Why We Choose Steel Bikes

Why We Choose Steel Bikes

At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been testing quite a few titanium and carbon bikes lately, and even a bike made from bamboo. We really liked most of these bikes. And yet our own bikes continue to be made from steel. Why don’t we ride carbon or titanium (or bamboo) bikes?

We choose steel because this material allows us to build custom bikes that are dialed in to the nth degree. High-end steel bikes have benefited from decades of research and development. They now offer a performance that is difficult to equal with other materials. With performance, I don’t just mean speed – although the best steel bikes have no trouble keeping up with ti or carbon racers – but also handling, reliability and all-weather, all-road capability.

Steel tubing is available in many diameters and wall thicknesses, so it’s easy to fine-tune the ride quality and performance of our bikes. For example, my Mule (above) – intended for hauling heavier loads – has a stiffer main triangle than my René Herse (second from top), which is intended for speed first and foremost. With steel, it’s relatively easy to fine-tune the bike’s flex characteristics for optimum performance – what we call “planing”.

Steel is easy to shape. That means that it isn’t too difficult to bend the chainstays slightly, so they curve around wide tires. You can indent the stays to create even more clearance. And steel is stiffer for a given volume than all other materials, so slender tubes are sufficient: Steel chainstays need less of that valuable space between tire and cranks.

Steel is easy to machine, which helps when making dropouts, braze-ons and other parts. Pump pegs and braze-ons for centerpull brakes are readily available in steel. Making those parts out of titanium isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What about the weight and performance of the frame itself? Titanium, steel and aluminum all have the same stiffness-to-weight ratio. Titanium weighs half as much as steel and is half as stiff. For aluminum, it’s 1/3.
If you made frames from each material, with the same tubing diameters and the same stiffness, you’d get three frames that weigh the same. The titanium tubes would have walls that are twice as thick, the walls of the aluminum tubes would be three times as thick.
In the real world, titanium frames tend to be lighter than steel. They use larger-diameter tubes with thinner walls, which require less material to obtain the same stiffness. However, you can make the walls of a frame tube only so thin before the tube risks buckling, denting or cracking. That is the limit with steel – remember that for the same stiffness, a steel tube’s walls will be only half as thick as those of a titanium tube. If you wanted to make a steel frame that is as light as the best titanium frames, the tubing walls would get too thin. So you keep the tube diameter smaller, with the result that the frame weighs a little more.
The weight advantage of titanium frames is smaller than you might expect. Remember that the frame makes up only 20% of a bike’s weight. And once you factor in the rider’s weight, the weight advantage of a titanium bike practically disappears.

Carbon can be even lighter and stiffer. The down side of most carbon frames is that they are made in molds. If you want to change something, you have to make a new mold. That makes it almost impossible to fine-tune the ride characteristics to your preferences. Carbon also works best in uninterrupted shapes. That means it’s not so easy to install braze-ons for racks and other parts that feed significant point loads into the frame or fork. Carbon also tends to be more fragile. Where a metal tube may at worst dent in a fall, carbon often cracks.

For forks, steel and carbon are the only materials that are commonly used today. Most carbon forks are made in molds, so if you want a different geometry, you need a new (and expensive) mold. None of the carbon forks available today have enough offset for a low-trail bike. With steel, you just rake the fork blades a little further. That is why my titanium bike has a steel fork – I wanted to get a geometry optimized for wide tires. Every time I carve into a turn during a steep, twisty descent, I am glad about the precise handling this allows.
Steel also has a longer fatigue life than carbon, which means you can make smaller-diameter fork blades that flex and absorb shocks. If a carbon fork flexed as much as our Kaisei “TOEI Special” fork blades (above), the carbon layers soon would delaminate, and the fork would fail. To be durable, carbon forks have to be relatively stiff. That transmits more shocks to the handlebars, making the bike less pleasant to ride on rough roads.

What about the performance of a steel bike? We’ve tested our steel bikes against the best titanium and carbon bikes. We expected the steel bikes to be a little slower, but we were surprised: The best bikes’ performances were indistinguishable. (And quite a few titanium and carbon bikes actually were slower, because their flex characteristics didn’t work as well with our pedal strokes.)
One carbon bike was a tiny bit faster up a steep hill, because it was lighter. Once we equalized the weights of the bikes, their performance was the same. The extra weight of our bikes came mostly from the fenders, lights and rack. The frame tubes themselves don’t actually weigh that much. We added two full water bottles to the carbon bike, and it was as heavy as the steel bikes.
We aren’t the only ones who’ve rediscovered steel. I was surprised when I recently heard about Global Cycling Network’s new “dream bike”. The frame is made from steel, and they absolutely love it. Click on the video below to watch their first ride on the steel machine.

It’s important to remember that these steel bikes are true high-performance machines. They have little in common with most production steel bikes available today, which are mid-priced bikes that make little pretense to performance. Made from sturdy tubing, these bikes often are very stiff and don’t exhibit the “lively” feel that makes the best bikes perform so well.
Great bikes can be made from many materials. My titanium Firefly and my steel René Herse both feel remarkably similar in how they respond to my pedal strokes – and both are worlds apart from most steel production bikes.

