Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Carbon vs Steel Bikes: Test Ride of a Self-Professed Steel Lover

Through my adult bicycling years, I've often spoke about how much I love steel bikes. I love the feel, the ride, the comfort. However, every now and again I find myself eyeing a carbon bike, and can't help but wonder if it would be something that ultimately I would want to purchase. When I find myself riding more (and struggling up lengthy hills with those on carbon bikes whizzing past me), I find myself daydreaming about a lighter weight frame.  Over the last couple of months, I have found myself inching closer to the carbon bikes in shops to eye them closer. Recently, while wandering through a shop, I announced, "One day, I'm going to test ride one... just to see and feel for myself any differences." On one of our stops into a shop, Sam reminded me that we know someone who owns a carbon road bike who might also be so kind to let me borrow hers for a day or two to test it out. Ah, my brilliant Sam!

My somewhat timid (but hopeful) request was sent via e-mail to my friend, Joey. I'm always a bit hesitant to ask to borrow someone's bike because I know what mine mean to me, and how uncomfortable it can be when people start touching them, let alone wanting to ride them or take them home for a few days. She was more than gracious though, and said I was welcome to take her Specialized Ruby home for the weekend to test it out.  I was ecstatic. Finally, an opportunity for a test ride that extends longer than a few minutes around the block.
Specialized Ruby Elite
The first small road block is that Joey is a couple of inches taller than me, and has longer legs. I knew riding her frame would probably be a bit of a stretch, but I believed I could do my best to block out any sizing differences and just try to feel the actual variances in the frame itself.  In actuality, because my Hillborne has such a long top tube for its stand over, the stretch wasn't nearly what I anticipated. I promised not to disturb her set up other than lowering the seat post to allow proper pedaling, and I set out to do a few test rides to see what all the fuss is about carbon.

The first ride was just a quick couple of loops around the block. I wanted to be sure I could ride the bike without toppling over, and test out all the shifting, braking and so on. The "testing" went well, and it was time to take the Specialized out for a ride.

The initial "real" ride consisted of a comparison test. I wanted to physically feel the differences back to back between my A. Homer Hilsen (the steel road bike) and this carbon Specialized. I mentally mapped out a quick route that included hills and flats and took the Homer out on the road. After completing the ride, I immediately switched out and pedaled the same route on the Specialized. I intentionally rode the Specialized in second place to not give any favoritism to this bike. I didn't want a higher level of energy on the first ride to possibly increase the favorability of this bike. I realize that riding it after the steel bike could well have put it at a disadvantage, but this seemed to make the most sense for someone who is considering the pros/cons of something I don't currently own. I also threw in a third bicycle to the test: Sam's Bianchi Brava. He suggested that feeling the difference between my mid-20 lb steel bike, the carbon bike, and a lighter weight steel option might be an interesting juxtaposition as well. I agreed. So, after the Specialized was taken out on the road, the Bianchi followed in the third spot.
Several notes and observations were made while riding these bicycles back to back, but I definitely believed that the Specialized needed its own ride to truly test it out.  Keeping in mind that it wasn't set up for me, I didn't want to go too long a distance, but also wanted to give it more than a couple of miles to get a better feel for the material.

I should point out that my intention with these rides was never to specifically note the qualities or positioning of the Specialized Ruby, but rather to feel the differences of steel versus carbon, and I think this was a successful experiment. After each of the rides were completed, I was able to make several observations.

