Just as aluminum is now the material du jour of the average bicycle in America, steel was in the past. Really, it wasn't that long ago either. Steel was the only real choice for practical bicycles for decades. Most every design that you have ever seen executed for use on your off road bicycle was first done on a steel framed bicycle and often in steel itself. The modern bicycle owes everything to this noble material and the multitude of ways that it can be used. Of course, most of Western Culture was built on the back of steel, so it should come as no surprise that bicycles flourished because of it. ( pictured is a Salsa "El Mariachi" 29"er frameset made from True Temper OX Platinum steel alloy tubing)
Again, there is alot more going on here than meets the eye. It's an understatement to say that we take steel for granted. I found out alot of stuff about steel from an article posted originally on Pirate 4X4.com . If you thought that the link on the Aluminum post was total pocket protector, geek material, than you ain't seen nuttin' yet! ( appologies to B.T.O.) This steel and iron stuff is amazing! Once again, we aren't really understanding what we're talking about as bike geeks when we say "CroMo" or "4130". Read the info, and you will see what I mean! I'll forewarn you though. You're going to need a pot of black goodness to get ya through it all!
Now that you've been pointed in the right direction, and have hopefully read and understood the pertinent info, we can move on. Let's see about today's current state of affairs in the world of steel bicycles.
It certainly isn't easy to walk into just any bike shop and see a nicely executed steel frame and fork these days, unless it's an oldie in the repair department. Most steel frame and forks that are of higher quality are coming out of small custom builders shops. That isn't to say that you can't get a decent frame and fork from your local shop. (The "El Mariachi" above being a perfect example) , it's just not a common thing these days. Sure, there are some companies that have held onto their steel roots, but not many. Why is this the case? Well, some of it has to do with fashion, and alot of it has to do with money. It's just plain easier for a big Far East company to churn out hundreds of "cookie cutter" aluminum frames than it is to make steel ones and besides, aluminum frames just look more "burly" and are percieved to be "lighter" by the general public. Steel lost it's cache' with the average cyclist due to hype and marketing. Steel wasn't cool anymore!
To be sure, military research and developement was focused more on aluminum products than it was steel, so the influx of technology into the bicycle business in the late 80's and early 90's at the end of the Cold War favored aluminum and it's alloys. Soon, just about every kid had heard about "M2" and other "metal matrix" aluminum alloys and steel was just well..........boring! It hasn't been until recently that steel alloys have appeared that rival the weights of aluminum frames and the steel "feel" has been missed by alot of riders. Ya know, steel is real, and all of that!
Steel is heavy, it rusts too easily, and it's just old skool hype. That's what the naysayers talk about. Let's take a look at that!
Heavy? Not anymore, at least not at the highest levels. New steel alloys are being introduced that rival titanium weights, (S-3 True Temper) and have strength of frames weighing more. But by and large you are going to find that, yes steel typically adds weight over other frame material choices. Why use it? Because it has that certain feel, that forgiving nature, that...........okay, I'm going to cut the crap! Steel flexes! Yep! Get over it you stiffness freaks, steel doesn't beat you up and it "works with you" if it's designed correctly. You can ride it all day long and get up the next day for more. Flex is good, if it's used properly and steel can give you that. Okay, I just covered the "old skool hype" comment here too. It's not hype, it's reality, thus the "steel is real" credo that you hear all the time. That's what they are talking about.
Now on to the rusting issue. Steel in it's rawest form can rust, but it resists rusting when alloyed out in other metals. CrMo, ( see the link to find out what that really is) is one of those rust resistant alloys. While it's true that it will eventually rust through if neglected, typically a painted steel bicycle frame can last a lifetime if properly cared for. And that doesn't take a whole lot of effort to do.
Steel is also one of the most thoroughly understood materials that bicycles are made from. It is a highly formable material, so all sorts of butted profiles exist in steel tubing that allows for almost infinite ride tuning by a custom builder. Steel is relatively inexpensive when compared to other materials and is usually the predominately used material for custom frame builders. You can find frame builders using steel all over the place, so getting a fine, high quality steel framest shouldn't be an issue. Picking your builder will be an issue though! Steel also lends itself to fancy joinery methods that other materials are not typically joined with or cannot be joined with. Lugs and fillet ( say "fill-it") brazing are a couple of the most notable methods that come to mind here.
Steel is also a budget bikes best friend when it comes to reasonable light weight and ride quality. Take the Karate Monkey steel 29"er from Surly as an example. I own one, and while it's not splendiferously exciting in ride quality, it's decent and it doesn't beat you up. Not bad for a $470.00 or so frame set. Plus, it's tough as nails, so I don't have to worry if I happen to park it poorly and it falls over. No sweat! Can it break? Sure! But I'd be more worried about my well being if I did break it, or not- steel usually survives bad crashes with a possibility of bending or denting. When it does fail, it's usually not catastrophic, so that's not a worry.
Is steel for you? It could be if you appreciate the springy flex and classic good looks that steel can offer you. It's also high tech enough to run with the big dogs, if you get the right design. It's available from budget all the way up to stratospheric ranges in price and can be custom tuned to ride and perform almost anyway you can imagine. Steel for bicycles has been around a long time now, and I'm willing to bet it'll be around for a long time to come!
A fine example of fillet brazed joinery courtesy of Rob Pennell at Badger Cycles