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Blog

WHY STEEL?

Thomas Callahan

For the love of steel...

Steel is amazing! That’s the number one reason the best builders from around the country choose to use it. Once thought to be a heavy material, with the new alloys used on high-end bike frames, today weight can be drastically reduced with steel. Our own Horse All Road comes in at 18 lbs. Sure I’ve upgraded a few parts, but remember, the frame comes in at about 3.75 lbs., so it's just a fraction of the overall weight. Steel is the most durable building material on the market, more so than carbon, titanium and let’s not even mention aluminum. Steel maintains its mechanical properties over time, unlike the materials listed above, which start to degrade as soon as they are put to use due to fatigue. This means that a steel frame will ride as well in 10, 20 or 30 years as it did the first day you rode it.

MAGIC METAL

The great thing about steel is that it’s a magic metal. It has three magical qualities that make it the perfect material for building bicycles. First, steel is stiff. This means better power transfer and less flex. And bikes can be made with varying sized and type tubing to put that stiffness in the right areas. The stiffer the drive train the better the power transfer. More watts go from your peddle stroke to the rear wheel and to the road.

Secondly, steel absorbs road vibration. This means a smoother ride, you can stay on the bike longer, riding further. Which equals a happy rider.

These two factors working together give you the best possible outcome: great power transfer and great road vibration dampening. The power is there when you need it but the steel is comfortable to ride from two miles to 200 miles.

The last quality of steel—and a melding of the two characteristics above—is responsiveness. New steel alloys are stiff and will maintain that stiffness over its life span (i.e. forever). But they also flex just enough so that it’s a joy to ride. This flex is like a power spring. When you put force downward on a spring that energy is stored in the coil of the spring and then released as it rebounds. Steel bicycles react in the same way but at a much smaller scale. The geometry of a steel spring and a bike are different but both are engineered to get the most out of the material. I would say this is most evident in the handling of the bike as well as rider input.  When you corner on a steel bike the frame absorbs the increased force placed on the frame from the g-force of the corner and rebounds as you come out of the corner. In the same way when you're climbing on the bike and out of the saddle, each stroke blasts power to the rear wheel but also has a slight spring back making the bike feel alive.

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It’s the life of the bike that shines with steel and is the reason riders keep coming back for more.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER MATERIALS.

The other three materials used in mainstream bicycle manufacturing are carbon, titanium and aluminum. 

Carbon is great stuff, it can be utilized to deliver different characteristics in different areas of the bike. It's much like steel in that you can cater to rider weight, ride quality and stiffness using different sizes of tubes and tube wall thickness. It also offers slightly better road vibration dampening.

What does carbon have on steel?  I would say weight. You can drop about a pound or two off the total weight of the bike by going with a carbon a bicycle. For many of the bikes we build at Horse Cycles we use carbon forks. This allows us to utilize the positive qualities of carbon in a key area giving us a bit more weight savings and a bit more road dampening. The great thing about a carbon fork is that it's replaceable. After its life span (about 10 years) it can be replaced. But for most riders the cost outweighs the benefits when considering a full carbon frame. Carbon is fragile, expensive and hard to repair. Carbon also loses its mechanical properties over time. Eeek! For most of us an $8,000 bike is out of the question. I still think carbon is a great material but it's best utilized for racing and for riders who get a new bike every other year and for fork material paired up with steel. A bike for life? I think maybe not.

The same goes for aluminum. It's great for racing but aluminum starts losing its mechanical properties right away. It’s a super stiff material which is great for short races but it's so stiff it doesn’t absorb the road or give you the springy responsive qualities of steel.  The stiffness of this material makes it very difficult to ride on for long journeys. The material is way more fragile than steel and I would say is bone-jarring uncomfortable. Best for Crits and Short Race duration bicycles.

Titanium is a material I know least about but h I do have some experience with it. My comments could be off but I guess I can just put in my two cents as a representation of one builder's experience and by no means an expert opinion. 

Unlike aluminum, titanium has a lot of more flex than steel. In my experience low-end titanium bikes are so flexy they feel like a wet noodle. The power transfer isn’t great so for overall responsiveness it’s a little lacking. This is what makes it great for mountain biking where you have a super light bike but all the flex is originating from the suspension (shocks). I would say it's even too flexy for touring. When your bike is loaded with gear that extra weight will increase how much the bike flexes and with long miles ahead of you, getting the balance of power transfer, stiffness and a comfortable ride is a must. I would say titanium is best utilized for MTB where the weight savings will help increase its nimbleness and climbing. 

High-end Ti is something different. High end means tubes are catered to the rider and wall thickness is manipulated to get stiffer qualities at the key joints where power transfer is key. Most importantly the chain stays, BB and down tube head tube. The line from the head tube down through the BB and into the chain stays is the power band.  More high-end Ti bike makers can achieve this with a positive outcome. One, it's very specialized and only the top companies using Ti can achieve these characteristics and two, it adds to the over all cost of the bike.

I love steel. I love riding steel and I love making bikes out of steel. Steel allows me to make bicycles by hand paying attention to riders' needs. It allows me to be thoughtful and it allows me the ultimate freedom to build a bike that will last forever. 

Why are we on the bike: everyone has their own reasons but for me it is because I love to ride. I’m not a racer but I’m sure competitive riders feel the same way. I love to ride for a few reasons. One, I have a high quality bike that fits me. It does what I want when I want.  It’s freedom, it gets me outdoors. It’s a great source of exercise.