Sunday, August 22

Carbon Lacks Luscious Lugs

In the Olden Days, a Quality Bicycle Had a Lugged Frame and Reynolds "531" Tubing
In past “Carbon” articles, indexed here, characteristics of carbon, such as its low density and ability to be tailored, were highlighted along with many elements that present challenges to the designers and users of carbon bikes. If you weren’t reading carefully, you might have concluded that people should just stick with steel and avoid all those ways things can go wrong. You’d be wrong.

There remain many people devoted to steel bikes. Locally, in the DFW Metroplex, Southwest Frameworks will build you a custom steel frame made to the highest workmanship standards (they have a lot of good photos showing the process at their website). Indeed, I grew up under the influence of Eugene Sloane; believing that any good bike was lugged, while one with Reynolds “531” double butted steel tubing was a bicycle aristocrat. When Sloane’s book was published, my 1967 Jaguar XKE came without air conditioning or power steering, the windows went up and down via a winder, and side mirrors were an extra cost option. Nobody had heard of cassette tapes, much less MP3 or satellite navigation. Unlike less sporting cars, Jaguar had special mounting points for anyone wanting to install shoulder belts.
Reynolds Had it all. Even the Russians Used it in Their Track Bikes. Note How Sloane Spells "Columbus"
That was then. Things have changed.

Nowadays, steel remains an excellent material to make heavy bicycles from, particularly when the manufacturer wishes to avoid investing in facilities capable of competitively building high performance machines. That fact is the main reason why cheap bikes, like the Chinese Flying Pigeon, universally use steel frames. A traditional steel frame will weigh four pounds or more (sometimes MUCH more), compared to three pounds for aluminum, while a high end carbon frame weighs in closer to 2.5 pounds, and a few weigh even less. With modern analytical methods, the ride of steel can be closely matched, or improved on, with either aluminum or carbon. Certainly, if identical components are used, the steel bike will only weigh 2 pounds more than its carbon counterpart, but that is a world of difference for a performance bike, and particularly for a lightweight, high end bike, since most of the cost is in the components.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a utility bike, and plan to load it with accessories, 2 pounds is a minor consideration. In such a bike, esthetic considerations, such as lugs, may or may not be important to you, along with such creature comforts (all of which add even more weight) as double legged kick stands, chain cases, and internal gears. In these cases, the steel frame becomes more than just a material, it becomes part of the total bike experience, and those lugs on steel frames ARE luscious.

I still ride steel framed bikes where speed performance is secondary. Frankenbike was partly chosen for its combination of Reynolds tubing and lugwork, combined with its low cost. As I said, I like steel bikes, but remember I also like vintage Jaguars. I will probably always keep a steel bike around, just as I keep the Jaguar E type. Aluminum and carbon are the real present and future of fine bicycles, and designers are still learning how to exploit the full potential of each of these materials that have passed steel by. Nowadays, bikes such as the Gary Fisher Simple City and Civia Hyland are made of aluminum.

By the way, the 1967 Jaguar E type also used Reynolds “531” steel tubing, unlike new Jags which use aluminum. Aristocrats may be fading relics of the past, but they’re still proud.
The Front Subframe of Jaguar E types Used Reynolds "531" Tubing, Just Like Raleigh and the Schwinn Paramount


Chuck Davis said...

While 531 frames are something less than $ 00.10 a dozen ya just don't see full a wrap seat stay detail like that every day!

John Romeo Alpha said...

Most of us who are not elite racers would do fine with a good steel frame, and losing ten pounds off the power plant rather than worrying about 2 pounds off the frame. I do appreciate carbon on a road bike, titanium too, which is another fine material for frames, but I get an uneasy feeling when I see mountain bikes made from the black plastic stuff. With all the rocks and whatnot that gets flipped up at you from the trail, a C mountain frame outside a race is an expensive way to tempt fate IMHO.

cafiend said...

Seems to me like there are a few details still to work out in carbon bike construction, particularly in carbon componentry. And JRA's right that many riders would do better to take some weight off themselves rather than the bike.

Working in a shop, counseling customers through all sorts of neuroses about bikes, bike parts, riding position and more, I have nothing but deep appreciation for a simple, durable bike (or a half a dozen of them) that I can ride for years and miles. No mysterious creaks, pops, snaps or shifting systems with a mind of their own.

Aluminum frames evolved over about 20 years to become the mundane product we know today. Early versions were either terrifyingly whippy or kidney-bruisingly stiff. Tubes were joined by screwing and gluing, gluing only, or welding. It was presented as a deeply esoteric art beyond the grasp of mass-production monkeys until some time in the 1990s when aluminum became almost the universal frame material of the latter part of the mountain bike boom. Carbon will soon have the same distribution. But just as aluminum components spawned some unsuccessful mutants (anyone remember Hyperlite handlebars?) so will the carbon era produce many examples that fail to survive. Meanwhile, if you just want to enjoy a nice ride, there's plenty of proven, reliable equipment out there made out of boring materials.

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