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  1. #1
    Intrepid Bicycle Commuter AlmostGreenGuy's Avatar
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    The Riddle of Steel

    My bike commuting started last week with my Specialized Sirrus Sport. The Sirrus is a sweet bike, but just not what I'm after for a commuter/utility bike. It's a fun evening ride through the hills of the Hudson River valley, but not an appropriate beast of burden. It just feels a little too twitchy and unstable with loaded panniers, and it transmits tons of road vibration.

    I picked up a Craigslist cheapo over the weekend, in the form of an old steel framed Diamondback Topanga mountain bike. The bike is suffering from a fair amount of neglect, but I'm bringing it back to shape a bit every night. The bike's first commute today was quite eventful on the ride in, as the rear derailer turned out to be a total disaster. The bike was shifting on it's own, shifting late, shifting 2 or 3 gears at a time, etc. Fifteen miles of the derailer nightmare was enough for a lifetime. I did some reading on the Sheldon Brown website at lunch time, and did a bit of adjusting. The front derailer still needs work, but the rear derailer is working flawlessly now.

    Today's ride home was a revelation to me. My previous four commutes were fun, but the rides home had me dragging a bit. I had two route options. One route had a ton of traffic and no shoulder in some spots. The other route was pothole and glass city. The rough road of option number two was too much for the Sirrus, which is basically a flat bar road bike, so I'd stuck with the stressful traffic of option number one. Today was completely different. I was able to take the Diamondback through the rough rode route, bypassing the majority of the tight traffic areas, and just let the mountain bike cruise over the potholes. The nimble 26” tires made navigating the abundant shoulder debris soooooooo much easier.

    The long commute home gave me a lot of time to consider the quality of today's ride on a steel bike. It was just a totally different experience than my last few commutes. Sure, the route options afforded by the mountain bike made the ride easier, but there was so much more going on. Riding the steel bike was something I hadn't experienced since childhood. It was like riding a big old Cadillac instead of a sports car. Sure, you had to put a bit more gas into that heavy vehicle, but the ride was so much more comfortable. There was almost zero road vibration, and the occasional bumps were perfectly manageable. I hadn't realized just how much all of the vibration transmitted to the Sirrus had effected my mindset during the previous commutes. I always got home feeling mentally and physically exhausted. In contrast, even with today's 94 degree heat advisory and air quality advisory, and my lack of a second water bottle, I arrived home feeling great. A bit hot, but I was perfectly relaxed and in a great frame of mind. The stress of my commute home had completely disappeared.

    The ride home today was also less “busy”, for lack of a better word. The Sirrus had me shifting constantly, speeding up and slowing down like crazy, trying to maintain a comfortable cadence. The Diamondback was a stark contrast. I probably shifted about a third as much as previous commutes. The momentum of the bike just kind of carried me along through the short stretches where I'd normally have to shift a couple of times. Hills were more of a challenge, but the other 95% of my commute seemed much easier. I wasn't constantly trying to alter the speed of my commute. I just sort of let the bike decide the speed. The total commute took an extra five or ten minutes maybe, but if that's the price of less stress, worry and work, I can live with that.

    Last edited by AlmostGreenGuy; 09-02-10 at 06:54 AM.

  2. #2
    Allez means go. bengreen79's Avatar
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    Oh great, you just validated all of the steel freaks! Here comes dozens of I told you so's

    My steel bike is also more comfortable but I still prefer the go-fast of my carbon/aluminum Allez.

  3. #3
    Senior Member ch9862's Avatar
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    I'd think that tires (size / pressure) and your position on the bike made much more difference than frame material. Enjoy your ride all the same!

    Others may know more though.

  4. #4
    Senior Member bhop's Avatar
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    Crom approves.

  5. #5
    Goathead Magnet aley's Avatar
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    There's a lot to be said for a bike like that. The only bike I've ever really regretted getting rid of was my '91 Rock Hopper, with its steel frame and rigid fork. I saw a similar one at a yard sale a while back, but the guy wanted way too much money for it - but one of these days I'll find one for cheap, weld on disc mounts, and build the commuter of my dreams.

    In the meantime, I'm still in love with my (steel) LHT.

  6. #6
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    Sounds like a great choice for you. Good work!

