British steel.

I am fortunate enough to own 8 bicycles, so all the main uses and niches are covered. The notable exception is a carbon framed road bike.  I am a 6’3″+, 265 ex lifter, up to 100lbs or more heavier than many adults, so saving 2lbs off the weight of a bike is a pointless exercise for me.

This also means I’m heavier by a fair margin than many manufacturers 105kg road bike weight limit. Some quote more, but 105kg seems to be a fairly common limit. That’s not a lot of use to a man who regularly eats meals that weigh more than that.

Carbon is immensely strong, but when it does fail it does so explosively and without warning, whereas alloy or steel tend to fail progressively and give visual clues of impending doom. An explosive failure would not be good while leaning into a corner.   I’d probably be fine, but while the risk is tiny it is nevertheless genuine, and without being able to exploit the minor weight advantage it’s a risk not worth bothering with.

This leaves me riding alloy or steel framed machines.

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Steel bike frames are a funny thing and a lot of guff is spoken on the subject.  Old men nod sagely and tell how ‘gas pipe’ steel weighs more than 531 etc.  This is simply incorrect.  Take a nice, high quality Reynolds 531 double butted frame. Now make an identicical frame using cheap steel from a BSO (BSO = Bicycle shaped Object, a derogatory term to describe an ultra cheap, low quality bicycle of very limited usefulness).  Both frames will weigh the same.  The difference is Reynolds 531 is a stronger steel blend, so it can be made into thinner tubing, and thus make a lighter frame, without the risk of the frame falling to pieces. Cheaper steel isn’t as strong – although it weighs the same as Reynolds, because it’s not as strong you would need to use more of it to maintain an equivalent strength.

With me so far?

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Reynolds 531 is one particular blend of high strength steel that in days of yore was in common use for aircraft structures, race car chassis, and bicycle frames. Mass production has now ceased in favour of more modern blends, but they do still make 531 to order for the likes of Pashley and some other specialist frame makers.

4130 Cro-Mo is another aviation grade steel with very similar mechanical properties to 531. A good quality double butted 4130 frame will feel much like a 531 frame, but as the tubesets cost less, and as they can be welded and thus make the production process cheaper, such frames are often cheaper than 531.  4130 double butted road frames are out there, but you’re more likely to find the 4130 tubing on Nineties mountain bikes or touring machines, types of bike where 531 is much less likely to be present.

531 can be made lighter still by reducing the tube thickness in the centre of the tubes length, where strength is needed the least.  Steel frame tubes fashioned in the manner are described as “butted”.  Double butted tubes are made with 2 steps in thickness as one works outwards, one at each end, triple butted two steps at each end, and so forth.  A high quality tubeset can be as thin as 0.4mm in the centre, which is astonishing.

A pleasant side effect of this butting process, aside from the mass reduction, is that it bestows the frame with a pleasant stiff, yet slightly springy character. Stiff, in that you can feel your power being efficiently transmitted to the road. Springy, in that the frame feels comfortable and lively beneath your behind.  It’s hard to explain, but such a frame is a joy to ride.

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Last year I was surfing a very popular UK based cycling forum when I stumbled across an ad for a bike going free.  Free is my kind of price, so I clicked on the link and read further.  It turns out the bike was a Claud Butler Sierra, purchased new in 1983 by Its current owner, who now had no use for it.   He was a very nice retired gent with a fleet of expensive modern machines, and the Claud Butler had sat unused and unloved for many years.  Best of all, it was a 25.5″ frame, perfect for a tall chap like me with a 34 1/2″ inside leg.

A quick trip down to the chaps beautiful house overlooking the river at Kingston Upon-Thames and I was the proud owner of a Claud Butler.  The chap was such a nice fellow and a free Claud Butler, even in that state, was such a generous gift that I gave him a case of beer and bottle of wine.

A bucket of soapy water revealed a 531 framed Claud Butler.  It was intact with all the original equipment present, including SR crankset and gorgeous Suntour VX-GT non indexed gear system.  The wheels were pleasant Suntour hubs with polished and eyeletted Wolber alloy rims.  The rims are unavailable now and sell for very decent money on their own.

I stripped the bike completely.  I considered getting the frame repainted or powder coated, but decided that while the finish was battered it was just sufficiently intact that I would leave it as is.  The paint is only original once, and it still had the original bike shop sticker on it, which is a tiny but nevertheless delightful piece of history.

Some chrome work came up well with just Autosol and patience.  Some required soaking in on oxalic acid.  The headset and bottom bracket got new bearings.  The hubs were stripped and the bearings found to be in excellent order, so were meticulously cleaned and refitted with new grease.

The Brooks seat was just redeemable.  A clean first, then I wetted it and taped it up in the correct form to help it regain it’s original shape.  Once dry it was carefully retentioned, and proofided within an inch of it’s life.

Every single component was cleaned, inspected, polished, greased and refitted. The bike was rebuilt as standard apart from the brake levers.  The original Weinmann hoods were fit only for scrap, and I had some Tektro RL aero levers in my box of spares, so they went on in place of the originals – they look good and without the cables in the way there’s plenty of room to move around when up in the hoods.

The pedals were the only other deviation from standard.  I always ride clipped in, so on went a lovely set of Shimano SPD M-540 pedals.  These are every bit as fantastic as the cheap and excellent 520’s, but they’re a little bit lighter and the polished alloy body has a nice warm finish which suits the bikes character.

On went new bar tape, Schwalbe tyres, tubes, chain, brake blocks and cables.  £50 almost to the penny was spent on new parts, which is a bargain when one considers I now have a quality 531 framed British bike with a bit charm and history behind it.

5076560220_1b72b42abb_bAnd then it was finished.  A few short rides to get it dialled in, and its was ready to go.

It rides beautifully.  It’s not as fast as my Felt road bike, but it’s no slouch either. It’s a very efficient feeling bike to ride, with rider input seeming to be transmitted to the road without loss, and an almost supernatural ability to carry on rolling, rolling, rolling…

It’s very comfortable.  The Brooks saddle suits my butt very well.  The frame isn’t harsh and damps the high frequency vibes well.  The position is quite upright compared to my more modern drop barred bikes, despite them being set up to be as upright as possible to minimise the strain on my duff elbow and shoulder.  The Claud Butler is even more vertical still.

I love all my bikes, but this has quickly become the favourite.  36 years old and riding like new, still delivering the goods, turning heads and starting friendly conversations with strangers wherever we go.

My best friend is an old feller named Colin.  He never let’s me down, he’s dependable, he watches out for me, and he’s a generally decent mate all round. This bike seems to be similar in character, so has been christened Colin in his honour.  In fact, Colin the human adores Colin the bike and remembers well when Claud Butler was still making bikes that were a genuine cut above the norm.  A desirable, aspirational brand, that still has it’s fans today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the vintage 531 framed British bicycle.  British steel at its best.

Chopper.

2 thoughts on “British steel.

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