The bikes we love and ride are handbuilt from ultra-thinwall tubing in carefully selected diameters and wall thicknesses. They incorporate things like dropouts with built-in connectors for the generator lighting. Their racks are custom-built for ultimate strength, stiffness and light weight. Their cranks have low tread (Q factor) for optimum pedaling efficiency, yet we can run wide tires. There is a lot that goes into making a great bike. When it comes to our most challenging adventures, we usually choose our steel bikes, because they are no-compromise machines designed to perform under all conditions that we may encounter on the “road”.
This isn’t to say that the other materials cannot be used to make great bikes. Some day, somebody will make a fully integrated “real-world” bike from titanium or carbon, maybe even bamboo. It’ll match the performance of our steel bikes, but it won’t do anything significantly better. It’ll be cool because it’s different. If it’s made from titanium, it won’t dent as easily as our steel bikes. If it’s made from carbon, you can bring an extra water bottle without a weight penalty. Such a bike will probably cost significantly more than our steel bikes (which aren’t cheap by any means!). I really look forward to riding that bike when it becomes available, but I doubt it’ll start a revolution that makes our steel bikes obsolete.

The biggest problem with steel bikes is that the truly great ones aren’t easily available. You have to order one from a custom builder. That is a bit more difficult than going to a bike shop and picking up a bike. But for us, it’s worth the effort, because a custom bike offers things you cannot get with a production bike. Your bike will be exactly as you want it – with features that no production bike offers. And since you are buying it directly from the maker, it’s surprisingly affordable for something that is truly handcrafted to the highest specifications.

Compass offers custom builders a variety of framebuilding parts, like fork crowns, braze-ons, and – soon – a bottom bracket shell specially designed for wide tires (prototypes shown above). We are also adding high-quality frame tubing to our selection. Fewer makers offer frame tubing for bicycles these days, because demand for steel bikes is not as high as it once was.
One place where steel bicycles are still made in large numbers is Japan. Japan’s more than 2000 Keirin racers ride steel bikes, and that creates a significant demand. Many of these bikes are made from Kaisei tubing, which is chosen for its excellent quality. Keirin racers are not allowed to change bikes during a weekend of racing. If their frame breaks, they are out of the races. And since they live off prize and starting money, that is something to be avoided at all costs. So everything about their bikes has to be absolutely top quality.

In the past, Kaisei tubing was difficult to get outside Japan, and the tube lengths were optimized for smaller frames built for Japanese racers (who tend to be less tall than many westerners.) That is why you may never have heard of Kaisei despite its excellent track record. My Urban Bike (above) is made from Kaisei tubing, and it’s held up great over a decade of really hard service.

Starting this summer, Compass Cycles will distribute Kaisei tubing. When we visited their factory (above their tube butting machine), we were really impressed with the quality of their tubing. We have worked with Kaisei to offer tubes with longer unbutted center sections that are designed for larger frames, in addition to their existing tubes. We will offer a large selection of Kaisei tubing in standard and oversize diameters, with ultra-thin walls (0.7-0.4-0.7 mm) that we use on our own steel bikes.

We’ve found that when you want the very best performance in every way, a custom steel bike is hard to beat. Our goal is to provide what your builder needs to make one of these exceptional bikes for you!
Click here to find out more about Compass framebuilding supplies.

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Comments (80)

  • ORiordan

    An interesting read. I don’t know very much about materials but know enough that all types of steel, titanium and carbon aren’t the same.
    So are you assuming a particular grade of steel as your benchmark? I assume the Kaisei tubing meets this otherwise you wouldn’t sell it. However looking at the Reynolds tubeset range, for example, this ranges from cro-moly at the bottom to a “maraging stainless steel” at the top.
    So while you choose steel bikes… would you still prefer quality carbon or titanium over a cheap cro-moly tubeset?

    May 22, 2017 at 5:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There is a lot of confusion regarding the different grades of steel. All steel has roughly the same stiffness, so the ride characteristics and performance are determined by the diameter and wall thicknesses of the steel tubes, not the grade.
      Where different steels are different is in their strength. If you made a superlight frame out of cheap “mild” steel, it would break quickly. That is why thinwall tubing usually is heat-treated to make it stronger. The Kaisei tubing we will import will be heat-treated. Stainless steel tends to be more brittle than CrMo, so it’s not ideal for making bicycle frames. If you want a frame that lasts for decades of hard use, I’d stay away from it.
      A big issue concerns the manufacturing tolerances of the tubes. Lower-quality tubing often has irregularities that can form stress risers and cause premature failures. Or they are just not to spec: One builder recently cut open a tube on a frame that had failed, and the center section of the tube had 0.3 mm walls instead of the 0.5 mm that it should have had. That is one reason we are excited about Kaisei tubing – it’s generally considered among the very best, if not the best, in the world.

      May 22, 2017 at 8:01 am
      • David Anderson

        Jan, Where does this “Stainless steel tends to be more brittle than CrMo, so it’s not ideal for making bicycle frames.” come from? Columbus XCR, Reynolds 953, and KVA MS3 are not any less durable than any other modern thin wall heat treated performance tubing IMO, and in my experience.

        May 22, 2017 at 5:34 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It’s common knowledge that stainless steel is more brittle. See for example: http://www.berkeleypoint.com/learning/stainless.html
          All these modern stainless supersteels have been around for 10 years at most, and considering how few steel bicycles are ridden really hard and accumulate huge mileages these days, we really don’t have much data yet on their long-term durability.

          May 22, 2017 at 6:37 pm
      • Paul Copeland

        Jan, where in that linked article does it say that Stainless steels are well known to be brittle? It mentions that martensitic stainless steels can be “a bit more brittle” in part due to their martensitic structure. But martensitic stainless steels are chosen for their hardness in applications where that is necessary, their toughness (energy absorption) is not the deciding factor in selecting them. But this doesn’t mean it is a brittle material. In terms of bike alloy durability I think fatigue resistance is a better measure in part due to the frame’s flex. Also stainless steels that are austenitic (Reynolds 921) are face centred cubic in structure which tends to be less brittle than the body centred cubic structure of ferrite in plain carbon steels. But once again these are not brittle materials per se. I’m not trying to be argumentative, but if we are going to criticise a whole ferrous alloy family (there are 5 different types of stainless steels) then we should back it up with data not anecdotal evidence.

