They Sure Do Make It Like They Used To
Today, a top-tier race bike would be downright unrecognizable to someone from ten or fifteen years ago. So many things that are commonplace and even boring by today’s standards were thought of as unachievable fantasy in the not so distant past. In fact, many feel that it’s only a matter of time spent weighing bikes down before sanctioning bodies alter weight minimums to reflect the realities of an industry that hasn’t made a part yet which it couldn’t drill a few gram-saving holes into.
Like a craftily stolen gift from Olympus, carbon fiber has been the medium which the muses prefer most. It’s allowed the imagination to dream up new creations which stand old misconceptions on their head and as a result, there are few corners of the bike where it can’t be employed to see measurable gains. It truly is an exciting time to go fast on a bicycle.
Yet, like vinyl’s bullheaded instance on hanging around in a musical world hell-bent on shuffling off its physical-format coil, many elements of the bicycle’s “Old Way” show remarkable resilience against change’s incoming tide. “Steel”, as it’s used in constructing a frame and fork, shows no sign of relaxing its hold on people enthusiastic about timeless and reliable qualities in their bicycles.
Other materials have spent their time in the spotlight and still enjoy their share of relevance. There was a time when titanium’s space-race pedigree vaulted it into a period of unquestioned popularity. Aluminum shook off its doubters on its way to producing the first seeds of ingenuity which took root and blossomed with carbon. In turn, experience gleaned with carbon and an evolving understanding of aluminum’s capabilities has given way to some of the most advanced and accessible race bikes to date. Hell, there are people riding around on bikes made of cardboard and bamboo.
Steel and her alloys have weathered it all gracefully. Many of the machines on display at a worship-fest like NAHBS serve as testament to the demand created by over a century of crafting bicycles from a material that has been stalwart in satisfying a diverse set of needs. In fact, the “steel” bicycle of today is actually surprisingly similar to many of its carbon counterparts in a number of ways. New approaches to stainless steel have resulted in bikes that enjoy advantages over titanium in weight, lateral stiffness and fatigue life. Even more basic Cro-Molies are found in purpose-built rigs that stand at the top of climbs and pull for the group ride with as much confidence as the team-replica bike. Heat-treatment process have produced heightened strength in almost every steel alloy allowing manufacturers to reduce the amount of material used, therefore reducing the weight of some steel bikes into categories that overlap with many carbon fiber options. All of this while maintaining the characteristic fatigue life and supple yet lively ride quality that the material has been known for.
A modern rider certainly finds themselves in the proverbial catbird seat when it comes time to select their next steed. As advances in materials manufacture and manipulation accrue, the idea that certain concessions must be made in order to have a bicycle that’s light, fast, strong, comfortable, elegant, affordable; start to become irrelevant. For a machine that’s changed so much in the last ten years and rapidly changes more and more every season, comfort can be found with lines and structures that have been handed down throughout the eras.