The rides taken allowed me to experience that there is definitely a difference in the feel of these bikes. While on flat land, each bike is capable (even under my unskilled pedal power) to get up to approximately the same speed; however, with the carbon bike there is an immediate sensation of "going fast." The effort being put into the pedals gets the bike up to speed much quicker as none of the energy is lost in the flex of the frame material (as seems to be the case on a steel bike). A similar reality became evident while climbing.  The effort to pedal uphill resulted in a slightly quicker speed (approximate 1.5-2 miles per hour), and beyond velocity itself it was as though the energy expended produced immediate results, rather than losing some of the effort in the climb.  It helped me understand in a more physical manner how and why the carbon roadies are able to speed past me, particularly when traveling up hills.
An old shot of the Bianchi Brava - it's seen several upgrades (including the wheels) since the time of this photo
One aspect I found rather interesting was feeling the physical differences among the carbon bike, my steel road bike, and Sam's Bianchi. I will note that there is little on his Brava that is from the original bike as he has upgraded 95% of this bike to make it a sub-20 lb steel road bike (I believe it currently comes in at about 18 lbs). I was amazed at how light his Bianchi feels even by comparison to my own steel ride. His lighter weight bike was seeing approximately the same speed increases on mild hills (about 1.5-2 mph) as the carbon bike.  So, is the speed difference based on the weight of the bike, or the material of the frame? Is it the sum of the parts, or is it the rider?  Did I simply expect that one would be quicker than the other and already have some kind of pre-conceived idea of the outcome?  I don't think there is any denying that the effort put into a carbon frame is more immediately evident, but I can also see that the weight of a bike must be playing a role in the overall speed as well.

All of this, in many ways, brought more questions than it resolved, but it also provided some personal answers I had been seeking. Even with my somewhat limited time riding the carbon, I can see that there is a time and a place for it, and I "get" why people choose this as an option for a road bike. Clearly, it has its benefits. However, even with that said, this experiment allowed me to re-affirm that my personal preference is still steel. I am a bit unsure if my fondness for this material has to do with what I am currently used to, or if there truly is better comfort for me on steel, but I found that I simply prefer the ride quality on the steel bikes. There are other reasons to love steel over carbon - such as recycling qualities and length of life - but, my preference has more to do with comfort over long distances than anything else.

I am not a racer, and even should I decide in the future that I'd like to achieve quicker speeds (which I can see happening), I think I would opt for a lighter weight steel choice... it is the material I personally like.  Could this change? Of course. Anything is possible, and I'm not willing to say that I would never own a carbon frame because I've already experienced changes in my style of riding over the last few years. However, if at this moment someone gave me the option to choose between the two, I would opt for steel. While I don't think this takes anything away from a carbon frame, and I better understand why there are folks who make this their material of choice, I have learned that I'm happy with what works for me. As has been said before, it doesn't matter what your preference... just get out there and ride.

*A very special thank you to Joey for allowing me to use her beloved Ruby. I appreciated having the opportunity to experience first hand why you love your bike so much! :O)

Post Script: We had another chat a couple years later that can be found here during which people chimed in about their thoughts on ride quality on various bicycle materials. 

26 comments:

  1. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that it's the weights of the bikes which made the biggest different. My Dolce and Ariel are both aluminum -- the Dolce has a carbon fork -- and the ride quality feels similar but the Dolce FLIES with hardly any effort on my part. (Frighteningly so, sometimes.) Well, now that I think about it, the Ariel doesn't jar me as much on bumps. I keep wanting to chalk that up to the wider tires.

    What is it about the steel that feels so comfortable to you? Is it a smoother, less jarring ride?

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    1. I have a really rough time on aluminum bikes myself, but it's due primarily to my hand issues. I've had full aluminum and aluminum with a steel fork and they both did more harm than good. I know so many people who love their aluminum, and of course, the most important thing is that the rider's comfortable.

      Personally, I like the steel (over carbon) because I feel like there's more give, which seems to make the ride more comfortable (to me). I realize that I'm losing some of the energy with pedaling, but because I'm not a racer, I'm not sure it really bothers me. I didn't have a long enough time on the carbon bike to know how it would affect my hands, but they seemed to be fine on either. The carbon is stiffer feeling and I realize that is probably what gives it (at least in part) the immediacy of picking up speed, but while it wasn't uncomfortable, I have a feeling on a long ride, it would start to get to me.

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  2. Obviously, i was entwined in all of this, but I think my opinion stays the same. Mine is not knocking any of the materials, but I find that a fast steel frame, is fast, a fast carbon frame, is fast. The differences are in the flex/compliance for me, that's it. We have spent lot's of time trolling bike shops when i get the fancy and it goes something like this "I want to try out a full carbon bike", this is follwed by an extensive violent test ride, where i'm somewhat dissapointed. I'm not dissapointed because the bike is BAD, but because it's very close to the same as my steel "race" bike. If I didn't have a roadie bike at all, I think I might go straight for a cool carbon one, but part of me likes the "street cred" around here, of rolling a steel bike in that way.

