What’s Your Flavor?

Our trip to Rivendell got me thinking about frame materials and construction again. Even though I’ve owned bikes made from every commonly used frame material including aluminum alloy, carbon fiber, titanium, high tensile steel, and chromoly steel, I cut my teeth during the heyday of lugged chromoly frames and I’ve always been partial to that material and construction method. I enjoy frames that have a little flex and feel alive, and chromoly steel, with its relatively light weight and its ability to flex over-and-over again without issue, makes it a good material for my preferences and the kind of riding I do everyday. The small diameter tubes used in this type of construction also maximize tire and fender clearances, a common issue with bikes made from aluminum and carbon. Certainly other materials can be used to make wonderful bicycles and can offer performance advantages for specialized uses, but frames built with small diameter chromoly tubes and ornate lugs speak to my middle-aged-inner-bike-geek in a way carbon fiber never will. Do you have a favorite frame material? If so, place your vote and expound further in the comments below.

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28 Responses to “What’s Your Flavor?”

  • Aaron says:

    I voted for “normal” steel because although I love the look of a lugged bike, it just doesn’t make sense for me financially for me to pay all that money for just a frame. It seems like a waste of money to me. I have absolutely no complaints with my Cross Check frame (except maybe the boring black paint) which is “lug free”.

    On the other hand, if I had lots of disposable income or won the lottery or something I’d be first in line that day to buy a Vanilla or a Hufnagle or something. Absolutely beautiful, no doubt.

  • Jeff says:

    Vanilla? I wish! Rivendell? I dream! Surly, or should I say $urly, I’m in!

  • greg says:

    I voted for TIG’d cromo since I ride an LHT. I own several lugged steel bikes and one fillet brazed one. The poll was for transpo and none of these others fit the bill(well maybe the Schwinn breeze but that’s the wife’s bike). All of my bikes are some type of cromo though.

    Current steel in the garage include:

    Surly LHT 2007 TIG
    Peugeot PX-10 early 70s plain lugs
    Waterford late 90′s lugged
    Gary Fisher Hoo Koo e Koo 1995 TIG
    Schwinn Breeze early 70s Fillet

    As you can see I like cromo. I don’t plan on buying a bike made of anything else. You can also see that I have bikes that are heavy and ones that are light. That GF weighs 29# and when it is time to upgrade I’ll probably buy a Vassago and turn the GF into a xtracycle.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I had a beautiful aluminum bike (Gold Rush Replica). I rode it to my hearts content until the frame snapped. Gardner was good enough to fix it for free. A couple years later, I found new cracks. Gardner informed me that it was just very old aluminum and it wasn’t worth fixing anymore. Alright, well, 13 years is a pretty good run for an aluminum frame, but I’d like a frame that could last for the rest of my life. Steel is the only material that is likely to do that. Steel also is arguably the most eco-friendly cradle-to-grave bicycle material, by the way.

    I prefer lugs over TIG welds for a few reasons: 1) Welders use an amazing amount of electricity. That translates to a bigger carbon footprint. 2) Lugged frames are easier to repair no matter where in the world you are. I guess that’s a non-issue if you don’t travel with your bike. 3) On the other hand, I also like to be able to do it myself without
    $10,000 of equipment and a super-sized electric bill. 4) Brazing causes less damage to the steel than TIG welding. I like the idea of not riding around on half melted pipes. :) Alright, that’s kind of a ridiculous way to word it, but you get the idea.

    Oh yeah, and I avoid anything with a low weight limit. I weigh 300#. Let’s say the bike weighs 30#, and the cargo could be another 120#. That’s 450#. Even without the cargo, I’m over 300# for me and the bike. Let’s say I’m cookin’ down a hill at however fast. I’d hate to hit a pot hole or something and snap the frame. I definitely need a frame that can flex! Again, steel.

  • Don says:

    One doesn’t need to pay a fortune for a good quality lugged steel frame. There are still a lot of barely used Japanese and American made frames from the 70′s and 80′s that can be found at garage sales and used bike shops at a good price. I’ve been able to build more than a couple bicycles for freinds and family by buying this way, sometimes just putting on fenders, new tires, cable and cable housing, chain and perhaps a seat. An initial investment of $50 to $100 plus perhaps another $200 for new upgraded parts yields a very servicable good looking transportion bicycle that will have a lot life left in it for not much money.

