Four steel bikes rid­den and rated

Re­li­able, cus­tomis­able and boast­ing time­less ap­peal, four UK man­u­fac­tur­ers show Si­mon Smythe their lat­est de­sign clas­sics

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - Si­mon Smythe


“A hard, strong grey or bluish grey al­loy of iron with car­bon and usu­ally other el­e­ments, used as a struc­tural ma­te­rial and in man­u­fac­tur­ing.”

That’s the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary’s def­i­ni­tion of steel. In ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion it’s con­sid­ered to be cold and hard, but uniquely the peo­ple who build bi­cy­cles out of it are likely to de­fine it much more warmly, emo­tively, even po­et­i­cally un­til you could eas­ily be for­given for think­ing steel was some­thing liv­ing and breath­ing. “I al­ways think steel has a life of its own,” con­curs Tony Woodrup of Woodrup Cy­cles. “You’re get­ting that feel from it. And you can al­ways tell a steel bike — it looks like a proper bike.”

More prac­ti­cally, steel bikes are eas­ily built with cus­tom ge­om­e­try and fit­tings, eas­ily re­paired, strong and re­li­able.


In a world of bog-stan­dard­i­s­a­tion, where even the pros are no longer al­lowed to ride cus­tom frames, steel frame-build­ing has be­come re­vi­talised in the USA and in Bri­tain. “Go along to Be­spoked,” says Richard Hallett of Hallett Hand­built Cy­cles. “The way the small-scale cus­tom scene has gone is that the stan­dards in many ways are higher than they’ve ever been. If you go back 30 years there were a few who had a rep­u­ta­tion for high qual­ity, but there were many that were work­man­like. These days the mass mar­ket is well catered for [with Far East-made car­bon], so peo­ple who want a cus­tom steel frame ex­pect more than work­man­like — there are won­der­ful fin­ishes and peo­ple are us­ing their imag­i­na­tion. It’s more a means of self ex­pres­sion, so peo­ple who want cus­tom need very ca­pa­ble frame-builders.”


To il­lus­trate the di­ver­sity of the steel bike scene we’ve brought to­gether four very dif­fer­ent bikes. There’s no sense in com­par­ing them to each other and at­tempt­ing to make one of them the ‘win­ner’ since all ex­cept one — the Ge­n­e­sis, which we’ve in­cluded to demon­strate what you can get if you want steel but can’t af­ford cus­tom — is be­spoke. Enigma, Woodrup and Hallett will build you pretty much any bike you want, so in­stead of cre­at­ing a shootout we’ve spo­ken to the peo­ple who cre­ated the bikes fea­tured in the fol­low­ing pages and given them the chance to talk about what steel means to them and to walk us through a bike that best rep­re­sents what they do.

Woodrup Il Primo Max £7,999 (£1,800 frame only)

Mau­rice Woodrup started build­ing frames in Leeds in 1949. Since then the braz­ing torch has been passed to Mau­rice’s son, Steve, who has been build­ing since the 1960s and most re­cently Tony, his grand­son.

Barry Hoban won Tour de France stages on Woodrups, and other fa­mous pro-rac­ing cus­tomers Hugh Porter and Sid Bar­ras. Now Tony Woodrup is build­ing cus­tom frames for steel-lov­ing cus­tomers who of­ten have a clear idea of what they want, but just in case they don’t Woodrup of­fers what Tony calls “set mod­els”, of which the Il Primo is one, to give them a start­ing point.

“We’ve al­ways had an Il Primo in the range — my grand­fa­ther was mak­ing them,” says Tony. “It’s our top-end race frame and it tends to be more rac­ing ge­om­e­try but we could build an Il Primo with mud­guards. We can change the clear­ances and things like that.

“I built this one for my­self — the ones I build for my­self tend to be show bikes — to re­place one with beau­ti­ful hand-cut lugs that got pringled when I got knocked off last July.

