I’m a devotee of alloy framed bikes. My go-fast ride is a Cannondale CAAD 10. My other five bikes are all steel. A friend of mine recently asked me when I was going to get on a carbon frame? I told him I don’t see the need for one, as the Cannondale is just as light and works just fine, thank you very much. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a couple of carbon framed bikes, and they were great. Both met their untimely end in what you might call a mishap. That’s my only real qualm with carbon, its longevity is less than stelar. This is especially true when it comes to impacts. Thin-walled aluminum, like on my Cannondale, is only marginally better. That margin of error has come in handy a couple times though. The Cannondale had survived some incidents where a carbon frame would have failed.
But back to the subject at hand, steel. As I mentioned, I have five steel bikes. Three are lugged classics, made of the old standard of chromoly. Of these three, two are Columbus Tubing’s famous SL. The other is Tange Prestige, a heat treated chromoly. The other two are modern, tig welded steel frames. One, a cyclocross bike, is a mix of True Temper OX Platinum and S3 tubes. My favorite bike, an ultra-fancy road machine, is made of the pinnacle of current steel technology Columbus XCR stainless steel. So what exactly does all this mean? It means that steel tubing has come a long way from the days of lugged steel. Here’s a quick breakdown of the steel tubing used to manufacture bikes, from the old days of skinny tubes and lugs, up to today’s high-tech alloys.
Chromoly was the standard tube material during the age of lugged frames. If you have an old lugged steel bike, chances are the tubes are made of chromoly. If that bike is Italian it’s more than likely constructed of Columbus Tubing. While if the bike is Japanese, it’s likely made out of Tange tubing.
Founded in 1919 Columbus Tubing began by manufacture tubing for aircraft and motorcycles. Early Maserati, Lancia, and Ferrari used Columbus tubing for their frame construction. Columbus developed a cold drawn, double butted tubing specifically for bicycle applications, and the rest is history. Columbus tube sets, such as SL, SP, SLX, SPX, and TSX are all chromoly tubes.
Tange, founded a year after Columbus in 1920, is a Japanese tubing manufacturer. Tange tubing is all based in chromoly. Higher end tube sets such as Ultimate and Prestige feature seamless heat treated tubes for added strength and hardness. Prestige was the premier tube set of my some of my favorite bikes of the late eighties and early nineties.
Not surprisingly, the English do things a little different from their contemporaries on the European continent. Reynolds Tubing of Birmingham England, founded in 1897, invented double-butted bicycle tubes. Double-butted tubing is thicker at the ends than it is in the middle. This was such a major breakthrough that all world class tube sets utilize this technology today.
Reynolds also invented a manganese-molybenum steel for use in the “aeronautics” industry, and applied the advanced alloy to the manufacture of tubes used in bicycle construction. The legendary Reynolds 531 was born. Out of this, the first heat-treated tube made for the cycling industry was born, Reynolds 753. This exotic material was so sensitive to heat, Reynolds wouldn’t sell it to anyone not certified by Reynold to use it for their frames.
As steel alloy technology continued to advance, so did the tubes used to construct frames. True Temper, a company who started making steel for the shafts of golf clubs entered the frame tube market with OX Platinum. This tube set is a proprietary air-hardening, heat-treated tube set. Air-hardening steel has a special property that when welded and allowed to cool at air temperature, gets harder at the weld area. This is an important feature, because the weld area is generally a critical zone for fatigue on a frame. True Temper followed OX Platinum with the S3 tube set which features a reduced wall thickness and therefore a lower weight.
Reynolds also developed proprietary steels like those brought to market by True Temper. 631 is a step up from 531 in that it is an air-hardening seamless tube that is formulated for welding. Reynolds also has 853, a steel developed for the side impact beams on expensive sports cars. This is a proprietary air-hardening seamless tube that has also been heat-treated, allowing for thinner wall thickness and lower weight.
The pinnacle of modern steel tube sets are those constructed with stainless steel. Reynolds has 953 a “super-steel”. 953 is a martensitic-aging stainless steel, which because of it’s harness is similar to armor plating. This is the kind of material used to make the skin of missiles, and Reynolds has gone and made tube sets for bicycles out of the stuff.
Not to be outdone, Columbus has XCR a seamless martensitic stainless steel. While not nearly as hard as Reynolds 953, XCR has high fatigue resistance. The martensitic structure of the alloy grant it extraordinary geometrical stability at high temperature. In plain english, that means it’s really good a being welded.
While that got pretty boring there, it illustrates the point that steel is a great material to build frames out of. There are plenty of options as far as different kinds of steel, giving the rider a myriad of options, and the ride quality can’t be beat. My XCR road bike is just a light and stiff as an aluminum frame, but rides like a dream. I had a bike made of Reynolds 953, but due to the hardness of the material, it cracked at one of the welds. I haven’t had any issues with the XCR though. My cyclocross bike, which is a mix of True Temper OX Platinum and S3 is incredibly light for a steel bike. All my classic lugged frames are anchors, but the ride of steel just can’t be beat. Thanks for reading, and as always, keep the rubber side down!