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  1. #1
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    What Ever Happened To Steel?

    I'm quite a mature cyclist. I watched Klein and Cannondale introduce aluminum framed bikes to world cyclists, many years ago. At first, I was enthusiastic about the introduction of a new light weight material used for bikes. However, back in the 80's, I soon began to hear of frequent development of frame cracks. I also heard that aluminum frames could not be repaired as easily as steel frames. Next, I began to hear about aluminum giving cyclists, rough rides.

    However, each year, either Klein or Cannondale were announcing new advances in aluminum bike frame technology. Each year seemed to offer a better aluminum frame, with more properties that would rival that of steel.

    Finally, Cannondale introduced their CAAD series of bikes. They began to sell their CAAD framed bikes like hotcakes! Cannondale had a banner year in 1996. They even developed a Cult of CAAD fans, soon afterwards!

    The next thing you know, most of the other bike manufacturers began to introduce their own aluminum version of various bikes. Suddenly, it appeared as though aluminum was supplanting steel in bike frames. Next, carbon began to command a sizeable place in percent bike sales.

    So why did these changes take place within the bicycle industry? Did these bicycle industrialists intend to offer the world cyclist a better ride or product? I think not!

    IMHO, the bicycle industry has played a hoax upon the world cyclist. Aluminum requires less energy to reproduce during the recycling process. While Aluminum requires more energy to produce from its ore (bauxite) than that of steel, the production of steel requires more labor intensive steps in its recycling process and is more cost prohibitive than aluminum, overall. Steel weighs more than aluminum and costs more to transport.

    The most logical and versatile material in bicycle frames for the world cyclist has always been steel. Unless you're racing and weight is of essence, a steel frame and fork will give you a much better ride and feel of the road, than aluminum. Steel will also outlast aluminum in terms of the longevity of operational service. It therefore, becomes more of an investment than a disposable cycling machine.

    While carbon has much promise, it still remains a quirky material. Most certainly, carbon should be completely overlooked when it comes to DH MTN biking or DJ MTN biking. Wherever rocks and carbon meet, a potential threat to the integrity of the carbon material remains an immanent possibility. The problem lies in the subtlety of frame damage with carbon. It's often times, impossible to actually detect frame damage with carbon.

    Your last jump, just may be your second to your very last jump!

    In this regard, even aluminum would be a better choice than carbon.

    Therefore, if you're not racing, steel should remain the all 'round favored material for bikes. This has been proved scientifcally using stress tests and historically when assessing junk yards. Many more aluminum bikes are currently the reincarnations of their forefathers, thanks to the advent of recycling.

    Whatever happened to steel?

    PS.

    This is not to say that aluminum doesn't deserve a place in the bicycle market for cyclists. All that I ask, is for the bicycle industry to admit the truth about aluminum and sell it's aluminum framed bicycles at a much reduced price and pass some of their savings in production (profits), to the cyclist consumer. This goes exponentially for all carbon frames!
    Last edited by MoabiSlim; 05-02-2011 at 07:05 PM.
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  2. #2
    CS2
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    Many years ago there was great post or article on that very subject. Seems the Chinese set out to dominate the manufacture of aluminum frame bikes. They succeeded wonderfully. The price to manufacture was so low nobody could compete. Now, they're doing the same thing for CF.

  3. #3
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    I guess I could be considered a "mature" cyclist as well. I'm also an enginer so I always find these discussions extremely interesting.

    For me, my preferred non-suspension frame material of choice is still steel. I commute on an 853 Jamis Coda Elite and I still love the feeling of a steel frame.

    I also remember the Al movement and jumping on an Al Cannondale roadie in my size (52-54cm) and saying....."no friggin way". I rode the bike about 2 miles and it was so stiff, it made a manhole cover feel like riding a jackhammer. Perhaps it is was just the size of frame I ride, but I am still massively put off by Al bikes in my size to this day. I rode plenty of Al frames at the shops I worked at and couldn't imagine clipping into a GT Zaskar or something similar from that time.

    But for a full suspension bike, I still think that Al is the best choice of frame material. It's stiff, it's light, it's relatively easy to manipulate. Granted, it doesn't have the fatiuge life of steel, but if you work with the material right and design in a manner that you don't have stress risers, it doesn't need to be as long lasting. Unfortunately, the process of smelting aluminum is very energy demanding, something like 3 times the energy is required vs. steel.