    I think the excersise in the carbon test was what you expected, it was stiff, fast, and a little jarring. I think the real test was riding yours, Joey's, then mine. We know weight can make a difference, particularly a 7 lb jump from one bike to another! Where am I going with this? Not sure... It's Tuesday.

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    1. I don't know if it was jarring, necessarily - it was just different than the feel of steel. As stated above, I have a feeling over a much longer ride, I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I do the steel.

      As for weight, I'm kind of on board with this thinking. If my steel bike weigh about 26ish lbs, and yours weighs in at 17-18 lbs... that's a really big difference - and it was definitely quite obvious.

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  3. I love vintage steel, but recently purchased two carbon fiber road bikes - Trek Madone SL 5.9 from 2007 and a Colnago C40 HP from 2004. I have to say that these provide on-demand sprinting capability from any starting speed, and they fly up hills. I do attribute this to their weight (also both have carbon fiber wheels). Road shock on the Colnago is significantly less than on the Trek, and in-line with steel. I'll always have a place in my heart for steel road bikes, but these two new "toys" have got me out riding more, and, as the author says, this is what it's all about.

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    1. I can definitely see the benefit of the carbon bikes - especially when used for sprinting and uphill riding. I certainly don't see anything wrong with preferring one over the other - nor for loving or having more than one type of bike.

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  4. Okay, so I'm late to the game, but I thought my info would be helpful to some.
    I've got a bunch of bikes, old steel, aluminum, new steel ... thought I'd get a carbon but after extensive test riding on carbons, got the steel.
    * Yes, the carbon frames have this "instant go" factor, definitely a plus.
    * I worry about what happens to that hunk of carbon & plastic when it gets trashed. No recycling at the moment
    * My old steel bike is nearly 22lbs, but no problems going up the hills and I arrive at my destination feeling still fresh and ready for more. Plus, it has no rust issues despite being my all-weather bike for over 10 years in a coastal rainforest environment.
    * The new steel bike is around 18lbs and definitely has more zip than the old steel. But are my commute times noticeably faster? No. I suspect a lot of the feel has to do with the lighter weight, especially in the wheels. For a faster bike, upgrade your wheels.

    Unlike the original poster, I have no issue with being passed on the hills by fancy carbon steeds. It rarely, rarely happens, I'm usually doing the passing even though I'm no racer and hardly in my peak form. I chalk it up to the better fit on my steel bikes :-)

    If you want to compare carbon vs. steel, the ultimate question is "Are you any faster?", the clock doesn't lie. I suggest you check the average pro race speeds and see if there is a blip when carbon frames kicked in. You might also refer to a test in Procycling magazine, August 2009 with a "noodly" 1983 steel race bike (any current steel bike is way better) vs. new carbon bike using elite racers. I don't lose any sleep over riding steel.

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  5. So far, in all of my internet searches, yours is the best comparison that I have read. I own three steel racing bikes, a 1990 Bianchi Giro, a 1994 Colnago Masterlite and a 2004 Colnago Masterlite. All three in racing condition today. I have raced the 1990 and 1994 machines and ride with my younger co-workers who have carbon bikes. I just like the looks of my old bikes more than the carbon bikes and I do not feel that I am at a great disadvantage. If I were still racing today I probably would only have upgraded the wheels to something more aerodynamic. I primarily raced in crits so ultimate hill climbing ability was never an issue.

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    1. Some impressive racing bikes you have! Nice to know there are racers who opt for steel still today.

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  6. I think that carbon came in primarily because elite racers are like jockeys - weigh about 150 lb, and under that weight steel doesn't flex enough. (i.e. they feel every bump on the road riding on steel). If you are "normal" weight however, say 180+, I bet that carbon will feel like "mushy" for you on an average road. I am a heavy, but athletic, rider and often feel that even old steel is flexing under me sometimes like a viking ship. The point I am trying to make is that carbon is making the ride more comfortable for the 140-150 lb rider ONLY, as you will not see a 170 lb pro rider anymore on a team roster.

