The idea of owning a custom steel frame in this day and age of high-tech carbon mold bikes seems like something of a step backwards. After all, aren’t these new materials better? There was a time only a few years ago where it was still common to have members of the pro peloton astride custom steeds rebranded as their sponsor’s work in order to meet requirements. In fact, in the book “Come and Gone” author and ex pro racer talks about even re-stickering his suspension fork in order to avoid using the notoriously flexy first generation ROCK SHOX SID fork in favor of his previous year’s gear. Although the practice may be dead in the age of the 10+ megapixel camera, which can quickly expose any quick “decal swappery” to even the most casual armchair “telai-istas” (frame builders/designers), the practice of owning a custom bike is far from dead.
You only need to look at your local forum or club to see that plenty of guys still ride custom steel rigs in favor of carbon. The weights achieved on most well equipped steel bikes ring in quite close to the “UCI Minimum” of 6.8kg or 14.9 lbs. A set of record or even SRAM RED would bring most frames in the 56cm and under category quite close. Owning a UCI mandated minimum weight bike is, in itself, an exercise in excess.
If you still feel that steel bikes are too heavy for your cat6 racing lifestyle, consider the following:
Will you really notice an extra pound or two on your weekend club ride?
Could you, in fact, stand to lose those one or two pounds around your midsection rather than on your bike?
When poaching your local Strava segment, do you ever find yourself shedding excess weight by throwing your full water bottles into oncoming traffic in a fit of aggressive macho-competitive rage? (consider lightening up on the steroids/EPO cocktail in this case…)
Have you weighed your smartphone lately? Mine, complete with waterproof case, came in at a KOM-polkadot-robbing 172 grams! That’s .38 lbs! That’s like the difference between a top of the line frame and a bottom of the line frame from a well known Italian carbon frame builder. If you’re a true weight weenie, you’d be riding without your smartphone to make up the difference!
The point stands that obsession over weight can be something of a mental disease. Having ridden some of the ultralight components and then shed a carbon fiber tear as they broke to pieces during normal use, I can safely say that I’m over it.
Now, why would you choose to ride a steel bike? People sing the praises of their ride quality. I wasn’t much of a believer and put about 20 thousand miles into a full carbon name brand race frame. I grabbed a steel cross bike because I thought carbon was a bit excessive for a sport that prides itself on destroyed derailleurs and components, and somehow I ended up putting the neglected carbon bike in the closet for everything but a few really nice days where I mistakenly thought a couple extra pounds shed would help me keep up with the fast guys (protip: they didn’t. I still got dropped like a hot potato). There is something great about the way the bike connects you to the feeling of the road, while at the same time taking the sting out of it. Just a few minutes on the new lightweight carbon bikes and you realize that you truly can feel every single piece of pavement like it were some sort of braille butt-torture device. I like my cross bike a lot better now.
The other great thing is if you’re not blessed to be in the middle of the curve for proportions (much like myself: try a 35 inch inseam on a dude who just barely breaks 5 foot 9 inches) you’ll always be trying to make the bike fit you rather than the other way around. Seven and Serotta, specifically, have designed entire business models around making bikes fit the user perfectly. Sometimes, I can report, that the end result is a bike that handles like a truck but fits like a glove. If you happen to live in one of those flat boring states in the middle of the country (which comprises about 99% of everyone) you’d never notice, but to those of us for whom 50+mph descents are part of our daily afternoon ride, a bike that responds well to inputs is important too. The great thing about custom is that you can request this too. Yes, a Seven/Serotta MAY not handle as well as a Specialized Tarmac, but chances are that the Big S bike will be fitted with a huge stack of spacers and a short stem facing straight up which will end up having the same end result: a bike that fits and feels comfortable for going long distances in a straight line. If you’re willing to suffer the yuppie filled yoga classes you too can achieve the pro-fit saddle to bar drop of a good handling custom bike too, but don’t expect a fit specialist to lie to you and say you’re going to be comfortable doing it until you achieve spinal nirvana first.
If you’re still not convinced to trade in the high tech plastic for low tech metal, then there’s only one thing left to do: go ride both for yourself and see what you think. In the end the best part about cycling is how one of the simplest machines out there can be so finely tuned and customized to the individual and represent a little piece of your own tastes and style. A brand new S-Works says as much about what kind of guy the owner is as a custom Rivendell touring rig complete with panini filled paniers.
Just go out and ride.
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