    I actually can't stand riding those steel beasts anymore despite the plush ride. (And steel is definitely plush!) They're just too heavy and too dang slow. I admit that I haven't tried some of those sweet lightweight steel bikes, but those are quite pricey. But if I were looking for something more stable and shock-absorbing (at the cost of speed), steel would be it.
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  7. #7
    Born Again Pagan irclean's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bhop View Post
    Crom approves.
    Yes, He is strong in His mountain, but I seldom pray to Him... for He does not listen.

    BTW I love your bike, AlmostGreenGuy; reduce, reuse, recycle.
    Gettin' my Fred on.

  8. #8
    Born Again Pagan irclean's Avatar
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    Last edited by irclean; 09-01-10 at 11:58 PM.
    Gettin' my Fred on.

  9. #9
    stringbreaker stringbreaker's Avatar
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    Steel is real baby, steel is real. I hadn't ridden my Raleigh Cadent 2.0 all summer so I figured it needed some love right? I rode it to work this morning and the difference in the ride between it and my normal steel commuter was so stark. Now the Raleigh is a really nice bike with a carbon fork and seat post. Its very light has a better set of rims on it than the Windsor but I felt really scrunched up on it and it did feel a bit twitchy, not as bad as some of my other road bikes but just not as commuter friendly as the Windsor. I think I need to ride it more than on one leg of my commute so I'll ride it again tomorrow and see if how it feels, lots of differences in the two bikes I didn't realize how easily the Windsor rides. This little Raleigh is more responsive though and gets going a bit quicker from the stops and lights than the Windsor though.
    (Life is too short to play crappy guitars) 2006 Raleigh Cadent 3.0, 1977 Schwinn Volare, 2010 Windsor tourist. ( I didn't fall , I attacked the floor)

  10. #10
    Senior Member Absenth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by aley View Post
    In the meantime, I'm still in love with my (steel) LHT.
    +1
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  11. #11
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    I love all my bikes regardless of their frame material.
    My steel fixed gear is a nice riding bike. So is my aluminum mtb and my CF racing bike.

  12. #12
    Senior Member tjspiel's Avatar
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    In the last 4 years I've taken 6 different bikes to work. 3 steel road bikes, 1 aluminum/carbon road bike and 2 rigid framed steel MTBs from the 90's.

    The smoothest riding road bike is a steel Univega with a touring geometry. It has really long chain stays. The worst riding road bike? Also steel. The MTBs are a different animal except that one is a Bianchi that takes 700c wheels. This has allowed me to do some mixing and matching of tires and wheels between the Bianchi MTB and my current road bike which I did just for fun. The Bianchi has also undergone a drop bar conversion. So for about $200 total, I've gotten a nice double-butted cromoly framed bike not all that different from a Crosscheck in terms of it's versatility. It can take even wider tires than a Crosscheck.

    Anyway with the same wheels and tires, I can't honestly say which gives the better ride, the steel Bianchi, or the aluminum/carbon Specialized.

    So while I think it's great that the OP has found a bike/route combination that makes his commute more pleasant, I'd be careful about attributing that to frame material. In my experience, tires and geometry have made more of a difference.

  13. #13
    Fat Guy on a Little Bike KonAaron Snake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tjspiel View Post
    In the last 4 years I've taken 6 different bikes to work. 3 steel road bikes, 1 aluminum/carbon road bike and 2 rigid framed steel MTBs from the 90's.

    The smoothest riding road bike is a steel Univega with a touring geometry. It has really long chain stays. The worst riding road bike? Also steel. The MTBs are a different animal except that one is a Bianchi that takes 700c wheels. This has allowed me to do some mixing and matching of tires and wheels between the Bianchi MTB and my current road bike which I did just for fun. The Bianchi has also undergone a drop bar conversion. So for about $200 total, I've gotten a nice double-butted cromoly framed bike not all that different from a Crosscheck in terms of it's versatility. It can take even wider tires than a Crosscheck.

    Anyway with the same wheels and tires, I can't honestly say which gives the better ride, the steel Bianchi, or the aluminum/carbon Specialized.