        May 23, 2017 at 6:29 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Perhaps the new stainless steel frame tubes are better in that respect. I wish I knew somebody with a frame from these new stainless steels who rides really hard and long miles… then we might find out. We have a lot of track record with the more traditional steels, whether it was Reynolds 531, Columbus SL or the Kaisei we’ll start importing. For me, the advantages of stainless steel (shiny) aren’t worth the risk as long as it appears to be an unproven material – that is all I wanted to express.
          This also shows a dilemma in steel bikes: They aren’t raced any longer (outside Japan’s Keirin racing), so new evolutions are much harder to test. Back in the 1970s, builders found out very quickly that the first Reynolds 753 wasn’t very durable – a season or two of racing and a pile of broken frames was sufficient.

          May 23, 2017 at 7:40 am
      • xeuster

        Jan, I like this point you are making, the two concepts are often misunderstood.
        Strength, of course is that property which factors when a material suffers a complete break, whereas stiffness is the measurement of resistance to deflection while returning back to it’s exact shape.
        A topic I would like to see addresses more often is how much shape impacts both properties, especially stiffness.. Diameter is significant as well. Double the diameter and one increases stiffness eight-fold, and larger diameter tubing is more impact resistant,
        One detail rarely advertised is heat-treating. Many good steels benefit from annealing and proper quenching but I suspect that customers would not appreciate the extra cost of this extra attention to detail.
        So asside from material choices, the exact choice of tubing, and the craftsmanship of the build has a major impact on bicycle handling characteristics. I’m glad that it is being discussed more nowadays, even if only in a few corners of the internet, and hopefully “steel done right” will in time be given it’s due.
        (My major in school was “process piping design” – and I guess I just love fine materials used to their sublime best 🙂 )

        May 24, 2017 at 10:46 am
  • larryatcycleitalia

    I’m with you 100%! Our small rental fleet in Italy has all-steel, aluminum with carbon fork and seatstays and now 100% carbon bikes so clients can choose what’s best for them. I’ve ridden all of them and when I have a choice I always go back to steel, especially my custom, made-to-measure Mondonico from Columbus NEMO tubing, which (surprise) just happens to match your ideal of .7 mm at the butts and .4 mm in the center. Best of luck with your steel tube venture!!!

    May 22, 2017 at 5:40 am
  • Gugie

    Ooooooh, a bottom bracket for wide tires! Can’t wait! And Kaisei tubing! I remember in the 80’s, some of the custom frame builders I knew in the SF Bay Area preferrered working with Ishiwata over Columbus, but all of the racers wanted Columbus because of the pedigree. Cleaner, rounder, better quality control was the typical remark.

    May 22, 2017 at 7:25 am
    • David Morgan

      I LOVE my Bridgestone Ishiwata tubed bikes. I have been told that the tires/psi should make 95% difference, but I have even switched wheelsets I can STILL FEEL the difference very profoundly between my 1990 “Ishi” RB-T and my 1994 “non- Ishi” tubed RB-T.

      May 22, 2017 at 4:43 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        For those who aren’t familiar with Kaisei history: Ishiwata was one of the two big tubing manufacturers in Japan. Tange was the other. Both went under when production bike manufacture went from Japan to Taiwan. Ishiwata’s employees bought the important machinery and started Kaisei, a smaller operation focused on high-end tubing. Tange lay dormant for a long time until the name was resurrected recently as a Taiwanese company, but with no apparent connection to the original Tange company beyond the name. So Ishiwata is a predecessor of Kaisei…

        May 22, 2017 at 4:55 pm
      • David Morgan

        Wow! thanks for the information regarding Ishiwata/Kaisei connection!

        May 22, 2017 at 5:31 pm
  • Nick J

    So much good news in one post! I can’t wait to try out your new bb shell, and access to more lightweight standard diameter tubing is always a good thing.

    May 22, 2017 at 7:58 am
  • Rustilicus

    A note about Keirin races riding steel bikes – it’s not optional but mandated.

    May 22, 2017 at 8:17 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I believe that there have been some aluminum Keirin bikes – when we visited Iribe in Nara, he showed us his huge heat treatment oven for aluminum frames. I’d have to check with my Japanese friends…
      Every part of the Keirin bikes must be NJS-approved. This is intended to prevent accidents due to bike failures. In theory, any frame tubing can be approved, but in practice, most of the approved tubesets are steel.

      May 22, 2017 at 8:49 am
  • Alan

    I have a 1970s Miyata Professionnel marked as being made out of 4140 steel— I wonder who might have made the tubing? It is a wonderful ride.

    May 22, 2017 at 8:29 am
    • Cameron Murphy

      I had a 1973 or 74 Miyata Professional, likely similar to yours. I believe the 4140 tubing was likely Tange, as they were the only ones using 4140 vs the more common 4130 Cr-Mo. (I can’t find the reference for that now, but I’m pretty sure I saw an early Tange decal that specced it as 4140 tubing. Either way, I don’t think there is any practical difference among the top end Japanese tubing.) Also, Miyata identified some of their tubing as being from Tange on some of their upper level bikes in the mid to late 70’s before they started producing their own tubing in the early 80s.
      (Photos of my Miyata P-1, and a catalog page here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/95628729@N08/1mtg71)

      May 22, 2017 at 11:38 am
  • Jeff

    Great post. The GCN video was interesting in that he described an ideal bike very different from your preferences, but was able to satify them with steel.
    I do feel that steel will disappear quite quickly as a high end bike material. Most young riders have never ridden a really good steel bike and never will because they can’t be found in shops. Older riders remember great steel bikes they rode when young.

