After testing a couple of carbon gravel bikes I started to question steel as the best material for gravel bikes. But before making final judgments I wanted to talk to the guys at Ritchey Bikes, who are regarded by many as a benchmark in terms of steel bikes. I did not get the chance to talk with Tom Ritchey directly, but Jeff (international marketing manager) and Fergus (US marketing manager) were more than happy to school me in the steel, but also carbon bike design.
Jeff & Fergus: There are only two carbon fiber bikes in the Ritchey line, and they are both Break-Away frames: The Carbon Outback Break-Away and the Carbon Road Break-Away. Tom carefully designed both carbon bikes to ride and feel as close to his steel bikes as possible. The Carbon Outback Break-Away was built to be the ultimate bike with which to travel. With wider tire clearance and the ability to easily and quickly separate into two main pieces, the bike fits in its own travel case that is not subject to airline extra baggage fees. I know people who purchased the Outback Break-Away but rarely travel. They wanted a carbon version of the bike, and that fit the bill.
CyclingAbout: Carbon bikes have pushed the stiffness theme onto the road, and now, the gravel market. But at the same time, carbon frames are becoming more and more effective in combining stiffness and compliance. Is there still a place for a steel bike? Can steel gravel bikes still compete with carbon versions when not only comfort but also stiffness is required by today’s consumers?
Jeff & Fergus: There will always be a place for steel bikes, no matter what cycling discipline we’re talking about. Steel is, of course, extremely comfortable when designed and built properly. It’s also plenty efficient and fast. It’s also more reliable than carbon. Steel bends when it fails and can be repaired. Carbon breaks are complete and sudden and are unable to be repaired. Not to mention steel is less of an environmental detriment than carbon fiber. Aside from that, the carbon-vs-steel argument is truly about design and the game of marketing we all play. The industry will try to market stiffness as an attribute that’s beneficial in all applications, but it’s not. Carbon bikes, one could argue, are over-designed and over-built. Good design requires a material to act as it should when applied correctly. For Tom, steel has been the material that behaves correctly when applied to various forces. The carbon bikes produced by Ritchey are intentionally designed to react and ride with the same beneficial characteristics of a steel bike.
CyclingAbout: Carbon frame makers have a lot of options to make the frame both stiff and compliant. On one hand, they can shape the tubes however they want, and on the other hand, they can use different carbon fibers in different places to achieve maximal stiffness of compliance. Titanium frame builders try to mimic that by making oval tubes (like T-Lab with X3 bike) and try to tinker with the tubing thickness to achieve desired properties. I don’t know how effective these efforts are but I don’t really see a similar trend in steel bikes. Why is that?
Jeff & Fergus: Sorry, but that assumption is incorrect. Most steel bikes are built with tubes of varying thicknesses in certain areas of the tubing. Sometimes the tubes have a thicker wall at the joints to be more secure for the welds, while at other places, it will be thinner to offer desired compliance and weight reduction. Yet other areas of the same tube will also be thicker where there tends to be more stress. Ritchey uses its own triple-butted steel tubing to deliver a frame that’s strong where it needs to be, stiff enough for efficient efforts, and compliant enough for a sublime ride experience.
The butting profile of steel tubing, or varied tubing thickness, is nothing new to the bike industry. Frame builders have played with tubing profiles and shape for many decades. What makes Ritchey Logic tubing unique is the “secret sauce” (as Tom puts it) of what length butting profile goes where on the frame to give Ritchey bikes the ride quality that is heralded. We make sure the butting profile of a downtube is not only unique at both ends where it’s joined but unique to its placement in the frame. True, not every steel frame manufacturer does this, but not every frame rides like a Ritchey.
CyclingAbout: Carbon bikes are renowned for their BB stiffness. For example, Specialized Diverge has so big BB area that, with the combination of a short chainstay, makes for a real sprinter. What can be done to a steel bike to improve the stiffness of the BB area? Is T47 BB a solution for that in your opinion?
Jeff & Fergus: The bottom bracket area of Ritchey steel bikes is purposefully designed to add to the performance, compliance, and efficiency of the bike. An oversized bottom bracket on such a steel bike would be too stiff and make it ride poorly. Additionally…how often do you hear a 68mm threaded bottom bracket squeak and make noise? Certainly, nowhere near as much as press-fitted BBs in carbon bikes.
T47 was an answer to a unique problem one frame manufacturer had with their frames. Again, this is an example of the result of poor design – an answer to the wrong question. Frame manufacturers have to consider all of these elements when designing a frame – a frame alone does not make up a bike. Every component must be considered when designing a frame. Even something as elemental as a bottom bracket should not be considered a given.
