Ultra-performance bikes may all be made of carbon fibre these days, but many riders still swear by the ride feel and insouciant robustness of steel, especially in the form of modern, high-grade alloy steels that build into light, springy and comfortable frames. Here are some of our favourite steel-framed road bikes and gravel bikes.
Most modern steel frames are made from chromium-molybdenum alloy steel. As the name suggests these steels have chromium and molybdenum in the mix with carbon and iron, increasing their strength over regular mild steel
Heat-treating, as in tubes like Reynolds 725 and Columbus Spirit, further strengthens the steel, so you need less of it to make a frame
Got very deep pockets? Columbus XCr and Reynolds 953 are made from ultra-strong stainless steel alloys allowing very thin tubes and very light frames. They're expensive and hard to work with, though
Want a frame built to your exact specifications? Steel is the way to go; a custom builder will create your dream bike
While aluminium enjoyed a brief period as the material of choice for professional road racing bicycles, the same can’t be said for steel; it was the dominant frame material during much of the 20th century for bicycles of all descriptions.
In the world of professional cycle racing, each of Eddy Merckx’s 525 victories was aboard a steel bike, but the last time the Tour de France was won on steel was in 1994. That was Miguel Indurain, who won his fourth of five Tour titles on a Pinarello bike (though it was reportedly actually built by Dario Pegoretti).
You might well think the advance of carbon fibre would have rendered steel obsolete, but that has never happened. Steel is (and always will be) a really good material for building bicycles frames, because it’s light, stiff and durable. It's also easy to fix: your local welder will be able to repair a broken steel frame, although some very high-strength steels do need special handling. But try finding someone who can fix a broken carbon frame in the Yellow Pages.
Some cyclists refuse to ride anything but a steel bike, so enchanting is its ride quality. It’s not as widely available as it used to be though, but that is changing as it has become more fashionable in the past few years, with the new wave of bespoke framebuilders choosing to work with steel.
If you want a custom bike, steel is the most versatile and affordable option. Bespoke carbon fibre will cost you a fortune and good luck trying to get a bespoke aluminium frame, leaving steel to become the main choice in the growing bespoke framebuilding sector. Aluminium has now become so cheap to manufacture that you can now get it on bikes costing from as little as £165.
Steel tube manufacturers, such as Columbus and Reynolds, thankfully haven’t given up on steel, and in fact the opposite has happened, they've been investing in new tubesets. The latest steel tubesets, which include the latest stainless offerings, are now lighter and stiffer than anything Eddy Merckx used to race, and a viable alternative to carbon and aluminium.
A beautifully made Columbus steel frame with a stunning ride quality, the Condor Bivio Gravel is well suited to long adventures whatever the terrain. The comfort levels are impressive while the endurance-based geometry delivers a machine that is stable on loose surfaces, but with just enough 'edginess' that you can really have some fun.
The handling is precise without being twitchy. If you hit some loose gravel at speed in the middle of a corner there is so much feedback coming through that beautiful tubeset and full carbon fork that even though the bike is sliding sideways you know exactly where the tyres are heading and you can hold the slide until the grip comes back.
Steel still rules the serious touring bike niche as demonstrated by this bike and the Thorn Club Tour, below. The Wayfarer is an out-and-out touring bike with a quality frame and fork and a solid spec for an attractive price.
The 'Wayfarer' name is a nod to the early days of rough-stuff riding and what we would now call adventure touring (they just called it touring in them days). 'Wayfarer' was the byline of cyclist and writer Walter MacGregor Robinson, whose exploits a century ago inspired a whole movement that coalesced into the Rough Stuff Fellowship.
There's a fair bit about Spa Cycles' dedicated touring bike that Robinson would have recognised: a steel frame and fork, plenty of braze-ons for rack and mudguard mounts, a leather saddle and the stylish British Racing Green paint job. He might also have been familiar with the weight of a package like this, and if he lugged something similar over the Welsh mountain passes then good on him, I say.
The Thorn Club Tour is a very versatile bike, and built like this it's a jolly tractor of a thing that's comfortable on the tarmac and off it. Add some luggage and it's the kind of bike that you could roll out of your garage, hop on and ride to pretty much anywhere in the world, whether the roads go there or not.