    May 22, 2017 at 9:18 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      My impression is the opposite: Most of the Bicycle Quarterly readers I meet are young riders, who are excited about bikes that they can take beyond the end of the road. It seems that the average customer for a steel bike is getting younger, not older. Many of these riders don’t have much money, but their bike is their highest priority, so they save everywhere else to afford a great custom bike.

      May 22, 2017 at 9:35 am
      • Jeff

        I meet those people too. Hopefully there are enough of them to maintain a healthy market.

        May 22, 2017 at 11:40 am
    • Heather

      Not so, the young kids are into anything retro in the belief it is better built. They want that authentic looking italian steel bicycle. I see them touring on rough looking vintage road bikes, they ask us about our bicycles in awe. People my age remember high end steel bikes enough to want them again after riding aluminium etc in our teens, twenties, thirties. Also there is a built in environmental concern and wanting something to last for years. It’s the older riders on carbon fibre who believed marketing and new materials are the best and teasing me for my old ____steel bikes. Young riders on carbon fibre bikes are into racing specifically and often do not know options exist.

      May 22, 2017 at 10:35 am
  • Heather

    Glad to hear you still all love steel….still! For all talk of carbon fibre being lighter and better, a fully built carbon fibre bicycle is often around the same weight as a steel bike with lightest parts. I sometimes laugh, or try not to laugh when told how light somebody’s carbon bike is. So not much lighter for a shorter lifespan and unpleasant ride. The problem with the current production steel frames as you noted is that they are built with oversized tubing. Part of it is trend people are used to seeing oversized aluminium or carbon fibre, so the steel tubes are designed to carry a lot of weight. Also a perceived safety fear of lighter tubing even on small frames. The result can be just plain awful as was my experience. It’s almost as if the industry wants people to be disappointed with steel. If I were going custom I’d want the lightest traditional tubing possible. Luckily there are so many vintage steel frames to be rescued from obscurity and basements. I have several and 3 vintage frames by builders of high repute that had been custom designed and built for people my size. They are light, fast and nimble and wonderful and fun…. You can repaint, repair, add braze ons to make a bicycle more functional. I have a very fast vintage frame with absolutely no fender clearance or braze ons that will not tolerate anything: not even a handlebar bag or saddle bag. I tried putting a rando rack on with p clamps and it riled up like an angry horse. So, that bicycle does not get out much except in summer. Another italian made racer has a front rack and fenders rigged on and it handles loads beautifully. Whenever I have it repaired and repainted I will request braze ons for rack and fenders. A third custom bike was designed as a randonneur and has it all. It is so light and nimble!

    May 22, 2017 at 10:24 am
  • Craig Calfee

    Nice article but quite a few inaccuracies about carbon fiber in there. First one being that carbon must be made in expensive molds. You do qualify that with “most” carbon frames, but nearly all custom carbon builders either wrap without molds or use low cost lug molds. We even 3D print lug molds for a single frame if needed. Shaping carbon to suit wider tires is also not so difficult. Sure, it doesn’t rely on 5,000 years of metalworking development but with a little innovative thinking, it’s actually pretty easy. Generally, the skill level required to make a high performance steel frame is very high – welding or brazing thin wall alloy steel to prevent overheating takes a lot of skill and practice – and a fancy welder.
    Carbon fiber has a much longer fatigue life than any metal. Your characterization of carbon forks needing to be super stiff in order to be durable is totally false. The fashion in racing is for very light, yet stiff front ends for “precise” handling – and so we all suffer from overly stiff carbon forks with not enough rake. But a carbon fork can be made with lots of flex and whatever rake you want. And that fork will feel a lot smoother than a steel counterpart. And it will far outlast the steel fork on the fatigue testing machine as most carbon frames do. Unfortunately, that fork doesn’t exist yet.
    Lastly, the vibration damping of a not-too-stiff carbon or bamboo frame is something that steel can’t touch. This makes them much more enjoyable on longer rides.
    But we’ve got a few thousand years of tradition to overcome, and that will take more vigilance on keeping the facts straight!

    May 22, 2017 at 10:28 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Hi Craig,
      Thank you for weighing in. As a maker of carbon bikes, your experience is invaluable. I look forward to testing a Calfee with chainstays optimized for wide tires. The last one you sent us had 700C chainstays on a 650B bike, and the tire clearances were very tight because the indents in the stays didn’t line up with the tires. I recall you saying that you didn’t have 650B stays available then. I am glad you’ve now found a solution to that problem.
      The carbon fork comment came from a test in TOUR magazine of early carbon forks. They found that after 100,000 test cycles, most of their carbon forks had become a lot softer – indicating that the material was delaminating as it flexed. They suggested that future forks should become stiffer to eliminate that flex – and they did! You are right, though, that when designed correctly, carbon can flex a lot. I recently saw a Boeing 787 Dreamliner take off, and I was amazed how much the wings bowed upward compared to the older planes made from aluminum.
      As to the vibration damping, physics (and experience) tells us that most of that is in the tires. Once you have the unsprung masses of the wheels going up and down, even a “soft” carbon frame cannot absorb that effectively. I rode one of your frames in a very memorable adventure – a 600 km Super Randonnée, much of it on gravel, and with 11,000 m of climbing in the Cascades non-stop. Your bike performed great, but the vibration damping wasn’t noticeably different from the steel bikes I usually ride on these courses.
      I do love your carbon bikes. In fact, I was sorely tempted to buy the first one you sent us until I realized I didn’t really have any use for a racing bike with 700C x 32 mm tires. And when I wrote that some day, we’ll test a non-steel bike that can do everything our steel bikes can do, I was thinking of you specifically. I am still looking forward to that bike!

