Independent Fabrication SSR 953
Think steel is dead, and that there’s no place for it if you’re after a lightweight high performance frame? Think again, as the recently released Reynolds 953 tubeset is out to shake up any illusions that steel can’t cut it anymore.
Independent Fabrication appears to be a very nice company. It's an employed-founded and –owned corporation and doesn’t hold back in its clear pursuit of producing frames of the highest possible quality. It isn’t mainstream, it doesn’t outsource its frames or even supply stock sizes.
It also likes to work with high-end materials; for example, the Independent Fabrication XS combines carbon and titanium in one rather expensive package. The SSR makes use of the relatively new Reynolds 953 tubeset. I had the pleasure of testing one recently and struggled to stop riding it long enough to write these words, but here we go…
The interesting aspect of this frame is of course, that it is made from Reynolds 953 steel. So I’ll focus on that first. There was a time when everyone rode and raced steel bikes, with Reynolds claiming 27 Tour de France winners on a frame built using the company's steel tubes. Reynolds has been manufacturing tubesets since 1898, and 953 is an attempt (their last, realistically) at producing a cutting edge high-performance steel tubeset, and by god they’ve succeeded.
Reynolds 953 tubing is based on a specially developed "martensitic-aging" stainless steel alloy that can achieve a tensile strength in excess of 2000MP (853 is around 1400MP), giving a good strength-to-weight ratio. Because of the high strength of the steel, extremely thin tube walls (down to 0.3mm) can be used, thus reducing the weight. It’s also corrosion resistant so doesn’t need treatment and will never rust. The dropouts, bottom bracket shell and the head tube are made from 953 too, and all the tubes are cold-worked.
The advantages of the new tubeset can only be seen clearly once a frame has been built. Independent Fabrication were one of the first companies to start working with 953 when Reynolds released it a few years ago, but it's taken frame builders some time to get to grips with the steel alloy and find out how best to build a frame. With the SSR, IndyFab appear to have cracked it, for it’s without a doubt one of the classiest frames you’ll likely find anywhere.
What’s smart about Independent Fabrication’s application of 953 is just how good it looks. On first glance it could pass as a titanium frame – the colour is quite similar – but it’s the subtlety of the machining, the incredible smoothness and extraordinary tidiness of the welds that really impress. This isn’t a frame that’s been lobbed together by a robot, but sweat and long hard human hours have been invested, and that shows.
Likewise, there are many intricate details which further add to the beauty. The IF ‘crown’ logo is stamped atop the rear brake bridge, itself a lesson in beautiful simplicity, the 953 dropouts with excess material clearly machined away to reduce weight and the reinforced head tube finished off with a sterling silver IF head badge held in place by two small Allen bolts. Very nice. Flush against the underside of the downtube is a small gusset designed to add extra metal to an area subject to high loads. Cables are held in place on the downtube by exquisite small round sections of 953 welded into place.
Then there’s the fact that IF only supplies custom frames; there is no ‘stock’ off-the-shelf option. And custom means that every customer is taken through the same process, whichever frame you're buying, and can specify every tube, every length, every angle and every option such as the colour. Decals too can be specified. So buying an IF gets you a truly bespoke frame that can be cherished for years to come.
This bike came from Bespoke Cycling, who will build a bike to any spec you want, or that your bank balance can handle. Obviously you don’t want to short change such a good frame, and the spec as tested certainly doesn’t. The Reynolds theme is carried through to the wheels and finishing kit (handlebars, stem and saddle). The stem was a little short but a swap meant a good fit was found. Reynolds build some lovely kit and the wheels are a particular highlight.
The MV32 tubular wheels weigh just 1.19kg a pair with a 32mm deep section all-carbon build. Tyres are 22mm Veloflex Carbon tubs which are handmade in Italy. They're billed as a “fantastic everyday tubular", weigh 240g and with a Calicot puncture resistant layer underneath the thread should shrug off glass and thorns.
A SRAM Red groupset is becoming an increasingly popular choice at the top-end, and it made a big contribution to the impressively low weight of the full-build. The 1,928g groupset is winning many fans, myself included, and in such a short space of time SRAM has become a serious rival to Shimano and Campagnolo.
My first proper ride was the Dartmoor Classic, after making the long trip down to Devon on an extremely hot day in a car lacking air conditioning [air con. uses too much petrol - ed.]. The SSR was an immediate hit. Even before I had left the rugby pitch used for the start/finish arena, I had to shoo people away from it before I could climb aboard.
As mentioned before, IF don’t do stock frames, but luckily this 57cm frame fitted me like a silk glove. My stretch to the bars allowed plenty of room to breathe and enabled good control, while the tall head tube permitted a more comfortable position than I might have been expecting – make no mistake, this is a bike absolutely destined for sportives, a fact reinforced after over six hours in the saddle when I stepped of the back with no back or neck discomfort (even after spending much of the time on the drops).
When most people first clap eyes on the 953, the first word to pass their lips is ‘titanium’. And while visually there is a passing resemblance, the same can’t be said of the ride. The ride isn’t dissimilar to titanium, but is inherently springier, a quality that isn’t all that apparent all the time. A couple of long steep descents taken at speed early in the Dartmoor Classic revealed the tendency for the rear wheel to skip quite violently over sudden bumps in the road, alarming when used to the cushioning effect of many carbon frames ridden before hand. Compared to other steel frames, it has a much lively character, and is closer to titanium in that respect.
Elsewhere, the frame as sublime in its comfort. Smaller road buzz seems to be dissipated really well, leaving the rider still very, relatively, fresh after 100 miles (the fact I couldn’t walk afterwards was more due to the exertion, and not the bike…). Light weight aren’t words normally levelled at traditional steel bikes, but the SSR can give many carbon bikes a run for their money, and it positively propelled itself up the many climbs of Dartmoor.
So the SSR is just a sportive bike, then? Wrong. An evening crit race around the tight and challenging Crystal Palace circuit in South London revealed that, when equipped with high performance equipment, a steel bike can give just as fast and hard as any other modern bike. I detected little in the bike that was holding me back compared to the carbon ‘race’ bike I’d usually choose to ride for such an event. Surprised? I most certainly was.