Steel frame

I grew up loving to ride my bike. It’s probably one of my fondest childhood memories. From popping wheelies on my BMX-style bike as a kid in the ’80s to riding from our house in midtown Tucson out to Colossal Caves in the early ’90s in junior high. I loved it. It was freedom. It was speed. I’d ride around dreaming of laser guns and awesome adventures, and anxiously awaiting the day I could get a motorcycle and go even faster.

Somewhere along the way, the bicycle became a piece of exercise equipment instead of a toy or an object of pure fun. Cyclists became very serious, and it all became about training, hill climbs, nutrition, etc. It became work. Something I had to do for fitness instead of something fun I wanted to do. Ugh.

And recently, it all became fun again. Here’s how:

I grew up on a BMX-style and mountain bike almost exclusively. For a brief while I had my grandpa’s cruiser-like velocipede, but the story of that bike’s fate still irks me to this day. The point is this: I grew up on bikes I could ride aggressively. So back around 2010 when I decided to start cycling to work to try and drop some weight, it wasn’t long before I wanted to go faster than the gear ratios and wide tires of my mountain bike would let me travel. And when that bike got stolen, shopping commenced.

I was driven by technology- I read all the reviews about frame materials and had ridden aluminum since I was thirteen years old. Now I wanted a carbon fiber bike, since I wasn’t curb-hopping and riding off road anyway. I test rode some and they were lighter and sooooo much more comfortable than my old aluminum bikes! I got a great deal on a used one and rode it a lot while I lived in Tucson. (Tucson happens to be one of the best cities in America for cycling.)

Then I moved to Las Vegas. My commute took 40 minutes at 80 mph on the highway out of town, and I worked a fair amount of overtime. The bike didn’t get ridden for a year. Then I moved to Fargo, with stop lights every 1/10th of a mile and jarring seams where cement like sections of road meet each other. Skinny tires and clipping in and out of pedals didn’t seem like much fun… So I traded in my full carbon bike, and suddenly discovered how much pure fun bicycling could be again.

RA12_Back-Alley_steel-purpleI rode a Raleigh Back Alley and it was like being a kid again. Seriously! This thing was like a time machine to when riding a bike was fun. The combination of the steel frame (which flexes and softens the ride) and eliminating a gear train and derailleurs for a direct feel to the rear sprocket just made the bike come alive! I haven’t enjoyed riding a bike so much since my childhood. I didn’t test ride the bike and consider how harsh the frame was, or rolling resistance, or if I wanted to change the fit, braking, or anything. I didn’t consider any of the standard comparison aspects for other bikes. This bike was fun. That was it. That was all that mattered. When I ride this bike I’m ten years old again and not allowed to ride up and down the street further than certain houses, but between those houses as I turn out my energetic laps I’m daydreaming that I’m Robocop all over again and completely unstoppable. (I can’t do wheelies because I’m out-of-shape again and bent over too far from the seat to lower handlebars, but this can be fixed and I just might do so.)

The Back Alley has a flip-flop hub, so I experimented with making it a fixed gear (since I also picked up a 2012 Port Townsend when I traded my race bike). I don’t think I care for riding a fixie very much, though. I can’t get the knack of riding backwards, or power-sliding for my stops, etc. I’d rather just have a coaster brake like when I was a kid, just with the addition of a front brake that I never had growing up. I yanked the rear brake off (since it’s a fixie right now and I can just reverse pressure on the pedals), and put the front brake on upside-down on the opposite (right) handlebar so it’s in the “correct” position as if on a motorcycle. Much easier to maintain control and consistency between two modes of transport, that way.

The Port Townsend is okay, but I’ll likely sell it or trade it in on a bike for my wife if she wants one to ride with me during the summer months. I don’t care for the rattling noise of the fenders on harsh Fargo road joints, and while the steel frame is very comfortable I find I miss the direct feel of the Back Alley’s single sprocket when I’m slogging through the gears on the “more advanced” bike.

But both of them are light years more comfortable than aluminum.

I know speaking in absolutes can be dangerous, but this one I’m comfortable with: I will never ride an aluminum framed bicycle again. It’s horrible, sucks all the joy out of cycling and is what turns fun into work. It may be lighter, but it’s so much more harsh that long rides become unpleasant. Suspensions systems on bicycles didn’t finally appear because we became tech-savvy enough to do it; they became necessitated because aluminum frame bikes destroyed the fun of the experience all in the name of shaving weight. Aluminum frames are the worst thing you can do to your cycling experience.

Hate cycling? Don’t cycle? Think it will all be work, rather than fun? I promise you that can all be fixed by going to a real bicycle shop and buying a steel frame bike, instead of a Chinese-made aluminum torture rack from a big box sporting goods store. Find a local bicycle shop, and stay away from places like Big 5, Target, Scheels, REI, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart or any other place that sells bikes next to other departments or even other sporting goods. If you’re in a place with a grocery section or basketball shoes, you’re doing it wrong. Trust me. These places only carry aluminum and might be able to get a steel frame or two but they’ll be special order. I imagine you can buy boutique steel frames and pay a lot, but for the most part they’re not really that costly and it’s the most comfortable ride you can get.

Ignore sales talks about aluminum being lighter. Are you a racer? No, or you’d be on carbon fiber frames. So get something you’ll enjoy. Go old school. Buy something “real”. Ride a steel bike.

Here are some options:  You want a chromoly frame.

And an older list of recommended bikes:

*This post is not a paid endorsement of anybody, I really do believe this. Some hardcore mountain bikers may actually benefit from lighter weight of aluminum and crazy suspensions. If you do, you know who you are and that my post wasn’t directed at you.

6 thoughts on “Steel frame

  1. I like your idea, but there are two bikes my garage right now. One a nice, $300 bike store dream, bought by my wife; the other, a $85 el cheapo bought by me to accompany her. They both sit collecting dust while we go about doing other “life” things.

    I’ll tell ya what, though. I’ll bring up the idea to my wife and maybe I’ll get her to go riding this weekend. Maybe.

  2. Being an fan, I am sure you’ve heard of Budnitz bicycles. Simply artistry in 4130 (or Ti if you have the $). As I accumulate years, the Rivendell bikes look more attractive as well.
    Thanks for your continued posts!

      • I’ve never ridden Ti either; I have heard it feels more “springy” than steel. I think titanium’s greatest advantage is its corrosion resistance; it’s just so doggone expensive though! I firmly believe that a steel frame provides the best combination of ride quality, longevity, and value of all the tubing materials.
        I truly don’t want to sound like an advertisement for Rivendell, but Grant Petersen (the founder) has tons of great info on his website–

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