So much has been written about the “realness” of steel, that it has long since become cliche. Steel’s realness, and carbon or aluminum’s lack it, is most often touted by hipster who don’t know any better and grouches who think that real bike racers died off sometime in the late 80’s. Or as seems to be the case with most, sometime after Eddy Mercx retired. I know this because I have said most of those things. Either out loud, or to myself.
Over the winter,through a series of bad decisions and the kindness of others I came to possess a custom made steel frame from one of the best builders in the business. A guy that pretty much no one knows about. He is the guy behind the two guys everyone knows about. I’m not talking about industry insiders they know what’s up. But to you and me on the outside, this guy does his work, with a small team building some bad ass hand built steel bikes.
That bike was damaged a month ago and it went back to the builder for repairs. In the mean time I was thrust upon an aluminum frame a co-worker had laying about. It was new, unused and cost me sixty dollars. It was with great sadness that I removed all my parts and moved them over to the this new silver frame. This frame is what I assumed to be the metal equivalent of the Chinese carbon bikes found all over ebay.
It was probably built by some machine, but possibly a person in Taiwan. Or put another way: It is what most consider the exact opposite of the bike I was riding.
The frame took on a some what juvenile name once another co-worker butchered a Mavic Cosmic Carbone decal and placed it upon the frame. Everyday someone at work would ask “How does the ___ ride?” So it became known as The _____. I would respond differently depending on the the day. Always somewhere between “weird” and “It’s pretty legit, but it corners a bit weird, though that could be me”. It was weird, when I had my saddle in the wrong place and it was “pretty legit” after I rode it to my best placing ever.
I was always kinda hatting on it, but in the end it was functional and served my need for forward motion. I would still tell Ray-Ray (who’s boyfriend built the bike) that I missed “my” bike.
My bike, which I came to truly own after the crash, is back. It also has a name, The Pugilist, named after a short story by Thom Jones: “The Pugilist at Rest“, in the collection by the same name. The paint scheme taken from another story in the collection : “Team Break on Through”. Now there is no more wonky cornering and no stretching to make the bike “fit”. I’ve spent so many hours on the “The Pugilist” that being back on it feel like coming home. Which is cliche, but there’s no other way to describe it.
All that said The ___ wasn’t that bad. Hand built with a love for the craft of frame building? No. A tool for self discovery? Indeed.
In the end the Pugilist doesn’t ride better because its made of steel, or because of its custom geometry, well not totally because of that, but because it was crafted by someone who not only knows how to build a bike (the person who built The ____ obviously knows how to build a bike), but also knows what its like to be engaged in a sprint for the line, to suffer up a never ending hill and what its like to rail a turn at 30 + mph on a descent. Those are just some of the qualities that make a bike great.
In the end what makes a bicycle great isn’t how it’s produced, but how it makes the owner feel. If you bike was lovingly crafted by one guy in his garage and you ride around in wool jerseys with a slab a meat as your chamois then I salute you. If bombing hills and tearing up your local loops wearing a Radioshack-Nissian-Trek kit aboard your brand new Project one, then that’s fine too. As long as you’re out enjoying the wind against your skin with a big smile on your face.