Steel vs. Aluminum

A couple of weeks ago, my friend David mentioned that his steel Fuji was still available for me to test ride a while. David now rides a carbon fiber Giant Defy Advanced, and loves it. But he loved his Fuji, too, and thought I would enjoy comparing it to the ride I get on my Specialized Allez. So, I swung by his house to pick it up.

The bike is a Fuji Marseille from the early 2000s, and in some respects, is similar to the 2008 Allez. It’s the same size: 56 cm; it has a nine-speed cassette, although his is Shimano Ultegra and mine is 105. The Allez has more carbon fiber parts, with fork, seat post, and seat stays all being of that material. Only the Fuji’s fork is carbon. The Fuji’s top tube is horizontal, while the Allez’s slopes. David runs 25 mm tires on the Fuji, while I am currently sporting 23s.

Digging through some Road Bike Reviews from 2004, I found the bike variously described as comfortable, a good century bike, not fast or light, built for distance — not speed, a great bike for club rides, and smooth.

The whole point of my trying out the Fuji was to see for myself if there is a difference between an aluminum-framed bike and one of steel.

I had my answer after my first mile: Yes, there is. The steel bike rides smoother.

The difference was most apparent on chip seal roads. Those aren’t a lot of fun to ride on the Allez. The Fuji flattened out the rough spots. Of course, on asphalt roads, both bikes ride about the same, in my opinion. On really rough roads, that are pocked with potholes, or have uneven, patched pavement, the ride is just as bouncy and jarring in the Fuji as the Allez.

I’ve taken the Fuji on several club rides, as well as rides in my neighborhood on my usual 15, 18, 19, and 27-mile routes. Besides the overall smoother ride, I noticed other things:

The steel bike is heavier. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, although the proponents of steel frames will tell you that the modern frames are only fractionally heavier than their aluminum or carbon fiber competition. I weighed both the Fuji and the Allez on Casa Niekamp’s bathroom scale (okay, you can draw your own conclusions about the accuracy of the measure!) and found the Fuji weighed a commendale 19.5 pounds. The Allez checked in at 16.5. However, I weighed the Allez without pedals or seat bag, since both had been moved over to the Fuji. So the weight difference might not be that much.

That heavier weight showed itself in two ways: Riding into the wind is tougher. I have to work a lot harder than I do when tackling a headwind on the Fuji than the Allez. But on the plus side, I can go downhill faster in the Fuji. On some favorites in my neighborhood, I noticed a 2 mph speed difference between the two bikes — the Fuji owned those descents. Curiously, I didn’t notice much difference when climbing up hills. The Fuji is responsive, and will answer the pedals promptly.

Left: The Fuji Marseille. Right: the Specialized Allez.

I think part of the credit for the smoother ride goes to the tires. The 25 mm Michelins on the Fuji recommend a maximum pressure of 102 pounds. I ran them at an even 100. My Allez is currently running 23 mm Vredestein Fortezza SEs, with a pressure range of 115-140 pounds! I run those at 120. The combination of skinnier tires and higher pressures probably has a lot to do with the harshness I sometimes feel on the Allez.

What I see from my standard riding position on the Fuji.

Now, because the Fuji is a borrowed bike, I didn’t do a lot of tweaking to make it fit me. David is about an inch shorter than me, so I did raise the saddle height. His arms are also shorter, and the Fuji sports a short stem. David threw in the original stem, which is about the same size as the one on the Allez, but I didn’t put it on. It turned out I really liked the more upright riding position the short stem gave me. As my time on the bike wore on, I realized that I could clearly see the front wheel’s hub ahead of my handlebars, so I probably should have swapped stems. And whenever I stood on the pedals to accelerate or climb, my knees tended to bump the handlebars, and I was too far forward to climb efficiently.

Overall, I really enjoyed riding the steel bike. For me, comfort is an important criterion for selecting a bike, and the Fuji was the more comfortable of the two bikes. I’m not ready to pull the trigger on a steel bike just yet, however. For me, it didn’t quite live up to its billing as an excellent bike for century rides, and I think anything that can be comfortable for that much time in the saddle would be comfortable for the shorter rides I more commonly do. But fit is everything, and if I could be fitted to a steel-framed bike for maximum comfort, it would certainly be an option to seriously consider.


I was reminded during last weekend’s ride that I’ve been negligent lately in attending to a detail all bikers should address when going out on a ride: carry money.