    Carbon.....remember the early Trek OCLV bikes? They were the the best bike you would ever own for a season. I can still remember that distinct hollow sound of riding with somebody with a Y bike. However 2 bikes from this time stand out in my mind......Trek 8700 (three tube carbon, Al lugs and rear triangle) and the Mongoose that was a steel frame wrapped in carbon. I always wanted an 8700, there was something about that bike that really intriuged me.

    I recently bought a Specialized Roubaix Carbon roadie. I remember that "dead" feeling from the early carbon bikes. This bike does not have that deadness. I really like it, it feels right, lively. I racked up 82K this past Saturday, training for Vätternrundan and Cykelvasan (with a group of "full kit" roadies, I'm wearing baggie shorts, mtb shoes, visor helmet, etc). The material still scares me a bit. I worry when I hear a small rock hit the down tube, I won't sit on the top tube, I still have the idea that it is extremely fragile.......but I'm getting better. I never thought I would buy one, or be able to afford one.

    I don't think anything has happened to steel. It's still a perfect frame material, in the right application. I guess it's up to the market, people like us who still dig the steel feel. I'll make sure to keep one in my stable at all times.

  4. #4
    addicted to chunk
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    Steel is heavy and it can rust. A long as there are companies like trek that offer lifetime warranties on aluminum frames, I'm not too worried about it. Change is good.
    I do have a steel fork on one bike though if it makes you feel better
    Riding.....

  5. #5
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    [B]But for a full suspension bike, I still think that Al is the best choice of frame material. It's stiff, it's light, it's relatively easy to manipulate. Granted, it doesn't have the fatiuge life of steel, but if you work with the material right and design in a manner that you don't have stress risers, it doesn't need to be as long lasting. Unfortunately, the process of smelting aluminum is very energy demanding, something like 3 times the energy is required vs. steel.[/B]

    Hey there friend,

    Now I was in complete agreement with everything you were stating until we got to this particular paragraph. I kept imagining a XC MTN bike or DH MTN bike with full suspension and an aluminum frame. That constant jarring, the occasional rock impact, and the log encounters my friend, are just begging for the durability of steel. Aluminum material just can't take being repeatedly stressed like that of steel. Now insofar as racing is concerned, it's great!

    Secondly, though aluminum requires more energy to extract from bauxite, it requires less energy to produce the end product from recycled material. Steel on the other hand, requires less energy to extract from its parent ore, but requires more energy to produce the end product from recycled steel.

    Trust me, if it's cheaper to produce steel bikes than aluminum bkies. The bicycle industry would still be into producing large quantities of steel bikes. Somehow it's more economically advantagious for them to produce aluminum bikes.
    Last edited by MoabiSlim; 05-02-2011 at 10:42 AM.
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  6. #6
    i call it a kaiser blade
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    i have a steel road bike and a steel hardtail. nothing beats the ride or durability.

    at some point bike manufacturers convinced people that aluminum is better and you can only get steelies from manufacturers like surly, cove, or salsa.

    on a somewhat related note, truck and car rims made out of steel are also out of fashion for crappy Al wheels, but anyone who has gone off road knows the benefit of steel wheels.
    how durable a bike or component is usually has a lot to do with how heavy and ugly it is.

  7. #7
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    Tange Prestige steel

    I fondly remember my lugged Bridgestone MB 1 ... 1991?

    The frame really absorbed vibrations.




    (this isn't my bike, but I had this very frame)
    Last edited by client_9; 05-16-2011 at 07:53 PM.

  8. #8
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    I bought my first new mtb when I was 19 back in '89. I didn't know anything about road bikes, or frame material, or history. I chose a Cannondale, because I thought light was cool, and the fat tubes just looked like mtb tubes. Perhaps a lot of the general population was like me and this was part of the success of Al at the time.

    I've used aluminum frames the next 20 years. Let me tell you, it bothers me when people look at fatigue tests of raw material and extrapolate that to say aluminum frames won't last long. I've beaten the hell out of aluminum frames in the northeast and ridden them plenty of years with sizeable dents in the down tube, top tube, seat stay... chain stay gashed from dropped chains, etc. Never a problem with that. My first Cannondale frame from '89 developed the typical crack under the head, and Cannondale was great about replacing it. The crack wasn't a fault of the material, but that it was a new material for the industry and a learning process. Keep in mind it was the days before any suspension, and we had to pump our tires to 50psi to keep from getting pinch flats. I believe frames back then had a harder life on average than they do now. Even rigid bikes nowadays usually have tubeless tires, and/or are 29ers, which both can help smooth rocky descents.

