How to Buy a Modern Steel Road Bike

steel road bike
Conan’s dad knew it – steel is what you can trust whether bike or sword.

This post is really outdated. The bikes here are no longer modern. This post has what you REALLY want.

Awhile ago, I let you in on the bike industry’s big secret: the secret of steel, that strong, relatively light, reliable, repairable, smooth-riding wonder material.

Fact is, you can’t find a steel road bike like my 1999 LeMond Zurich growing on trees. The odds of finding one used are ever out of your favor. So what is a steel-curious road bike owner to do? Let me share a few ideas for you. These are the steel road bikes I’d consider if someone swiped my LeMond and I had a bunch of insurance money to buy a new ride. (BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER: None of the companies mentioned have in any way compensated me for mentioning them. I would genuinely put them on my list. They earned their way here by making products that caught my attention.)

Kona Roadhouse

steel road bike
My Zurich fresh back from the paint shop with a little Liberace sparkle.

The Roadhouse oozes class, even with its many modern accouterments – disc brakes, carbon fork, 1-â…›" headset. a mix of Shimano Ultegra and 105. Of course, the heart of this bike is Reynolds 853 steel tubing. That’s the same stuff as my LeMond. One question that remains is -- where is the frame made? I’m not saying it has to be US-made to be quality stuff. But I like to support American people doing skilled jobs. This is a question I have about many of the frames in this blog post. Still, you could do a lot worse for $2,400-ish.

Ritchey Road Logic

steel road bike
That is a classy custom steel road bike – for a reasonable price.

This is a beautiful, elegant lightsaber of a steel road bike. It’s made from Ritchey-branded tubes. If I’m reading the website correctly, the Road Logic comes with a Ritchey carbon fork for a very reasonable $1,050. The downside here is that it’s frameset only. That might be good for someone out there with a garage full of parts. The rest of us are gonna have a hard time not getting bent on the components.

Curtlo Custom Road

If you’ve been riding bikes awhile, you’ve probably heard a few whispers about Curtlo. It’s a small operation that somehow makes quality hand-made custom frames for a very reasonable price. My guess is Doug Curtiss found the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, and just makes frames for nice people because he likes to -- and he doesn’t mind barely making money. Or perhaps he kidnapped a bunch of Santa’s elves, and has them wielding blow torches in a dimly lit basement somewhere, subsisting only on fruitcake and eggnog. The frame-only price is $990 for a frame with a single powdercoated color. I think it’s entirely feasible to get a made-to-order Curtlo Custom Road with a mid-level component group and a carbon fork for about $2,500. One custom item I’d be sure to add is pegs for a full-size frame pump.

steel road bike
A fine, classically influenced steel road bike.

Raleigh Record Ace

If you want to go full-on retrogrouch, the Raleigh Record Ace is your bike. Steel fork and Campagnolo parts – none of this Shimano or SRAM nonsense! (Disclosure – I’d happily ride a mid-level group from any of these companies -- Veloce, 105, Rival, whatever.) I have some quibbles with this bike, even at its $1,900 price point. They are: shitty hubs, a lower-end Reynolds 631 tubeset, iffy rims. The wheels are an easy problem to overcome. The tubeset is still decent – but you’re only a few bones away from a better one. And again, where is the frame made?

Breezer Venturi

A few weeks ago, this bike was making me drool with its Ultegra/105 mix and really, really ridiculous good looks. But I can no longer confirm that Breezer still makes the Venturi. It no longer appears on the Breezer website. You might be able to find a few on closeout, but that usually means limited sizes. I’m not sure of the tubing’s origins or where it’s being welded.

Greg LeMond Washoe

steel road bike
This Gunnar Roadie is absolutely stunning.

It’d be wrong not to mention the latest iteration of a LeMond steel road bike. That’s the Washoe, and it’s a US-built Reynolds frame with a top-end ENVE carbon fork. I have to say, though, that Greg might be putting a high value on having his name on the bike: A list price of $3,150 for a bike with a Shimano 105 group doesn’t sit that well with me – especially next to the artisan Curtlo frames. Honestly, there’s something a little off aesthetically, too. I won’t say it’s ugly … but it doesn’t make me drool.

Bianchi Vigorelli

I love the color many people know as Celeste Green. If you feel like fighting over whether it’s blue or green, go somewhere else. That’s not all that’s nice about the Vigorelli, though. $1,750 (Street price, not MSRP) for a mostly 105 group. I’d definitely ask some pointed questions again about where its Reynolds 631 tubes are welded. But I’d almost feel like a heel at that price.

