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From Inside Peloton: Saving Steel

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“I could do better work than this.” A harmless statement, really. What made it so dangerous was the word “this.” “This” was a European-made bicycle frame. “This” wasn’t any one particular frame. “This” was work from some of the most iconic European brands.

Words: Patrick Brady
Image: Heidi Swift

I’ve heard a half dozen builders, maybe more, tell me that at some point in their development as craftsmen, one of the key experiences was the chance to see a hallowed jewel of the old world laid bare. Without the paint that we all ultimately ogle, the work was often ordinary, sometimes even substandard. Some were pigs sans lipstick.

Before you conclude that I’ve just tossed generations of revered frame builders under the proverbial bus, let me add that these personal epiphanies the builders revealed to me all occurred in the 1970s and ‘80s. As each of the builders told me how they realized they could do work superior to what they saw, none knew that others had told me the same thing. Would they be surprised? Of course not.

The criticisms weren’t artistic in nature, they were structural. They told me of sloppy globs of brass filed down, dented tubes filled with Bondo, lugs that clearly didn’t have enough penetration, silver-brazed joints that hadn’t been clean at brazing and separated, discoloration indicating a joint that had been heated for too long and now was brittle. No, these weren’t the miffed sniffs of an artiste, they were the observations of a structural engineer telling me the dam would bust.

Let’s consider this a different way. American builders killed the adjustable dropout. Originally, forged dropouts with those little adjuster screws were produced to allow someone to make small adjustments to ensure the rear wheel would sit in plane with the frame. Adjuster screws were a means to correct for shoddy alignment by the builder.

Builders began to recognize that you could build with a vertical dropout if you controlled alignment more carefully as you built. American builders led the revolution here, which was picked up by overseas contract builders like Merida.

While it may sound like these builders (and I’m not going to name names) may have been angling to one-up the Euros, the truth is their ambition wasn’t reactionary; it was simply to build the best frames they could. Point thinning, lug shaping and paint were all secondary to building a properly designed, mitered, aligned and silver-brazed frame.

Silver brazing was key because it preserved the tubing’s heat-treating—strength—in a way that brass brazing didn’t. Brass brazing was quick and effective, at least at first. Many of the bigger European companies would heat joints on big automated carousels. Think of it as an assembly line with torches. Even if the joint wasn’t terribly clean the molten brass would burn up any impurity and create a strong bond. The only problem was if the joint had been heated to the point of glowing red for minutes at a time. That was a heat treatment killer. Builders refer to those as “rose buds.” These frames frequently broke at the junction of the chain stay and dropout, or the chain stay and bottom bracket.

Silver brazing was more difficult. It required greater care in preparing the tubes to be brazed—the joint had to be ultra-clean—and greater care in controlling temperature. Anyone can push brass rod into a rose bud, but silver brazing requires the skill of a real craftsman.

Don’t get me wrong, there have always been high quality, silver-brazed frames coming out of Europe, but there was a time when they were in the minority. Later, when carbon fiber took off, I wondered if European builders might dump the handcrafted steel frame altogether. There were years when storied Italian builders showed up to Interbike without a single ferrous frameset.

Steel bike extinction could have happened were it not for one important detail: American builders. That there is any market for a handcrafted steel frame is, in my opinion at least, due to the efforts of scores of committed American frame builders. By my count, there are more steel frame builders in the U.S. than all the other countries where builders reside, combined.

Without putting too fine a point on it, any time a producer follows a market trend and offers a new product—say bicycle frames made from carbon fiber—and dumps an existing product—say bicycle frames made from steel—the inherent message is that what is being sold is a commodity.

The frame builders in the game today view the world through a different lens. To change materials is to abandon your craft and doing that means dismissing the better part of your professional history. They’ve stayed the course for a simple reason: they believe in the value of their work. To me, it’s a statement of self-esteem, that no matter what the market does there is value in a craft honed over decades, that the merging of utility, design and art yields something extraordinary, something of true value.