    I'd have to agree that aluminum is the best for full suspension bikes. Light, cheap, and a rigid base to tune your suspension. And long lasting. My '01 FSR in my avatar is also beat to hell after years of all-mountain riding and some downhill racing, but never developed a crack. For full suspension bikes, I think CF is only better for further weight reduction if you can afford the risk of damaging it one day in a bad fall or mistake.

    Now, the past 8 years I've had an '89 Eddie Merckx steel road bike that I really do like the feel of. But it's a shame that I have to constantly dab some 'rust-eater' on paint chips. Also, the paint looks like crap because of all the paint touch-ups I've had to do stop rust from spreading or deepening through the tube. I'd think a mtb steel frame must really be bad in this way, no? (The Merckx is 753, so maybe that's a rust magnet... I don't know.) I'm genuinely curious, because I'd like to go back to a hardtail, and like the ride of steel, but am nervous about it rusting out after my front wheel throws a bunch of rocks at the downtube. I priced a repaint of my road bike last winter, and was surprised how expensive a nice paint job and new decals could run. (I heard a more affordable powder-coat doesn't look good around the lugs because it's too thick a coat.) For the price of a good repaint, I could pay half of a CF frame and fork and get as good a ride with a lot less weight.
    Have fun!

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wheelspeed
    I bought my first new mtb when I was 19 back in '89. I didn't know anything about road bikes, or frame material, or history. I chose a Cannondale, because I thought light was cool, and the fat tubes just looked like mtb tubes. Perhaps a lot of the general population was like me and this was part of the success of Al at the time.

    I've used aluminum frames the next 20 years. Let me tell you, it bothers me when people look at fatigue tests of raw material and extrapolate that to say aluminum frames won't last long. I've beaten the hell out of aluminum frames in the northeast and ridden them plenty of years with sizeable dents in the down tube, top tube, seat stay... chain stay gashed from dropped chains, etc. Never a problem with that. My first Cannondale frame from '89 developed the typical crack under the head, and Cannondale was great about replacing it. The crack wasn't a fault of the material, but that it was a new material for the industry and a learning process. Keep in mind it was the days before any suspension, and we had to pump our tires to 50psi to keep from getting pinch flats. I believe frames back then had a harder life on average than they do now. Even rigid bikes nowadays usually have tubeless tires, and/or are 29ers, which both can help smooth rocky descents.

    I'd have to agree that aluminum is the best for full suspension bikes. Light, cheap, and a rigid base to tune your suspension. And long lasting. My '01 FSR in my avatar is also beat to hell after years of all-mountain riding and some downhill racing, but never developed a crack. For full suspension bikes, I think CF is only better for further weight reduction if you can afford the risk of damaging it one day in a bad fall or mistake.

    Now, the past 8 years I've had an '89 Eddie Merckx steel road bike that I really do like the feel of. But it's a shame that I have to constantly dab some 'rust-eater' on paint chips. Also, the paint looks like crap because of all the paint touch-ups I've had to do stop rust from spreading or deepening through the tube. I'd think a mtb steel frame must really be bad in this way, no? (The Merckx is 753, so maybe that's a rust magnet... I don't know.) I'm genuinely curious, because I'd like to go back to a hardtail, and like the ride of steel, but am nervous about it rusting out after my front wheel throws a bunch of rocks at the downtube. I priced a repaint of my road bike last winter, and was surprised how expensive a nice paint job and new decals could run. (I heard a more affordable powder-coat doesn't look good around the lugs because it's too thick a coat.) For the price of a good repaint, I could pay half of a CF frame and fork and get as good a ride with a lot less weight.

    Hey there WheelSpeed,

    I really enjoyed reading about the flipside of things here in your reponse!

    Thanks!
    God gave birds, wings to fly .... He gave us, Jamis!