  • Alan says:

    @Don

    I just had lunch with a friend who’s into buying sub-$100 Craigslist bikes and refurbishing them for commuting. He was riding a 70s vintage lugged-steel Nishiki in great condition for which he paid $100. Nice bike…

  • Helton says:

    Strangely, voted for aluminum, even though all my transportational/touring bikes were TIG chromoly MTB’s converted to utilitarian use. Had already many problems with tube breaking, always near the welds, so I’d still would much rather prefer lugged chromoly, but these are quite rare around here (Brazil), for the well known market/industry/fashion reasons.
    I recently had an odd problem with my current chromoly frame, whose aluminum seatpost got “frozen-to-death” inside the seat tube”. Regarding this, I remember having much fewer corrosion-related problems with aluminum frames, and by the way, my aluminum frames always were lighter than the steel ones.
    Unfortunately, aluminum frames most often come WITHOUT braze-ons and fender eyelets, but at the present I’d feel very happy if I had an aluminum frame for commuting and errands. Just for heavy loaded offroad touring (an activity I don’t practice for about almost 3 years now, but that’s just a phase) the “touch of steel” is invincible (that sounds like Conan ;o)

  • John says:

    Back in the ’70s I had a beautiful Raleigh 3-speed with a lugged steel frame. Didn’t realize what I had at the time, and got rid of it when I got to high school. Oh, I wish I had it back.

  • What About Thad? says:

    What Don said.

    I ride a 70s Japanese lugged steel bike that I got for free + $100 in parts to fix up. The paint looks like Hell and the drive train has seen better days, but it rides well enough if I keep up maintenance. I could live with more options than afforded by 27″ wheels, but c’est la vie.

    The perplexing thing is how it gets looked down on by some cyclists and shops. It’s a great big recycle, it’s fun, saved a lot of money, and showed self-sufficiency and know how… you would think those accomplishments would be lauded. Instead I had one shop (sarcastically) tell me I “time to buy a new bike” and another one tell me the serviceable lifespan of a frame is 5 – 10 years due to metal fatigue (presumably including steel since that’s what we were talking about). To be clear I wasn’t seeking help fixing, upgrading or altering my old bike, I was just buying parts and casually talking about my little project. Maybe it says something about me, a hobby mechanic and them, professional mechanics, when I figure out ways to fix things they say should be discarded. Anyway, I’ve learned that in most bikes shops they have little interest in your pursuits when you’re just buying cables and bearings, so now I keep my mouth shut.

    Sorry… I’ve ranted about this before. This site and its open-minded attitude toward bike choice is the antidote so I guess that brings it out in me.

  • Andrew says:

    I voted TIG’d cromo, since the only bike I’ve actually voted with my wallet on (new) is a Jamis Coda Sport.

    That’s pretty incidental, though. It rode nicely, was well-specced, and I got a good price on it. However, if I had found a Jamis Allegro (aluminium frame) in my size, I probably would have bought that instead.

    I’m very agnostic about frame materials. As a technically inclined industrial designer, I admire bike-geekery, and I think a wide variety of materials can do the job nicely if designed properly. I would think nothing of getting aluminium bike; if I get an MTB, that’s likely what I’d get. I also find composites extremely fascinating, and really compelling; if I could swing the dough for a CF road frame, I’d go for that sooner than a comparably priced lugged steel frame.

    Unless I’m refurbishing an old used bike, I can’t ever foresee being able to justify the difference in price between a lugged steel bike and a TIG-welded competitor. I’m going to go against the prevailing grain and say that I actually prefer the clean lines of a welded bike.

  • Alan says:

    Hey Rex, rant away. :-) We may sometimes ride fancy bikes, but we’re all for recycling good ol’ bikes that have life in them too. The “serviceable lifespan of a frame is 5 – 10 years due to metal fatigue ” comment from your LBS is a bunch of baloney when talking about well-made frames, though it’s an all too common mentality these days.

  • What About Thad? says:

    Thanks Alan! Of course I know those attitudes don’t reside here. Even so I really should lose the chip on my shoulder, but it’s been there since I was a kid riding hand-me-down bikes so it’s kind of embedded.

