Can you re­ally race a tri on a steel bike? The an­swer is a re­sound­ing ‘hells yes!’

Not rid­den a steel bike since you were a kid? Then things have moved on. But should you go steel for tri? We as­sess the pedi­gree of three steel road bikes


The Ironman World Cham­pi­onships will be cel­e­brat­ing its 40th edi­tion on 14 Oc­to­ber 2017, with the vast ma­jor­ity of bike frames in the mam­moth 2,000+ strong tran­si­tion rack in Kona, Hawaii (and most triathlons world­wide) be­ing con­structed of car­bon fi­bre. Yet for the first decade of Ironman’s life­time, nearly ev­ery bike would’ve been made of steel, with the early le­gends and pi­o­neers of the sport – Mark Allen, Scott Tin­ley, Paula Newby-Fraser and our very own Dave Scott – all build­ing their Kona-win­ning ca­reers on a steel bike frame.

Yet by the late 1980s, Can­non­dale’s rad­i­cal alu­minum frames had gained ac­cep­tance and then, after a brief li­ai­son with titanium, car­bon fi­bre took firm hold of the bike mar­ket. Steel was

seem­ingly con­signed to his­tory as too heavy, old and un­fash­ion­able, with Allen rid­ing a car­bon fi­bre Huffy (ac­tu­ally built by Kestrel) to Kona vic­tory in 1992 and the Span­ish great Miguel In­durain be­ing the fi­nal man to win the Tour de France on a steel bike in 1994.

But as rid­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties ex­panded, steel be­came the per­fect ma­te­rial to fill the bur­geon­ing niches for fix­ies, ur­ban war­riors, util­ity, rough stuff and ad­ven­ture bikes, and now gravel rid­ing. A raft of new crafts­peo­ple, many of them Bri­tish, have re­vived in­ter­est in the pos­si­bil­i­ties for steel fab­ri­ca­tion, mean­ing steel can be a pre­mium prod­uct again and is see­ing a resurgence on rac­ing bikes.

Here we’ve brought to­gether three beau­ti­ful, clas­sic-look­ing steel road ma­chines to see how they rate for year-round UK rid­ing, tak­ing into ac­count dura­bil­ity, weight and en­durance com­fort, as well as the abil­ity to pro­vide high-paced efforts that could com­pete with car­bon once the UK tri sea­son re­turns.


Tom Ritchey is cy­cling’s serial innovator. Even be­fore build­ing one of the first moun­tain bikes in 1978, he’d been build­ing and rac­ing his own bikes with great suc­cess at USA na­tional level. After per­fect­ing his fil­let-braz­ing tech­nique, Ritchey be­gan us­ing larger, of­ten ovalised tub­ing in his lu­g­less frames, and with the ar­rival of TIG weld­ing, de­signed his sig­na­ture Logic butted tub­ing in 1984. The heat-treated, triple-butted tub­ing on to­day’s Logic frame­set is de­rived from the orig­i­nal con­cept, with short-butted sec­tions op­ti­mised for TIG weld­ing and weight sav­ing.

Those 45 years of frame build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence are ev­i­dent on the Road Logic (£2,699) tested here, where its forged and ma­chined ta­pered head tube saves 80g com­pared to a con­ven­tional de­sign with ex­ter­nal head­set cups. We tested a 55cm ex­am­ple, with its claimed frame weight of 1,769g, plus 345g for the car­bon fork. With a high-qual­ity build, the only dif­fer­ence in over­all weight be­tween the Logic and a sim­i­larly-equipped car­bon ma­chine is the frame’s 800g or so ad­di­tional mass.

At 7.82kg for our medium, the Ritchey is the light­est on test, helped by its full Shi­mano Ul­te­gra com­pact groupset and by the al­lRitchey com­po­nent list. Neat touches abound, from the cast dropouts to the split seat­post clamp­ing sleeve that strength­ens the top of the seat tube, and holds the seat­post firmly by squeez­ing the seat­stays to­gether with a neatly in­te­grated bolt.

