When I signed up for the Elite Tour — 2,800 miles from San Diego to Savannah in 17 days — I knew that I’d need a special bike. Minor bike and equipment breakdowns on a tour of this difficulty are especially frustrating because fixing them cuts into precious recovery time. A major problem on the road might mean not completing the day’s mileage before darkness.
So I didn’t hesitate to shop for a steel frame and fork.
Call me a dinosaur if you wish, but there are plenty of good reasons to choose steel in this era of titanium and carbon.
Steel can be repaired if crashed, often by simply bending the damaged frame member back to its original shape. A steel fork induces confidence on steep, curvy, bumpy descents the way that carbon can’t, at least in my mind.
Much has been made of the magical ride of steel. I’m skeptical because tire pressure affects ride quality more than frame material. However, when we discount the effects of tires, the ride of a modern steel bike challenges that of Ti or carbon because of shaped tubes that provide stiffness where needed and compliance in the right places.
Steel bikes and forks have come a long way since the days of heavy, lugged Reynolds 531 tubing. In the 1970s, a racing bike might have tipped the scales at 23 or 24 pounds. With modern tubing technology and TIG-welded joints replacing lugs, sub-20-pound steel bikes are routine.
Ahead of Its Time
As Richard Schwinn of Waterford Precision Bicycles says, “If steel was the latest material to appear in the bike world, it would be hailed as a miracle material. You can get the customizability and longevity of titanium at a fraction of the cost.”
Richard has plenty of experience in the bike world, as you can tell by his last name. Under his direction, Waterford Precision Bicycles has built an enviable reputation. The Wisconsin factory turns out highly prized racing and touring bikes under both the Waterford and Gunnar labels.
Waterford works through a system of authorized dealers, so I went through Cascade Bicycles in Montrose, Colorado. Shop owner Alan “Uncle Al” Ardizone made the initial contact and then Schwinn called me to finalize the fit, features and geometry, a process that took about 45 minutes. After a few days he sent drawings of the frame with all the specifications listed for my approval. The frame was delivered six weeks later.
The bike fits perfectly thanks to that personal attention. It was built specifically for my long legs and short upper body with a 57.5-cm seat tube and 55-cm top tube. An extended head tube and 4-degree slope to the top tube means I can get the handlebar within 3-4 cm of the top of the saddle while running the stem flat. If I need more rise to combat back or hand problems on the Elite Tour, I can simply turn the stem over.
In spite of the unconventional sizing, Waterford nailed the handling. On the windy, rough descent from Black Canyon National Park, the bike tracks straight and true with no hint of speed wobble. I took it on curvy back road descents and it made the transition from one switchback to another like a racing motorcycle. I can ride it no-hands with ease, a crucial detail in all-day rides when you don’t want to stop to take off a jacket or peel an energy bar.
Rough pavement doesn’t throw the bike off-line because the 700x25C tires absorb the bumps. it’s comfortable for rides of 160+ miles too. The perfect fit plus wider tires and the well-thought-out steel tubing shapes guarantee hour-after-hour comfort.
I opted for durability in component choice too. I equipped the frame with Dura-Ace derailleurs and STI shifters, Ritchey compact cranks, Ritchey alloy bars and stem and a Thomson alloy seatpost. The bike weighs a bit less than 20 pounds with Look Keo pedals and a Fizik Arione saddle. I eschewed fancy wheels for the durability of 32-spoke wheels built by Uncle Al. Even so, I don’t notice any difference in my times up local hills compared to riding my Litespeed or Serotta that weigh 2-3 pounds less.
The added clearance for wider tires and fenders necessitated long-reach brakes. I chose Tektro but Shimano’s Ultegra 57-mm-reach brakes would have worked as well. I can’t detect any difference in stopping power between the Tektro brakes and the conventional Dura-Ace short-reach model.
The frame has eyelets for fender attachment but no rack mounts since I won’t be using it for loaded touring. Schwinn mounted the bottle cages fairly high. I Wasn’t sure I was going to like that but it makes reaching for a bottle easier. Because the frame is fairly large, there’s plenty of clearance for even the largest bottles.
Based on five months of hard training on the bike I’m looking forward to riding it across the country. It should make the average 10-hour Elite Tour day a pleasure.
But I didn’t buy the bike just for one tour. U.S. roads are getting rougher as county budgets become more constrained, so a strong, durable but light bike is a necessity. The Waterford can handle anything from smooth pavement to chip seal to gravel and dirt. My local roads are in wretched shape so I suspect that once it completes its cross-country journey, it’ll be my bike of choice for most training and fun rides in the future.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.