The Tour de France used to be dominated by it, but 22 years have passed since the last Yellow Jersey was won on steel. Now, with steel tubing more advanced than ever, a pro team is bucking the trend
“You need the perfect day to appreciate the perfect race bike. The wind is still; the sun is just up but not too strong, and the temperature nudging 12-15°C. When you’re in good shape, it’s just you, the bike and the road.
“That’s when you can tell if a bike is taut. If it’s light, responsive and reacts to your every instinct. That’s when you know if it’s perfect.”
The comeback story: How steel has returned to professional cycling
These are the words of professional cyclist Gruffydd Lewis, 28, who currently competes for British team Madison Genesis in the Continental level of professional cycling. Lewis is a world-class rider who specialises in one-day ‘classics’. He trains up to 25 hours a week in the mountainous region of Snowdonia in North Wales, a few hours away from his home in Aberystwyth.
Like all professional cyclists and their teams, Lewis and Madison Genesis take dedication and the never-ending search for what’s termed ‘marginal gains’ to pedantic levels. Lighter, stiffer, more durable: the search for the perfect material has never stopped.
Rewind the clock back nearly 60 years. It’s 1958, and Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul has just won his first and only Tour de France atop a road bike constructed from Reynolds 531 steel tubing.
Another 24 out of 25 Tour victories follow via steel tubing, including triumphs for five-time winners Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. That domination comes to a grinding halt after 1994, when Miguel Indurain wins his fourth Tour aboard a steel Pinarello (the brand that Chris Froome and Team Sky currently use). In fact, Marco Pantani’s 1998 win on an aluminium Bianchi is the last time a lightweight carbon-fibre bike hasn’t won the world’s most famous cycle race.
But skip forward to 2013 and Lewis’s team Madison Genesis has just made global headlines when the professional outfit launched and raced a revolutionary steel race bike called the Volare. The professional peleton sat up and took notice and now Olympic gold medallists Elinor Barker, and Laura Kenny and Jason Kenny all ride steel race bikes in training.
953 raises the bar
Why super-humans such as Lewis and the two Kennys are riding steel in search of sending their steed to speeds of up to 65km is down to three numbers: 953. “We use many steels when designing and making bikes but 953 is the choice of the professional,” says Jason Rourke, master framebuilder at Rourke Cycles in Staffordshire.
“In a world of marginal gains, steel can make the difference between victory and disappointment. In all honesty, 953 is technologically more advanced than most carbons out there, and is the major turning point when it comes to steel and high-performance cycling.”
Those three numbers – 953 – give even the most hardened rider goosebumps and is the flagship steel tubing of Birmingham-based Reynolds, who’ve been manufacturing steel tubing since the late 19th-century. In their time, Reynolds has provided tubing for Spitfires, cars and even speed skaters, using different types of steel. But it’s bike tubing that has made Reynolds a global name.
“Our original 531, which won many Tours, was chosen based on the ratio of key elements in the alloyed steel,” says Keith Noronha, MD of Reynolds. “As it happens, the tensile strength is around 53 tons per square inch (tsi). 753 followed – the world’s first heat-treated steel for cycle use (around 75tsi). 853 was the first heat-treated air-hardening steel (83tsi). 953 is the number chosen for the higher-strength, heat-treated tubing, which should be called 1,053 because the tensile strength’s around 105tsi. But that would ruin the symmetry for our marketing team!”
Carpenter Specialty Alloys in the US makes 953 to Reynolds’ specifications in an advanced aerospace weld mill. The metal used is double vacuum melted by Carpenter to achieve high purity levels that match aerospace applications. It’s also ecologically sound; Reynolds is part of the Niche Vehicle Network which is committed to recycling. While steel can be melted down and reused, you end up shredding carbon. “When carbon’s done, what can you do with it?” says Noronha. “With steel, nothing’s wasted.”
“When carbon’s done, what can you do with it? With steel, nothing’s wasted.”
Once the 953 tubes of steel are transported from the US to Reynolds’ UK manufacturing plant, the tubes are butted – and this is key to Reynolds’ success. Reynolds started life way back in the 1840s, manufacturing steel nails, but moved into cycling in the 1890s when seeing the potential impact of John Kemp Starley’s ‘Safety Bicycle’. It was the first bike to feature rear-wheel drive and two similar-sized wheels, but strength and durability remained an issue. While lugs were used (and still are in many cases) to join tubes together in that famous double-triangle shape, there remained weakness where the tubes inserted into the lug.
