The Paris Tour, the Paris Roubaix, any WorldTour race, and in all probability days of steel race bikes gracing the top step of the podium (or even being part of the field) are over. Well, think again: USA-based women’s pro racing team, LA Sweat, have teamed up with Pratt Frameworks for their team bikes this year, and not only are they racing on steel, they’re winning on steel too.
The LA Sweat X Pratt partnership has been brewing for some time, with discussions occurring behind the scenes since 2019, thanks to a shared wheel sponsor, Hunt, between the Pratt CX team and LA Sweat, along with a shared rider to start too.
Steel bikes in the pro peloton have been done before in the modern era, with the UK Continental team Madison Genesis and steel Eddy Merckx for the final stage of the 2019 Tour de France.
So, is there a modern steel race bike in the sea of monocoque carbon, and if so why? I chatted to Kelli Samuelson from LA Sweat and Max Pratt of Pratt Frameworks to get their take on why this much-maligned material can not only beat the black stuff on the racecourse, but off it too.
More than any other material, steel is absolutely awash with cliches and buzzphrases. People can claim that this is a magical ride that can easily be described as bikes out of. The ubiquitous #SteelIsReal hashtag doesn’t really mean much when you actually think about it. However, it does not have to be designed in such a way, but it can be designed in such a way.
The Pratt bikes piloted by LA Sweat riders are built from a mix of Columbus Life and SL tubing, which features Columbus’s latest Omnicrom alloy. Without diverting down a material science rabbit hole, this means that through the mixture of alloy properties, butting profiles (the internal thicknesses), and the tube diameters (Life tubes are oversized for increased stiffness) these steel bikes are every bit as high performance as their plastic counterparts.
Feedback from the riders, which passes through Kelli to Max for future iterations, is that bikes do have a better ride feel and is not more stable than the team’s former carbon fleet, and, partly thanks to custom geometry, they can corner harder on them too.
To the extent that the team’s bikes, at 8.2kg, are comparable to an Allez Sprint, a bike heavily marketed to the crit race scene. Thin tube walls, down to 0.45mm in places like the seat tube, in addition to 3D-printed dropouts, keep the weight low despite the density.
Steel bikes are generally wobbly noodles, and they’re not terribly aerodynamic. The bikes were floppy then riders like Mariana Valadez wouldn’t be taking sprint wins. And this is with the smaller BSA BB rather than the larger diameter T47.
Aerodynamics is perhaps the place where Kelli and Max did concede that steel does not lose out to carbon. Round tubes are inherently less aero than modern truncated aerofoil designs, but the frame is usually relatively low on the list (especially as it already has a carbon fork). More important are rider position, clothing, helmets, and the leading edges of the handlebars and wheels. There is some drawback, but it’s one the team is willing to count on handling and cornering advantages, plus some of the non-race advantages that we’ll dive into next.
Horse season, teams up and down the land are issued with their bikes for the season from bike brands big and small. More often than not, the riders racing them with little or no say in the design, and given that brands tend to update their lineups in cycles of two or more years, even if changes are required there is no way of implementing them in the same or even the next.
With steel, and the agility of a small operation like Pratt Frameworks, LA sweat can be treated to multiple iterations of their race fleet in a single season. As mentioned before, the riders funnel their feedback directly through team owner Kelli who then discussed with Max. Tweaked geometry, new sizes (currently 2cm increments from 48-56), and upgrades like a new 3D printed BB area to allow internal cable routing are all possible.
Naturally, there are drawbacks too. Big brands can ship bikes out the second time and contract; four to five months from the initial fleet in this case.
One thing I was anxious to find out was the aesthetic of the steel frame, which was pleasantly met with an unapologetic ‘absolutely’.
Kelli has a background in fashion and beauty, and it seems like you have a bike that could always match the (always eye-catching) team kits that were too good to resist.
The sustainability of the bikes was also championed by both parties, which you can delve into a little more in our piece on how bikes are made. Steel, which can be easily recycled. It is repairable (fortunately, none from the team as of yet) and more resistant to damage in transit. This longevity means the Jr team is likely to receive this season’s bikes at some point, or they will be auctioned off to raise money for the team as a whole as last season’s fleet was.
Perhaps most interestingly, and hardest to quantify, was the inspiration factor. A bike that looks ‘normal’, or at least more like the $ 200 Walmart option, is more likely to inspire the next generation of women to get riding and start racing than something that looks closer to a spaceship.
So yes, it seems steel can still cut it, at least in the crit scene. There are drawbacks, as with any choice, but it doesn’t seem to stop the team from gracing the top step of the podium.
- Frame – Pratt Frameworks Custom
- Bars – Zipp SL-70
- Stem – Zipp SL Sprint
- Groupset – SRAM Force AXS E-tap
- Wheels – Hunt 54 Aerodynamicist Carbon Disc
- Tires – Vittoria Corsa Cotton
- Cages – Zipp Alumina
- Rotors – Centerline XR 140/160
- Headset – Chris King