In the past, all the best bikes were made from steel because it is both strong and relatively lightweight. Steel ran the show.
Then, in the 1980s aluminium became the material of choice offering an improved strength to weight ratio. Carbon quickly followed, being even stronger for its weight and having the added bonus of being able to be moulded into aerodynamic shapes.
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In recent times steel has been undergoing a resurgence. Although heavier than aluminium and carbon, it delivers a ride quality that has been described by some as “sublime”. Roads feel less chattery as the metal has something of a spring to it. With modern frame building techniques, the weight difference of steel versus aluminium and carbon is not actually as large as you might think.
>>>Read: Best lightweight bikes
Another reason for steel’s revival is that the metal is relatively easy to work with, making it the custom frame builder’s material of choice when it comes to constructing bespoke frames; a frame designed from the ground up for your specific needs can really transform your riding. But it’s more than just having a perfect fit: the geometry of the bike can be adjusted to get the most out of your riding style.
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Best Steel Road bikes
The second generation of Mason’s Resolution model, Italian-made Columbus steel is crafted into a bang up-to-date frameset that has all the features you would hope to see. It takes Flat-Mount disc calipers, 12mm Thru-Axles, threaded BSA bottom bracket and has space for up to 35mm tyres.
So much thought has been put into each of the tube shapes, from the tapering seatstay with their hourglass profile to the large diameter D-Section downtube which wraps under the bottom bracket to add stability.
Increasing its versatility are the discrete pannier rack and mudguard mounts along with the internal dynamo routing path through the fork. Where other brands have oversized their seat posts, Mason has kept with 27.2mm which helps to further deaden the road buzz.
The Light Blue St Johns Retro
This Cambridge-based brand can trace its heritage back to the 19th century when they produced hand-built bikes for the wealthy members of the University. Their range includes gravel bikes, modern winter bikes, racing bikes, track bikes, as well as this beautifully constructed light touring bike.
The copper mudguards complement the tan saddle and bar tape and contrast strikingly with the polished crankset, handlebars and seat post. The tubing comes courtesy of Reynolds in their 725 flavour slots into intricately wrought lugs. The straight top tube meets the seatstays at the seat post, giving that classic double triangle profile.
A touch of modernity brushes the gearing, with a 50/34 compact chainset and nine speed 11–28 cassette. But the downtube shifters, pulling a Sunrace rear derailleur across the block, keeps you firmly in the 20th century. The legendary Dia-Compe GC610 Centre Pull brakes leave ample space for up to 32c tyres.
Condor Classico Road
Condor first opened the doors of their London shop in 1948 and produce their hand-built frames in Italy. Their range is extensive, but this model really caught our eye. The Columbus SLX steel tubes and investment cast lugs combine into a classic frame shape. The bottom bracket is threaded and so is the headset, taking a quill stem as opposed to the more modern A-headset.
Modernity strikes with the 11-speed Campagnolo Potenza groupset. A wide range of gears – but with small steps between them – can be accessed easily from the hoods. There’s no awkward fumbling for another gear when you’re climbing out of the saddle and are met with a vicious ramp.
The dark and stealthy 11-speed groupsets of Shimano and SRAM would look painfully out of place on a frame like this – and Condor know its. It’s why the sleek lines and silver finish of the Potenza derailleurs, crankset and brake levers suit this bike down to the ground.
Ribble Endurance 725 Disc
Steel shouldn’t just be the preserve of those who can afford the premium that boutique bike brands charge. Ribble known for their great value bikes – also purvey some excellent steel models. Reynolds 725 tubing is chosen for its natural vibration dampening properties. In fitting with that, the geometry is more endurance focused, providing a comfortable position for long rides.
There is a winning combination of modern touches and old-fashioned practicality. There are 12mm Thru-Axles and flat mount brake calipers are spec’d, but the bottom bracket is threaded, and the cable routing is external.
Ribble allows you to customise the components of your bike. You could go for Shimano 105 with hydraulic disc brakes for £1,399 or Shimano Tiagra for a pound under £1,000. You could get those groupsets for £400 less if you compromise on the frame. Although the initial outlay is a little larger, this is a bike that will last.
Mercian Pro Lugless
Mercian has been producing hand-built bikes from their Derby base since 1946. The frames are bespoke to your exact individual requirements and you can customise almost any part of it.
The Pro Lugless frame – although present here with a straight top tube, rim brakes and vertical dropouts – can be built in a myriad of ways. You could have a sloping top tube and disc brakes. Or have no brakes and sliding dropouts for a track racer. Or completely change the geometry and ride it as a winter bike.
But built as a road racer, it is a potent bike. The Reynolds 853 tubing offers stiffness for efficient power transfer but absorbs the road chatter far better than carbon. It might not be the lightest, but it is well suited for hard and fast crits where pinpoint handling is paramount. Having a bike that fits you like a glove does a lot more to instil the confidence you need than shaving some grams off the frame.
