For some, the term 'real steel' might conjure up images of the bikes of yesteryear and 'the golden age of cycling'. Steel bikes can make even the most gnarled old roadie go misty eyed. For others it's just old fashioned and outmoded by modern materials. Hopefully our 'Steel Lives' main bike test in last month's issue kicked that misconception into touch.
With both True Temper and Reynolds, among others, sinking considerable time and money into developing new flagship tubesets it's clear steel can still mix it with the best of carbon, aluminium and titanium.
Last month we compared three steel road bikes at different price points. The conclusion of that test was that modern oversized and heat-treated butted steel tubes are lighter and stiffer than the stock-intrade Reynolds 531 and Columbus SL tubing of the Eighties. The only disadvantages being cost: with the raw tubes and indeed the tools for cutting the super-hard HT (or heat treated) metals remaining expensive.
With this in mind can a frame built from a good but not particularly light Deda EOM16.5 tubing produce a bike that is still rewarding enough to justify the build cost and does the quality of the ride override the fact that it weighs more than a aluminium frame? Read on...
Tough and well finished Fondriest uses Deda's top of the range EOM16.5 tubing described by them as 'a mild-carbon, lowalloy steel with high weldability'.
This stuff is the equivalent of Columbus UltraFoco and the general consensus among frame builders is that it needs a great deal of care and experience to weld successfully. While lighter steel tubing has recently emerged from True Temper, and there's the forthcoming Reynolds 953, the Deda EOM 16.5 tubing is slightly heavier than an entry level titanium frame, and about 300g heavier than an aluminium frame.
The hydroformed down-tube aims to minimize torsion, and the ACE rear triangle is fashioned to an attractive hourglass profile. There are five sizes from 49cm with a 51.5cm top tube through to 60 with a 60cm top tube.
While the Fondriest web page says that this frame size has a 55cm top-tube ours is a more agreeable 55.4cm in length. The 73 degree head angle and 4.5cm fork offset produces a 6cm trail which is the same as the recently tested Condor Acciaio, which weighs just 3g less with the same tubing.
Both sides of the bottom bracket shell are 'right-hand' threaded as is usual for a frame built in Italy, and while the bottom bracket cups have a tendency to work loose with this kind of thread these were very tightly secured.
The standard of TIG welding is very high with no tell-tale sign of tube penetration that could affect long term strength and the frame's graphic design is beautiful and fairly resistant to scratches.
While they are not such a common sight in the UK Mizuno forks are a highly respected brand in Italy and the 100 per cent carbon construction is a bonus at this price point, with the hourglass blade profile adding style.
Stiff yet quite comfortable In terms of the ride the 'real steel' monicker applies less here than it does to the Salsa Primero, tested last month, and it is on the heavy side of the handling spectrum like the Condor Acciaio also from last month's test. It's not a heavy bike, but it is heavier than an equivalent alu machine and you can feel the extra weight in the handling. The steering is perfectly balanced with good lateral stiffness and the Mizuno forks are remarkably effective for taking the edge off poor road surfaces, though one tester felt that the ITM 300 handlebars were too stiff for long rides.
The ITM 'bars are also on the narrow side although one rider thought that as the top bend happens sooner than most he would avoid bruised wrists when sprinting on the drops.
Another tester who used his own saddle on the Fondriest remarked that he felt more discomfort after a long ride than with the Salsa Primero but he discovered that comfort was restored once he changed back to the San Marco Regal saddle that came with the bike. Comfort could be improved further still by using a USE converter shim for £3.99 that allows a 27.2 mm seatpost to be fitted into the frame's larger diameter seat-tube. This effectively introduces more fore and aft flex into the seatpost.
While an all-up weight of less than 21 pounds is nothing to shout about the Status Plus is an especially solid and stable descender and feels remarkable composed with a heavy rider on board. That said, the considerable weight of the wheels make for an uninspiring ride similar to the Airborne Lancer (C 176).
Strong but could be lighter The 'how it should be' crowd will rejoice at the all-Italian spec that includes the finishing kit components and Campag Veloce - a choice which pitches it directly at the same budget point as a bike fitted with a mix of Shimano 105 and Tiagra equipment.
Gear changes through the Ergopower levers are smooth and positive but require a little more pressure at the lever than their more upmarket Centaur and Chorus cousins.
While everyone else has a third generation two-piece crankset in their catalogue Campagnolo appear to be stuck in the past with the decades-old square tapered axle design for their entire crankset range. Though we welcome the inclusion of a compact 36/50 chainring combination here that provides a more useable spread of low gears than the more common 39/53 tooth setup.
While the same comments apply to the recently tested Condor that had entry-level Deda finishing kit, the ITM Four stem, Racing 300 handlebars and Selcoff setback seatpost used on the Fondriest are a little on the heavy side, and Cinelli Vai equipment would have cut some weight and improved comfort levels without adding much to the cost.
Good looking but heavy We would expect to pay around £170 for some Gipiemme Tecno 024 wheels, which are very similar in weight to the new entry-level Mavic Aksiums. The bladed aero stainless spokes are built in pairs and make for an attractive semideep section rim. And while the rims went slightly out of true early on in they were easy to correct and stayed that way.
We mentioned the weight factor to the UK distributors who were quick to point out that they are considering lighter wheels in the near future. We all noted that the skewers feel cheap and nasty and require quite careful setting of the nut prior to closure of the lever - we prefer the smoother action of Mavic or Campagnolo skewers.
The cartridge bearing hubs are close to the highly regarded Ambrosio range and are smooth running.
While the Vredestein Volante tyres look cheap they grip well on wet corners.