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Steel road bikes: 3 of the best reviewed for tri

Not ridden a steel bike since you were a kid? Then things have moved on. But should you go steel for tri? We assess the pedigree of three steel road bikes

 The Ironman World Championships celebrated its 40th edition on 14 October 2017, with the vast majority of bike frames in the mammoth 2,000+ strong transition rack in Kona, Hawaii (and most triathlons worldwide) being constructed of carbon fibre. Yet for the first decade of Ironman’s lifetime, nearly every bike would’ve been made of steel, with the early legends and pioneers of the sport – Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, Paula Newby-Fraser and our very own Dave Scott – all building their Kona-winning careers on a steel bike frame.

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Yet by the late 1980s, Cannondale’s radical aluminum frames had gained acceptance and then, after a brief liaison with titanium, carbon fibre took firm hold of the bike market. Steel was seemingly consigned to history as too heavy, old and unfashionable, with Allen riding a carbon fibre Huffy (actually built by Kestrel) to Kona victory in 1992 and the Spanish great Miguel Indurain being the final man to win the Tour de France on a steel bike in 1994. 

But as riding possibilities expanded, steel became the perfect material to fill the burgeoning niches for fixies, urban warriors, utility, rough stuff and adventure bikes, and now gravel riding. A raft of new craftspeople, many of them British, have revived interest in the possibilities for steel fabrication, meaning steel can be a premium product again and is seeing a resurgence on racing bikes.

Here we’ve brought together three beautiful, classic-looking steel road machines to see how they rate for year-round UK riding, taking into account durability, weight and endurance comfort, as well as the ability to provide high-paced efforts that could compete with carbon once the UK tri season returns.

Serial innovator

Tom Ritchey is cycling’s serial innovator. Even before building one of the first mountain bikes in 1978, he’d been building and racing his own bikes with great success at USA national level. After perfecting his fillet-brazing technique, Ritchey began using larger, often ovalised tubing in his lugless frames, and with the arrival of TIG welding, designed his signature Logic butted tubing in 1984. The heat-treated, triple-butted tubing on today’s Logic frameset is derived from the original concept, with short-butted sections optimised for TIG welding and weight saving.

Those 45 years of frame building experience are evident on the Road Logic (£2,699) tested here, where its forged and machined tapered head tube saves 80g compared to a conventional design with external headset cups. We tested a 55cm example, with its claimed frame weight of 1,769g, plus 345g for the carbon fork. With a high-quality build, the only difference in overall weight between the Logic and a similarly-equipped carbon machine is the frame’s 800g or so additional mass.

At 7.82kg for our medium, the Ritchey is the lightest on test, helped by its full Shimano Ultegra compact groupset and by the all-Ritchey component list. Neat touches abound, from the cast dropouts to the split seatpost clamping sleeve that strengthens the top of the seat tube, and holds the seatpost firmly by squeezing the seatstays together with a neatly integrated bolt.

Next up is the Reilly Spirit HSS (£2,499) from Brighton-based Reilly Cycle Works, which showcases the enormous frame designing and building talents of Mark Reilly, respected as a master of his craft. Experienced with titanium and steel, Mark has recently progressed to hydroformed Spirit HSS as used here. Hydroforming lets frame designers get more creative, and offers the ability to customise a frame’s stiffness, comfort and looks with specific tube profiles. The triple-butted steel forms a flattened top tube, a down tube with flattened upper surface, extremely flattened seatstays that broaden towards the seat tube, and ovalised chainstays with no crimping or bridge. The 44mm diameter head tube is a match for the oversized down tube and swoopy carbon fork.

What sets the Reilly Spirit HSS frame apart is its fillet-brazed construction, which creates clean, flowing joints that are complemented by the beautiful paint finish and smart graphics. It’s far more labour intensive than TIG welding, and accounts for much of the cost, but each frame is bespoke, and the price includes paintwork design. Customers can opt for internal cable routing, depending on their chosen groupset.

Yorkshire resurrection

The final bike in this steel showdown is the Holdsworth Strada (£2,949). Riders of a certain age may recall when Holdsworth was one of the finest British bike manufacturers around, with steel machines being raced by prominent riders. Sadly, the original company fell by the wayside several years ago, but the brand has been resurrected by current owner Planet X in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and offers quality steel frames in keeping with Holdsworth’s
grand heritage.

The Strada was designed by Mark Reilly [of Reilly Cycle Works, above], and is built from Reynolds 953 stainless steel. It’s TIG welded before being highly polished, apart from its matt detailing, and the enamel painted brass W.F Holdsworth head tube badge adds authenticity. An oversized head tube is a useful concession to modern cycling, but behind it every tube is slim and round, apart from the subtly ovalised chainstays, which are crimped to provide clearance for 28mm tyres.

Opposing the vintage-looking frame are the charcoal and black components that make it go. A compact Shimano Ultegra groupset with 50/34 up front and 11-32 at the back ensure no hills are out of reach, and another Planet X brand, Selcof, provides the carbon fork and seatpost plus aluminium cockpit. The complete bike price is one of the highest, but it’s still impressive that it includes a Fulcrum Racing Zero wheelset with ceramic bearings, something guaranteed to lift the performance of any bike.