      May 22, 2017 at 11:58 am
      • Frank

        You mention the flex of airliner carbon wings. As a pilot I see the slender wings of gliders flex quite a bit more. The most extreme example is the 31 meter span eta. With a spar less than 14 centimeters tall, its wing flexes so far under high-g maneuvering that the aerodynamic load vector on the winglets actually points downwards, helping to lower the ultimate bending moment at the wing root. The wingtips deflect well beyond fifty degrees.

        May 22, 2017 at 3:15 pm
    • Owen

      I would respectfully question durability claims based on fatigue testing machines vs. real world riding. This was the same type of logic that us to believe skinnier tires were faster until Jan and BQ’s evidence-based research in real world riding proved otherwise. While I’ll certainly take what Grant Peterson says with a grain of salt, he is correct when he claims that–in real world riding conditions–when carbon fails , it fails suddenly and catastrophically. This is particularly true in the case of forks…remember George Hincapie in Roubaix? For anyone interested in a good visual to illustrate the point, there’s the Rivendell sword fight: https://vimeo.com/106021360

      May 22, 2017 at 5:08 pm
      • Nestor Czernysz

        I thought it was a anodized aluminum steerer that broke. How many forks did he break in that race?

        May 22, 2017 at 8:33 pm
      • lop

        George Hincapie suffered a failure of an aluminum steerer tube, and that video really shows us nothing useful or practical about carbon fiber.

        May 22, 2017 at 9:44 pm
    • Gugie

      Well, a few thousand years is a bit of an exaggeration, no? My quiver of early 70’s bikes, including a Peter Weigle’ized 1973 Raleigh Competition are holding on strong. When I find a 40-50 year old carbon fiber that’s still holding on strong, you’ve got me sold! I hope to still be riding then…

      May 22, 2017 at 7:07 pm
    • zigak

      Carbon also does not fail catastrophically, I have personally experienced broken bike frames, once a chain stay broke on my steel bike and at first I thought I had a rear flat. When I broke a chain stay on my carbon bike I finished the ride not knowing that there was something wrong with the bike. Only after a clean up I discovered the break.
      At the 5 min mark a bunch of them are smashing the carbon frame in to a concrete block and nothing happens.
      I think a lot of the disadvantages of carbon that are stated in this article are true, but at least 10 years outdated.

      May 23, 2017 at 12:43 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Please don’t misunderstand – I don’t claim that carbon frames tend catastrophically. But the fact is that carbon will crack where metal dents. For a performance bike that is ridden hard, but otherwise treated gently, that isn’t a problem. But for an adventure bike that may fall into a ravine, carbon is less ideal as a material. It’s not the main reason why I choose steel – simply the bikes I like aren’t available in carbon right now.

        May 23, 2017 at 7:30 am
      • Conrad

        I don’t know, I have personally seen a lot of shattered carbon frames and forks. Most of my steel bikes have dings from being crashed. I have had steel forks straightened after really bad crashes several times. All of my bikes are still rideable though. If they had been carbon bikes, they would be shattered or at least unsafe to ride. I am surprised at how few people race on steel bikes given that good ones are the performance equivalent of carbon fiber, and that carbon bikes (already expensive) have a pretty short life span, especially with hard use. I can justify spending a ton of money on a good steel bike if I expect it to last 20 years. Not so with a carbon bike that has a safe lifespan of 0 to 1 years in my hands.

        May 25, 2017 at 4:41 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I don’t think carbon fiber is as vulnerable as some believe. I’ve been riding our long-term tester, a carbon Specialized Diverge, on some pretty rough roads for 2 years now, without trouble. I am not rough with the bike, but neither overly careful.

          May 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm
      • Conrad

        The problem I have, though, is how do you know. Especially with carbon fork steerers. You don’t know there is a problem until it breaks and you are picking up your teeth from the road. If you crash the bike, is it still safe to ride? How about 2, 4, or 10 years of riding on rough roads? I’m not willing to risk it. Steel fork steerers don’t break, and the rest of the frame/fork will give ample warning before snapping.

        May 26, 2017 at 12:56 pm
  • Rick Thompson

    Jan – You have your bike dialed in to the nth degree. Could you publish a concise description of the design rules that would allow a constructeur to build similar fast, lively bikes for other riders? What geometry and tubing sizes, and how to fit to riders of different sizes? I know most of this is in various BQ articles, but a summary would be nice.

    May 22, 2017 at 10:34 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’ve been thinking about that. A summary of what makes a great bike would be good. There is a lot to it – it would be almost a book!

      May 22, 2017 at 12:43 pm
      • Rick Thompson

        Sooner would be appreciated, I have a place reserved with a local builder for a custom steel frame later this year!

        May 22, 2017 at 1:21 pm
    • Bigschill

      of course what works for Jan may not be right for others who are heavier or lighter and riding style/terrain. My preference at a fit 200 lbs is 9-6-9 std tubing. My fav bike built is built with Kaisei 8630 heat treated tubing, which is the only heat treated tubing produced in that gauge. Glad to here it will be imported into the US again.

      May 25, 2017 at 10:28 am
  • Han-Lin

    Since the strength to weight ratios of some frame materials are similar, more focus should be done on making bike accessories such as racks, baskets, and fenders lighter. At local bike stores, lightweight metal baskets are hard to find.
    How you thought of magnesium as a bicycle material? It’s two thirds the density of aluminum and strong.

