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Retro steel bike test: Ritchey v Bowman v Cinelli

Mike Hawkins
9 Jan 2018

Three high quality machines that blend classic style with cutting-edge performance

With carbon dominating the road bike market, and aluminium the preferred choice for budget-minded racers, it’s easy to overlook the virtues of steel as a frame material.

Strong and cheap but also heavy, it tends to be associated with cheap ‘bike-shaped objects’.

But much like vinyl records and paperback books, steel bike frames have a certain kind of retro appeal – especially for the more romantically inclined cyclist who likes to reminisce about the sport’s golden age.

In fact, partly thanks to events like L’Eroica that celebrate vintage bikes and kit, steel is now more popular than it has been for years, and custom frame-builders are turning out beautifully crafted frames that are as much works of art as high-performance machines.

At the more affordable end of the market, it’s possible to buy quality off-the-shelf steel bikes that blend retro chic with modern technology to provide some of that old-school charm with the benefits of low weight and top performance.

To find out if they ride as well as they look, we took three such bikes – one British, one Belgian, one American – for a day out on the London to Brighton route, one of the oldest challenges in cycling, featuring city streets, rolling country lanes and a few hills along the way…

Keeping it real

When looking at steel bikes, it’s worth considering exactly what we mean by ‘steel’.

At the cheapest end of the market (supermarket special bikes under £100), it could be ‘mild steel’, better suited to use in gas pipes or scaffolding, but at the top end, frame builders use highly refined alloys which are then put through complex heat-treatment processes to increase their tensile strength. Hence the huge price difference.

One of the famed qualities of steel is its comfort, but this is not an inherent property of the metal, more a benefit of its great strength.

This allows builders to use narrow tubes in thin-gauge metal that can flex under load without fatiguing – the very highest quality steel can be drawn into tubes just 0.4mm thick while remaining strong enough to support the rider’s weight and forces of riding.

Aluminium, on the other hand, will soon fail if allowed to flex too much, so has to be built into fatter, thicker, stiffer tubes.

As with aluminium, modern technology also allows frame builders to form steel tubes into non-round profiles, with shapes that provide extra stiffness where needed (such as the bottom bracket area) without needing extra material, further helping to keep weight down.

The bikes


Ritchey Road Logic | £2,100

Tom Ritchey is one of those cycle industry people who is easy to like – he’s been designing and making bikes for more than 40 years, they’re not heavily marketed, and they’re beautifully functional with excellent design and detail.

This is the UK exclusive first test of the updated Road Logic, the V2, but the changes from V1 are characteristically low-key. 

Read the full Ritchey Road Logic review


Bowman Layhams | £2,800

London-based Bowman Cycles is a small but growing manufacturer, and that size gives some distinct advantages as latest trends and new technology can quickly be adapted to and rolled into its offerings.

It’s therefore interesting that the fourth machine off the design table should be one that hits an old niche, that of the mudguard-compatible, lightweight, winter machine that can be used all year.

Read the full Bowman Layhams review


Cinelli Nemo Tig | £3,999.99

One of the oldest names in mainstream cycling, just about every old cycling fanatic can tell you a story about a Cinelli product they owned and adored.

Converting that past adulation into ongoing business is never an easy task, yet it’s just what Cinelli has managed with panache.

Read the full Cinelli Nemo Tig review

 

The winner: Bowman Layhams

Once the mainstay of bike manufacture, steel has taken a back seat for the past couple of decades as aluminium and carbon have taken over.

So it’s interesting to note that all three of our bikes use the age-old material in new and different ways; these are much more than just rehashes of old bikes with a fancy new finish.

They also tackle different niches in different ways, so what ties them together is the material.

Our retro-themed ride proved not only a great day out but an excellent way to test the bikes, from the stop and start of town riding to the pounding along of the weekend warrior with a few steep inclines and frantic races to boot, each bike tackled it in their own way.

For those looking at a subtle machine, that they can upgrade and grow into, then the Ritchey Logic hits the spot.

It’s mild mannered and with just enough zip to allow you to keep pace and have some fun.

Interestingly, the Cinelli Nemo is at the other end of the same spectrum with its more race-focussed aspirations and construction.

Sitting somewhere in the middle is the Bowman Layhams that can be dressed up as an all-day cruiser, as a winter-hack-come-fancy-commuter or as a sportive racer.

It’s such a versatile and accommodating frame that it’ll do the lot quite brilliantly.

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