Another steel racer, this one takes a more modern bent. The frame is made from Columbus Cromor tubes and has a taper headtube for precise handling, a T47 bottom bracket, 12mm Thru-Axles and flat mount disc brakes.
The TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes actuate both pads, in contrast to most mechanical calipers where only one of the pads is moved. Paired with Jagwire KEB-SL compressional cable housing to eliminate any feeling of sponginess, this set up presents a compelling alternative to hydraulics. The same benefits of better braking in the wet over rims are present, but you don’t have the faff that is bleeding and it is really easy to fine tune the clearance between the pads and the rotor to eliminate any rubbing.
Providing a smooth and confident ride with its steel frame, combined with brakes that aren’t fazed by the wet, this bike is well suited for shoulder-season races. When you have to battle the wind and the rain as much as the other riders, this is when this bike really shines.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Endeavour, coming from the East Sussex brand Enigma. A combination of Columbus, Reynolds and Dedacciai tubes combine to make a lightweight and compliant frame.
The frame is optimised for 32–40mm tyres, offering its usage beyond just long road miles and even gravel and bridleway trails. There are mudguard and pannier mounts, providing the option for more traditional touring as well as bikepacking.
The cable routing is designed to play well with electronic groupsets, but it does particularly well for mechanical. The cable housing is external, which makes it easier to access when replacing a cable. But the best part is that the gear cables are never left exposed, the housing runs the full length of the cable, shielding it from all the dirt and grime and greatly increasing the service life in tough conditions.
What to consider when buying a steel frame
It’s not just the material that makes a difference to the ride, the way the tubes are put together has a large effect as well. A lightweight and stiff set of tubes can result in a heavier and more flexy frame than one made with nominally heavier and more compliant tubes, if constructed in the wrong way.
Butted tubes have varying thicknesses that allow them to be stronger where they need to be and saving weight elsewhere. They also allow for a frame that is both stiff when it comes to power transfer through the pedals, but compliant when it comes to road chatter. Ovalized tube shapes allow for refinement in where the bike is strong and where it is forgiving.
You might think that having a custom-built frame is somewhat superfluous, but it can have a significant effect on the quality of your ride – potentially even more so than the frame material. There’s more to gain than just the perfect fit. The geometry can be tailored to further compliment your riding style, whether that’s shorter chainstays and a steeper head angle for agile handling, or a slacker seatpost for more relaxed cruising.
Not being aware of the exact numbers measurements you want from a frame needn’t present an impediment. The frame builders with their time earnt expertise will be able to discern how your bike should be constructed from a conversation about the exact feeling you want from your bike.
Disc vs rim brakes
Aside from questions of aesthetics about whether discs look the part on thin tubed steel frames, there are real practical – and physical – elements to consider.
Steel delivers its ride quality by the way that it flexes. The forces that disc brakes exert – particularly on the front fork – means significantly more material is needed to withstand the power of disc brakes. This extra material reduces the amount the fork can flex and leads to a harsher ride quality. If you’re choosing a steel framed and forked bike for its ride, rim brakes will really maximise this quality.
That’s not to say that rim brakes are the only option for steel bikes. Disc brakes, with their powerful and consistent stopping capacity, definitely have their advantages in a range of situations. If you’re pairing a steel frame with a carbon fork – or you’ve chosen steel for the custom fit as you want a dependable frame that will stand the test of time – then discs do present a compelling option.
A steel frame will last a lifetime if properly looked after. If neglected, it will rust and decay. The paint protects the outside of the tubes, but a rust inhibitor should be applied to the inside of the tubes on a yearly basis to prevent any build up. If the paint of a steel frame is scratched, lead oxide paint should be applied swiftly to prevent rust.
Aluminium seatposts should be removed and regreased before and after every winter. Left to its own devices, aluminium can chemically bond itself to steel, making it impossible to remove the seatpost by force.
Although the tubes may all be made from steel, there is a large number of different grades of steel that can be used. This is worth paying attention to because it has an effect on how the ride feels.
There are many different grades, so this will just be a quick run through of the main offerings from the British tubing manufacturer Reynolds. Columbus, Dedacciai and others have their own grading systems.
Reynolds 531: This was first introduced in 1935 and set the standard for steel frames right up to the 1970s. More modern tubesets are now produced, but it is still available on special order for vintage frames.
Reynolds 631: This is the successor to the 531 tubing and provides a supple ride quality as well as an excellent fatigue life, making this a good material for an endurance bike. It can provide a strength to weight ratio that is equal to many aluminium frames.
Reynolds 725: The construction of this material allows for thin gauge tubes with tight tolerances, providing significant weight savings.
Reynolds 853: This is a modern and stiff tubeset with a strength to weight ratio that is similar to titanium. However, due to this stiffness, it is recommended that 725 or 631 is used for the forks blades when the frame is constructed from 853.