    May 22, 2017 at 10:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree with you on the need to make accessories lighter and more performing. That is why Compass offers superlight fenders, superlight racks and has pushed the development of lightweight generator hubs together with Schmidt Maschinenbau (SON) in Germany.
      Magnesium is an interesting material. I believe that its fatigue life is short – old race cars with magnesium wheels are not considered safe to drive until the wheels are replaced!

      May 22, 2017 at 12:42 pm
      • Jeremy

        I think magnesium has come a long way from that. The steering column support / pedal box and steering wheel in my truck are magnesium, and it’s 16 years old.

        May 24, 2017 at 10:51 am
      • Han-Lin

        They might use be able to use magnesium if it has silicon carbide.
        Other accessories to focus on making lightweight might be tools, pumps, brake levers, shifters, brakes, and pedals.

        May 24, 2017 at 10:29 pm
  • Steve

    Magnesium bikes were tried in the 80s. http://www.classicrendezvous.com/British_isles/Kirk_Precision.htm
    I think they were pretty heavy – over 2kg for the frame I believe
    There is often one parked outside Paddington Station in London.

    May 22, 2017 at 2:49 pm
    • Frank

      Kirk frames had very low torsional rigidity due to the poor design rather than the material used.

      May 22, 2017 at 3:30 pm
      • Rob St.Clair

        Whilst working in a couple of bike shops that sold the magnesium Kirks at that time, I had plenty of opportunity to ride these frames. IMO, they were not just heavy and lacking in torsional rigidity, but the general ride quality was pretty abysmal! Very ‘dead’ and inert feel, unresponsive to pedal input and uncomfortable all at the same time. How much of that was due to the material and how much to the design of the frame is difficult to say. They became a bit of a joke and died out rather quickly….. Not mourned by many.

        May 23, 2017 at 3:31 am
  • Jason

    Jan, you have stated before thet the Mule was a protype. Did you mean that as a test vehicle for tubing spec and combinations, or in another sense?
    One of the innovations you have championed is the use of an oversized downtube as a consideration to compensate for a heavily loaded front end the Mule. Does that design idea carry into the bottom bracket prototype project? I am curious how your findings effected the design of an optimized bb shell.

    May 22, 2017 at 3:31 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think the Mule’s tubing selection, with an oversize down tube and standard-diameter top tube, holds a lot of promise for riders who prefer a more “planted” feel to the bike or who carry heavier loads. The first BB shell will be made for standard-diameter down tubes, though. In the future, we may add a shell for OS down tubes, but we prefer to do one project at a time.

      May 22, 2017 at 3:38 pm
      • G

        Would you suggest OS down (or other) tubes for heavy riders (250 pound rider)? Also, would you tend to suggest heavy riders don’t go for the ‘extralight’ tyres you sell, instead opting for the ‘regular’ version?

        May 23, 2017 at 12:08 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It’s hard to make hard-and-fast rules. I’d talk to your framebuilder about the tubing, but I suspect that for a 250-pound rider, oversize tubing would be preferred.
          As to the Extralight versus Standard Compass tires, it depends on the width. If you are running relatively narrow tires, the standard might be a better choice. But if you are running 42 mm or wider, you should be fine with Extralights.

          May 23, 2017 at 12:15 pm
  • David Morgan

    “That is why you may never have heard of Kaisei despite its excellent TRACK RECORD.” Clever!
    I have loved my Bridgestones: MB’s, XOs, RBTs, and RB-1s, THEN I got a Quickbeam-tall headtube and just lovely riding but fast commuter! Have you considered making a threadless steer tube, Quirky QB dropout, fenderable with up to 35s bike for us singlespeeders? I am a muscular 220lbs 6’2″ rider who wants to keep 700c tires as my standard (not dishing 26s or 650 a or bs at all-just simplify my home shop). If it would be too much of a niche, maybe a more typical 130 OLD frame with typical dropouts with a White Dos Eno combo-a moderate commuting gear and a low gear for when we (say ascend Mt. Mitchell) climb on weekends? And how would your version handle and perform contrasted to a Rivendell Roadeo?

    May 22, 2017 at 4:13 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Right now, we don’t have plans to make frames or bikes. We prefer to work with builders and supply them with everything they need to make great bikes!

      May 22, 2017 at 4:16 pm
      • David Morgan

        Thanks so much for the reply! Just please keep in mind some track ends and/or Rivendell Quickbeam track ends would be a nice option to offer. Its so sad that many commuters likely got turned off on SS commuting by riding true “track” bikes (50×13 or owise crazy high gearing (leading to yet another myth-‘SS/esp. fixed is bad on the knees’, 25mm tires max, fenders-hah!, and uh, you want to mount BRAKES?!?! I get a super workout-muscling up the hills then smoothly spinning downhill on my QB but it would be nice to really push the limit on performance and perhaps get an even BETTER ride out of something made with this tubing. Maybe when the volume picks up, post a link to builders who have used and assert their proficiency in working with this thin tubing? Thanks for your many wonderful innovations and offerings!

        May 22, 2017 at 5:04 pm
  • Restituto Rivera Refuerzo

    Are there any carbon road frames that would accomodate a triple big 46 or 44? Have been using this setup since the early ’90’s, first on a steel bike now on an aluminum frame.

