CategoriesGear

Steel Road Bikes for 2020 and Beyond

All of you people searching for info about the Lemond Zurich and various other steel road bikes have inspired me to give you something new to chew on. I already wrote about what were then “modern steel road bikes,” but things change.

Let’s have a look at what advice I’d give someone buying a steel road bike in 2020 – or a road plus bike or gravel bike.

What’s Changed About Steel Road Bikes?

A few months ago, I ran into a friend during one of my favorite road rides. These days, I ride a Lynskey Urbano. It’s a titanium cyclocross frame built up as a “road plus” bike.

My buddy was on a steel Bruce Gordon frame built up also as a road plus. Now, he and I often disagree on things. But we’re united in our belief that the road plus bike is the best damn thing to ever happen.

So what’s different about a road plus bike versus a typical road bike like my Lemond Zurich?

Huge Tire Clearance

These days, I roll on 32 or 38c tires. My buddy was on 40s, and we can both go even bigger. This tire clearance is the first feature that allows a bunch of other magic. A road plus bike can shape-shift from a fast roadie bike to — if you have enough braze-ons — a touring rig. And let me tell you, a fast downhill section on 38c tires at 60psi is so much more confident-handling than 25c at 110psi.

Disc Brakes

I love disc brakes, especially the hydraulic variety. The difference in stopping ability between my Lemond and Lynskey is astounding. This is great for handling everything from traffic to squirrely cyclists.

Thru-Axles

I’m sure I can find someone to argue with me about this – but I love thru-axles. It may seem like cork-sniffing to some, but I can definitely detect a more solid feel on thru-axles bikes. That’s especially true when I’m really stuffing the bike into a corner.

Relaxed Fit and Handling

I always loved the feel of my Zurich. It felt like a monorail. Then I put that Lynskey together. The angles are ever-so-slightly more relaxed than the Lemond. That means the Lynskey holds a line with even more confidence; I never feel like I’m fighting it. Still, it manages to go where I need it to, when I ask it to.

Big Head Tubes

My Lynskey has a tapered head tube versus the skinny, old-style 1-inch straight head tube of the Lemond. I can take this or leave it. I don’t detect a profound difference there — though I notice a big difference in stiffness between newer 31.8mm bars versus the old 25.6 (did I get that right?) of yore. The real factor here is that forks for tapered headtubes are far easier to replace. It’s not easy finding quality, reasonably priced stuff for the 1-inch steerer tube.

Got any Recommendations for Steel Bikes for 2020?

Look, if you’re looking for steel bikes, you probably already have some strong opinions. You might even know everything I’ve already mentioned. I’m really just hoping to reinforce what you’re thinking, and maybe introduce you to some stuff that flies slightly under the radar.

So you know that bikes from the afore-mentioned Bruce Gordon are gonna be pretty awesome. What if your wallet is somewhat less fat?

Here is what tops my list at the moment. I went for the more reasonably priced stuff because it’s easy to spend way too much money.

The All-City Cosmic Stallion

steel bikes for 2020
If this is your bike and photo, hit me up for a photo credit! (Found on Reddit)

All-City Cycles does something few bike brands do – they imbue their bikes with some personality. From names to color schemes, they pour some mojo into their bikes. That matters to me.

They make the Cosmic Stallion with SRAM or Shimano options.

It’s a go-anywhere, do-anything sort of bike with an MSRP of $2,700 for Shimano GRX, a carbon fork and tire clearance up to 47mm.

Fairdale Rockitship

steel road bikes for 2020
If this is your Fairdale photo, feel free to hit me up for a photo credit!

The Fairdale Rockitship is only available as a frame and fork, so how it takes shape is ultimately up to you. For $700, you’re off to a good start with a steel frame and an ENVE carbon fork.

You get massive tire clearance (at least 45mm) along with 12mm thru axles. It also has three water bottle mounts – a nice touch, for sure.

Coming Soon

When it comes to flying under the radar, Milwaukee Bicycle Company is practically Area 51. I wandered across them a few years ago, when I priced a steel 105 road plus/gravel build for about $3,000. That’s definitely a higher-end proposition than All-City or Fairdale, but these frames are built in the US.

You also get your choice of color, which is pretty rare these days. And I’m not just talking about a few colors. They have quite a smorgasbord.

Right now, it looks like the Milwaukee Bicycle Company website is under construction. If you’re buying a steel road bike (or road plus, or gravel or cyclocross or whatever), I recommend that you hang tight or give them a call to see what’s up.

Steel Road Bikes for 2020 — What Did I Miss?

So that’s what I have. Are there any cool, reasonably priced steel road bikes for 2020 that have you excited? Let me know about them. It’s always good to put the spotlight on the less-big brands.

(Thanks to Steven from the MeWe group “Let’s Ride” for the cover photo of the mud-crusted Breezer!)