Gunnar Roadie

Oh, these Gunnar Roadie frames are awfully nice: An off-the-shelf frame for $900, with another three-and-a-half Benjamins getting you a full-custom fit. True Temper OS frame tubing, US made. Not bad at all. I see one big downside: You’re on your own for components, or at the mercy of your local dealer. And honestly, it is never as economical to piece it all together. Still, I will not quibble with Gunnar quality, and its frame prices are very reasonable. I also do like the option of selecting my own color.

So What Steel Road Bike Would I Buy?

I love small companies. I like picking my own damn color. So unless the waiting list is 6 months or more, I’d go with the Curtlo. I’d ask him to mirror the Zurich’s measurements because it’s always been a nice fit for me. But – and pay attention, I say, pay attention here – I’d also want Doug’s input for my measurement. For all I know, I might think the LeMond fits me perfectly without it actually being true. Doug’s expert eye would likely notice what I really need versus what I think I need.

Do you have a favorite source for steel frames that working people can actually afford? Let me know if I missed it!

What the Bicycle Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

bicycle industry
Sixteen years and going strong. That’s a steel bicycle for ya!

This post is pretty old- if you want to know what’s REALLY up with modern steel road bikes, be sure to check this one, too!

There’s a bike the bicycle industry doesn’t want you to know about. And it’s in my garage.

Its frame is a top-secret alloy that is light, easy to fix, smooth-riding and strong. Cared for well, it can last indefinitely.

Sounds impressive, right? What is this new machine?

It’s a 1999 LeMond Zurich. It’s made out of heat-treated steel. And the thing handles just as great as the day I bought it.

So why is this bike such a threat to the bicycle industry? Because it absolutely flies in the face of everything the cycling industrial complex wants you to believe: that carbon fiber is the material of the future, that you need to buy a new frame every few years, that everything needs to be shiny/new/fancy.

English: Lemond Zurich 2000 repainted by pro p...
English: Lemond Zurich 2000 repainted by pro paint shop.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steel: The Bicycle Industry Secret

Right now, there are plenty of cyclists who have never ridden a steel-framed road bike. They grew up on aluminum, with carbon, maybe with aluminum with carbon stays.

Put these cyclists on a quality steel bike, and I promise they’ll rave over the smooth ride. They will not, unless that are at the absolute apex of the sport, notice the weight.

Let’s call an upper-end steel frame four pounds. A carbon frame? You can probably get one to about 2.5 pounds. That’s 1.5 pounds. If you have an extra 1.5 pounds hanging off your torso, don’t look to a lighter frame to make yourself faster.

The bicycle industry has made bikes like my Zurich an endangered species. The closest I can find to it is the very, very slick Kona Roadhouse. That’s about $2,400, where my Zurich was about $1,700 in its heyday. It also has a classic/classy look, refusing the current trend to look like a NASCAR racer or a stealth bomber.

steel road bike
Hey! That’s me on my freshly repainted, re-vamped Lemond Zurich. Amazing what a steel road bike with a new paint job and a fresh Ultegra group can do.

Committing to Steel

Here’s the thing: A steel bike like the Roadhouse will stay with you. You’ll need to replace a few bits here and there, as I did with my Zurich. So far, that’s been a rear shifter (I now need a front shifter), a fork (carbon – it has a limited lifespan), the headset, the stem and the handlebar. The bicycle industry has definitely endangered my Zurich by making 1-inch threadless carbon forks a rarity. The Easton fork I use is no longer made. And then there’s my reliable 9-speed shifter/cog combo.

I’m having one helluva time finding a left shifter that’s anywhere on the same planet – a Sora left shifter would be kind of an odd pairing with a Dura-Ace right. This means I’ll probably wind up needing a new set of shifters, which means a change to 10 or 11-speed, which also means a new rear cogset and possibly a new rear wheel with the compatible freehub body.

How necessary is all this? Not very. An awesome rider will still be awesome with a 9 or 11-speed rear cog. And if you suck, you’ll suck just as bad with a 9 or an 11.

The Bicycle Industry Loves Carbon

I know what I’m saying is a tough pill to swallow, especially if you shell out faithfully to prop up the bicycle industry every few years with a shiny new carbon bike. But try a steel bike sometime. Borrow one from a friend who’s been riding a good long time. Use any means necessary short of stealing one. It’ll surprise you, I promise.

Now, I know exactly what bicycle industry apologists are about to squawk: It’s better for customers to buy more. It helps drive the prices down. And you’re wrong. Do you think Seven Cycles or Independent Fabrications succeed on the notion of disposable bicycles? No. They count on you to love and keep their products – maybe even turn them into heirlooms.

If buying your rough-riding, limited-lifespan bikes makes you happy, do it. It’s OK with me. I know that some people love new shit. But at least take a ride on steel sometime and see what you’re missing.

Want to know more about cycling’s big secret? Read this post about some really cool steel road bikes you can afford.