Next up is the Reilly Spirit HSS (£2,499) from Brighton-based Reilly Cy­cle Works, which show­cases the enor­mous frame de­sign­ing and build­ing tal­ents of Mark Reilly, re­spected as a mas­ter of his craft. Ex­pe­ri­enced with titanium and steel, Mark has re­cently pro­gressed to hy­dro­formed Spirit HSS as used here. Hy­dro­form­ing lets frame de­sign­ers get more cre­ative, and of­fers the abil­ity to cus­tomise a frame’s stiff­ness, com­fort and looks with spe­cific tube pro­files. The triple-butted steel forms a flat­tened top tube, a down tube with flat­tened up­per sur­face, ex­tremely flat­tened seat­stays that broaden to­wards the seat tube, and ovalised chain­stays with no crimp­ing or bridge. The 44mm di­am­e­ter head tube is a match for the over­sized down tube and swoopy car­bon fork.

What sets the Reilly Spirit HSS frame apart is its fil­let-brazed con­struc­tion, which cre­ates clean, flow­ing joints that are com­ple­mented by the beau­ti­ful paint fin­ish and smart graph­ics. It’s far more labour in­ten­sive than TIG weld­ing, and ac­counts for much of the cost, but each frame is be­spoke, and the price in­cludes paint­work de­sign. Cus­tomers can opt for in­ter­nal ca­ble rout­ing, de­pend­ing on their cho­sen groupset.


The fi­nal bike in this steel show­down is the Holdsworth Strada (£2,949). Rid­ers of a cer­tain age may re­call when Holdsworth was one of the finest Bri­tish bike man­u­fac­tur­ers around, with steel ma­chines be­ing raced by prom­i­nent rid­ers. Sadly, the orig­i­nal com­pany fell by the way­side sev­eral years ago, but the brand has been res­ur­rected by cur­rent owner Planet X in Rother­ham, South York­shire, and

of­fers qual­ity steel frames in keep­ing with Holdsworth’s grand her­itage.

The Strada was de­signed by Mark Reilly [of Reilly Cy­cle Works, above], and is built from Reynolds 953 stain­less steel. It’s TIG welded be­fore be­ing highly pol­ished, apart from its matt de­tail­ing, and the enamel painted brass W.F Holdsworth head tube badge adds au­then­tic­ity. An over­sized head tube is a use­ful con­ces­sion to mod­ern cy­cling, but be­hind it ev­ery tube is slim and round, apart from the sub­tly ovalised chain­stays, which are crimped to pro­vide clear­ance for 28mm tyres.

Op­pos­ing the vin­tage-look­ing frame are the char­coal and black com­po­nents that make it go. A com­pact Shi­mano Ul­te­gra groupset with 50/34 up front and 11-32 at the back en­sure no hills are out of reach, and an­other Planet X brand, Sel­cof, pro­vides the car­bon fork and seat­post plus alu­minium cock­pit. The com­plete bike price is one of the high­est, but it’s still im­pres­sive that it in­cludes a Ful­crum Rac­ing Zero wheelset with ceramic bear­ings, some­thing guar­an­teed to lift the per­for­mance of any bike.


If the slen­der tub­ing gives the im­pres­sion that the Ritchey’s too spindly to per­form, think again. There’s a par­tic­u­lar feel­ing that comes with rid­ing steel, and even though mod­ern in­car­na­tions are tem­pered by hav­ing a car­bon fork, and seat­post too in Ritchey’s case,

“There’s a unique feel­ing that comes with rid­ing a steel bike like Ritchey’s”

it’s un­de­ni­ably unique. When seated, it feels sim­i­larly ef­fi­cient to car­bon, if a lit­tle more talk­a­tive, but when stand­ing, you feel the in­her­ent lat­eral flex more. Climb­ing out of the sad­dle ac­cen­tu­ates the frame’s nat­u­ral spring as you push through the power phase of each pedal ro­ta­tion.

Ritchey’s WCS Zeta II wheelset has shal­low, slightly aero­dy­namic rims, asym­met­ric at the rear, with bladed spokes and a wide stance up front. They’re use­fully re­spon­sive and al­though just 22mm wide ex­ter­nally, in­crease the vol­ume of the own-brand 25mm tyres to a plump 27mm, just within the frame’s rec­om­mended 28mm max­i­mum. That ex­tra size equals more grip, and the Logic seem­ingly con­forms to the road sur­face in cor­ners, push­ing against the tyres be­fore fir­ing out again.

The frame com­mu­ni­cates road feel well, with sharp bumps and ex­ces­sive vi­bra­tions smoothed by the tyre vol­ume, car­bon seat­post and clas­sic bend car­bon bar. Ritchey’s Streem sad­dle is a good shape and very sup­port­ive, but the light pad­ding makes it on the firm side. A more cos­set­ing per­sonal choice could im­prove long-range com­fort. Our 55cm bike has 73.5° seat and head-tube an­gles, en­sur­ing quick, lively han­dling, but it’ll still de­scend with so­lid­ity and feels sharp when turn­ing in to cor­ners, which it whips through like a snake. The Logic wants you to take that ex­tra loop, and re­wards you with a ride that com­bines old­school knowhow with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties.