    May 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm
    • David Morgan

      “accomodate a triple big 46 or 44a triple?” Do yo mean an outer RING of 46 or 44? If so, a 26, 36, 46 was a great combo for a truly “all terrain bike” with a 7 speed (12-28/13-30 and 14-32s were my fav combos-having good hi/low ranges but not cadence-killing gear jumps) cassette. Some frames have water bottle bolts preventing the front deraileur from moving down, from say, a 52 tooth ring down lower to a 46 tooth, plus the radius is different. Fortunately, there are cyclocross and gravel bikes/groupsets optimized for 30-36 x 44-46 gearing!!! Shimano’s “metrea” double in 32×46 tooth that works with Ultegra shifters looks like a SUPER combo if you like/tolerate the appearance. Either way, if you are running 9 or more gears in the rear, two rings up front are plenty for both range and smooth shifting. Any frame builder would ask, among many other things, your intended useage/drivetrain preference. If he/she doesn’t, don’t let them build you a frame!!!

      May 22, 2017 at 5:19 pm
      • 47hasbegun

        The issue Restituto is talking about is how a lot of carbon fiber frames aren’t designed to have a clamp-on front derailleur, and have a ‘braze-on’ front derailleur slot that’s too high for such a small big ring.

        May 22, 2017 at 5:25 pm
      • David Morgan

        whoa! missed the “carbon” when reading first time as this topic is about Jan offering Kaisei steel tubing, so, uh-I was kinda thinking the comment had something to do with Kaisei tubing, or AT LEAST STEEL framed bikes. I would not have responded had I realized this was a random, way off topic rambling. folks have taken the announcement of this SUPERB TUBING offering as an invitation to randomly wander or debate bike frame materials. This tubing is superb for those who want a high quality, durable bike frame. If super high quality steel is not your thing-hey-don’t waste time reading about the offering. Unsubscribing from this now.

        May 24, 2017 at 7:50 pm
  • Noel

    Thank you, Jan, for a wonderful post with very exciting news. As a “hobby” framebuilder I have been disappointed with Reynolds and Columbus tubing. Despite the reputation, I have found that manufacturing defects are common with those brands. I have depended upon True Temper, which has been very good, but they have given up on the bicycle tubing business. My limited experience with Kasei has been very positive and I look forward to your offerings.n
    As a side note, it amuses me that you apparently will focus on the lightweight tubesets. As a big fat guy, I was drawn to Kasei because as far as I can tell they are the only outfit offering standard diameter tubing with a 1.0 wall thickness!

    May 22, 2017 at 7:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Even for heavy riders, we feel that thinwall tubing – but in oversize diameters – offers the best ride and performance. Now for a loaded camping bike, the 1.0-0.7-1.0 tubing may make sense. Perhaps we’ll import it just for you!

      May 22, 2017 at 10:13 pm
      • peter

        At what weight would you recommend a rider to choose OS tubing?

        May 23, 2017 at 1:59 am
  • Rick Thompson

    For those of us sized outside most stock frame sizes, a custom build is the only way to get a well fitting bike. Comparing prices from local builders and well advertised bigger builders of various frame materials, steel from my local constructeur was by far the best deal. I get a custom fit frame, my desired 700c x 44 Snoqualmie Pass tires with fenders, braze-ons exactly where I like them, and the skill and advice of an experienced and well respected local business – all for similar price to off the shelf frames from some of the big names. I should have done this earlier….

    May 22, 2017 at 7:52 pm
  • Nestor Czernysz

    No reply button on the stainless steel being brittle bit, so I’ll put it here.
    The article you linked to has not satisfied my curiosity, and seems just to basic, for example, corrosion film theory is the most common because it’s the only one most people like me can understand, and quick search on stainless properties are not leading me to your conclusion? Just the reference to martensitic stainless being slightly more brittle. I’m missing out on common knowledge. Can you point me in the right direction?
    Thank you.

    May 22, 2017 at 9:02 pm
  • Xavier

    Do you have thoughts on Tour article from 97′ which paints quite a different picture.
    (DE: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/rinard/Ermuedungstest%20Tour%2010%2097.pdf EN: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/rinard/frame_fatigue_test.htm).

    May 23, 2017 at 2:09 am
    • marmotte27

      I think ‘Tour’ have pretty much disqualified themselves with their promotion of the stiffness craze in the nineties and noughties (note the mention of their infamous STW-Wert in the article…)

      May 23, 2017 at 11:32 am
  • Steve Pells

    That was interesting. But one thing you didn’t mention was-what is the Kasei tubing? Is it a flavour of CrMo, or MnMo like Reynolds 531, or what?
    Would these tubes be suitable for a frame with S&S couplings? Presumably this is dependent on the length of the butting, as the coupling would have to be put into the 0.7mm section of the tube?

    May 23, 2017 at 1:21 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Kaisei’s tubing is heat-treated CrMo. We discussed the various choices with them, but they feel that once you disregard all the marketing, it’s the best choice. They are a no-nonsense company, so adding a tiny spec of something to give it a new name doesn’t make sense to them. They just make the best tubing.
      With S&S couplers – you’d have to ask your builder. I prefer the Japanese Alps-style Rinko over couplers, because it allows using a standard frame where you don’t run into those issues.

      May 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm
  • Joe

    Advances in material sciences are happening incredibly fast. Investors are sinking 1.3 billion into an aluminum mill in Kentucky based on a startup incubated at MIT that will produce aluminum alloys for the aerospace and auto industries that are reported to be 10 % lighter than steel and 500% stronger. Can’ help but think this has the potential to make its way into the most advanced, lightest bike frame ever.

