What happened to Steel?

Technology Craze. By now it has nearly gone the way of the dinosaur, only finding a niche in small markets of custom builder or the strange unfortunate market of the ‘fixies’. The days of the individual artisan frame builder are all but gone. Steel bikes have character that modern Asian Molded bikes don’t. Most new steel bikes are ether at the bottom of the production line or can only be bought from custom builders.

Years ago the bike that a pro team was riding rarely matched the stickers covering it. That really changed for good when Trek started putting its full research capabilities behind designing a faster, lighter bike. Smaller traditional frame builders simply could not keep up with the type of funding that a larger company like Trek was willing to put into their race bikes. Thanks Trek (there are many things to be thankful for from T-rex). The fact that their bikes were ridden by a character who was winning multiple Tours also proved to be a catalyst. When riders were getting soundly dropped or beaten by Lance they could find no other cause for their defeat than their equipment. Now bikes ridden by professionals cost a small fortune (BMC Time Machine $12500). Rich Doctors and Lawyers everywhere saw the refined bikes that were being ridden by Professionals and the trickle down effect began, making the steel bike a relic.

Why do I care about steel, because it really is the ideal material to build a bike out of, period. There is a reason why people are still riding 30 year old bikes. Steel bikes can last because they do not fatigue like Aluminum bikes do. Steel bikes have something called a fatigue limit. First lets define fatigue, fatigue is the concept that a material will lose it’s ultimate stress (point when it breaks) after many cycles of loading and unloading. If a material is cycled through loads below it’s Fatigue limit it can sustain an infinite number of cycles before failure. Steel has a fatigue limit, Aluminum doesn’t. This means that your Aluminum frame WILL break, usually this ends up being 2 to 3 seasons if you ride your bike a lot or if it’s a mountain bike. Carbon Fiber also has a fatigue limit which makes it a possible candidate for the ideal bike medium.

But carbon fiber lacks a material property known as toughness, or the ability of a material under high loads to deform before failure. You will never see a bent carbon fiber post, ever. This is because carbon fiber does not posses the ductile properties of other metals, after it reaches it’s elastic limit, it will break. This is only a problem in extreme scenarios such as crashes, but it makes one wonder why certain companies would build venerable parts of the bike out of carbon fiber. A steel bike is not as stiff as an Aluminum or Carbon Fiber bike, but most riders appreciate a more forgiving ride.

All of these things factor into the longevity of a frame. A steel bike will be with you for a long time. There is absolutely no valid technological reason why mid range bikes should not be made of steel. I ride my team’s bike right now, but when I stop riding for a team who cares I will buy steel. The Doctors and Lawyers can have their carbon fiber.