CyclingAbout: Should I really worry about the lack of BB stiffness in a steel bike? I have a steel Jamis Renegade Exploit bike and when my friend, a semi-professional road cyclist, stands on the pedals while holding the brakes, I see a lot of flex in the BB area. But when he does the same with a carbon gravel bike, the flex is much less visible. So naturally, I feel that my bike is lacking in the stiffness department and I think I need a more stiff bike. But is this the right approach in your opinion?
Jeff & Fergus: We would advise against choosing a bike or a bike material based on this method. Again, steel bikes are purposefully more compliant in the bottom bracket area. Bicycle frames are like a robust, interconnected organism. Every part of its overall design is influenced by other areas of the bike while those parts inform the next part. If you add a super-stiff BB area, you’re going to throw off the whole system and will have a poorly performing bike to ride. Or, you will need to add compliance to another area of the bike, which means making yet another area of the bike stiffer, and…the cycle goes on.
Sure, some steel bikes are poorly designed and built, and having a “flexy” bottom bracket on such a bike would be the least of your worries. Ritchey frames have enough compliance in the bottom bracket area, which compliments other design considerations in other areas of the bike, to produce an absolutely well-intentioned and lovely ride. Efficient and comfortable.
CyclingAbout: Carbon bikes usually have thin and/or bent seat stays to improve vertical compliance. There is also no bridge between seat stays. Why we don’t see more steel or titanium bikes with similarly shaped seat stays? Would this be beneficial in terms of compliance like it is with carbon frames?
Jeff & Fergus: Steel is inherently a more flexible material, so there’s no need for such bends in the seat stays to make a less stiff and more comfortable ride. Carbon is torsionally stiffer, so special considerations need to be made to make it less laterally and vertically stiff. Special shapes literally correct a problem that carbon fiber creates.
CyclingAbout: What is the purpose of the wishbone seatstays in both of the Outback (carbon and steel) frames? Is this somehow beneficial in terms of stiffness and how about the difference in compliance when compared to a more traditional approach?
Jeff & Fergus: Only the Break-Away Outback, which is carbon fiber, features the wishbone stays. The steel Outback uses the Ritchey Fastback seatstay, which is where the seat post binder/bolt is integrated into the junction with the seatstays where they meet the seat tube. The wishbone junction on the carbon Break-Away bike is used because that is one of the two areas where the frame separates (and joins) when the frame is disassembled. Therefore, it needs to be strong, and the Fastback seatstay would not work in this position in carbon fiber.
CyclingAbout: What is the minimum length of a steel frame chainstay when you want to accommodate a 700x42c tire? For example, carbon frames can have a 415mm chainstay and still work with that kind of tire but I believe that there are very few steel gravel bikes with chainstay shorter than 430 mm (and only a few gravel titanium bikes with chainstay of 420mm).
Jeff & Fergus: Again, the wrong question regarding design. What’s the point of having a stay so short? What about clearance for the tire or debris? Companies are pushing shorter and shorter stays for aesthetics when ride quality suffers. There have been steel frames in the past and currently with short stays, but it requires a dropped stay to clear both the tire and chain ring. That’s a poor solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.
CyclingAbout: Why do your frames have a quite steep seat tube angle (usually it is 73 degrees and your Outback’s have 74 in similar size)? Is this more beneficial for the ride feel and comfort to have a steeper seat tube angle?
Jeff & Fergus: Advances in physiology have determined seat tube angle coming forward benefits pedal stroke. However, there’s a limit before the seat angle becomes a detriment to pedal stroke and overstresses individual muscles.
CyclingAbout: Outback frame has a rather steep head angle that you matched with a rather small (47 mm) rake. What are the benefits of this combination and why not use a 71,5 (instead of 72 degree) head angle and match it with a more common 50 mm fork rake (the trial in both cases is the same)?
Jeff & Fergus: Head tube angle, rake, and trail are somewhat dependent on frame size and how that will affect ride quality. Scrutinizing the minutia of frame geometry is overlooking the entirety of the bicycle as it acts as a complete unit. What about tire size and bar choice? These play a factor in how a bike handles as well as .5-degrees of head tube angle. The Outback was designed to rip whether on-road or off. Does it do that? Yes. Do I wonder about what the rake of the fork is while doing so? Not really.
CyclingAbout: Why did you create so short head tubes on your Outback bikes? This makes the ride position very aggressive while today’s trend on the gravel market is to have more endurance-like geometry.
Jeff & Fergus: The first generation of the modern Outback was designed for more technical kinds of gravel riding and for riding on trails…not just long, straight dirt roads. While it is certainly plenty comfortable on longer endurance-focused rides, it’s also more aggressive and snappy for more technical riding.
