Why I love steel
In the beginning there was steel, and only steel. And the steel was good, steel was strong, cheap and easy to work with.
Then came the others: aluminium, titanium, carbon, magnesium, metal matrix composites, trying to make a lighter, better bike.
And aluminium won, the end.
Well not quite. If you look a the hi
story and trends of mountain bike building of the last couple of decades, you would see at the start almost all frames were made from steel alloy – a large variety of steels in fact, with new technologies pushing what could be done with good old steel. As well as the different blends, heat treating, air hardening and butting techniques all pushed the boundaries until the limits were reached and new materials were sought in the pursuit of ever lighter frames.
Titanium and carbon tended to produce lighter frames than aluminium to start with, but aluminium was cheap and cheaper to work with. As techniques learned from steel became applied to aluminium, the material became much more popular and trickled down through the price points, until it replaced steel as the main frame material. Now it is hard to find a steel framed mountain bike, but I think that’s a really shame, as steel has truly great characteristics.
It’s a little hard to describe, but steel framed bikes are “springy”. They have a liveliness and response that feeds more back to you the more effort you put in. Aluminium by comparison is very neutral and “dead” feeling. Although it naturally absorbs some high frequency trail buzz and has incredible stiffness, it is rather lifeless as a material.
The frame geometry is still vital – you can have a great handling aluminium bike; it will just feel a bit inert compared to a high end steel bike with the same geometry.
I have a Kona Explosif from 1999, which is made of Reynolds 853 tubing. Although aluminium had become prevalent by that point, Kona still made their top of the range bike from quality steel with spectacular results. As you dig into the pedals you can feel the acceleration, with the bike urging you faster.
Roll forward to today, and we are starting to see a small resurgence of steel. Genesis and Pipedream cycles to name two manufacturers that recognise the special qualities of steel and have some great bikes. The Pipedream Scion is the closest bike I’ve seen to my beloved Kona, but with updated geometry capable of taking a longer travel fork. My Kona excels at singletrack, and I’d love to try the Scion, as I think it would be even better. The responsiveness of steel is really well suited to singletrack, and with the right geometry makes a spectacular bike for it.
So if you haven’t tried a steel bike and get the chance, give one a go – you might be surprised.