The Club Tour is now on its fifth incarnation, and it's a design classic that's stood the test of time: a Reynolds 725-tubed, externally routed steel touring frameset with as many braze-ons as you're likely to need.
The main change for the Mk5 is that Thorn has done a bit of work with the shaping of the stays so that the bike can now accept 650B wheels as well as 700C. The frame is compatible with either disc or rim brakes and there's a set of bosses on each chainstay to allow you to fit cantilever posts in either the 650B or 700C position, and a classic ISO disc mount externally located on the dropout that will take up to a 180mm disc.
The Light Blue Robinson V2 Rival 1x exudes class and comfort, and thanks to plenty of stability and neutral handling allows you to just get away from it all, on the road or off.
Tester Stu Kerton writes: "I love a quality steel frame and the Robinson didn't let me down. It's just so damn comfortable, in a way that only steel can deliver. The ride quality from the tubes feels soft, like it smooths the road surface out but still gives you all of the good vibration, so you can still feel the feedback and be involved in everything that is going on."
The Enigma Endeavour is not only one of the prettiest-looking bikes you can buy, it’s also one of the sweetest riding, with delightful smoothness and fine handling on the road and in the woods. It isn’t exactly cheap, but it is handmade in the UK, which might just be enough to convince you it’s worth it.
One of the early adopters of the whole notion of gravel/adventure/do-it-all bikes, the Cotic Escapade has had a few upgrades since its inception a good five or six years ago. Larger tyre clearances, a new carbon fork and a tapered head tube have now upped the performance and dropped the weight, making the new model an absolute joy to ride whether on or off road.
Sometimes a bike comes along that completely delivers in its capabilities, looks and build quality. The Mason ISO - In Search Of - is one of those bikes. With an Italian hand-built frame, a superb level of finish and detail it nonchalantly comes along and redefines what a drop-bar bike is capable of being.
What Mason has got so right is that the bike is viable for a lot of different types of trail or even road use if you wanted. It’s blatantly not a road bike, but if you wanted to tour, and have a mainly quiet road route, the ISO riding position is comfy for that, and if you want something more off-road the ISO will be at home there too. Somehow, they have struck the perfect balance between all-day comfort and off-road agility.
The Santiago is Sonder's take on the classic steel tourer: smooth, reliable and assured. As an all-round package it really delivers, especially from a comfort point of view, whether on or off-road.
A look at the figures says the Santiago is heavy at 11.79kg (26lb) but it doesn't really feel like it. It has a responsive frame, relatively speaking, and on smooth terrain you can cover a decent mileage without having to work too hard.
Being designed primarily as a tourer, the Santiago has a long wheelbase compared to something with more of racing bias. Our medium with a 56cm effective top tube length covers 1,063mm between its axles, which makes for a very composed bike on the road even when loaded up.
Adventure and allroad bikes are all the rage right now, and not without good reason. Highly versatile and endlessly adaptable, they really do have the potential to eliminate N+1 for good. In taking a plethora of tyre widths, the new Secan – the latest model from young British company Fairlight Cycles – can be pressed into action as a rugged off-road bikepacking bike or shod with wide slicks, mudguards and racks for the daily commute or multi-day tour.
The Secan may not be the lightest option – steel never will be – but it has the performance that makes it a really fun and exciting bike to ride. The ride quality and the smoothness on rough terrain more than compensate as well. I'm a sucker for a good steel road bike, which is why I've always owned one, and the Secan offers that unmistakable balance of comfort, unflappable smoothness and assured handling you expect from a very well designed steel frame.
The defining feature of the Hook EXT is the 650B (27.5in) wheel size. It's becoming popular in the category of do-anything bike – the ability to rock the toughest of mountain bike trails, then either fit really fat slicks for road riding/touring, or a set of 700C wheels on normal tyres makes for as close to one-bike-to-rule-them-all as you currently get.
For 2020 the Hook EXT gets a T47 bottom bracket, tweaked cable routing to work better with dropper posts and new dropouts.
In the glory days of steel, Colnago supplied bikes to Eddy Merckx, Giro winner and world champion Giuseppe Saronni among many other greats of the era. Colnago's steel frames are still made in Italy and fans of steel consider them among the very best available ferrous frames.