CyclingAbout: What can be done to a carbon fork to make it more compliant without losing the stiffness? Is it the bend of the fork, the length of it, or simply the fork construction? For example, I recently did a fork comparison test and I found out that you can bend the fork (as Argon 18 did with their Dark Matter bike and like many steel forks were bent in the past) but it can still be less compliant than a straight fork that uses the proper carbon fibers in proper places (I speak about U-Turn fork from OPEN). And both of those forks were more compliant than my 4-year-old Jamis ECO fork which is 10 mm longer (which should promote more flex, at least in theory).
Jeff & Fergus: I assume that your Jamis uses an alloy steerer carbon fork, which is not the most forgiving material of choice. Look, bikes are over-designed and the merits of design are being lost in a rush for a stiffer front end. We purposely use a straight steerer fork because of the vibration-dampening qualities of the steerer. Combine that with our forged machined headtube, and a lot of trail or road vibration is taken out immediately. The blades of the fork also do a lot to absorb energy from harsh riding conditions – we purposely design our forks to be able to take on this energy appropriately. When a company insists on building a frame with a tapered headtube, they have to overcompensate for poor ride quality elsewhere. Again, the fork is part of the larger organism of the complete bike.
CyclingAbout: There is an Italian Titici brand that makes a gravel bike called Flexy. It has a very thin and flat top tube section that visibly flexes and this is advertised as a great comfort-improving feature. What do you think about this kind of solution and is a top tube a good place to search for better riding comfort?
Jeff & Fergus: We don’t like to disparage other brands, but this is not a solution we would endorse.
CyclingAbout: What do you think about 650B wheels on a gravel bike? Your current gravel bikes are created with 700c wheels in mind, do you consider making in future a 650B variant?
Jeff & Fergus: 650B has its place. Don’t forget, Tom’s first off-road specific bikes were 650B. High-volume tires can do a lot for not only traction but passive suspension. Wheels size depends on the application. Also…the new version of the Outback gravel bike will officially accept both 700C and 650B wheels.
CyclingAbout: What do you think about the solutions like BMC MTT suspension, Cannondale Kingpin suspension, or Specialized FutureShock? In other words, did we reach the limit of what can be done (in terms of compliance) with a carbon or metal frame and now the only way for moving forward is to invent solutions with moving parts?
Jeff & Fergus: Such gimmicks are, again, solving problems that poor design created. A well-designed steel frame will easily outperform, and perform much better and reliably, than adding marginal suspension designs. Such gimmicky designs are great marketing tools and can help sell bikes, but they’re terribly inefficient.
CyclingAbout: What do you think about the trend of flexing handlebars like Giant D-Fuse or a carbon HollowGram from Cannondale (which is a very flat handlebar with a lot of visible flex)? Is this something you will follow and you will make a similarly flexing handlebar or do you think that what you already did is enough? (and which of your handlebar offers the most flex?)
Jeff & Fergus: Ritchey bikes have no need for such kinds of bar designs since the inherent ride quality of the bikes is already dialed in. Putting one of those bars on a Ritchey would have a detrimental effect on the ride of the bike. There’s no need for bars like that on an already-comfortable bike. Would we make such a bar? Ritchey bars, stems and posts are bought for every sort of bike around the world. There are no plans in place for such a bar, but if we could create a product to enhance the ride on a non-Ritchey bike, it might be interesting.
CyclingAbout: What do you think about titanium (compared to steel and carbon) and do you consider making a titanium frame in the future?
Jeff & Fergus: Titanium is a great material, and we’ve had titanium frames in the past. However, it’s an extremely expensive material which makes it out of reach for a lot of the market. Years ago, Tom had an issue with Ti manufacturers not being up to his requirements for production. Tom still oversees product quality and production whether a frame or a stem bolt. He is truly involved in all aspects of every product that bears his name. If any supplier is not up to his demands, Ritchey will not source from that supplier. It’s very unlikely there will ever be a new titanium Ritchey frame.
CyclingAbout: What gravel trends in general and in terms of comfort do you see emerging or getting stronger in the coming years on a gravel market?
Jeff & Fergus: Aside from the UCI and USAC meddling in the discipline and ruining it, tires are a very important part of any gravel bike. More important than some flexy handlebars, etc. Tires will evolve a bit more, and even more attention will be given to them. Gravel riding is not about nailing big hits like the more aggressive sorts of mountain biking, so there’s no need for suspension bits or other marketing-driven technologies. A comfortable frame and proper tire choice will go a very long way in absorbing the chatter and bumps on gravel rides.
Jeff Lockwood is the international marketing manager for Ritchey. An American living in Belgium, he has a special place in his heart for singlespeed mountain bikes but is often found riding tarmac, racing cyclocross, and getting lost on gravel roads in Belgium, Switzerland, or the United States.
Bikes rule everything around Fergus Liam. Practically born on a bicycle, rarely is there a day where a ride isn’t involved. After a decade as a bike messenger, he found himself at the helm of the US marketing department of Ritchey Design, where he thrives today.