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    1. Not sure I'd agree with the weight idea. Marcel Kittel in the tour this year is 190lbs. He rides carbon and is a sprinter. Doubt it's mushy....

      I have a Orbea Onix and a Soma ES and while I like both bikes, the Onix only gets short miles while the Soma gets the majority of the long miles. It's all about comfort. Speed doesn't matter for me on long rides as much as comfort and the ability to carry some stuff. All in all, I don't think I'm really any faster on the Onix. It's not mushy though and I'm nearly 200lbs.

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    2. Hi, got a question (if you don't mind me butting in ;), I have a mountain bike (big, old and heavy) I have a hybrid (aluminum) and am now saving to buy a road. I have looked into the carbon, steel, aluminum and titanium bikes and have got lost. I've heard that carbon is light weight and fast but if you have a major prang you can't see the damage within, steel is heavier but stronger (and your reasons above), titanium is comfier and strong etc! I have also been told about a Chaz Roberts who makes light weight steel bikes made to fit for a very reasonable price, have you any knowledge of him? As I can only buy one bike I need to make a good choice. What is your opinion?

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    3. My opinion... and it is merely that (an opinion) is that you should ride as many different types of bike materials as possible (and from different manufacturers) to form opinions on what you like about each. It sounds as though you've been looking into various materials, but I'm not sure if you've actually ridden them? It's great to be able to read others' thoughts and opinions, but truly nothing replaces being able to ride them each for yourself. I, personally, have nothing against any of these frame materials. I'm a bit partial to steel myself - but it is more for aesthetic reasons than any other. I have had problems with aluminum in the past because I have hand injuries. That said, I just recently rode a century on an aluminum road bike with a carbon fork - so, even with my injury issues, I was able to get through the ride and not feel as though I'd be injured (more) for a long period of time.

      I don't know anything much about Roberts' bikes to offer anything of value to you in your search for clarity. I think if a builder/maker/manufacturer is willing to work with a customer to customize geometry, weight, size, and so on, that can't be a bad thing, certainly. As for their quality, I cannot speak to that side of the matter, but I know there are forums on the web that would probably be able to offer a bit more in that area.

      I wish I could offer a more finite decision/opinion for you. I can understand the frustration (as I have gone through this myself now for quite awhile). I think there is good and bad to be found in any material, and we just have to decide what works for us as an individual. The more I have been able to test out though, the easier it has been to narrow down the options to things that seem practical, realistic, sensible, and simply "right" for me.

      I wish you luck in your search. Perhaps others will be able to offer some different perspectives or thoughts as you continue to save and look for the right road bike.

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    4. Thanks G.E you have been more help than you know :) I have spoken to a couple of Robert's bike owners and as I also have medical probs (mines with my wrists) No that's not what caused it! I am female and no that is still not what caused it! and my knees on prolonged hills can give me gip. Anyway I have been informed that if you tell him all your problems he can build the bike to help releave them. I am going to contact him soon. If your interested I will let you know how I get on.
      Max

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    5. That's so great to hear! I hope it works well for you, and certainly if you're willing to share I'd love to know how the process and the bike suit you as you have the opportunity to ride.

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  7. One factor that hasn't been discussed in this thread is the role of tires. Skinny 23c tires that are inflated to 100+ lbs. transmit a lot of road vibration if the pavement isn't perfectly smooth. A fatter 28c, 32c or 35c tire inflated to 65-80 lbs gives a much plusher, smoother ride.

    Counter-intuitively, these wider tires actually roll more efficiently than high-pressure narrow tires (unless the pavement is perfect), because they can absorb road vibration rather than transmit it through the bike and into the rider's body. Jan Heine investigated this 'tire width phenomenon' and published the results in Bicycle Quarterly.