It didn’t seem like a big deal. I had put three bucks into a baggie, along with my cell phone. I had two bottles of water with me, which would get me to our rest stop, a convenience store where I could easily refill the bottles. If needed, I could buy some kind of energy bar.

We got there, as I reported in the last post, and I felt fine. I hadn’t drunk enough water, and one of my bottles was still full. I topped off the other one, and we started back.

My friend David was slowing on the return leg, and I let the other riders in our group go, to stay with him. We had maybe eight miles left to go, when I stopped at an intersection to wait for him.

“Do you want to stop at this convenience store?” I asked.

“I’m all out of water, and I’ve got no money,” he replied.

“Well, here,” I said. “Take this, and buy what you need.” Not that three dollars would buy much.

But it turned out that this place priced Gatorade G2 the same as bottled water. David bought the Gatorade, and drained the whole bottle.

“I figured with the cooler temperatures today, I wouldn’t have the same trouble I have in the middle of summer,” he said. We started our ride at 55 degrees, but by now it was in the low 80s.

I decided not to buy anything, or even top off my bottles. I still had one full one, and could make it the rest of the way home on that easily.

We did make it the rest of the way back, but were moving slowly by the time we got within the last mile or so. After waving bye to David, I headed to Starbucks to rendezvous with other club members. Instead of going inside to grab a coffee or iced tea, I brought one of my water bottles to the outside table, and sipped at it while we talked.

Several years ago, I learned to pack money the hard way. I was on a 52-mile ride, with no money at the halfway point. Even though I had an energy bar with me, I really needed some kind of electrolyte drink, and maybe more nourishment than the bar could give. I bonked hard on the way back and was lucky the ride offered sag support. I caught a ride back to the start. Ever since, I’ve made sure I carry money if I’ll be riding any distance from home — and even around home, sometimes.

I think it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution: Bring more money on rides. Three dollars won’t cut it. Ten is a more reasonable amount. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll pack a credit card along as well.

Do you have a preferred amount of cash you carry on the bike?

Riding An Old Route For the First Time

Last Sunday, the A riders and the B riders in the club had differing opinions on the day’s route. The A ride leader had called for a route north and west — one that would involve lots of hills. But a guy who usually rides with the A’s called a B ride — a mostly flat route to Kyle, Texas, about 23 miles south of us. It would make a nice 45-mile round trip.

The day was fantastic. A larger than usual group turned out — 22. It was about 55 degrees (13C) with bright sun at the start, and the promise of much warmer temperatures by the time the ride ended. But wait — a glitch!

It seems some of the usual A riders were none too keen on the planned A route. An undercurrent of dissension bubbled through the group. When everything shook itself out, most of the A riders opted to come south with the B’s!

The out-and-back to Kyle is a popular route, and not just among us. Several other clubs frequently take this ride, heading from the southern reaches of Austin out into the country, crossing Onion Creek, passing a cattle ranch where longhorns might be grazing close to the road (Not today, darn it!). Then it’s in to the small town of Buda, where we take a right turn onto Main Street and head into the “historic” downtown. (It’s just a few blocks long, but some of the buildings are old.)

By now, the riders were separating. I was firmly ensconced at the back with my friend David, who wanted to see how I was doing on the steel bike he lent me earlier in the week. We weren’t going to make it to Kyle with the rest of them, because we were hitting every red light possible — and even got stopped by a train.

When we did catch up to the peloton at the turnaround in Kyle, we found another spontaneous modification of the route. Most of the riders wanted to keep going, to Five-Mile Dam. That’s a county park about seven miles farther on. But five of us — David, Laura, newcomer Nicole, Kenny, and yours truly — decided we were going to stick to the original plan and head home. Kenny set a nice pace for us back to Buda, maintaining a steady 17 mph over the glassy smooth asphalt. But David hasn’t been putting in a lot of miles lately, and he started to fall behind. Rather than leave him, I slowed down, too, and let Kenny and the ladies head off into the distance.

We got back to the start, and I chatted with Laura and Nicole while we waited for the rest of the crew to show up. They dribbled in in ones and twos at first, then in a bunch. Now, mind you — a run down to Kyle, or even Five-Mile Dam, is one of the more frequent rides the club takes. I think everyone out there today had done it before, mostly several times — even lots of times. So it amused me to hear the chatter around the outside tables at the coffee shop.