  • Mike says:

    I have five bikes, four of them lugged chromoly steel. The average price of these bikes is somewhere around $85. Of course, I’ve put in another hundred or two each in tune ups and new components, but I’ve still got a garage bursting with lugged steel for less than the price of one modern lugged frame.

    I’m amazed at how many beautiful bikes from the 70s are coming out of garages and onto Craigslist these days. People like me (whose interest lies in restoring them to near-original condition and using them for every day transportation) are in competition with fixie-makers, it seems. Still, there seem to be enough to go around.

    You can check out my stable (and offer suggestions, as all are works in progress) at mikespokes.blogspot.com

  • Aaron says:

    I check craigslist in my area DAILY and its pretty much always either high end mountain bikes, high end road bikes, or crappy kids bikes. Its an extreme rarity to find the classic “lost in a garage for 20 years” gem.

  • Mike says:

    You’re right, Aaron, there are certainly times when it seems like there are 100 Magna kids bikes for every entry worth looking at on CL. It’s also possible that the quality of offerings varies by location. I sometimes look at other cities out of curiosity and sometimes end up wishing I hadn’t. I almost booked a ticket to Chicago not long ago to take advantage of a mother lode of vintage bikes — and not all Schwinns, either. But in my experience, if you’re willing to wade through the BMX and stuff, the good stuff eventually presents itself.

  • Aaron says:

    It definitely varies by location. I live in Vermont, and with the exception of the “college areas” in Burlington, etc, where there are lots of 18-25 people on their fixies and cruisers, the only people on bikes are mountain bikers in the woods, and the stereotypical lycra-clad, carbon fiber frame, ray-ban shades, saddle 3 feet above the handlebars road riding types who vacation and do group rides/supported tours up here because of the great road riding (surprisingly I never see actually loaded touring bikes though).

    I’ve looked at the Boston craigslist and its nothing like up here.

  • Simon N says:

    @What About Thad

    5-10 years? Someone should tell my girlfriend. She’s riding a 40+ year old 3-speed.

    Here’s how that kind of stuff gets put about.

    1) Cynical shop owner wants to move product, thinks up a line to tell naive customers.

    2) Feeds new employees this line as if it were fact.

    3) New employees take it as fact, never investigate it, and pass it on to other, future employees.

    When you can get new bikes at near wholesale, I imagine you don’t care much for the old stuff.

    I once went into a bicycle store near work and asked for canti brake pads. They handed me the ‘Altus’ level Shimano junk, and when I asked if they had anything better the mechanic sniffed and said “Nobody really makes them anymore” and when I pulled a face at that he added “they’re pretty much obsolete anyway”. Which is a clumsy way of saying that I should change my equipment to suit his inventory and stop being such a hassle. It’s a pity he ruined that shop for me because some of the other staff were lovely.

    @Ari & @Helton

    I’m by no means an expert, but I think Tig weld strength depends a bit on the composition of the steel used. Nivacrom (Columbus Zona), for example, doesn’t have this problem so much (something about ‘inhibiting grain length’). Then there are all those air hardening mixes (Reynolds 853 etc). With respect to plain old chromoly (as per the poll), you have a point. I like lugs, by the way, but Tig has it’s own, streamlined appeal when done right.

    Also, I think that the resources used to create a bike are a bit of a red herring, and fade into insignificance over decades of continued use. I mean, carbon is an unavoidable byproduct of the processing of iron ore anyway. Irrespective of how your bike was made you’re playing catch up for at least the first year!

  • eddie f says:

    i just took posession of a 2009 Fuji Touring. Not very pretty tigs, but geometry and a fit that works as well as anything more expensive I have ever owned and ridden…to include lugged Serotta, a number of fine lugged Rivs, and a Kogswell P58. I appreciate the beauty of lugs and my fileted custom Steve Rex club ride bike both are devine. But I got this Fuji for less than $500 slightly used and it rides super fine. I did install a good Ultegra Open Pro set of wheels and a B17 and allowed this to replace my now sold Bleriot. Ain’t cycling and cycles fun?!