Our Reilly model is one of the first bikes we’ve had sup­plied with the new Shi­mano Ul­te­gra groupset, with hints of Dura-Ace, and re­fine­ments across the board. Its com­pact 50/34 chain­set is paired with a climb-friendly 11-32 cas­sette and long cage rear mech. The brake cal­lipers are a lit­tle less an­gu­lar, the hoods slim­mer and the shift levers en­larged.

Apart from the lever feel, the groupset is mostly for­got­ten once rid­ing, as the frame takes cen­tre stage. Whereas a good car­bon fi­bre frame seems to float over the road sur­face, only feed­ing back short pas­sages of sur­face tex­ture, the Reilly main­tains an im­pres­sively de­tailed com­men­tary. It’s a firm ride, but not harsh, smooth­ing road vi­bra­tions and tak­ing the edge off sharp hits.

The com­plete bike car­ries a lit­tle more weight than the other two here, but from the way it rides, you’d never know. Assertively swift over rolling ter­rain, the han­dling is crisp, con­fi­dent and pre­dictable, and makes good use of the 25mm Con­ti­nen­tal tyres’ gen­er­ous 27mm in­flated width. It’s con­tent to cruise, but stand­ing on the ped­als un­leashes a bit of a hooli­gan, switch­ing from as­ser­tion to con­trolled ag­gres­sion. The wheels aren’t su­per light, but de­liver able per­for­mance to match the frame’s abil­ity and, at 23mm wide, help sta­bil­ity, too.

Both head and seat an­gles are 73º, which is quite nor­mal, but we found the zero set­back seat­post pushed us too far for­ward of our pre­ferred ped­alling po­si­tion. The nar­row 40cm Deda bar is eas­ier to live with, but a cus­tomer could spec­ify al­ter­na­tives to suit. The Reilly Spirit HSS has lines and a lus­trous fin­ish we could gaze at all day. Such metal­lic artistry de­serves to be en­joyed, and rid­ing it is a treat that

im­proves with ev­ery hill crested, and one we would never tire of.


Our large Holdsworth model is in the mid-range on test at 7.88kg, pos­si­bly be­cause of its larger cas­sette and al­loy bar, and, on the road, its lower mass shows. The ef­fect the Ful­crum wheels have on per­for­mance is con­sid­er­able, with their thick, bladed spokes, milled rims and rigid­ity guar­an­tee­ing slick progress. Hutchin­son’s Fu­sion 5 25mm tyres roll well and of­fer de­cent grip.

The 15cm head tube and 57cm equiv­a­lent top tube com­bine clas­sic looks with the op­tion of a long, low rid­ing po­si­tion. From the first me­tres, there’s some­thing spe­cial about this frame, as it bounds up the road. Ev­ery ped­alling in­put has a more no­tice­able ef­fect on for­ward mo­tion than any other bike here.

Un­doubt­edly the Ful­crums ac­count for some of this, and when out of the sad­dle, driv­ing against the rigid wheels while push­ing down on the ped­als cre­ates a def­i­nite spring that seems to whip the bike for­wards be­tween pedal strokes. We’re not talk­ing tram­po­line here,

“The ex­cit­ing, time­less Strada is a blast to ride at any speed”

it’s not elas­tic in the ma­te­rial sense, but is sim­i­lar to the feel­ing you get from your first ride on oval chain­rings, where the bike’s re­sponse seems to ac­cel­er­ate within each rev­o­lu­tion. It’s pretty addictive, though, and very ef­fec­tive, en­sur­ing the Strada clips along at a very non-vin­tage pace.

The frame’s dy­namic na­ture makes it very talk­a­tive, with sur­face com­men­tary help­ing when things get twisty. Its 73º par­al­lel an­gles are an ideal blend of sta­bil­ity at all speeds and com­posed cor­ner carv­ing, with no nasty sur­prises when you need to change line mid­bend. Not only is the Strada stiff enough to fly, but firm sad­dle aside, it rides the bumps very well too and won’t be shaken from its course. It’s an im­pres­sive spec on an im­pres­sive frame, and our only worry is how of­ten we’ll want to pol­ish it.

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