“I’ve al­ways been a big Star Wars fan so that’s why I’ve got the Jedi mo­tif cut into the seat tube bil­am­i­nate lug. I thought a lit­tle bit of the Force might keep me on this one!”

To the Max

Tony chose Colum­bus Max, what he calls “a leg­endary tube­set. I wanted some­thing very stiff — I’m best part of 16 stone — so I needed some­thing that was go­ing to be able to han­dle that. Max is very rigid but it’s also very light. A lot of

peo­ple think it’s one of the heav­ier ones but it’s pa­per thin and the bike came in at a very nice weight.

“I like lu­g­less frames but we do build quite a lot of lugged frames, we do some re­ally clas­sic bilam lugs sim­i­lar to the Jedi mo­tif I’ve done for that bike and we do quite a lot of those cut-ins.

“The colour is like the ic­ing on the cake. Be­cause there are so many colours out there you do need a bit of in­spi­ra­tion. I live next to a Lo­tus garage and I saw an Ex­ige in that green colour and thought, that is ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful. So the colour came from there. Ob­vi­ously it’s cus­tom ge­om­e­try so it should do but it’s a won­der­ful bike and it rides fan­tas­ti­cally.”

Enigma Ex­ten­sor XCR £4,699 (£1,999 frame only)

Enigma is best known for its Uk-built ti­ta­nium frames — 90 per cent of its busi­ness ac­cord­ing to boss Jim Walker — but Walker him­self has al­ways not-so-se­cretly rid­den a steel bike and that’s why Enigma makes them at its Hail­sham, East Sus­sex fac­tory along­side the cus­tom ti­ta­nium. How­ever, Walker is no tra­di­tion­al­ist.

“We don’t build lugged or fil­let-brazed steel frames — there are plenty of small builders do­ing that type of stuff. Our em­pha­sis is on lead­ing-edge ma­te­ri­als — Colum­bus Spirit, HSS and [stain­less] XCR — and con­struc­tion meth­ods en­abling us to build very mod­ern steel frames that are vi­able al­ter­na­tives to frames built from com­pos­ites or the lat­est gen­er­a­tion alu­minium.

“We like to think we build ‘mod­ern clas­sic’ steel frames that still de­liver the won­der­ful steel ride qual­ity but can also com­pete in per­for­mance terms with the best com­pos­ite frames.

“We’ve got three frame­builders. Joe [Walker, Jim’s son] does all the stain­less steel and the ti­ta­nium be­cause he’s very good at it — we be­lieve Joe is the best ex­po­nent of TIG welded bi­cy­cle frame con­struc­tion in the coun­try.

“Prob­a­bly 75 per cent of what we do is off-the peg ge­om­e­try. The ge­om­e­try we of­fer is based on av­er­ages. Most peo­ple will fit within av­er­age pa­ram­e­ters and as long as the bike is set up per­fectly for them then there shouldn’t be an is­sue. Cus­tom isn’t al­ways nec­es­sary and it’s not nec­es­sary in most cases.”

The Ex­ten­sor is made from stain­less Colum­bus XCR tub­ing, which has a very high stiff­ness-to-weight ra­tio. “Each one is built to or­der so that does al­low for a cer­tain amount of cus­tomi­sa­tion with­out go­ing too off-piste,” says Walker. “We can do all sorts of fin­ishes, es­pe­cially with stain­less steel — pol­ish­ing, blast­ing, an­odiz­ing — so that’s one our strengths.”

Walker points out that cus­tomi­sa­tion doesn’t have to be in the frame ge­om­e­try, it can be in the fin­ish. “As well as our three frame-builders we’ve got two pain­ters. This Klein-in­spired paint is for a show­room. We just want peo­ple to walk in and go, ‘Bloody hell, that’s cool.’ It’s cer­tainly some­thing that grabs you. I used to love those Klein colours — they re­ally nailed it and it’s nice to res­ur­rect that sort of fin­ish.”