    Of course, wider tires do weigh somewhat more, so maybe that's somewhat responsible for your Rivendell's slower hill climbing ability (along with the fact that your steel Riv is 5 or 6 lbs heavier than the Ruby). BTW, I've been riding a steel salsa vaya with 42c tires this past year. As a 26 lb. bike, it's definitely slower to accelerate, but the geometry and overall sturdiness of the bike (plus its fat tires) make it a super-comfy ride. It's geared a bit lower than a carbon road bike (with a 11-32t rear sprocket) so it climbs easily and it bops along on the flats at 18-20 mph without a lot of effort. I find I can ride it longer and feel better on it than my former aluminum Specialized Roubaix (now that model would be called a Secteur) with a carbon fork and seat stays.

    I happened to rent a Trek Domane carbon bike in Michigan for a few days this summer, and I have to admit it was also a reasonably comfy bike and a notch more responsive (both in steering and acceleration)than my Vaya (which is basically a light touring bike). Were I to join spirited group rides, I'd definitely consider a Domane or light steel bike like the Bianchi mentioned above, but I'd use 25c or 28c tires (might not be able to squeeze 28's onto the Domane, a real limitation of carbon road bikes).

    The bottom line is that tire width and frame geometry are as important to how a bike feels as is the frame material. For overall speed and performance, a carbon bike probably has the edge (name a pro who rides steel!). For overall comfort, a steel bike with slightly fatter tires gives up only a small edge in performance for much greater comfort. That's my $.02 anyway.

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  8. I have both aluminum and carbon bikes. The first is snappy and stiff, on smooth roads I can sprint and climb like a rocket. But on regular roads it's harsh and buzzy, I get fatigued after even a short ride.

    My carbon rides like silk, it's smooth and super comfortable and I feel good after hours of riding even some of the worst roads. But I always hold back from laying my 195 lbs into it for fear something will break.

    I now have a custom steel bike being built where the builder has access to various high grade steel tubes and custom geometry. I want to combine the best qualities of both bikes, where I don't have to hold back on a sprint, where I can ride comfortablly for hours and feel good, and know that the frame will last me many years.

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    1. Since this post, I've owned/ridden both an aluminum and carbon frame - I found both to be pretty comfortable (which rather surprised me after this test ride), but as you noted, I did get a bit of that "buzzing" sensation on the aluminum. I haven't experienced that same sensation on the carbon. I still prefer steel above all others, but I have yet to be able to bring myself to pay for a custom steel bike. That day will likely come at some point, but for now, I've held out believing that (at least for now) the carbon suits my road-riding needs.

      Congrats on your soon to be new steel ride! I hope you enjoy it.

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  9. Thanks. I've read some articles on the new comeback of aluminum bikes, but if you pay close attention there's always mention of some road buzz through the bars and seat, it's the properties of aluminum you just can't mask, even with carbon posts and double wrapped tape.

    My custom steel bike frame, believe it or not, comes in quite a bit cheaper than a high quality carbon frame (including a custom steel fork, not carbon). That better price, the fact that steel gives such a great ride, custom fit and geometry, and that it will last many years, were all reasons I opted to go wtih custom steel vs a new carbon bike upgrade.

    I used to be up on the latest advancements for bike frames and components, now I'm just tired of reading about how far removed the bikes have become to those of us that just want a reliable tool to ride for many years. That's another reason I went with steel, I feel there's a point where a bike is 'just right', and if you don't let your eyes wander to the impulse to want a light frame or carbon wheels, then you will have a bike that's always ready for a ride. I even opted for box section custom built 32 spoke wheels, no gee whiz carbon 55cm $2500 para-sail wheels for me.

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    1. That's so great that you're able to get a steel bike that will work for you. If you don't mind my asking, who's making the frame? I'm just curious as I'm always on the hunt. :O)

      Although my carbon bike is definitely faster (because it's lighter and set up in a fashion to ride quicker/longer distances), my preference is still steel. Of course, it's entirely possible that I could have a steel bike that would feel much the same - it's just a matter of finding it. We have a local shop that recently started selling custom ti frames, and I must admit, I am a bit intrigued and curious about the differences, but steel has been a sturdy, reliable, comfortable ride for me and it's difficult to imagine it being much better for my purposes.

