Sometime ago a friend of mine went to visit Ernesto Colnago, he was buying a C-50 bike and wanted the full treatment, so he received the ‘royal invite’ to the Colnago factory. During the visit he noticed that all the steel frame parts and tools were still set up in a corner of the factory, he asked why. Ernesto replied that steel will come back - it’s that good a material to make bikes from - It’s just a matter of time.
And I remember reading a bike test of a steel bike (which will remain nameless) by ex-pro Robert Millar in Pro Cycling magazine. He basically panned a steel bike asking the question “What is the point?". He couldn’t see that the bike was an improvement on the latest bikes and thought that the bike was a step backwards. When you consider pro riders get lightweight frames and kit I can see what he means, but I can’t agree completely.
So what’s so interesting about steel? In the quest for the ‘next material’ manufacturers have pushed Aluminium to it’s limits, it now rides better than ever and is so light it has the wow factor that impresses the hell out of potential buyers. Along with carbon fibre being all the rage now, especially as it’s getting cheaper. They both ride well but the price is going up. So I have a feeling that steel is set to make a big ‘comeback’ and with the popularity of Etape style events and long distance riding, people will realise that it can be the best way to travel in comfort, style and reliability.
In many ways it never really went away, it is so suited to bicycle use that all the large companies who have ignored it in pursuit of the lightweight/cheaper theme have made a bit of a mistake. Most of the Italian manufacturers still have a steel bike; Colnago’s Master has finally returned (which now has a carbon B-Stay rear end - very nice), De Rosa’s Primato and the Corum, Pegoretti’s various lovely steel frames, Denti's beautiful Pantera, Pinarello’s Sestriere is a winter trainer like no other and Belgian makers Merckx have revived their legendary Molteni SLX.
And then there's the US market. Strangely, it has loads of steel manufacturers and many of them, like Ben Serotta, were trained in Europe. Brands like Vicious Cycles, Surly, Seven and Independent Fabrications have continued to carry the torch for steel above aluminium and titanium. The Americans have also moved frame design (and marketing) on a step or two whilst many of the UK builders got stuck with traditional looking frames and designs. So sadly many of our best names suffered a demise with a poor image - Especially next to Italian ‘peloton’ brands and the 'new' American kudos ones.
Chris Kelly, like Ben Serotta, is an excellent craftsman. His frames are all turned out to exacting standards, although his off-road bikes are probably more recognisable than his road bikes. He uses True Temper tubes, who found their place in Mountain Biking history a little like Reynolds did with 531 in road racing. The triple butted OX set is air hardening and heat treated, similar to Reynolds 853. This is accurately mitred and TIG welded together providing a strong and stable front triangle. The rear seat and chain stays are chunkier than usual but a flick with a finger nail shows that they are wafer thin in the centre sections to keep the weight to a minimum.
The carbon fork is functional and practical, there is a steel version which would be my choice for winter riding and just to experience the whole steel deal. A Selcof Aheadset is an attractive and functional. The Tig welded headtube adds considerable rigidity to the front of the bike and the tracking was spot on.
Out on the road
The problem with this bike is that it has a bit of an identity problem, it’s not a super-fast racing flyer, nor is it an audax machine, light tourer or winter bike - But it could be classed as all of these. Ride-wise it’s one of those bikes that doesn’t say much instantly but after a few hours you'll get where it’s coming from. The ride is similar to the old Merlin Extralight, not earth shatteringly fast, but certainly well behaved, directional and comfortable. At slow speeds it’s quite a nippy performer and with plenty of 'road-shock-soaking-steel-appeal' made it rise an eyebrow or two especially when whipping up speed out of corners and on climbs. After being battered by aluminium race bikes all year, you really notice the difference steel makes and that's not just marketing speak. The long chainstays provide plenty of give and would allow you to add mudguards, you’ll need some ‘P’ clips though as there are no braze ons for bolting the stays to the bike.
Very basic wheels match up to the work-horse appeal of the Bone Stock. Campagnolo Hubs on Mavic rims isn't much to be excited about but it's an age old combination and a reliable one. Fortezza tyres matched the frame nicely and ride well in the dry.
Campagnolo Veloce 10 is budget performance. Predictable braking. Excellent gear shifts.
3Ts bars and stem did the job well although the Forgie stem was a little bloated for a bike of such delicate porportions. The saddle was (as ever) replaced for a comfy one although when the frame is the part on test you can forgive a few specification issues I may have.
The Bone Stock is as basic as it gets. The art is in the quality of the build and the appeal will be to those who like the simple things - clean welding, thin section tubes and Ritchey’s classic socket dropouts. But who will buy it? Perhaps someone who needs a bike to last a few years, be comfortable and double up as a winter trainer. The mountain bikers in the office spent ages drooling over it, so it has retro-cool appeal too. It’s not the cheapest steel bike available but it is one of the better made we’ve ridden and the bike gets better and better the more you ride it. I would like to see a UK specific version with mudguard eyes and more user friendly braze-ons, it would be a great all day audax/trainer bike.
|Good: Steel ride, exclusive brand and exceptional build|
|Bad: It doesn’t know what it is - a race bike or an all day mileater?|
Frame sizes: 50, 55, 57, 59, 61 & 63cm [c/t]
Size tested: 55 (55 cm top tube)
Frame tubing: True Temper OX
Fork: Kelly Carbon/Aluminium
Headset: Selcof sealed
Crankarms: Campagnolo Veloce 170 mm
Chainrings: Campagnolo Veloce 53/39T
B/B: Campagnolo Veloce
Pedals: none supplied
Chain: Campagnolo Veloce 10 speed
Freewheel: Campagnolo 10 speed 12-25
F/D: Campagnolo 10 speed
R/D: Campagnolo Veloce 10 speed
Shifters: Campagnolo Veloce 10 speed
Handlebar: 3T Forgie 42cm
Stem: 3T Forgie 12cm
Tape: black cork
Brakes: Campagnolo Veloce
Wheels: Campagnolo Veloce on Mavic Open Pro 32h with DT double butted Stainless steel spokes
Tires: Vredstien Fortezza 700x23c
Saddle: XO Trans Am
Seatpost: In line micro adjustable
Colour: plenty to choose from (see the Kelly link below)
Weight: 21.7lbs/9.8 kgs less pedals
Price: Frame as shown £595.99 with fork £690.99