Do you remember the first time you heard the opening chords to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”? Well, probably not, but unless you have a unique lack of appreciation for music or a physical condition that prevents it, you likely tapped your feet. There’s something about that loud, drivey kind of music that gives it an energy. What about the first time you saw AC/DC on MTV? Remember that? If you do, I am willing to bet you were shocked to see that riff blasting from the guitar of a dude dressed as a schoolgirl. That, ladies and gentlemen, is metal and metal is supposed to shock, surprise, and delight you in equal measure.
Metal is also a material you can make bikes with, you may remember. It’s easy to forget that in an age of carbon everything. But, just like diving into your old record collection, riding a metal bike can remind us that a lot of the things we see as progress aren’t so much better as they are different. There are trade-offs between metal and carbon, just like there are between vinyl and digital, but it doesn’t mean the newer way is always the best.
I have seen dozens of bikes this year that compromise on contact points, wheels, and tires in order to deliver a carbon frame to the privateer racer or century rider. These points that touch the ground and your body are crucial to comfort and performance on a bike and it really doesn’t matter how light or aero your frame is if you crash when it rains because your tires suck. But metal bikes don’t have to be dirt cheap. (I will be continuing to drop AC/DC references throughout this article and send a pleated skirt to the first reader to identify them all).
I just returned from a few days bikepacking in Baja California. I really like gravel bikes for this sort of riding, as the roads aren’t that well-maintained or safe, so I can make fast progress on the tarmac and still be amply equipped to ride over rocks, ruts, and the occasional rattlesnake with 650 x 47 tires. I have a quiver of gravel bikes to choose from right now, but the one I picked wasn’t light (despite that fact that it’s a long way to the top of San Pedro Martir, almost 10,000 feet in fact) or aero (because an aero frame doesn’t hugely matter when your tire is so big) or especially “compliant’ (again, see: big tires). The bike I picked was the Sage Barlow—because it is metal.
For a ride as dirty, mean, and mighty unclean as our Baja adventure, a metal bike makes sense for a lot of reasons. I could strap bags to it and not worry about scratching or damaging the frame. I could throw it in the back of flatbeds and pickup trucks when the roads got too sketchy or we ran out of headlight battery and hitched a ride. I could rest assured that nearly any bike shop would have the parts I needed if I broke the bike. I could take a mighty hard crash without worrying if the frame was going to break underneath me two days later.
But metal bikes aren’t just good for bikepacking on the highway to hell, they deliver great performance too. Sure, when you buy an alloy bike some people will look at it askance. It’ll make a loud noise when rocks hit it and it’ll feel cool when you touch too much of its tubing. It will also likely ride better than anything in the same price range. For as long as I have been racing, the cycling industry has been obsessed with frame material over any other aspect of a bike’s equipment or performance. In reality, the groupset, wheels, and tires will make a much bigger difference to the weight, feel, and speed of your ride. If you’re looking for a value bike, Cannondale’s CAAD range of light, stiff, and well-specced aluminum road bikes can smoke their carbon competition. If you haven’t touched an aluminum bike since the butt-busting alloy frames of the late 1990s, you’ll be blown away by the improved ride quality of modern metal frames. Saving money on frames allows brands to include lighter wheels and better tires which makes for a bike that feels, and goes, much faster than a carbon bike with narrow rims and cheap rubber.
Sure, at some coffee shops you’ll be the only one with a bike made of metal but there’s something satisfying about knowing that the wheelset on the bike next to you cost more than your whole set up, and you’re not getting dropped. When you do get to the coffee shop, you can expect to field all the usual questions. Is it harsh? Is it heavy? And you will point out that it isn’t so heavy that they’re able to drop you, and that it isn’t anywhere near as harsh as a bike that costs five times as much but runs on thin, crappy, overinflated tires. After this, you can duckwalk your way to the coffee bar and drop five bucks on a fancy muffin with acai berries in it because you saved some money on your bike purchase. You will point out that “It ain’t no fun (waiting round to be a millionaire)” and off you will pedal on a cloud of smugness and a very nice pair of wheels.
Having said that, not all metal bikes are cheap. The Sage Barlow I rode in Baja cost more than my pickup truck. However, just like my vintage Toyota, that bike will last for decades with pretty minimal maintenance. It takes a standard fork, standard stem, standard seatpost, and is delightfully easy to build compared to most modern carbon bikes. This means it’s easy to slap on a new groupset if your shifting feels sub-par or to get a shorter stem as your lumbar spine ages. It also means that a crash, or a clumsy baggage handler, won’t mean consigning a bike that costs a lot of money and resources to the landfill. As someone who cares about the places I go to recreate, and someone who rides a bike to avoid pollution and waste, I find the idea of a practically disposable bike less and less appealing.
I’m not the only one apparently, an informal survey of other bike tech writers showed that nearly all of their personal bikes were metal. Not necessarily because they’re the best, but because they’re good enough, built to last, and reassuringly robust. I’ve broken my fair share or review bikes, but try as I might, that titanium Sage remains in one piece despite riding plenty of trails that are really a touch too much for a bike with drop bars and several unscheduled dirt naps in the deep sand of coastal “roads.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve managed to persuade someone to send me a review bike that wasn’t lighter, more compliant, or more aerodynamic but in truth, those things really don’t matter to me. I ride a bike to be away from quantifiable things and strictly controlled inputs and outputs. I don’t need a bike that gets me where I am going faster, I want one that reliably gets me there and back again. Metal bikes do that, and often they do it for less money. That lets me spend money on adventures, which are what I want to get out of bike riding anyway.
Metal, you see, never dies. In 2009, AC/DC sold out the biggest stadium in Argentina, made a film about it, and pranced about with their topless dad bods and bald patches on proud display in front of 200,000 people. They didn’t use autotune or loop pedals, just the same guitars they did when they started in 1973. I’m not that old, but every time I visit my mother I pick up my old steel winter bike and remember how much fun riding a bike in the twisting lanes of the British Isles is. Even if that bike is a full five pounds heavier than even my mountain bike and about as aerodynamic as a chest of drawers, it’s still got live wire handling and hasn’t developed any of the “spongy” feelings my old carbon race bikes have. When it’s time for me to ride into the sunset, I know what kind of bike I’ll be doing it on.