    So while I think it's great that the OP has found a bike/route combination that makes his commute more pleasant, I'd be careful about attributing that to frame material. In my experience, tires and geometry have made more of a difference.
    +1...between different tires, different saddles, different seatposts and different geometry it's hard to tell what you're feeling. I've had steel bikes that rode like garbage (including some high end stuff) and steel bikes that I love. My favorite bike over all is my titanium with carbon fork, but I'm convinced that's as much geometry as anything else.

    Different bikes are also better for some tasks than others. My steel Surly Karate Monkey is a god awful frame for commuting with on reasonable tires, but everyone says it's great with thicker knobbies. I rode a Miyata 1000, a bike most rave about, and thought it was among the worst riding bikes I've felt...and then I rode an LHT, which was even worse. You couldn't pay me to ride an unloaded LHT, it felt like the old department store stuff. BUT...they're apprently great fully loaded. My aluminum frame/CF fork Kona had a great ride and feel...not like any aluminum I've had before.

    I assure you that my De Rosa feels like a sports car, not a cadillac.

  14. #14
    Senior Member groovestew's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tjspiel View Post
    In my experience, tires and geometry have made more of a difference.
    +1

    Quote Originally Posted by KonAaron Snake View Post
    My aluminum frame/CF fork Kona had a great ride and feel...
    My Kona Jake the Snake (Alum frame/carbon fork) hasn't been getting much love from me this year, but I took it out the other day to run an errand, and while it's far from being a Cadillac ride, I was just amazed at how much smoother it seemed than my steel Bianchi road bike that I use for commuting. The Kona has a longer wheelbase and 32 mm tires that I run at around 80-90 PSI, compared to the 100-110 PSI 23 mm tires on the Bianchi. Geometry and tires, just like tjspiel says.

  15. #15
    Peripheral Visionary spock's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by agarose2000 View Post
    Sounds like a great choice for you. Good work!

    I actually can't stand riding those steel beasts anymore despite the plush ride. (And steel is definitely plush!) They're just too heavy and too dang slow.
    Take the same style bike and compare the weight, steel bike is gonna be 3 or 4 pounds heavier, which is in reality is completely negligible. Lighter bike is gonna be like .69 mph faster, but not enough to call it too heavy and too dang slow. The only circumstance where the difference matters is in racing, but in the world of non racing crowd, it's not that important really. Nothing that can't be fixed with .69 % in strength increase. If there was a 15 lb difference, then it would be noticeable.

    Now let's move into the fantasy world where 3 or 4 lb's off the bike truly makes a difference.

    To begin with, when one gets a lighter bike with a different frame material, one will automatically assume that it's gonna be blazing fast. Money spent on a new bike and all the excitement make it that much harder to get over that assumption. 99.31% of the speed one gains is all in one's head.

    Unforgiving ride is another factor that makes it seem like one is going faster. All those extra vibrations play mind tricks on one's impression on speed, so it must be faster.

    More rigid frame is another. Pedal stroke with a less flexible frame material is gonna give a better power transfer, but the feel is one factor that accounts for most of the speed gain. Again, most of it is in one's head. If it feels faster then it must be. One point that most people seem to ignore with more flex in the pedal stroke is that it's better for the knees. It is very possible or plausible that extra flex takes some of the edge off that makes a difference in better knee health. Just think about it. When more power is applied, the extra flex in the frame gives that natural adjustment that muscles, tendons, and ligaments crave in the repetition and hard work they are required to do.

    Natural springiness in steel frames is something that no other type of frame is even close to offering. Tires, frame geometry, and the wheel type have some influence on the ride comfort, but nothing compares to the most advanced suspension system. Carbon frames have a damping effect which mostly works with the bike, and it basically compounds all the stress into the bike, usually at specific places in the frame, which makes them very fragile compared to aluminum which transfers most of the stress into the rider. Steel frames spring and react all over the frame when interacting with bumps which automatically interacts with a rider in the most favourable way as far as comfort and riders attachment to the bike goes. That's where the phrase "steel is real" comes from. Nothing gained, nothing lost. All that remains is you and the bike.

  16. #16
    Senior Member himespau's Avatar
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    Hey OP, if you've got the time, throw some drops on there (moving the shifters to the stem works) and some slicks, and you'll really be rocking.

