The Bike – Part 1: Steel or Ti?

As I mentioned in the previous post, my current bike is a carbon fiber beauty, but just not suitable for loaded touring.  The added stress of luggage dictates a metal frame.  So it is new bike time for me if I am going to ride across the country, or anywhere requiring luggage for that matter.

There are three choices of metal to build a bike frame: aluminum, steel or titanium.  Aluminum is the lightest, but has the harshest ride of the three.  It is possible to make a relatively comfortable aluminum bike, but the majority of touring bikes are steel.

Steel is relatively inexpensive and provides a good ride.  It is also the heaviest of the three, and unlike the other two, must be painted, since it can rust.

Titanium, or Ti for short (pronounced tie), is lighter than steel, and reputed to have the most comfortable ride of the three.  It is also way more expensive, about $2k to $3k more, all else being equal.  Since it cannot rust or corrode, there is no need to paint the frame.

Everyone says that if you are doing long, hard days in the saddle, you will hurt much less on a Ti bike than on a steel (or aluminum) bike.  And I will be doing nothing if not lots of long, hard days.  I like the idea of  hurting  less.

Regarding weight, I understand that a Ti frame will save about 2 pounds over a steel frame.  For a normal road bike, that is a huge weight saving (although not as light as carbon fiber), but on a touring bike loaded with 30 to 35 pounds of luggage, it is of little consequence.  So the real benefit of Ti is the ride comfort.

Whatever bike I buy, there are a few must-have requirements:

  • Good fit
  • Touring geometry for a comfortable and stable ride
  • Touring wheels and tires for durability and comfort
  • Disk brakes
  • Mounting points for racks front and rear

Before the advent of carbon fiber bikes, there were a number of Ti brands available, and most bike shops carried at least one of them.  My local bike shop, The Bikeway Source here in Bedford,  (as with most bike shops) no longer carries Ti bikes.  Their high end bikes are all carbon fiber.  They do sell a very well respected and popular steel touring bike called a Surley Disc Trucker, which meets all my requirements.  And I have a strong preference to buy my bikes from the Bikeway Source, although not at the expense of getting the right bike for this ride.

Although Ti is really expensive, I wanted to at least consider it.  Maybe it would be worthwhile.  So at the recommendation of Chris at Bikeway Source (!), I went to the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, which sells two high end lines of Ti and steel bikes, Honey and Seven.  There I rode a demo Seven Ti touring bike.

Although the demo frame was a bit too big for me, the ride was unbelievable.  It was incredibly stable and non-twitchy, very comfortable on rough pavement, and just “alive”.  It wanted to roll.

There are three main factors contributing to the way a bike feels:

  • Geometry
  • Wheels and tires
  • Frame material

Riding this Ti Seven, it was not possible to tell how much of the amazing ride quality was due to the first two items, and how much to the metal.

So Chris at the Bikeway Source arranged a demo ride for me on a Surly.  It has similar geometry and wheels/tires as the Seven, and so would be a good test. In a nutshell, the Surley rode nice, but the Seven was still amazing.

So I am splurging, and buying a Seven Expat S, a custom Ti bike. For a number of reasons, I am buying the frame, fork, stem and handlebar from the Ride Studio, and the Bikeway Source will supply the rest of the components and build up the bike.

Buying a custom bike is quite an experience.  Hannah, the sales person at the Ride Studio:

  • measured my bike and me in 12 different places (e.g length of each forearm)
  • asked a zillion questions (e.g. “Do you pedal through your turns?”)
  • and filled out a detailed fitting form supplied by Seven (e.g. “On a scale of 1 to 14, where 1 is very rigid, and and 14 is very compliant, how stiff do you want the vertical compliance?”  (I am not making this up 🙂 ).

Among the questions and decisions I had to make:

  • Do I want a 3rd water bottle cage? (Yes)
  • Do I want a chain hanger, a small metal nub on the inside of the drive-side seat tube (the thin tube from the seat down to the rear wheel) to make it easier and cleaner to remove the rear wheel?  (Yes)
  • Do I want a pump peg (a small metal projection to hold a frame pump)?  (No)
  • Do I want integrated rack mounts from and rear?  (Yes)
  • What drivetrain am I going to use? (Ultegra 2×11 derailleurs, FSA 40/36 chainrings, and an 11-34 11 speed cog set.)
  • What kind of brakes?  (Shimano mechanical disk, 180 mm rotors, flat mount)
  • What style of Seven logo do I want on the down tube, if any? (black outline block letters)
  • Do I want the model name, “Expat S”, on the top tube?  (No)
  • Can they paint my name for the bike on the top tube (more on this later)?  (Yes)

A week later, there was a session at the Ride Studio with Sarah, a professional bike fitter.  She measured me and my bike again, then had me pedal a bike on a trainer. She adjusted this part or that until everything was just right.  Then she measured again.

In addition to mechanical decisions, there was the most difficult choice of all: to paint or not to paint.  This caused me a major amount of angst and pre-purchase anxiety.  The majority of Ti bikes out there are not painted.  Few things are as beautiful as a well-crafted, bare metal Ti bike frame.  In the end, however, I decided to paint it yellow.  There were several factors in my decision:

  • It will be more high-viz.
  • It lessens the ostentation factor of Ti.
  • Hopefully it makes it less of a theft target.
  • Most importantly, it puts a smile on my face – I really like the color!

The end result of all this is a detailed specification for a bike frame for me to approve.  But there was a hitch.

(That’s a cliffy.  More to come…)



About Dan Hurwitz

A software guy taking the time for a big ride - coast to coast.
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2 Responses to The Bike – Part 1: Steel or Ti?

  1. Pingback: Dan’s Expat S, or Bill the Pony, II – Seven Cycles

  2. Pingback: Dan’s Expat S, or Bill the Pony, II – Seven Cycles

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