It seemed that everyone discovered something new on the ride.

Judy missed the turnaround at Five-Mile Dam. We like to kid her about her inability to find her way, no matter how many times she’s been over a route. “I wound up riding by myself!” she wailed. “Into the wind!” (All 3 mph of it.)

New York John couldn’t have been happier. “I averaged 18 mph for 58 miles!” he crowed. “That beat my previous best by two miles an hour!” Not bad for a 65-year-old.

But John took his lumps, too, when other riders told how he was setting such a brisk pace on the way back that he led everyone on an “interesting” detour through a South Austin neighborhood. “I think the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of repeating this in future,” noted Donald, a Brit, who  led the B ride.  “But will we ever remember the turn-by-turn specifics?”

“Geez, when you plan a certain route, let’s stick to it,” said another rider. She wasn’t pleased that most riders added another 14 miles to the trip, although she finished strong with the main body.

As I said, this is a ride everyone has done many times before. But if we can continue to keep the sense of discovery, of newness, of fun — that was on display this day, it’s a ride I wouldn’t mind doing every weekend.

Bike Maintenance Poll Results

The results are in. My goal at keeping the bike repair poll open for three days was to try to reach 100 respondents. Final n: 108.

There’s a nice split between those who do basic maintenance, such as replacing tubes and chain lubing, and those who are more sophisticated and do the work on their hubs and bottom bracket. Here are the results:

(Click to embiggen.)

This, of course, is not a scientific poll, since the respondents were not selected at random. Therefore, the results cannot be generalized beyond this poll.

The consensus seems to be that wrenching is not something to be afraid of. The tools are simple, the mechanics of a bike are straightforward, and there’s plenty of online material — especially videos — to get you going.

Just as I started the poll I ran into a dilemma that required a trip to the bike shop. I was switching out the pedals from my bike to my friend David’s steel bike, but the left side pedal on mine was stuck fast. No amount of pulling with an Allen wrench would get that pedal to budge. I explained the problem to the bike shop guy, who took out a monster pedal wrench and freed it up. In this case, it was not a matter of not knowing how to do the job, or being skittish about doing the job — it was about having the right tool for the job.

So the next maintenance chore I’ll face on my bike will be to replace the chain and rear cassette. It’s not something I need to do right away — the bike is still shifting acceptably — but I’ve gotten more use out of both than I have any right to. I’ll acquire the tools for the job, and tackle it with confidence after reading some of the comments from you folks. Thanks for your participation.

I’m planning another poll along similar but different lines in the near future.

Do You Fix Your Own Bike? (Poll)

I’ve been putzing with my bike more than usual lately. Just this evening I pulled off its pedals to move them to the steel bike my friend David lent me. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I am not Mr. Mechanic, so anything I do maintenance-wise is a departure for me.

But that got me wondering…how many of you like to mess with your bike? This time, instead of just soliciting answers in the comments, I’m going to try something new. I’ve created a poll.

I put the answers to the single poll question in ascending order from least mechanically inclined to most mechanically inclined, as I see it. Because of the way WordPress polls work, you’re limited to a single answer — so here’s what I’d like you to do: Pick the answer that covers the most involved repair or maintenance task that you do. If you adjust the limit screws on your derailleurs, pick that answer — and we’ll assume that you also lube your chain and fix your flats.

I’ll let the poll run a few days, then report back. Ready? Here goes!

Going to Try Something New

I’ve had my bike for four years now. It’s a good bike. Not as fast as many, but no slouch. It’s got an aluminum frame, but lots of carbon add-ons, like the fork, seat stays, seat post. But every now and again I get a hankerin’ for a different look and feel to my biking.

That may have come, courtesy my friend David. As we rode together last weekend, he mentioned, “The Fuji is still sitting in my garage. You can try it out whenever you like.”

What’s different about David’s Fuji is that it’s a steel bike. Now, I’ve had some experience with steel. My 1981 Raleigh 10-speed is steel. But because the model was not one of Raleigh’s high end bikes, it was built heavy. I started my current road biking efforts on the Raleigh five years ago, and I can still remember when another friend of mine, who’d been biking for a long time, picked up my bike while we were taking a break. He did a double take, and raising his eyebrows, said, “That’s some kinda weight you’re hauling around, Bubba.”