Natural spring

If the slender tubing gives the impression that the Ritchey’s too spindly to perform, think again. There’s a particular feeling that comes with riding steel, and even though modern incarnations are tempered by having a carbon fork, and seatpost too in Ritchey’s case, it’s undeniably unique. When seated, it feels similarly efficient to carbon, if a little more talkative, but when standing, you feel the inherent lateral flex more. Climbing out of the saddle accentuates the frame’s natural spring as you push through the power phase of each pedal rotation. 

Ritchey’s WCS Zeta II wheelset has shallow, slightly aerodynamic rims, asymmetric at the rear, with bladed spokes and a wide stance up front. They’re usefully responsive and although just 22mm wide externally, increase the volume of the own-brand 25mm tyres to a plump 27mm, just within the frame’s recommended 28mm maximum. That extra size equals more grip, and the Logic seemingly conforms to the road surface in corners, pushing against the tyres before firing out again.

The frame communicates road feel well, with sharp bumps and excessive vibrations smoothed by the tyre volume, carbon seatpost and classic bend carbon bar. Ritchey’s Streem saddle is a good shape and very supportive, but the light padding makes it on the firm side. A more cosseting personal choice could improve long-range comfort. Our 55cm bike has 73.5° seat and head-tube angles, ensuring quick, lively handling, but it’ll still descend with solidity and feels sharp when turning in to corners, which it whips through like a snake. The Logic wants you to take that extra loop, and rewards you with a ride that combines old-school knowhow with modern sensibilities.

New Ultegra analysis

Our Reilly model is one of the first bikes we’ve had supplied with the new Shimano Ultegra groupset, with hints of Dura-Ace, and refinements across the board. Its compact 50/34 chainset is paired with a climb-friendly 11-32 cassette and long cage rear mech. The brake callipers are a little less angular,
the hoods slimmer and the shift levers enlarged.

Apart from the lever feel, the groupset is mostly forgotten once riding, as the frame takes centre stage. Whereas a good carbon fibre frame seems to float over the road surface, only feeding back short passages of surface texture, the Reilly maintains an impressively detailed commentary. It’s a firm ride, but not harsh, smoothing road vibrations and taking the edge off sharp hits.

The complete bike carries a little more weight than the other two here, but from the way it rides, you’d never know. Assertively swift over rolling terrain, the handling is crisp, confident and predictable, and makes good use of the 25mm Continental tyres’ generous 27mm inflated width. It’s content to cruise, but standing on the pedals unleashes a bit of a hooligan, switching from assertion to controlled aggression. The wheels aren’t super light, but deliver able performance to match the frame’s ability and, at 23mm wide, help stability, too.

Both head and seat angles are 73º, which is quite normal, but we found the zero setback seatpost pushed us too far forward of our preferred pedalling position. The narrow 40cm Deda bar is easier to live with, but a customer could specify alternatives to suit. The Reilly Spirit HSS has lines and a lustrous finish we could gaze at all day. Such metallic artistry deserves to be enjoyed, and riding it is a treat that improves with every hill crested, and one we would never tire of. 

Addictive and effective

Our large Holdsworth model is in the mid-range on test at 7.88kg, possibly because of its larger cassette and alloy bar, and, on the road, its lower mass shows. The effect the Fulcrum wheels have on performance is considerable, with their thick, bladed spokes, milled rims and rigidity guaranteeing slick progress. Hutchinson’s Fusion 5 25mm tyres roll well and offer decent grip.

The 15cm head tube and 57cm equivalent top tube combine classic looks with the option of a long, low riding position. From the first metres, there’s something special about this frame, as it bounds up the road. Every pedalling input has a more noticeable effect on forward motion than any other bike here.

Undoubtedly the Fulcrums account for some of this, and when out of the saddle, driving against the rigid wheels while pushing down on the pedals creates a definite spring that seems to whip the bike forwards between pedal strokes. We’re not talking trampoline here, it’s not elastic in the material sense, but is similar to the feeling you get from your first ride on oval chainrings, where the bike’s response seems to accelerate within each revolution. It’s pretty addictive, though, and very effective, ensuring the Strada clips along at a very non-vintage pace.

The frame’s dynamic nature makes it very talkative, with surface commentary helping when things get twisty. Its 73º parallel angles are an ideal blend of stability at all speeds and composed corner carving, with no nasty surprises when you need to change line mid-bend. Not only is the Strada stiff enough to fly, but firm saddle aside, it rides the bumps very well too and won’t be shaken from its course. It’s an impressive spec on an impressive frame, and our only worry is how often we’ll want to polish it.

The overall verdict

If we’ve only learnt one thing during this test, it’s that steel frames of this value are crafted with a skill that’s more tangible than an equivalent carbon frame. Deciding on the winner changed daily, depending on where we rode. All have great attributes, with Reilly’s incisive handling and craftsmanship abundantly apparent.

The top two just have more to offer, however, and Ritchey’s Logic shows what decades of experience and innovation feel like, with a complete Ritchey package whose whole seems greater than the apparent sum of its parts. Its lively ride is sharp, fast and refined. 

But, with one of the shiniest frames we’ve ever seen, celebrating the beauty of British stainless steel, the Holdsworth Strada is our winner. With credit due to designer Mark Reilly, this exciting frame makes the most of the component spec it deserves, and is a blast to ride at any speed, with timeless looks and simply incredible value.


 
 

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