If you're tough on your bikes, investing in a lightweight carbon fiber racing bike might seem like a recipe for disaster. Durability on most modern racing bikes just can't match the toughness of a good steel frame. The best steel frame bikes don't cost as much as carbon fiber, and can perform almost as well for most riders. There's a lot of variety in road bikes; understanding what makes the best steel frames can help you get the best bang for your buck.
The most important part of a steel frame is what type it's made of. There are two types of commonly used steel in inexpensive steel frame bikes. At the low end, 1020 steel or carbon steel makes for a sturdy, yet heavy steel frame. This is found on the most inexpensive bicycles. 4130 steel or chromoly steel is a step above carbon steel, and is valued above most other types for it's exceptional sturdiness, weldability, light weight and ductility. The best inexpensive steel frame bikes use this 4130 steel, and are well worth the slight increase in cost.
Steel frame road bikes are typically designed for touring and commuting, which gives them a slightly more relaxed position than a racing bike. There are exceptions to the rule, but most feature shorter top tubes and a taller head tube for an upright riding position that is comfortable over long distances. The best steel frame bikes feature steel lugs at the joints in the frame and fork, which caps the welds with a decorative steel sheath. These lugs are more expensive, but add to the longevity of the frame by reinforcing welded joints.
Wheels and Components
The wheels on a road bike will almost always be made from aluminum, since steel provides no traction for the brakes when wet. Most steel frame bikes will use 700c wheels, and the best road bikes use higher spoke counts to increase the durability of the wheel, usually to 32 or 36 spokes. The best steel frame bike uses a slightly better component groupset than the lowest offering from a manufacturer. This is because a small step up in price gives you a large increase in quality at the bottom end of parts like derailleurs and brakes.
Other Advantages of Steel
An inexpensive steel frame bicycle is, by the nature of steel, one of the sturdier bicycles you can purchase. Most will be capable of mounting racks and bags for carrying groceries or camping equipment, and will stand up to heavier or stronger riders with ease. Steel's malleability and ductility also make repairs much easier and less expensive, since a bend or dent can likely be fixed. Steel bikes can be built with the same eye toward speed as a carbon fiber bicycle, and can use all the same components as the best racing bikes. The steel frame will add a bit of weight, but the increases in comfort and durability may make it worth a few pounds of extra weight. Steel bikes are also relatively cheap. A 4130 chromoly steel bike can sell for as little as $700, but the best price point for durable, high quality components is around $900 to $1,200 dollars.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.