As the centuries-old British steel industry limps along, in the world of bikes it’s enjoying a quiet revival. &Bike reports on the return of an iconic material.
Four decades ago, the UK was the fifth-largest steel maker in the world, responsible for around 5% of global production. The poster child of the country’s manufacturing industry, British Steel Corporation (BSC), employed more than a quarter of a million people. Blast furnaces burned bright.
Following a spate of furnace closures during the eighties, however, before privatisation in 1988, BSC’s days were numbered and it was finally put out of its misery in 1999 when Dutch steel giant Corus acquired the group – itself bought by Indian conglomerate Tata in 2007. The ailing British steel industry was no more and weeds took over where rivers of iron ore once flowed.
Today, the British steel industry accounts for less than 1% of global output, a collapse that illustrates the UK’s shift from industrial leader to thought leader, from manufacturer to financier. The country’s last remaining blast furnace, at Redcar, Teeside, was extinguished in 2010, and with it the light of hope went out for the 1,600 steelworkers employed there.
Or so we thought. In April this year, the Redcar furnace burned once more. Thanks to a huge investment by Thai-based Sahaviriya Steel Industries, and, in no small part, the dogged determination of late union chief Geoff Waterfield, steel is being produced on Teeside once more.
Out of the furnace, into the saddle
The fortunes of the British steel industry, to some extent, mirror its use in the world of cycling. Four decades ago it was the de facto material used in the vast majority of bikes. Tube Investments, a sprawling conglomerate of steel companies, which owned an eclectic-sounding mix of bike companies, including Raleigh, Reynolds Tubes and Armstrong Cycles, by the early sixties directly employed some 55,000 people. Steel was, very much, real.
But then modern techniques started to take over. Aluminium alloy, carbon and, to a lesser extent, titanium were introduced, undermining steel’s position. Even magnesium continues to eke out a living for some.
By the early nineties, so great was the pressure from these new materials, that it seemed steel’s day had passed. Experts claimed that as a product it was too dense, too spongy, too liable to corrosion. Old-fashioned. Carbon, in particular, had brought the ultimate death knell, bringing that elusive combination of rigidity, lightness and (allegedly) comfort that bike manufacturers and their customers were craving.
As Far Eastern mass-produced frames became the norm, the price-point also fell considerably, leaving the steel frame-building industry in the wilderness, with little but crumbs to feed on. In time, however, that wilderness began to blossom.
“Between 1980 and 2000, all we were seeing was a very steady decline in the number of people staying in that type of business [steel frame building],” says Keith Noronha, managing director of Reynolds Technology, the successor company to Reynolds Tubes that was once part of the Tube Investments behemoth.
Noronha was speaking to &Bike from the Birmingham headquarters of the company of which he led a management buyout in 2000. When he did so, the company was in a bad place, without a future to speak of. Today, the management team has refocused the company on the higher-margin niche of performance tubing for the cycling industry. And the strategy is paying off because Reynolds is riding the renewed wave of enthusiasm for steel.
“I think it’s partly linked to the rise of the custom builder,” he explains. “Take the North American Bicycle Show, if we take the last three years, of the 100-plus frame builders who were there, I would say 80% were using steel or titanium as their material of choice. And the reason for that is the flexibility, the kind of customers they sell to and the kind of flexibility they have with that material. A beautiful lugged frame will generally be a steel frame.”
Of course, this is a generalisation, and Noronha does concede that there are people who hand-build carbon frames to an extremely high quality. But, by and large, independent frame builders work in metal. And, increasingly, steel.
“The companies we buy from – [based] everywhere from Germany, Taiwan and America – the interesting thing we find is the lead time for their steel alloys have been gradually rising,” says Noronha. “They are involved with more technical projects, which indicates that steel as an alloy does have some major uses in current thinking.”
Setting a trend
Reynolds Technology today is a far cry from its glory days. Its employees number just 12, and its revenues around £1m. But in its own small way it is responsible for setting the tone for a new generation of cycling, one driven by craftsmen and artists as much as engineers and marketers.