  17. #17
    Fat Guy on a Little Bike KonAaron Snake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by spock View Post
    Take the same style bike and compare the weight, steel bike is gonna be 3 or 4 pounds heavier, which is in reality is completely negligible. Lighter bike is gonna be like .69 mph faster, but not enough to call it too heavy and too dang slow. The only circumstance where the difference matters is in racing, but in the world of non racing crowd, it's not that important really. Nothing that can't be fixed with .69 % in strength increase. If there was a 15 lb difference, then it would be noticeable.

    Now let's move into the fantasy world where 3 or 4 lb's off the bike truly makes a difference.

    To begin with, when one gets a lighter bike with a different frame material, one will automatically assume that it's gonna be blazing fast. Money spent on a new bike and all the excitement make it that much harder to get over that assumption. 99.31% of the speed one gains is all in one's head.

    Unforgiving ride is another factor that makes it seem like one is going faster. All those extra vibrations play mind tricks on one's impression on speed, so it must be faster.

    More rigid frame is another. Pedal stroke with a less flexible frame material is gonna give a better power transfer, but the feel is one factor that accounts for most of the speed gain. Again, most of it is in one's head. If it feels faster then it must be. One point that most people seem to ignore with more flex in the pedal stroke is that it's better for the knees. It is very possible or plausible that extra flex takes some of the edge off that makes a difference in better knee health. Just think about it. When more power is applied, the extra flex in the frame gives that natural adjustment that muscles, tendons, and ligaments crave in the repetition and hard work they are required to do.

    Natural springiness in steel frames is something that no other type of frame is even close to offering. Tires, frame geometry, and the wheel type have some influence on the ride comfort, but nothing compares to the most advanced suspension system. Carbon frames have a damping effect which mostly works with the bike, and it basically compounds all the stress into the bike, usually at specific places in the frame, which makes them very fragile compared to aluminum which transfers most of the stress into the rider. Steel frames spring and react all over the frame when interacting with bumps which automatically interacts with a rider in the most favourable way as far as comfort and riders attachment to the bike goes. That's where the phrase "steel is real" comes from. Nothing gained, nothing lost. All that remains is you and the bike.
    +1...I have steel bikes that are 19 lbs...if that's heavy, I don't know what to say. I also like having that extra weight on descents, it makes for more stability. I'll worry about my belly, which is FAR over 5 extra pounds, before worrying about making the UCI minimum weight. If you think my SLX De Rosa is a "slow" bike, you must be a competition level rider...otherwise it's plenty fast enough for anyone and an extra couple miles of training will make more difference in speed than a carbon frame.

  18. #18
    Intrepid Bicycle Commuter AlmostGreenGuy's Avatar
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    Wow. I only meant to gush about my new ride. I honestly don't know much about bikes, or frame types or geometry or anything. I just like to ride. Sorry to stir up a big debate.

    But you have to admit, the dark green paint job is super-sexy. The same color as the old Schwinn I had as a kid. My Dad took off the training wheels and taught me to ride on two wheels with that old Schwinn.

    The bike still needs lots of TLC. I'm using big junky plastic platform pedals until I can get in a set of Power Grips for the set of small rusty steel Wellgo's that came with the bike. I also have the quill stem raised a few inches above the minimum insertion line, so I have to find a longer stem. The cantilever brakes aren't causing me any headaches, but the Gripshifts may have to go. I keep accidentally shifting as I change hand position. The rack is kind of cobb-jobbed onto the frame right now. I need to pick up some p-camps to mount the rack properly.

    People have mentioned tires, and the setup on this bike is quite new to me. I used the rear wheel that came with the bike, but the front wheel from an older aluminum Diamondback mountain bike on the scrap heap. The front wheel that came with the bike was taco city. I picked up new Bell tubes and Slime tire liners from Walmart. My LBS had 1.5" Serfas Drifter tires for me. Getting wide 26" tubes and slime liners into 1.5" tires was not an easy task. I pray that the puncture resistance of the tires and the liners negates the possibility of me having to ever do the job on the side of the road. The Serfas Drifters are a cool tire. Great traction for a non-slick, and very grippy cornering.

    The chain is just really, really gross. One part chain and two parts black gunk. Tonight's job will be to clean the chain, the cassette, and the chainring.

