king even with the introduction of far lighter and faster frames made from titanium, aluminum, and of course, carbon.
One of the main reasons they cite for preferring steel frames is their versatility: the best quality steel bikes will display the finest craftsmanship, especially because far fewer are produced these days.
They can also be surprisingly lightweight, despite them continually being labeled as heavier, and of course, they provide a smoother and more comfortable ride that just can’t be replicated with aluminum and carbon.
With a steel frame, you’re also investing in a bike that you’ll have for years to come if you keep it well serviced.
These bikes are durable and well-made, and while they’re pretty expensive, one steel bike could long outlive several aluminum ones.
Steel bikes often have a simple, classic design due to their cylindrical shape, and they’re less fancy than some of the latest aerodynamic bikes on the market.
The bottom line is that with a steel bike you’re getting quality, durability, and comfort, which is what makes these bikes a great choice for anyone covering a significant amount of miles.