  • Aaron says:

    @ SimonN

    re: canti brakes: “Nobody really makes them anymore” – Hahahaha!!! Obsolete? I take it that he didn’t stock Kool Stop Salmon pads for cantis then. What kind of bike shop doesn’t have that in their inventory?

    What a waste of oxygen to have a guy like that a BICYCLE shop. And to think that this guy may be the ambassador to the world of cycling to hundreds of people in his area! How sad.

  • eddie f says:

    By the way the Fuji has a good geo. My 58 has 71 head, 73 seat, 44 stays, and 8 bb drop. Works for me.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier. Lugged steel has the retro grouch appeal. Don’t need any new fangled space age carbon bike. gonna ride your bike in space? go ahead. let me know how it goes. Retro grouch contest anyone? cast iron frames from lodge? just kidding of course

  • Giffen says:

    90% of the bikes sold in the U.S. are total garbage from a design perspective.

    Example: There was a Trek (good brand, right?) mountain bike parked next to mine today. I took a moment to examine in. No fenders. No lights. No chain guard. The aluminum frame was so thick, I doubt it weighed any less than than my steel frame. The saddle looked like it belonged on a road bike. Unsurprisingly, the bike had front suspension. It seems like a steel frame with a wider sprung saddle would make the complicated suspension unnecessary and wouldn’t affect the weight.

    Now, this is precisely the kind of bike most bike shops here would sell you if you asked for a practical commuter bike. Silly, if you ask me.

  • Simon N says:

    @Giffen

    I think that might be a case of bad choice of bike, rather than a bad bike. Comparing aluminium and steel tubing widths is a bit like comparing apples and oranges in that the properties of those metals are completely different, as are the uses of the bikes you’re describing.

    For the intended purpose (XC racing for example) a frame that can handle heavier blows over a shorter lifespan is perhaps more appropriate. Similarly, fenders, sprung saddles and chain guards would only get in the way in a racing environment.

    The problem is that these bikes are consistently bought and ridden by people who don’t race, and never will – and Trek are more than happy to let them. For those people a bike such as you describe is definitely more appropriate.

  • Giffen says:

    Simon N,

    BTW, this was a Trek 3700. I say “poorly designed” because this bike is designed for a rider that doesn’t exist. It’s not suitable for anyone who spends much time off-road, and it’s even less suitable for someone who uses it primarily as a commuter bike.

  • Ian says:

    Giffen,
    The frame may have had a thicker tube cross-section than your steel bike, but the actual thickness of the walls may well have been thinner. Tube cross-section isn’t everything. Although you may prefer it, a wider sprung saddle isn’t for everyone and many people find thinner harder saddles to be more comfortable over long distances. Also, some people don’t like the look of fenders and chain guards, and don’t ride after dusk or before dawn and thus don’t need lights. Remember that not everyone is the same as you, and people prefer a wide range of design options on bikes for a wide range of reasons. There is no “correct” bike design. It’s entirely likely his bike shop just pointed him at an inappropriate bike, though.

  • Andrew says:

    Re: the above conversation…

    I test rode a Gary Fisher Mamba (a beefy 29er XC bike) and winced a bit when I hefted it, because it weighed noticeably less than my steel bike, which was a seriously sporty bike in its own right before I added the full complement of commuter accessories. Aluminium has its virtues.

    I also have issues with denigrating people for choosing an entry level mountain bike as their commuter. While it’s true that it’s not for serious off-roaders, what if you just want to do a little bit of off-roading in your spare time? A Dutch city bike or a skinny-tired hybrid certainly isn’t going to do the trick. And therein lies the rub – you CAN commute on a mountain bike, but you can’t bash roots on a commuter. And a lot of people prefer commuting on mountain bikes anyway – front suspension makes it more forgiving to take shortcuts out of traffic if need be, and wide tires are more stable (and don’t get stuck in streetcar tracks; a serious issue in urban commuting!) at the expense of efficiency. You can also get fenders that will clip on to most any MTB, and a lot of people prefer carrying a backpack to using a rack.

    Different strokes for different folks is all I gotta say…

  • John Lascurettes says:

    What, no choice for bamboo or hardwood? ;)

    I’ve been dreaming of a Renovo Panda and would love to test ride one sometime. Such a thing of beauty that if it feels right, I’d love to own one.

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