      For me, it's easy not to want a carbon bike because I don't find it particularly aesthetically pleasing - however, when the opportunity for carbon presented itself at nearly half off, and I wanted a faster road bike, it was an easy solution at the time. It's been a great bike, but I have no doubt that in time I will end up with a custom steel road bike - because it's just what I prefer.

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    2. You can look up the steel frame builder's website under Primus Mootry. His name is Joe; he's been building frames in aluminum, Ti, steel and carbon for many years. He built 2 bikes for a person I met locally (I live in Canada, builder is in the US) and he was so impressed with his bikes (one aluminum for racing, the other steel) that I decided to go with him as well.

      Carbon bikes are lighter, but there's a 4lbs difference in weight between my carbon and aluminum bikes. I couldn't tell the difference, what I could tell was how it rides based on the frame material. I've stated above how each one rides, and I found that to be a key point in going with steel. An extra lbs added with steel won't be noticable to me, but a smoother ride will.

      I've heard Ti has a fantastic ride quality, but it's a bit on the plush side, whereas he can make steel as snappy as aluminum but with a better, buzz free, ride quality.

      I'm also heavier (close to 200 lbs) as I lift weights, swim and do other physical activities year round. I found as nice as my carbon bike is to ride, it doesn't inspire confidence to go all out during a hard sprint or climb. I can push my aluminum bike 100% (also has aluminum bar/stem), but I would never do that with the carbon one.

      With the steel frame I also asked for a steel fork, not carbon. I'm also putting aluminum parts: stem, bar, seat post. This bike will be ridden, I won’t be holding back for sprints or climbs, and I expect it to last for many years and for many rides on it over various roads.

      Another thing I did is get a new bike fitting. My flexibility has changed quite a bit since I first started riding a few years ago, I'm able to really get down in the drops and found my current frame size a bit long, so I'm getting the steel bike configured to my current contact points.

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    3. Thank you for all of this. It's extremely helpful. I have been toying with the idea of a custom frame more seriously and have debated titanium vs steel. It's nice to have more opinions to factor in to the mix. Myself, I have little concern over minimal weight differences, but definitely care about the feel and ride quality, so this is beneficial to me personally.

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  10. It's been a while so I thought I'd give you an update. I had the steel frame and fork delivered to me in June, and I took the components and wheels off my aluminum bike so I could ride this new one and get a feel for it.

    In all I put 2600 km on it between July and September. My first impressions? It's heavy (21 lbs), but that owes also to the heavier, older drivetrain and heavy wheels. It felt sluggish with these wheels, and riding it on the same roads as my carbon bike I found it to be very stiff, like my aluminum bike. In a way it felt overbuilt for my size and weight.

    It was harsh at first, but as I approached 2000 km it changed. It felt less stiff, and even had a bit of complaince and elastic feel to it, and past that mileage point it became more enjoyable on each ride.

    I've since upgraded the drivetrain to Campy Chorus 11 and had a set of handbuilt wheels that are wider and lighter, but everything is still aimed at giving a quality ride with reliability, not for light weight. The weight dropped to 19 lbs. I can't ride now as it's too cold, but in a few months I'll have it back on the road in it's new configuration.

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    1. Very good to read this. It's interesting how a bike can change over time. I've had it work both ways (not enjoying it at first and then liking it more as I ride, and liking the bike initially and then finding that I don't like it as much the more I'm able to ride). I'm glad to know this has worked for you and that you've upgraded the components. I hope you continue to enjoy it and that you'll be able to ride again soon. I'm amazed that we're almost heading into spring once again (but excited, of course, for warmer temperatures).

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  11. I've been riding my custom steel bike exclusively since the start of the season. I actually don't miss the carbon bike, nice as it is. The roads I ride on are getting worse each year, and I feel more 'secure' riding on the steel frame than I did with the carbon, it just absorbs the road buzz well and can take the hits of unseen potholes and road cracks. The steel bike just does everything so well, and it's nice to ride for many hours. I'm glad things all worked out and that steel is everything I read it to be.

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    1. I, too, worry far less about my steel bikes being able to handle the rigors of rough roads. While they can still break, I think it's good to know that they are usually easier to repair should the need arise.

      Ride and enjoy your custom steel! :O)

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