  10. #10
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    Every material can be manipulated to give a specific ride quality. I have frames made of many materials, three are aluminum, one scandium, one steel, and two carbon. All ride differently depending upon the intended application. The jump, freeride and downhill bikes are aluminum, super stiff, heavy and bulletproof. The xc full suspension is scandium, the hardtail carbon, both relatively light and very comfortable. The rigid ss is steel, it is stiff but just compliant enough to not rattle the fillings in your head, but with rocks and roots you're going to get a bumpy ride no matter what. The roadie is carbon, coming from the mtb side the whispy frame is relatively stiff compared to its feathery weight (road wheels are the weak link), but has a silky smooth ride for those long, long countryside rides. A magazine did a blind test a couple of years ago to see if testers could determine which bars were aluminum and which were carbon by ride quality alone. The surprise results were the common assumptions were sometimes wrong, some of the aluminum bars rode more comfortably than the carbon ones.

  11. #11
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    I've owned and/or used mountain and road bikes in all three flavors. Frankly, the ride quality didn't make nearly as much of an impression on me as the weight did.

    The most dramatically interesting ride quality I experienced from a frame material was from a Kestrel 200SCi I used to own (not the fancy SL model with the high-modulus carbon, but the garden-variety model). That bike wasn't the lightest, stiffest, or fanciest one I ever owned by a long shot, and the color was a tragic shade of yellow-orange, but it rode like a Lexus - incredibly smooth and velvety everywhere. Superb blend of sport and comfort.

    As far as carbon durability is concerned, if I'm smashing my bike against rocks hard enough to threaten the integrity of the frame, the price of the frame is going to be peanuts compared to my share of the medical bills, thank you very much.

  12. #12
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    Whatever happened to steel? Nothing, it's still around and two of my three bikes are made of it.

    Different materials have different strengths and weaknesses. Steel isn't going anywhere. I have had aluminum bikes (and do currently), and I see the benefits of carbon fiber but I just can't bring myself to own one, something I just don't like about carbon.

    I would love me a titanium Moots frame though! And then there's other materials too. The more the merrier I say

  13. #13
    the catalan connection
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    Most of the Alum success over steel was due to the larger tubes of Alum frames allowing larger stickers being displayed. For silly it sounds, it makes much more sense than I thought at first.We all know that most of MTB world buys bikes becouse of looks, weight and price. Steel looks skinny, it´s heavier, and doesn´t cost any cheaper, who cares that it rides alot better than AL once at the shop floor??how many test ride a bike before buying, seriusly. For a FS, sure Al is the best, I agree with the posted somewhere above.
    Myself I´m in search of a nice steel hardtail frame right now. I already have a RM Blizzard (853), and had a Kona Explosif (True temper) before, and a Specialized rockhopper with Ni-Ti tubing by Ritchey before that, so....what´s next?
    "Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordly evidence of the fact." George Elliot

  14. #14
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    I don't know...at the time I bought my first REAL mountain bike 10 years ago, chromoly was the lowend, aluminum and chromoly was mid level and then titanium and carbon.

    Like today a titanium bike seems so nice to me. However, I gave up on my search for steel...there was a few bikes I rode that were nice, but I liked Specialized today (when I bought my Marin 10 years ago I actually hated the way the Specialized bikes rode).

    I kept thinking "aluminum = bad"...but I kept test riding (yeah just parking lot type stuff, but the same way I fell in love with my Marin back in the day).

    Now I will say there are still really bad aluminum bikes out there (and steel)...but the industry has improved.

    I'd still love to be able to afford a full titanium bike, I even debated bikesdirect...but without a test drive I just can't do it.

    I picked up a 2010 Rockhopper SL Pro new tonight after missing my chance 2 years ago and regreting it recently over the last several months.

    If it proves to be a terrible choice I will be sure to complain here

  15. #15
    Bicyclochondriac.
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    No need to "imagine"

    kept imagining a XC MTN bike or DH MTN bike with full suspension and an aluminum frame. That constant jarring, the occasional rock impact, and the log encounters my friend, are just begging for the durability of steel. Aluminum material just can't take being repeatedly stressed like that of steel.
    You don't have to "imagine" anything. A decade or so of aluminum FS bikes have shown that they work out very well. Yours would be a fine, legit concern 15 years ago, perhaps, but the proof is in the pudding on that one.

    Also, CF has shown itself to be very durable for use in MTB frames. You are repeating concerns that I think have been pretty well debunked.

    For HT's and road frames, yeah, steel is real. They are making a bit of a comeback these last few years.