Hallett Fast Road £3,500 (£1,550 frame and fork)

Richard Hallett won ‘Best Tour­ing Bi­cy­cle’ at the Be­spoked show in 2015 just a year af­ter he’d learnt to build un­der the late Cliff Shrubb. That was for his 650B ran­don­neur — a wheel­size he cham­pi­oned some years be­fore it be­came main­stream again.

The stan­dard 700C-wheeled Fast Road is, he says, “what would 15 or 20 years ago have been a rac­ing bike – a light­weight steel road bike. If you put a car­bon fork in you could race on it.”

Hallett, who cus­tom-builds ev­ery­thing to or­der from his work­shop in West Wales, prides him­self on be­ing able to fine-tune the ride qual­ity of his bikes ex­actly to the re­quire­ments of the cus­tomer us­ing bil­am­i­nates — sleeves that are welded over the tube ends at their junc­tures, of­ten dec­o­ra­tively cut. “The great thing about bil­am­i­nates is that you can braze one to the end of the tube and ma­te­ri­ally af­fect the way that tube bends at its end,” he ex­plains. “You can’t do that with ti­ta­nium. You can’t af­fect the me­chan­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the tube your­self, but you can with bil­am­i­nates.”

In the Zona

Hallett used Colum­bus Zona tub­ing for the Fast Road with a bil­am­i­nate BB and main tri­an­gle. The fork blades and rear stays are brushed stain­less. One of the best things about work­ing with steel is the wide range of tubes avail­able, Hallett says. “There are down tubes in dif­fer­ent di­am­e­ters with dif­fer­ent butts, just from the cat­a­logue of the man­u­fac­turer.

“I’m about to build a frame for a bloke who weighs 130kg, so you go to a much larger-di­am­e­ter top tube and seat tube — an inch-and-a-quar­ter top tube and an inch-and-three-eighths down tube.”

Hallett be­lieves above all in the ride of a well-made steel bike. “The way I’ve al­ways put it is that the ride qual­ity of steel is what other man­u­fac­tur­ers aim to match, be­cause up to the 1990s that was the bench­mark. And it’s par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to match it in alu­minium or car­bon. Steel has the high­est mod­u­lus of met­als used for bike frames: you get the same stiff­ness out of small­er­diam­e­ter tubes. If you look at ti­ta­nium or alu­minium they have large tubes, mean­ing the frame be­comes very stiff.

“The only rea­son for us­ing any­thing other than steel is to save weight,” he adds. “Steel es­tab­lished a stan­dard. Ride tun­ing, vi­bra­tion damp­ing — com­pared to steel frames the oth­ers lack it.”

Ge­n­e­sis Equilib­rium Disc 30 £1,999

While the other three builders in this fea­ture fo­cus on the fine de­tails of mak­ing be­spoke bikes, Ge­n­e­sis ap­proaches steel frames from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­gle.

Since Vin Cox broke the round-theworld record on a Ge­n­e­sis Croix de Fer in 2010 the Bri­tish brand has been steadily build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing steel bikes for the type of rugged, fully loaded ad­ven­ture cy­cling that is cap­tur­ing a lot of peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions at the mo­ment. You just need to look at the Ge­n­e­sis Bi­cy­cle Blog on the web­site for sto­ries of epic long-dis­tance trips into the un­known aboard its bikes.

At the other end of the cy­cling spec­trum one of Ge­n­e­sis’s other early ad­ven­tures in steel was to sup­ply the Madi­son-ge­n­e­sis road race team with a Vo­lare race bike made from Reynolds 953 stain­less — the first time a steel bike had been used in pro rac­ing for some years.

Ge­n­e­sis bikes are built in Tai­wan, which keeps the cost down be­low that of the other Bri­tish bikes in this test. How­ever, the brand still thinks of it­self as oc­cu­py­ing the same space as the UK cus­tom builders.