CategoriesAdventuresGear

Gravel Bikes: Advice for Buying and Building

After riding the same road bike since 1999, I’ve decided to replace it. Just a few years ago, I had it — a Lemond Zurich — repainted. And then I put an Ultegra 6800 group on it. I just rode it and loved it in the 70-mile Tour de Tucson. 

But gravel bikes have turned my head. Or audax, adventure, gran fondo, road-plus, or alt-road (ick) bikes -- whatever name you call it, it pretty much means more relaxed geometry, clearance for bigger tires, disc brakes and through-axles. Anyway, I’ll keep calling it a gravel bike, even though I’ll ride it on the road a good 80 percent of the time.

Here’s the deal: Drivers are making more and more nervous. They get away relatively scot-free with killing and injuring cyclists. Add to that an improving but still below-par local bike infrastructure -- and a multitude of unpaved canal routes, and you have a perfect place to take advantage of the "go anywhere" capabilities of a gravel bike.

Also, this whole gravel-riding thing just looks fun. They can go off-road and cover ground faster than mountain bikes. They’re in their element on unpaved forest roads, which opens up possibilities to see things and go places that are new to us. So yeah, I’m in.

Niner Custom. #whiteindustries #dtswiss custom wheels. #3tcycling bar and stem with #praxisworks crank #gravelbike #gravelcyclist #roaddisc

Gravel Bikes: Build or Buy?

I considered buying a whole bike – I wanted steel or titanium. I love my titanium Domahidy mountain bike, and obviously the ride quality and longevity of my Lemond are strong arguments for steel. I saw quite a few bikes that I saw – The Milwaukee Mettle is wonderful; the All-City Cycles Space Horse likewise; and Fairdale’s new Rockitship looks terrific. This is just to name a few solid possibilities.

I am not a big fan of the big guys like Trek, Specialized or Giant – not because their bikes are inferior, because they do what they do extremely well. I just crave a certain mojo from my bikes that the bigger brands don’t deliver.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes and their riders getting ready to launch from McDowell Mountain Cycles in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

I put myself into “scan” mode for a few months. If I found a great deal on a complete bike, I’d do it.

Ultimately, I found a good frame and chose to repurpose the compatible parts on my Lemond; they’re are all relatively new and extremely solid. And I could focus on the filling bits according to my own personal vision.

Few Standards, Many Options for Gravel Bikes

Now, gravel bikes are still a bit of a Wild West. Some have two chainrings, while some roll mountain bike-style with one. Some are for touring/bikepacking and need all sorts of additional places to carry stuff. There’s definitely a learning curve in learning what to look for. That’s why I’m collecting my thoughts as I start this process, and I will share with you whatever I learn.

This post will link out to future posts covering some of the major details. By way of background, I used to work at a well-respected local bike shop. I’ve built and maintained my own bikes since the 90s. I leave hydraulic disc brake and suspension maintenance to others, but handle everything else myself. I’m not quite a cheapskate, but I love a good value.

gravel bikes
This rider is sporting a Lauf fork, a cool suspension fork from Iceland (aka one of my favorite places on the planet). And yes, gravel bikes are perfect in Iceland!

Right now, all I have in my possession is a frame. After a lot of looking at geometry and asking a lot of questions, I landed on the Lynskey Urbano. Now, I was a little bit skeptical because it’s designated as a commuting bike on the Lynskey website. But I spent some time emailing a Lynskey sales rep, and I compared its geometry with my Lemond and with other eligible frames. The geometry is only a bit more relaxed than the Lemond, and its wheelbase is only a smidge longer. Some bikes seemed like limousines! It also has a threaded BB shell, which I prefer.

Just eyeballing the Lynskey, it appears very nicely made – good welds, beefy stays, nicely shaped tubes. It’s set up for flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm through axles, and can accommodate electronic shifting.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes hitting the backroads of Arizona.

OK, that’s about it for now! Coming in future episodes – these will all have links when the posts go live, so you can use this post as your central Gravel Bikes hub:

  • Picking a fork – and why I am convinced that carbon forks are great, but they’re also a giant rip-off. I know this will be controversial. I’m willing for someone to prove me wrong when I make the case. Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know.
  • Wheels -- after great luck with pre-built Shimano and Stan’s wheels and spotty luck with locally hand-built wheels, I take the plunge with a reputable company that does nothing but build wheels. Their insightful blog is part of the reason I picked them in particular.
  • Tires are almost as difficult to choose as wheels. What width? What pressure? What tread? Argh!
  • A few thoughts about what impacted my choices beyond specs and prices, from the advice of knowledgeable friends to how companies handle themselves on social media networks.
  • Putting it all together and riding. I’m planning to go with 31c Vittoria tires to start. My big question is whether the do-anything, go-anywhere wheels and tires make my performance take a big knock. I’m determined to do better at the 2018 Tour de Tucson, and I’m curious to see what impact riding a gravelly, road-plus bike makes on my times as I train.

Special thanks to Craig Swetel from the Facebook group Riding AZ Gravel. Not only did he let me help myself to most of the photos in this post, he also is spreading the word about gravel-riding fun.