From the Pages of Velo: Pick of the Litter

Sometimes a rider dreams of a flashy, carbon race machine. Sometimes a rider dreams of something else entirely

Editor’s note: The following commentary first appeared in Velo magazine’s 2013 Buyer’s Guide, available now. VeloNews reporter Matthew Beaudin recently welcomed a new, steel, family member into his home. This is his story, taken in its entirety from the original print version in honor of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which opens Friday in Denver.

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Nestled in the drops, lopping the apex off a corner. Taking a beating in a town-line sprint. Suspended above the faint five inches of air between wheels. Stopping for cake and coffee. Cleaning a bottom bracket. Wiping down a top tube.

This is the life of a bicycle and its rider — a cohabitation of the same space, a hope for the same things. Without one another, neither of us gets anywhere.

The only road bike I had ever owned was a hand-me-down from my father — a yellow, blue, and red Douglas that had my old man’s name printed on it, an aging race bike from a bygone club team. It is made of aluminum, titanium, and carbon. Yes, all three. And it was too small. I’d ride it in the spring a few times, swap it out for the mountain bike once the snow melted above Telluride, Colorado, and stow it away again for nine months, doomed to a life of dust underneath a tarp.

When I moved to Boulder for this job, it was clear I’d need my own machine, one that fit, one that I selected from the stock of the industry. I wanted something that wouldn’t be outdated by the advances of technology, but wouldn’t be slow, either. In a world of impermanence and the menacing steamrollers of innovation, I wanted something that would maintain its grace. I suppose we’re all looking for that somewhere.

In short, I knew I wanted a steel Independent Fabrication. Since I started riding bikes, I have dreamt of an Indy Fab. I wasn’t to be denied or distracted by the pretty carbon things leaning against the office walls or tucked under the lean legs of the club racers.

I went to Boulder’s Retül, a top-tier bike fitter that turned me into a science project of sensors and wires, measuring the angles of my back, knees, ankle flexion, lateral knee movements. I came in with a hand-me down; I left with a sheet of my cycling DNA, down to the slight oval my right knee traces, thanks to a scope while I was in college. (Don’t run, ever). As it turns out, I’m not a standard 56 like I always thought; I’m more of a 54.9, repeating. Who knew?

My cycling double-helixes were sent to Jesse Fox at Independent, who applied them to a steel Crown Jewel frame. Velo technical editor and resident fast kid Caley Fretz and I debated things like trail figure and head tube angle, but mostly we discussed paint.

Indy Fab is known for its elaborate paintwork, but I chose white with a few black pinstripes. Painfully understated, it’s true. I wanted the frame to occupy classic elegance that had little to do with my being at the front (rare) or at the back (more common).

Independent Fabrication is one of America’s most venerable frame builders, its head-tube badge as iconic as any boutique outfit, anywhere. It rose from the rubble of the storied Fat City Cycles after that company was sold off in 1994. A few employees lingered, and the worker-owned Independent Fabrication was born in a working class section of Boston in 1995.

Since then, the company has ebbed and flowed. It adapted to the carbon and ti booms, and has since moved to Newmarket, New Hampshire. Gary Smith, who used to work as an executive at Timberland, now owns 80 percent of the company, with its employees controlling the remaining 20 percent. There is still an old punk rock feeling about it all; a quick look at the staff bios and photos illustrates a deep love of bicycles, old Red Sox caps, and years in both the shop, and the wind.

The company builds 500 frames a year, and was doing more when they offered stock sizes. now they only build custom. Nine people work full time and nearly all of them touch each frame that comes out of Indy Fab. They also build carbon bikes, but Independent is known for the steel and titanium frames that span its road, mountain, and ’cross lines. A standard frame painted one color can be finished in as little as five days, meaning one could spend much more time waiting around for a production carbon frame if it weren’t in stock.

Of course, there is still the question of why. Why steel, in an age of perfectly stiff carbon frames that weigh as much as an empty Kleenex box?

Simply, steel is an alloy forged from other elements, such as iron, vanadium, and even carbon, which harden the metal. The metal itself is a testament to the inevitable progress of industry; steel was produced long before the Renaissance, though the Bessemer process (which uses oxidization to remove impurities) made the material widely available. Now, it’s one of the most common materials on the planet.

As a material, it is in no way superior. Its lifespan isn’t anywhere near that of titanium, and it fatigues over time, just like its rider. On its own, it’s relatively weak. But there is something about bikes that is the same with bike riders: we are the sum of our parts.

When a bike comes together with road and rider, it becomes something far greater than mere Reynolds 853 and True Temper OX Platinum tubing. It is smooth and lively. It arcs with the force of power and presses back into its rider; it is a beautiful dance and we take turns leading.

The steel bikes of yesteryear are a far cry from what we ride today; the bikes Coppi and even Hinault rode are relatively arcane. It used to be that a sub 20-pound bike would come through the door at VeloNews and spark unfettered excitement.

Now, the weight difference between carbon and steel, when built up nicely, is negligible. Granted, this isn’t the steel bike of old. Its tubes are thinner, and the parts that hang upon the alabaster frame are as good as it gets at this moment: Zipp 202s, an Enve fork, and the new Shimano 9000 Dura-Ace conspire to make this Indy Fab a lean, capable, 16.8-pound machine. It is as fast as it is elegant.

The maiden voyage was a special occasion, a late-autumn morning in Boulder that felt more like late spring, up to the historic town of Gold Hill. I was dropped by the two fast guys in the office, but in truth I was thankful for it; it gave me time to feel the bike beneath me, to roll the upper dirt sections alone, not staring at wheels that would inevitably slip away, always just out of reach. But that’s another story for another day.

I had been riding the new Trek Madone (jumpy/fast/excellent) for two months up Boulder’s harshest climbs. The switch to steel marked a complete departure from the thick carbon top tube I’d spent so many long hours glaring at, drops of my sweat making tiny lakes and streams.

She wasn’t perfect that first day. It took a bit of tinkering, and some adjustments at Retül to distill the algorithms into an actual riding position on the bike. But in the weeks that followed, something special happened. I fell in love. I stand up to push, and it nudges me back. Gone is the wooden feel of carbon, replaced with something much more playful. Sure, perhaps it saps a bit more energy, but, last I checked, I had no intention of taking a flyer to win San Remo. It climbs plenty well, and descends even better. It’s in-office name is the Cueball.

She is a brilliant bicycle, a work of art from eight sets of hands whose grace more than makes up for its refusal to adapt to the modern ideal of a bike frame. But that’s all it is. Without me, it’s nothing but tubing. But without it, well, there’s no telling what I’d be. Over time, over passes and rutted dirt roads, we merge. We become the bikes we ride, just as they become us.