Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Paolo Ciaberta and Andy Waterman
Four grand is a serious lump of cash to stump up for a bike, but many of us do, it seems. Much research will have gone into purchasing your pride and joy: reviews scoured, magazines perused, bike shows visited. You may have even – old school style – dropped in at the local bike shop to see some options in the flesh. How very 20th century.
I recently went through the process myself, after decades of making do with second best. Finally, I could have my heart’s desire. The lengthy process of narrowing down the contenders was thoroughly enjoyable. There was a palpable thrill as the order was placed that gradually diminished over the summer as the frame failed to arrive. Not wishing to dish the dirt on the tardy builders but suffice to say they are American and also make excellent headsets.
So a stopgap cheap steel frame was bought to tide me over for a few months and an adequate bike cobbled together from various odds and sods, with some flash carbon wheels for Sunday best.
Having the good fortune to be invited to spend four days riding in the Alpine Challenge, based at Annecy in September, I’m riding along in the bunch when the fella next to me has a good look across at my bike and complements me on owning such a handsome machine. After a double take and an inquiry as to whether he was taking the piss, he assured me he was not and that, despite riding several thousand pounds worth of carbon bling himself, he found my cheap and cheerful steel steed very pleasing to the eye.
Good to know but a one-off, I figured, except it happened again later that day after the ride. “Ah, but it’s steel,” this guy says, “so it’s heavy.” I hand it over, he jiggles the bike around in that time honoured weight-determining fashion, and concludes it is perfectly acceptable.
This process carried on repeatedly for the duration of the stay, usually accompanied by a catch-all disclaimer why steel does not match carbon: too heavy; too flexy; just plain old-fashioned. But it looked lovely, they all agreed, staring wistfully at the deep red paint of my Genesis, then back to their dull black stealth weapons. Which was fine by me, but baffling nonetheless.
How much research do prospective buyers put in before laying down hard-earned cash? It seems to me many plump for what the pros ride, which is understandable – it’s the whole point of sponsoring a team, after all. But those super-fit, whippet-thin young guys are racing for a living, using the best tools for the job. Most of my riding acquaintances race once in a blue moon, are carrying a few extra pounds but do a lot of miles for pleasure. Do they really want a stiff-as-a-board carbon frame that nudges the UCI weight limit when built up?
I wouldn’t attempt to argue the virtues of one frame material over another and am certainly not anti-carbon. The Parlee I tested a few years back is still the finest bike I have ever thrown a leg over, and it pained me to give it back. All frame materials are good when used correctly and have their inherent advantages and disadvantages.
But I would maintain there are lots of people out there buying the wrong bikes for the type of riding they intend to do. Whether that is down to the power of advertising, product placement with pro teams, hard-selling bike shop staff, or the age-old method of asking mates’ advice (to be told steel is too heavy and too flexy…) or a combination of all four is unclear.
With new British domestic squad Madison Genesis on frames contructed from Reynolds’ finest tubes (see Guy’s piece in issue 35), it is time to quash the idea that steel is not up to it. Two of the Rapha-Condor-Sharp team rode the Condor’s Super Acciaio last season – out of choice, I should add, not contractual obligation – and they love them. Steel is, once again, a viable option for a top-quality machine, even if you race, and you’d be a mug to discount it out of hand. That’s all I’m saying.
Take a long, hard look at what’s out there, take into account what you will be using the bike for, then make an informed decision. It is a big outlay of cash, so make sure you get it right.
And remember, aesthetics are part and parcel of that judgement. If, like me, you get a buzz out of people riding alongside and waxing lyrical about your handsome bicycle, steel beats carbon every time, even a bargain basement stopgap. I just hope the new expensive replacement has the same effect…