The Dura-Ace equipped bike under Dan Craven at this Saturday's HTC Smithfield Nocturne will look somewhat similar to the machines of his Rapha Condor Sharp teammates lined up alongside but it will differ in one important respect. It will have a frame made from, shock horror, steel in a prototype configuration that aims to wring out the last excess gramme of weight without losing all the attributes that Craven loves in a steel frame.
When Cycling Weekly asked when the Condor boys last raced on steel there was a shuffling and an "ummm" because it's been a few years since steel gave way briefly to aluminium and then carbon-fibre as found on the latest Leggero team issue bikes.
Condor Cycles still sell many steel frames, most notably in their lightweigh racing Acciaio model which, with its relatively restrained geometry is ideal for long distance comfort. We rode one of the first about eleven years ago at the Gran Fondo Campagnolo where it was already giving best to contemporary fat aluminium frames to the tune of half a pound but forgiving in a way that the poor beaten-up alloy riders would have appreciated after 160km of the Dolomites.
But criterium racing around a 1km street circuit, the speciality of the Rapha Condor Sharp team, is a whole different bollitore di pesce and they want, of course, low weight but mostly a magical combination of handling attributes that carbon-fibre has been absolutely ideal to tune in over the years.
"We've been building bikes from steel tubing for the past sixty years. Whilst other materials like carbon-fibre are rapidly becoming the norm, there are plenty of riders who want the characteristics of steel in a full-on road race bike," says Neil Manning, Condor's Production Director.
"Our new prototype is an exercise in integrating the new technology used in the race proven Leggero to other materials. Why shouldn't steel be used as a race bike material or tested within the ranks of the top pros?"
The handmade frame from Condor's Italian factory is triple-butted and features an integrated headset with a 1-1/8" to 1-1/2" steerer on the same Deda full carbon-fibre fork as the standard team issue Leggero bike. Also, the same aggressive geometry as the Leggero.
Namibian-born Dan Craven has pulled out strong performances so far this season, riding to 2nd at the Rutland CiCLE Classic in April after suffering two punctures and making it back to the break. He took victory at the opening round of the Ras in Ireland and solo wins at the Chas Messenger and Shay Elliot road races. It's fair to say, though, that nothing would be as sweet as a win at Condor's 'home' race.
According to Craven, "Having sponsors like Rapha and Condor gives the team an opportunity to actually have an input into the products; in this instance even a chance to go old school and rediscover steel."
"Steel's time in the lime light may have passed a long time ago but the material still offers many positive qualities and Condor have put together a great set of tubing for me to test around the Smithfield circuit. First impressions have been fantastic and I really look forward to pushing the limits of the bike. At 8.3kg it might not be a lightweight, but neither is it heavy and considering the stiffness and responsiveness, the trade-off should be well worth it."
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