That’s when Anthony Arthur Reynolds (technical director in the post-war years) had an idea: if the walls of the steel tubing remained the same diameter but were thicker at each end, you’d increase strength without sacrificing weight – a cyclist’s dream. After much trial and error, Reynolds perfected and patented ‘butted tubes’.
Matching carbon for lightness
So why is 953 so special? Because 953 frames now dip under 1.5kg. That’s not quite up there with the lightest carbons, which can nudge 1kg. However, as the UCI (cycling’s international governing body) rules state that the whole bike must weigh more than 6.8kg, that’s not a problem according to Lewis’s team mate, Madison Genesis rider Taylor Gunman.
“There’s about a 600g difference between the Volare 953 I use and our team’s lightest carbon race bike,” Gunman explains, himself a New Zealand national champion. “That’s the equivalent of a filled water bottle. As many of the riders might equip their bikes with two bottles rather than the one I often use, there really is no weight difference.”
The 953 tubes are then delivered to manufacturers and bespoke framebuilders. While some are exported around the world – the Genesis Volare 953 ridden by the Madison Genesis team is constructed in the Far East – others remain on home turf.
One such UK bespoke manufacturer is Stoke-on-Trent’s Rourke Cycles, who’ve been making steel bikes since 1972.
Rourke can still lug weld the tubes but, more popular and lighter, is tig welding. Essentially, this is welding tubes together via an electric arc heat source and a metal filler. Tig welding also provides greater versatility of geometry, so it’s just as easy to design and forge an upright women’s city bike as it is a stretched-out and streamlined road version. Framebuilder Jason Rourke achieves this on a bespoke jig from his workshop.
“The steel frame is then shot-blasted with sand projected at 100psi to smooth out intolerances before the painting magic happens upstairs,” he says.
It’s the uber-performance steel of 953 that has professional riders of the stature of Taylor Gunman purring. He racks up over 20,000km each year, the majority on his Volare 953.
Teams like Sky and BMC Racing spend a fortune seeking out those small improvements that can separate the winners and losers, but Gunman feels they’re missing the biggest gain out there.
Steel has forever been associated with comfort and durability. Those virtues survive to this day. (“Which is great,” interrupts Gunman, “because if it’s a comfortable ride, you’ll ride more and whatever level you are – from commuter to pro – you’ll get fitter.”) But thanks to advances in material technology – which has achieved the dual road-bike design goals of being light and strong – elite cyclists of the calibre of Gunman are reprising memories of when steel dominated the cycling peloton.
“Material advancements mean the lightness of a bike takes care of itself,” Gunman says. “For me, what’s far more important now is the ride quality. These bikes are strong, durable and ride damn fast. Also, like most cyclists, for me looks are also important. And there’s no doubting the Volare is an attractive beast.
“I recently competed against the world’s greatest riders over nearly 200km of gravelly terrain in Belgium at Dwars door het Hageland. Grappling with muddy corners and rolling over cobbles I had an absolute blast. But what really made me smile was, among the 200 riders, I sat comfortably on my performance-steel bike while all around me they wrestled carbon.”
It’s a point that Gruff Lewis explains later: “When I first started racing on steel, the other riders used to look at me with surprised, almost dismissive looks. I think a lot of them are now genuinely jealous of this bike, and its comfort, performance and looks.”
“When I first started racing on steel, the other riders used to look at me with surprised, almost dismissive looks. I think a lot of them are now genuinely jealous of this bike, and its comfort, performance and looks.”
Both Gunman and Lewis will continue to consume the miles – and minimal food – in search of progression and marginal gains, but what does the future hold for steel and cycling in elite cycles? While major bike brands including Trek and Specialized continue to focus on carbon, Gunman, Barker and the Kennys show steel has a performance edge, now, to go with its durability.
The good news is that Reynolds, Rourke and Madison Genesis are no longer fighting a lone materials battle: equally advanced steels from Italian companies Columbus and Dedacciai mean a reappearance at the Tour is no longer an unrealistic dream. So could the 2020 event be won by a rider on a steel bike? “Watch this space…” says Keith Noronha.
Images: Adam Gasson and Tom Watkins
Video: Liam Murphy and Barry Hayden