“We’re ac­tu­ally still quite a small brand, which gives us the free­dom to do what we want and build bikes that we like to ride,” says Mike An­der­son of Madi­son, Ge­n­e­sis’s dis­trib­u­tor. “It’s helped us to build quite a strong cult fol­low­ing, but we’re still try­ing to do a lot of the same things as the cus­tom guys, so there’s def­i­nitely an affin­ity there.”

Bike for all sea­sons

The Equilib­rium is what An­der­son de­scribes as “tra­di­tional at the same time as be­ing pro­gres­sive. You get the ride qual­ity of steel and the stop­ping abil­ity of disc brakes so it’s a bike for all con­di­tions and all sea­sons.”

The Equilib­rium is built from TIG welded Reynolds 725 tub­ing, which Reynolds says has sim­i­lar me­chan­i­cal prop­er­ties to its leg­endary 753, which was the ul­ti­mate tube­set some 40 years ago.

“And peo­ple will be still us­ing steel to build bikes for years to come,” says An­der­son. “Apart from hav­ing a clas­sic look like noth­ing else, steel is a ma­te­rial from which you can build many dif­fer­ent bikes for many dif­fer­ent pur­poses” — as Ge­n­e­sis has demon­strated.

Frame Woodrup Il Primo Colum­bus Max 700c, Di2, 44 ID head tube. Jedi bilam seat lug, pol­ished stain­less head badge and stain­less cable slid­ers on head tube. Fork Enve 2.0 Size range Cus­tom Weight 7.98kg Groupset Shi­mano Dura-ace 9150 Di2 Gear ra­tios 52/36, 11-28 Wheels Enve 4.5, Chris King hubs Brakes Shi­mano Dura-ace Tyres Vit­to­ria Ru­bino Pro Graphene 23c Bar Enve Stem Enve 120mm Seat­post Enve 27.2mm Sad­dle Fizik Size shown 60cm www.woodrup­cy­ Ex­ige-in­spired green

The Force is strong with this one

Stem is cus­tom painted in-house Frame Enigma Ex­ten­sor Colum­bus XCR stain­less frame, four-colour cus­tom painted, Fork C-six RD-SL full-car­bon mono­coque fork Size range Cus­tom Weight 7.98kg Groupset Shi­mano Ul­te­gra Gear ra­tios 50/34, 11-28 Wheels Mavic Ksyrium Pro Ex­alith SL Brakes Shi­mano Dura-ace Tyres Mavic Yk­sion Bar Enigma Stem Enigma Seat­post Enigma Sad­dle Enigma Size tested 56cm

Fly­ing the flag for UK in­dus­try

Cowled dropouts for ex­tra stiff­ness

Frame Hallett Hand­built Cy­cles Fast Road Zona Fork HHC steel Size range Cus­tom Weight 9kg Groupset Shi­mano Ul­te­gra Gear ra­tios 50/34, 11-28 Wheels Shi­mano Ul­te­gra Brakes Shi­mano Ul­te­gra Tyres Con­ti­nen­tal GP4000 Bar Pro LT Stem Pro LT Seat­post Pro LT Sad­dle Spe­cial­ized Ronin Size tested 56cm www.hal­let­thand­built­cy­ Stain­less anti-rub strips

Frame Reynolds 725 Heat-treated Chro­moly Fork Car­bon Road Disc w/ 1-1/8 Size range XS-XL Weight 10kg Groupset Shi­mano Ul­te­gra 6800 Gear ra­tios 52/36, 11-28 Wheels Ful­crum Rac­ing Sport DB Brakes Shi­mano BR-RS785 hy­draulic brakes w/160/140mm TR160 ro­tors Tyres Cle­ment Strada LGG 700x28c 60TPI w/tan­wall Bar Ge­n­e­sis Fu­rio Pro Stem Ge­n­e­sis Code Seat­post Ge­n­e­sis al­loy Sad­dle Ge­n­e­sis Road Com­fort Size tested M www.gen­e­sis­

725 re­calls fa­bled 753 tub­ing

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