I ride a steel road bike, and I love it. I love the mix of classic looks and modern components on it. I love the way the bike feels on the road. To me, there is no doubt that steel is real. I’m not a purist or a traditionalist or even a snob about my bikes. Yet like every other rider, I have opinions. My steel Wilier is much different than my carbon fiber Orbea or my aluminum Cannondale. My other bikes are every bit as real as my Wilier. A rational argument can be made that how a bike feels has more to do with things like frame angles or tire pressure than any mystical property of the frame material.
That argument is valid. Steel has many great qualities, but it is generally a heavier material than carbon and aluminum. In cycling, weight matters. Lighter is better as a rule, and if you’re a racer, or an engineer, or even most club riders, steel isn’t likely to be your first choice. At this point, the racer’s choice is Carbon Fiber. Carbon is the “go-to” material for bikes, so much so that often riders overlook the strengths of other materials.
Yet, steel IS real. It is undeniable. the material is the classic definition of “elastic” in that it will return to it’s shape readily if it flexes – and it is very good at soaking up vibration from the road. It can be custom built to anyone; a builder can mix different grades of steel tubes to create a masterpiece of fit and function that any rider can appreciate at any speed. My fit metrics are fairly generic, but I appreciate the feel of that steel bike. My bike is made of Columbus SL tubing using lugged construction, hand crafted by a master frame builder in Italy. It is a classic bicycle with modern drive components. The joy of riding it and the joy of looking at it are pleasures that never fade. What makes it so perfect for me is that my riding is for the soul, not the stopwatch. It delights a part of me that cold and analytical engineering cannot see.
Aluminum frames have a reputation for being a harsh ride. That might have been true when they were introduced, but no longer. Riding my CAAD 12 has been a revelation. That bike is far from harsh, and at this writing Cannondale has updated to the CAAD 13, which takes Aluminum frame building to another level, if the marketing is to be believed. My CAAD 12 is a smooth and accurate and connected ride. If the CAAD 13 is improved, the result must be outstanding, and they would certainly end any suggestion that Aluminum bikes are harsh riding!
Carbon frames are anything an engineer can dream of. There is an almost infinite variety of carbon frames with different layups providing different “feel” on the roads, and any rider can be forgiven for thinking that riding a bike made of this miraculous material is the very best they can do. At the high end, just about any carbon bike is a well designed blend of form and function that has been tuned to do specific things very well, such as time trials or climbing mountains. I can’t fault anyone for wanting that.
I started riding a road bike seriously in 2005 when I joined my local bike club and used the bike as therapy as I worked through some problems and made some changes. In those years I’ve had many bikes. I started with an Aluminum Felt – it was light to me, and it expanded my cycling horizons. Then a Carbon Orbea Onix – a bike that was quick and responsive – the frame angles made it almost too twitchy, and yet it taught me things about bike handling that I still use. I went back to Aluminum with my CAAD 12 – a bike that easily outperformed the carbon options I had that were usually more expensive and were often just as heavy, and the CAAD 12 had a precision and ride that I have to rave about. It is an exceptional bike. Then I got my passion project, the steel Wilier, and it was both a nod to the steel racers of my childhood years and classic good looks while giving me a beautiful ride that no other bike has equalled. It is a bike to love. It is “real” in every way that matters.
For me, “Steel is real”. That doesn’t mean that other materials aren’t, and many other kinds are best for other riders. I’ve fallen for the look and the feel and the tradition of it. “Real” for me may not be real to you, but once you’re turning the cranks, “Real” is the cycling experience, regardless of the frame you’re on.