    May 23, 2017 at 4:49 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for sharing this interesting news. But I wonder… If the new wonder material is just 10% lighter than steel, then it cannot be aluminum: Alumumin weighs only about 1/3 of steel. We see these “huge advances” from time to time. I recall when Aermet steel was going to revolutionize bicycle frames. That stuff was used for the landing gear of fighter jets, after all. And then came Scandium after the Cold War ended and the secret leaked out of the USSR (see blow). And yet, we’re still riding frames made from old-fashioned, albeit heat-treated, CrMo steel, and we aren’t getting dropped on the hills!
      When I first studied materials, I was surprised how old the basic aluminum alloys really are. The high-strength 2000-series was invented in Germany in the 1910s, and the even stronger 7000-series in Japan in the 1930s. The Russians figured out that adding scandium to aluminum improved the grain structure in the 1950s (?).
      Since then, there haven’t been only minor advances. In recent decades, 6066 aluminum has pushed the boundaries of the medium-strength, but corrosion-resistant, 6000-series group. In a future post, I plan to explain the different aluminum alloys, and why we use them for particular applications in Compass components.
      Of course, there could be the next discovery just around the corner, but remember that a good steel bike frame weighs less than 2 kg, but the complete bike-and-rider system weighs close to 100 kg for most of us. Cutting the weight of the frame in half results in a weigh savings of only 1%. Even if you made a frame that weighs nothing at all, you’d have saved only 2%.

      May 23, 2017 at 7:34 pm
      • peter

        Given your last paragraph, why save weight at all? Compass is founded on the notion of “superlight” components, yet you seem to say that this weight savings is trivial in the grand scheme?

        May 24, 2017 at 2:53 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You make a good point! Compass was founded on the idea of superlight components without compromising function or durability. So if we can get a carbon frame that offers everything we can get in a steel frame, why not? My point was that we should keep things in perspective: A revolution in frame materials is unlikely, because the gains that remain possible are small.
          It’s a bit like “planing”, where we were hoping for a long time to find bikes that plane better than any we’ve ridden, until we realized that once you remove frame stiffness as a limiting factor in the rider’s performance, that is all you can do. That is why my Herse, Mark’s 6 Hands, the Firefly, and the Specialized Diverge all had exactly the same performance once the weights were equalized. They all allowed us to reach our maximum power output. To go faster up our test hill, we either have to remove weight or increase our power output through training.

          May 24, 2017 at 7:42 am
  • Phillip Cowan

    You offer a nice selection of components. Now high grade Kaisei tubing. Can complete frames be far behind? Hmmm……..

    May 24, 2017 at 1:38 pm
  • Rick Thompson

    I’m still not clear on “planing”, even after many BQ articles. I think you are saying frames that are too stiff, with no ability to absorb pedaling energy into elastic flex, will cause a rider’s muscles to tire faster and reduce the power put into pedaling. A bike that does plane will elastically absorb energy over part of the stroke, then release that energy into forward motion. This sounds like impedance matching, it should depend on specifics of the rider and the frame. A frame that is too flexible will also not match, and will be slower than a frame that is matched to the rider. Am I getting this right?

    May 24, 2017 at 2:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That is a pretty good description of what we _think_ is going on. Too stiff isn’t good, too flexible obviously won’t be good, either, and the flex has to be in the right places so it helps your pedaling rather than work against it.

      May 24, 2017 at 2:49 pm
      • fnardone

        The way I understand it is that the resonance frequency of the frame must match (within limits and parameters) the pedalling cadence.*
        So that, for example, a frame that planes at 90rpm would not be good at 70rpm.
        Right ?
        *) Probably resonance of the whole bicycle + rider system.

        May 25, 2017 at 2:44 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It appears that way. On different frames, my cadence has to change slightly until I “get in tune” with the frame.

          May 25, 2017 at 8:08 am
  • Olivier

    Everything I’ve ever read about carbon fiber indicates a longer fatigue life than steel. Was the TOUR fork full carbon? Did they test a similarly stiff steel fork? Tu
    Fatigue life decreases exponentially as you linearly increase the stress; flexible steel forks fare quite poorly in modern fatigue tests which are designed for stiff forks.
    Most small carbon builders use tube to tube construction for the main triangle. Forks and rear triangles are typically moulded.
    There are many alloys and heat treatments of stainless steels. Those used in bicycle construction are not too brittle.

    May 28, 2017 at 7:04 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The theoretical fatigue life unfortunately doesn’t mean much. The notch sensitivity of carbon is much higher. Just google “carbon fork recall”… Steel fork failures, especially of properly built forks from a high-end builder, are extremely rare. When steel forks fail, it’s almost always caused by poor workmanship or other preventable problems.
      And then you have issues like fender mounts unbonding from the fork crown, which has happened to two members of the BQ team now – first me (Civia) and now Hahn (Specialized). Having your fender drop onto your front tire and rotating with the wheel is not a pleasant experience… I am sure all those things can be solved, but until they are solved, I prefer steel frames for true “real-world” bicycles.

      May 28, 2017 at 6:28 pm
  • C.Williams

    To throw some more spice in the pot: What about wooden bikes? It would be interesing for you to subject one to your usual testing rigours, JH. The lasest issue of Epoxyworks (a kind of infomercial published by Gougeon Bros. Inc.) features a stunning bike by Aaron Holmes out of black walnut. The Compass tires (and possibly bars) Greneval shifter and Rivet saddle caught my eye too. Well written build article. Apparently he rides his collection of conventional bicycles “thousands of miles each year on all types of terrain”, so the guy’s not just a bored cabinet maker. I have heard about wooden bikes previously, but really don’t know if they are any good.

    May 28, 2017 at 11:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am intrigued by wooden bikes. I once rode a Japanese Sannomatic (sp?) bike, made by a yacht maker from mahogany, for a few meters, and it felt nice. We’d need to do a longer test to find out whether it does anything that steel doesn’t do…

      May 29, 2017 at 6:24 am

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