In turn, I hefted his titanium LiteSpeed. It was like picking up an aluminum beer can, without the beer. I was astounded that a bike could be that light. It was my first realization that a 26-year-old bike might not be the state of the art model that it used to be — if in fact it ever was. Since then, I’ve developed some ideas about what I want in my ideal bike.

I’m thinking either titanium or steel. Titanium is probably out of my price range, but the lightness of it appeals to me. Steel bikes made in 2012 are a lot different than the ones made in 1981. The steel used now doesn’t approach the old one in heaviness. A lot has been written about the supple ride quality of a good steel bike — a quality that I missed out on with the Raleigh, because I didn’t have anything against which to compare it.

David’s bike is probably not as light as the titanium number, but it’s  2005 model, so was built to be lightweight steel. It feels no different from my aluminum bike when I lift it.

I stopped by David’s house after work today to pick up the bike. I’ll be riding it over the next two weeks or so, just to see if there is any difference between riding it and riding my current bike. I haven’t thrown a leg over it yet — I need to move my pedals over to this bike (David rides Looks, while I use Shimano SPD-SLs. They’re not compatible). I’ll also have to determine if the really short stem will work for me. David threw in the stock stem just in case it doesn’t.

As I get a feel for the new-to-me ride, I’ll be collecting my impressions in order to do a full and thorough review. And maybe determine if a modern, lightweight steel bike is in fact what I need to be saving my pennies for.

Can’t Outguess Mother Nature

We’d been expecting all week that Sunday’s club ride would be affected by rain. We were on the tail end of the big weathermaker that brought killer tornadoes to Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa Saturday. While we weren’t going to get anything that severe, the forecast called for a good chance of strong storms at about the time we’d be in the middle of our ride.

So we gathered under a sky dark with low clouds, high winds, and the threat of a line of storms off to our northwest. Consensus was that we would head northwest, but double back to avoid the worst of the rain and have maybe a shorter than usual ride.

A good turnout of 17 showed that not everyone was scared off by the threat of rain. There were even some new people in the mix. Our ride to the turnaround was uneventful, and the clouds actually started to break up. We regrouped and headed toward the west again, this time on a different road. But when the ride leader wanted to head north on Barton Creek Blvd. (the road that would take us to the infamous “Hail Mary Hill”) a few of us rebelled. Both John and Kenny had ridden long and hard on Saturday, and weren’t up for killer hills. The three of us decided to head east and work our way back to the starting point.

We battled the still-strong crosswinds on the way, but had a nice three-person paceline along Southwest Parkway. I suggested we go over to Convict Hill, where I would show them my usual Saturday morning hill workout. For Kenny, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge, but it would give him something new to look at.

Kenny is a strong rider — the kind of guy who does a 100-mile ride in a little over four hours on a Saturday, then comes back for a 45-mile club ride the next day as a “recovery ride.” When he saw Convict Hill, he extolled its advantages as an excellent venue for hill training. His idea of hill training is 30-second repeats, going all out, then standing and pushing hard on the steeper section of the hill. We got to the top, looped around for some other, less difficult hills, and roared down the smooth asphalt to head back to Starbucks.

The sky, which had lightened but was still overcast, was now darkening again. The wind was as strong as ever.  We chatted at Starbucks for a good half hour before the rest of the crew started to trickle in. It seems they had broken up on the ride over the desire of some to go farther, and others to head back. Around 11 a.m. I pulled the plug and said my goodbyes.

At home, I ran into my wife who was still in her biking clothes after doing some Veloway laps. We showered and grabbed a light lunch and were starting our house cleaning chores when the pitter-patter of raindrops sounded on the back patio. The rain came in two waves, first light, then heavier, but when it was all over we didn’t get much more than a couple of tenths of an inch. It was good for my scraggly lawn, but not the kind of soaker we really need around here.

So it turned out to be a good ride, but at 25 miles, a lot shorter than I expect to do on a Sunday outing with the club. Coupled with a ride of only 19 miles the day before, and I appear to have some ground to make up this month. But that’s okay. If Mother Nature cooperates the way she did today,  I should have my share of good weather weekends for riding.

By the way, that 19 miles on Saturday was the result of one of those flukes of biking: A bee flew into my big helmet vent, got stuck inside, panicked, and stung me. Since I tend to blow up like a balloon when stung by bees, I rushed home to attend to the problem, but since it stung me in the forehead and got only skin and bone, there wasn’t a lot to swell. Tylenol is great. Until it wears off.