If you’ve been looking for a commuter bike, you may have noticed cheaper options are often made of steel.
Does that mean steel bikes are inferior? Is a steel frame commuter bike a poor choice?
Maybe you already own a steel bike and wonder if it’ll be okay for rides into work.
This article tells you all you need to know about steel commuting bikes.
Why Steel Frames Are Great For Commuting
There are reasons why steel-framed bikes are great for commuting. Consider the benefits below.
Strength & Durability
Steel bikes are strong and durable bikes, so they’re ideal for the rigors of a regular commute. Lighter steel bikes are made from chromoly steel. This alloy steel includes chromium and molybdenum elements.
Chromoly steel is also known as CrMo, CRMO, CR-MOLY, chrome-moly, and cro-moly.
The cheapest steel bikes are likely to be made from high-tensile carbon steel. This is still a suitable material for a commuting bike. Because it’s less strong weight-for-weight than chromoly steel, the latter is more lightweight for the same strength.
A benefit of a steel bike frame is its fatigue limit. This means the frame can go on withstanding stress below a certain threshold indefinitely. This is not true of aluminum frames, where cumulative stress ultimately leads to failure.
Comfort & Flex
The ability of a bike to soak up the vibrations of the road or riding surface directly affects the comfort of the ride. Frame material and design make a substantial difference to this.
Steel is an isotropic material that flexes in any direction as it hits bumps in the road or trail. Aluminum is also isotropic, but aluminum frames tend to be made stiffer with less flex. Keep in mind aluminum is also more brittle and vulnerable to long-term stress.
Although it’s a debatable point, consensus says steel bikes offer a smoother ride quality than aluminum bikes.
Carbon is an anisotropic material. It flexes in one direction for compliance and not in another for stiffness and efficiency. As with aluminum bikes, some carbon bikes are more comfortable to ride than others.
In summary, steel bikes have a reputation for being comfortable. You’ll appreciate this all the more if you’ve previously ridden bikes with a harsh “sporty” ride. Of course, you can influence ride comfort in other ways, especially in tire choice and tire pressure.
Another reason to choose a steel-framed commuter bike is that steel is easier and cheaper to repair.
Most good welders could fix a steel bike with a damaged frame. And because steel is not a brittle material, a misshapen frame can be bent back into its original form without structural damage.
By comparison, a damaged aluminum frame will often be a write-off. Cracked or damaged carbon frames are repairable with new carbon fibers and epoxy resin, but repairs are costly.
Because steel bends before it breaks, it won’t suddenly snap as an aluminum or carbon bike part might.
Why Some Cyclists Do Not Like Steel Frames For Commuting
The reasons why some cyclists don’t like steel frames for commuting are few, but they might be significant.
Steel bike frames are generally heavier than aluminum, carbon or titanium frames. Because steel is so dense and strong, this disadvantage can be offset somewhat by making bikes with thinner tubes. This also contributes to comfort levels.
But still, if you buy a bike with a steel frame you can expect it to be at least a bit heavier than equivalent bikes made from other materials. It may be a lot heavier depending on how much you pay and the type of steel used.
What does this extra weight mean when commuting? Well, not much if you ride a fairly flat route to and from work. When the terrain is not hilly, the main disadvantage of a heavy bike lies in poorer acceleration. You have to work harder to overcome inertia.
You’re likely to notice the extra weight of a steel bike versus a lighter bike if you ride up steep hills on your commute. As long as the bike has suitably low gears, this shouldn’t pose a problem. But you’re unlikely to find very low gears on mega-cheap bikes.
A single-speed steel bike will have a “medium” gear that should get you over modest hills with a bit of effort. The lack of gears helps keep the bike weight and cost down. It also makes the bike easier to maintain, so this can be a good commuting option.
Rust & Maintenance
Another downside of steel bikes is rust. Other metal bikes don’t rust, but many steel ones do, including chromoly bikes. And because they rust, it takes extra work to stop that from happening.
Dedicated commuters are likely to ride in the rain. Water creates rust on the outside and inside of a steel bike. It gets inside the bike via the seat tube or through condensation.
Riding your bike regularly helps to dry it off, but that doesn’t help the inside. For that, you must remove the seat post after wet rides and leave your bike upside down overnight to drain off.
The frame exterior becomes more vulnerable to rust if the paint chips or scratches, leaving exposed metal. You can make repairs with touch-up paint to stop rust from taking hold.
It’s also possible to apply a rust inhibitor to the inside of a frame.
Stainless Steel Anti-Rust Bikes
With the above said, it is possible to buy rust-resistant steel bikes. These are made with stainless steel tubing like Reynolds 953, Reynolds 931, Reynolds 921, Columbus XCr or KVA MS2.
Bikes made with stainless-steel tubing may even have an exposed metal finish.