    As far as CF for road bikes, I am not crazy about the aesthetics, but I just retired a CF Trek frame from 1996. Still in fine shape after 15 years of use.
    15mm is a second-best solution to a problem that was already solved.

  16. #16
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    In a world without suspension, cf > steel > alu.

    In a world with suspension, alu/cf > steel.

    Any steel fans need to ride a modern CF road bike, like a Scott CF1. You will never want to even look at a steel bike again.

    The only advantage that steel retains is that you can build a steel bike at home with minimal tools and an oxy-acetelene setup.

  17. #17
    CS2
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    Quote Originally Posted by TigWorld
    Any steel fans need to ride a modern CF road bike, like a Scott CF1. You will never want to even look at a steel bike again.
    I have and the only difference is weight. Ride quality wasn't better at all. But then again that's subjective.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by TigWorld
    Any steel fans need to ride a modern CF road bike, like a Scott CF1. You will never want to even look at a steel bike again.
    I had a Trek 5.5 OCLV, with full Dura-Ace. I didn't think it was anything that special compared to my 87 Bianchi steel. Was lighter for sure. Ride was about the same. My only road bike right now is steel. No complaints.

    Regarding aluminum---I started biking when aluminum frames were very popular. I have nothing bad to say about aluminum, because I have never had problems with it. I still have a 99 Spec. Stumpjumper that sees regular trail time and still light and stiff as the day I bought it. My other 4 bikes are steel, but I have a feeling my next frame will be CF (or Ti).

  19. #19
    No talent hack
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    My first bike was a Chromo Trek 930 around 1994... loved that bike, it got me started into biking "for real." I moved from the 930 to a Klein Pulse Comp a couple of years later... that was like moving from a Chevy Malibu to a Camaro... both got the job done, but the Klein was SHARP and handled that way. After my Klein, I decided I needed a little help with my back hurting me (the Klein was so stiff, it beat the hell out of me every ride), so I sold the Klein to a friend in 2001 and bought my Trek STP200. I am not a small guy (I think the term around here is "super clyde") and the STP is the only non-rigid frame that handles my weight well. I credit the additional "spring" the carbon chain stays give to the RS SID rear shock... I get to run the shock at an acceptable level instead of crazy high pressure that doesn't work well.

    That all being said, I have started thinking about adding a new bike to my selection... I have been interested in the Niner MCR because of the steel... I want to see if all the hype about steel smoothing out vibrations is as good as it sounds because I would happily pick up a steel 29er hard-tail since I am not a friend to any FS bike I have found.
    Fat guys need bikes too.

  20. #20
    No talent hack
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    As a side note, I remember drooling over both the Y33 (the yellow year especially) as well as the 8700 which came in a red color (darkish red).... I always loved the idea of OCLV and still do having owned one I would love to have a 9.7 or a Superlight, but I think my weight would be bad for them
    Fat guys need bikes too.

  21. #21
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    If you like steele, pick up a Trek 820. $370 takes it home, and its a very comfortable ride.

  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by MoabiSlim
    Most certainly, carbon should be completely overlooked when it comes to DH MTN biking...
    better advise santa cruz & gt of the error of their ways.

    carbon is the future of dh frames, imo - well designed, it has the potential to have better strength & longevity than alu, w/ lighter weight to boot.

    that said, i'm a fan of steel as well. would love to see some ferrous (duallie) trailbikes & dh rigs on the market.

  23. #23
    "Ride Lots" Eddy Merckx
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    Quote Originally Posted by CS2
    I have and the only difference is weight. Ride quality wasn't better at all. But then again that's subjective.

    Agreed...had a Cervelo and sold the frame, bought custom steel, pocketed some $$ in the process, and I'm much happier.

    to each his own
    "Big Gulps huh?...Allllriggghhht....Welp, See ya later!"

  24. #24
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    I've tended to choose steel frames with the non-FS bikes I have. Aside from an aluminium Stumpy -used for commuting duties, the hardtail bikes I have are steelies. I just love the ride of steel - 853, True Temper, Columbus. They all provide a nice smooth ride.

    My recent purchase was, surprise! a steel Ala Carte. A carbon On One was a distant second choice. I guess I just love a good steel bike.
    Amolan

  25. #25
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    Steel still going strong for me....even FS 29er strong!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails What Ever Happened To Steel?-bikes-069.jpg  


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