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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Back to Steel: The problem with aluminum bicycles

One of my favorite rides of the year is the Steel is Real pub crawl. Organized by Phil Van Valkenberg, the ride is a celebration of still rolling steel bicycles, mostly old to very old. I pedaled my 1936 Raleigh the last time I took part. Other than the patina that comes after 78 years of dutiful service, my Raleigh is as stout as the day it rolled off the factory floor on Faraday Road, in Nottingham. A big part of the reason for my Raleigh’s longevity is that it is built entirely of steel.
Another horse in the stable: my 1936 Raleigh in the original condition when I bought it.
Aluminum’s incredible strength to weight ratio (it has about 1/3 the density of steel and 1/2 that of titanium) and its resistance to corrosion has made it a tempting material for bicycle frames and components since the St. Louis Refrigerator and Wooden Gutter Co manufactured the LuMiNum in 1893. The company was so sure of their aluminum bicycle, they challenged other bike makers: “If your bike is stronger than ours, we’ll donate $ 500 [a huge sum in 1896] to a charity of your choice.”  So why was it aluminum bicycles fell out of favor for the next 100 years of bicycle manufacturing?

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