  19. #19
    Senior Member tjspiel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by spock View Post
    Take the same style bike and compare the weight, steel bike is gonna be 3 or 4 pounds heavier, which is in reality is completely negligible. Lighter bike is gonna be like .69 mph faster, but not enough to call it too heavy and too dang slow. The only circumstance where the difference matters is in racing, but in the world of non racing crowd, it's not that important really. Nothing that can't be fixed with .69 % in strength increase. If there was a 15 lb difference, then it would be noticeable.
    My Aluminum/Carbon road bike is about 1 mph (give or take .5) faster than my steel drop bar MTB with the same wheels and tires. That's on a fairly flat commute. For a 7 mile ride, it's a negligible difference for most people. For a 20 mile commute? I'd definitely take that extra 1 extra mph. If I had significant hills to worry about, I'd want the lighter bike even for the shorter commute.

    For many people, getting a bike that's 3 or 4 lbs. lighter is a heck of lot easier than losing 4 lbs. off their middle and keeping it off. And there's no reason you can't do both. There are other folks that really don't need to lose anything. As for strength, if you're willing to put the work in to increasing your strength, by all means do so. You still benefit from a lighter bike. I'd like to be both stronger AND have a lighter bike.

    I've ridden plenty of steel bikes and I'm sorry, I just haven't experienced all the benefits that it's natural springiness supposedly brings in comparison to other frame materials. Honestly, I think "Steel is Real" is more of a religious statement than anything.
    Last edited by tjspiel; 09-02-10 at 01:15 PM.

  20. #20
    Born Again Pagan irclean's Avatar
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    Wow Mr. Spock, thanks for that... that has to be the best response to the "steel is real" debate that I've read on these forums (and I've read a lot of them). Of course, I still think it's very subjective, and YMMV (whomever you are). That being said, we steel aficionados are doing just fine without your approval.
    Gettin' my Fred on.

  21. #21
    Senior Member tjspiel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by irclean View Post
    Wow Mr. Spock, thanks for that... that has to be the best response to the "steel is real" debate that I've read on these forums (and I've read a lot of them). Of course, I still think it's very subjective, and YMMV (whomever you are). That being said, we steel aficionados are doing just fine without your approval.
    It's not a matter of approval. What bothers me is an admitted bike noob limiting their choices to steel framed bikes because they heard somewhere that steel is best. I see that on this forum fairly regularly. Man, that is eliminating a whole swath of bikes that might be better fits for their needs and their budgets. I really hate to see people do that for what are IMO reasons that may not be applicable to an individual bike. A steel frame doesn't automatically guarantee a better ride. It guarantees that a magnet will stick to your frame and not a lot more.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-steel. The last bike I bought was steel and I'm very happy with it but I certainly would have been open to trying an aluminum framed bike with same features at the same price point.
    Last edited by tjspiel; 09-02-10 at 02:24 PM.

  22. #22
    Senior Member bhop's Avatar
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    Well, when I test rode some aluminum bikes, then directly afterwards rode some steel bikes on the same bumpy road, I could feel a difference in ride quality. I'm not saying I wouldn't buy an aluminum bike in the future, but at the time it was enough of a difference to make me choose a steel bike.

  23. #23
    Senior Member tjspiel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bhop View Post
    Well, when I test rode some aluminum bikes, then directly afterwards rode some steel bikes on the same bumpy road, I could feel a difference in ride quality.
    And then you have a reason to choose one of the steel bikes all else being equal. You tried several bikes and I assume liked some better than others.

    What I'm saying is between the bike's I've ridden I haven't seen enough of a difference to come to any conclusion regarding frame material. Now, I haven't ridden an old Cannondale with massively oversized tubes and an aluminum fork to go along with the frame, but I have ridden I modern aluminum bike with a carbon fork.

    Don't believe me? Sheldon Brown has an interesting article on the topic.

    I encourage people to do what you did and decide for themselves.
    Last edited by tjspiel; 09-02-10 at 02:42 PM.

  24. #24
    another retro grouch Mr IGH's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tjspiel View Post
    ...I think "Steel is Real" is more of a religious statement than anything.
    Can I get an "Amen!" OP, I understand what you're saying. I love the ride of a nice old steel frame, I'm partial to old hand brazed Schwinn frames.

  25. #25
    z90
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    OP, Your bike looks like it will be a great commuter. Thanks for a good post.

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