Here, you have the more traditional framebuilders, the Roberts, Bob Jacksons and Brian Rourkes of the world, with the best part of 150-years frame-building experience between them. But the last decade or so has seen an explosion in the number of independent builders, bringing with it a new style and a new approach.
Harry Harrison is one such individual. Based in the British steel capital of Sheffield, Harrison set up Field Cycles about three years ago – a logical decision that allowed him to combine his love for cycling with his artistic abilities (he has always had a “reasonably healthy” art career) and steel was the natural material for him to work in.
“Steel is very robust, it’s a known quantity and the list of tubes you can get is endless,” says Harrison. “It’s fantastic to work with, you can be really creative with it and it’s accessible as well.
And Harrison is by no means alone. One only need look at the work being done by Justin Burls and Ricky Feather to appreciate the type of renaissance currently underway in the world of bespoke frame building and, like Noronha says, much of it is being done in steel.
The movement has captured the imagination of millions. Custom bike shows have sprung up all over the world during the past four or five years, shops are stocking steel bikes once more, and bike manufacturers who turned their backs on the alloy have opened their eyes to it once more. So much so that a new book has recently been published to celebrate the work being done by English-based custom frame builders. Co-authored by Ricky Feather and Matthew Sowter of Enigma Bikes, Made In England takes a detailed look at the revival.
But why now? One reason can certainly be put down to the explosion we’ve seen in cycling. There are more people riding bikes than ever before, it’s attracting more column inches in the national press and even has its own dedicated TV show, meaning more consumers with a more varied collection of desires exist to support more niche products.
Carbon as a material also has its drawbacks. Steel supporters – and in the interest of transparency and full disclosure, I include myself here – often complain that carbon can be a harsh material to ride, with every lump and bump being transferred to the rider. (I’m sure Parlee or Colnago fans will disagree, neither of which I’ve had the pleasure to ride.)
At the same time, titanium is relatively expensive and aluminium is perhaps the roughest ride of all. (As for magnesium, my dad rides a 52” Pinarello Dogma magnesium frame and from a sample size of one, I’ve concluded that it’s a far too heavy.)
Steel, on the other hand, offers something of a compromise across the three considerations that most bike buyers have – price, comfort and weight. It is relatively cheap, offers a great ride and, with the introduction of new alloys such as Reynolds 953 and Columbus XCr, is light too.
Skipping a generation
However, according to Noronha there is another intriguing ingredient that can be used to explain steel’s revival – product managers and other people of influence in the cycling industry rediscovering the material. “A number of product managers would have come in at a time of aluminium 7055 and then moved on to carbon, but may not have ridden a steel bike,” he says. “And the number of product managers we’ve heard who have said, ‘wow, steel is better than I thought…’
“They have this perception that steel was a traditional metal and put a line through it early in their careers, but now they’re riding a steel bike, they realise why people say ‘steel is real’.”
Catchphrases aside, Noronha makes a good point. Steel as a material in cycling was nowhere to be found in the nineties, meaning a whole generation of cyclists were prevented the opportunity to ride one of the bike world’s most evocative materials. As Field Cycle’s Harrison says, “we had our heads turned with aluminium…”
But our heads are certainly turning back the other way, and with the revival being driven by artisans, it’s taking the metal to completely new heights. “They [independent frame builders] can be quite demanding because they make one frame at a time,” explains Noronha. “They’ve got the margin to do special stuff, so they put the pressure on us to do different shapes or different wall thicknesses.
“When we brought out 953 originally, more than four years ago, we had only thought it to be useful as a tig-welded frame. But at the early shows, we had a number of existing customers asking why we couldn’t make it as a lugged frame or for fillet brazing. We did make those changes because of feedback from our shows, and that’s why it’s available as all three.”
Harrison is one of those clients – a modern craftsman who is breathing new life into a grand old industry. And in their own way, the growing number of Harry Harrison’s, the Justin Burls and the Ricky Feathers are bringing something special back to British shores: pride in the art of making things.
Harrison, for one, describes the sense of satisfaction he gets from building in steel and the feeling that he is maintaining and reviving the heritage of his city. “If I built out of anything but steel, being in Sheffield, I’d get lynched,” he jokes.