The Fairlight Cycles Strael is an absolutely stunning machine, offering four-season adaptability and durability without sacrificing high speed or a racy performance. Intelligent tube choices coupled with a long and low geometry make for a bike you can blast about on all day long and the only muscles that'll ache at the end of it will be from grinning too much.
When it comes to iconic bicycle brands, there are few quite as iconic as Cinelli. This is the Italian company’s XCr Stainless Steel frameset, which it describes as the “jewel in its range”. We can see why. Handmade in Italy, the TIG-welded triple butted XCr wonderfulness with laser etched graphics has a claimed frame weight of just 1,420g.
London’s Condor Cycles is both a bike shop and bike brand, and its Fratello touring bike is its most popular model, showing that there is a lot of demand for a sensible steel frame. The frame has been carefully refined over the years, and the latest update is a move to Columbus Spirit tubing with some custom shaping taking inspiration from Condor’s racier Super Acciaio. And it’s available with disc brakes now as well, making it the ideal winter training, Audax or commuting bike.
Tom Donhou is one of the new wave of young framebuilders specialising in steel and his bikes have been well received, with a particular focus on disc brakes that led to the development of the DSS1 Signature Steel. It’s an off-the-shelf bike with a frame made from Reynolds 853 and an Enve carbon fibre fork and tapered head tube.
The modern steel tubesets are a long way from the skinny steel tubes of yesteryear, and the Enigma Elite HSS is a fine example of how good a contemporary steel bike can be. It uses the latest Columbus Spirit HSS triple butted tubeset with a beefy 44mm diameter head tube and combined with a carbon fibre fork, it displays the sort of ride that would make you question all other frame materials.
Even though Brit brand Genesis Bikes now does carbon fibre, it has partly founded its reputation on fine steel bikes. It’s also responsible for raising awareness of race-ready steel bikes: its Madison-Genesis team raced its Volare model at top level races.
The Equilibrium, an all-rounder with room in the frame for mudguards, and rack mounts, has always been the mainstay of the Genesis steel range. It uses Reynolds 725 double-butted steel tubes with a carbon fork and Shimano 105 groupset.
Britain used to boast many local independent framebuilders, and Holdsworth was one of the most famous names in British cycling and framebuilding. The shop closed down in 2013, after 86 years, but the brand has been resurrected by Planet X and it now offers a range of heritage frames. The Competition is the top-end model and features Columbus triple-butted tubes and a 320g carbon fibre fork.
It’s not just British frame builders that are bringing steel back into fashion, there has been a similar increase in popularity over in the US too. Independent Fabrication was founded in 1995 out of the ashes of mountain bike company Fat City Cycles, and now offers a range of steel road bikes. This one, the Club Racer is a traditional road bike with all the fitments for light touring, making it an ideal winter bike, commuter or Audax choice. It’s available with disc brakes as well.
New Brit brand Mason debuted with two frames, and chose Columbus Spirit and Life tubes for its Resolution. There’s nothing much traditional about this bike, with internal cable routing, disc brakes and space for 28mm tyres and mudguards.
Started in 1946, Mercian Cycles is another long-running UK steel framebuilding business that is thriving today, using traditional framebuilding methods and building each frame to order and made-to-measure. Choosing a frame involves using the company’s online frame builder tool, which lets you chose a model, tubeset, geometry and other details you want on your future bike. The Vincitore Special (pictured) features intricate hand-cut lugs. It can be built from a choice of Reynolds tubesets including 631, 725 and 853.
Rourke Framesets offer a wide choice of steel bikes with a selection of tubesets available to meet different budgets. The custom frame business is headed up by Brian Rourke who has 25 years of road racing experience, and uses this expertise to provide a full bike fit service, to ensure your new bike fits perfectly. Rourke offers framesets in a choice of flavours, from road race to Audax, and complete bikes built to your exact specification.
Portland-based Stoemper takes a lot of inspiration from Belgium for its Stoemper Taylör, a frame made from TIG welded True Temper S3 tubing and a classic road bike geometry. The tubes are oversized but not by the same measure as some more modern steel bikes, with a non-tapered head tube providing a classic appearance.
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David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.