Why I ride steel bikes

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
The joy of riding a modern steel frame and fork (Photo: Steve Smith)
The joy of riding a modern steel frame and fork (Photo: Steve Smith)
  • Steel is old. Carbon is new. But why does the former have enduring appeal?
  • Should there be a steel bike in your garage?
  • These steel bikes are a lifelong commitment - and remain rideable for decades

There are a host of reasons not to ride steel bikes – my mates roll them out every time we have this conversation and each of them is completely valid.

I totally get why they see carbon as the way forward. If winning something – Le Tour or the Wednesday coffee ride – is the reason you’re turning those pedals then fair enough, get yourself a carbon-framed bicycle. They are certainly lighter, more efficient and quicker than even the most masterly made modern steel frames. One simply cannot beat the weight and power-transferring abilities of carbon-fibre. Fact.

If, however, Tadej Pogacar is unlikely to feel you on his wheel up Ventoux any time soon, or you’re toward the back of the Wednesday coffee queue, you might want to consider the material Eddy Merckx rode to his 525 pro career victories. Steel, you see, can offer you this.

gravel ride
Steel bikes have excellent ride comfort and durability, for gravel adventure riding (Photo:Steve Smith)

The Feel

Steel bike owners always talk about “the feel of steel”. It’s easy to dismiss this violin-soundtracked reverie as desperate positive reinforcement smoused by a bunch of people riding bikes with the lateral stiffness of a pool noodle.

It is nonetheless true (the feel bit, not the pool noodle metaphor). You simply can’t compare the buttery smooth ride that steel provides, absorbing and damping road resonance through its fork and frame. It makes for a compliant and comfortable bicycle that you can ride all day.

You learn to ride them in a different way as well, especially with vintage steel frames. Too much side force isn’t what you want – throwing the bike from side to side with out-the-saddle power pedalling is not what they like.

Keep the bike up-right and exert force in a more straight-up-and down linear way gets the best result. Watch old videos of Eddy climbing – he’s rarely out the saddle, and when he is, the bike doesn’t sway about much.

bike frame
These Cotics, are both built from premium Reynolds tubing (Photo: Steve Smith)

The confidence and aesthetics

It isn’t going to break. There’s a robustness to a steel frame – even an old one – that means it can take bumps and knocks without any worries the frame may have been compromised into catastrophic future failure.

I’ve ridden my vintage steel bike with conviction over some pretty rough gravel at the annual Eroica event and I’ve thrashed my modern steel gravel bike at both the Sani2C and Berg & Bush events. Both bikes are tough as nails, which, ironically, are also made of steel.

Even the most ardent Carbonite can’t deny there’s something special about the look of a steel bike – that horizontal top tube, quill stem, chrome detailing just looks right.

By the 1970s, frame builders had nailed the perfect road geometry and distilled the essence of what a road bike was all about. There’s a purity of design that makes carbon bikes look a little fussy and complicated.

Even dressed in a modern groupset and deep-section wheels, there’s a romance to these bikes that recalls Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy dancing their way up monumental Alpine climbs.

steel bikes
The Eroica race celebrates all things classic, about cycling. Steel is your passport into this world (Photo: Steve Smith)

The sidestep

Those cycling marketers are a clever bunch. They know that nothing is going to bug you more than knowing your mate has a faster bike than you.

Being able beat him or her, you’re definitely going to need to that new frame that’s 100g frame lighter and 1.3% more aero.

A steel frame bike allows you to step out of the hamster wheel. If your budget allows, you can have a custom frame made to your exact specs (can’t really do that with carbon-fibre) that will last you forever. And it’s good for your head too.

Rather than it being filled with the white noise of how much that extra 100g is going effect you on the next climb, your head will be ordering your legs to make do with what they have and to just get on with it. As is the case with all sporting pursuits, you’ll be surprised at how much of your performance is a mental game.

And if, by the way, you’re wondering which of my four bikes is not steel, it’s my late 90s Colnago C40. It is the first carbon-fibre frame Ernesto made and is a wonderful mix of lightness yet still retaining some of the classic steel feel.

I’ve equipped it with a modern 11-speed Campag gruppo and deep section carbon Mavic wheelset, making it quick enough to keep me in the mix when someone drops the hammer. Tadej can rest easy, but sometimes I enjoy a hot cup of coffee.

The rest of the time, it’s the early 80s Colnago Mexico, modern Cotic Escapade gravel bike, and Cotic Simple singlespeed mountain bike.

carbon bike
The Colnago is a carbon novelty in a garage of steel steeds (Photo: Steve Smith)
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.