Lusting after steel

The Civia Kingfield. Note the carbon belt drive and the 8-speed internal-gear hub.

My bike is your basic entry-level aluminum road bike, which is to say it’s light, attractive, pretty fast, and kind of fragile. (You can imprint your own metaphorical connections to your previous, questionable romantic choices here).  I’ve already trashed the frame once, and had to have it replaced. Am I happy with it now? Certainly.

But I still shoot it sideways glances occasionally and ask myself, how long are you really going to stay with me? How long before the next break-down tells us we’ve both had enough? Truth be told, I’ve been looking for a steadier alternative. One that’s perhaps not as flashy, but one that I know I can depend on for the long haul.

And that means steel. Steel bikes fell out of favor a few years ago, when these upstart aluminum and carbon frames started showing up. Yes, they’re lighter, but they have their problems. Carbon’s expensive. Aluminum breaks. Both are really hard to fix. I’m not one of these material snobs who only swears by the ONE TRUE BIKE FRAME MATERIAL, but for my purposes, steel looks like a good way to go.

It won’t break. It can handle rough roads, bumpy sidewalks, transfers on buses and bike trailers and all the other abuse I throw at it as a daily commuter. And fortunately, the bike industry has really gotten behind steel again. There are hundreds of steel models out there now, designed with exactly my level of abuse in mind.

There are lots of upright commuterish models, but the ones I like are the steel drop-bar road bikes, which is the style of bike I feel most comfortable on. These bikes have racerish drop bars, but they tend to be more moderate than your racer-boy models.  They tend to have braze-ons for attaching fenders and racks, and geometry that places the handlebars higher up, for more comfort and less neck-strain. Brands to look for include Kona, Surly, Masi, Redline, Civia and Raleigh (note that some of these are just different brands from the same company).

Even big-gorilla REI is getting into the game, although I checked out their newest steel road bike, and the welds looked like a drunk guy did it after happy hour. But hey, at least they’re trying.

One bike I find really intriguing is the Civia Kingfield, which has a drivetrain made for abuse: A Gates carbon belt drive (no chain, no lube, very quiet), and a Nexus 8-speed hub, which has all the gearing contained within the sealed rear hub housing. Which means no cleaning gunked-up rear cassettes. It’s not cheap, but it’s moderately priced for this level of equipment, and it seems like a great choice for those looking for a bomb-proof commuter. We’ll see how the technology holds up. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that something like this is in order before next winter.

After all, I got rid of the second car. There’s no turning back now…

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8 thoughts on “Lusting after steel

  1. I’ll be curious to see how that belt-drive works out for you, Doug. I’ve heard nothing but bad things about them …

    My sense is that the reason the chain drive has been fundamentally unchanged over the past century is that it’s just about a perfect machine; no one’s been able to improve on it …

    — Liam

    • dougkimster says:

      Hi Liam, I think the jury’s still out, so to speak, I’m not convinced belts are a great way to go yet. Personally, I waffle between something like this and something a little more tried and true. I just want something that won’t break or get junked up with a load of crud every week. Which tells you something about my commute…

  2. Well, Doug, since that Civia you’re lusting after doesn’t have a full chaincase, I’m not sure I see how a belt drive will be significantly cleaner than a chain. Belt or chain, it’s still fully exposed to rain, puddle splash and road grit.

    If a clean chain is a priority, I’d say you’re better off on a Dutch city bike, with a full chaincase.

    But then, that’s a whole different ride … 🙂

    – Liam

    • dougkimster says:

      I’m staying away from Dutch bikes! They’re great if you live in a flat country that’s below sea level, but not here. Not for me, anyway. Some people around here swear by them. Maybe they live down the hill.

  3. Waynkster says:

    If you go with the steel bike, you really should pay the extra few dollars and get the optional lead-weight package. It adds a nice bit of ballast and really helps develop the quads.

  4. Waynkster says:

    No. Did you look under the bed? They’re always in the last place you look.

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