Bicycle frame and fork sets can be made from an incredible assortment of materials.  When it comes to vintage road bicycles, steel is pretty much the preferred material.  Of course, the varieties of steel will both impress, and confuse.  For the most part, three tubing types will present themselves - ordinary steel, high tensile steel or high manganese steel, and molybdenum or the more sophisticated, chrome molybdenum steel.

In addition to steel, aluminum became and still is a popular choice for frame set material.  Several eighties and newer road bicycles were built using some form of aluminum alloy.  These aluminum steeds, coupled with a variety of assembly techniques, were very nice bicycles though most were no to my liking.  There was one aluminum bicycle that I did like, though.  My eighties something Vitus 979.

Today, bicycle frame and fork sets are being made out of very high tech materials, such as the presently popular carbon fibre.  For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on frame and fork sets made from steel, primarily.  Some attention will be paid to bicycle frame sets made from an aluminum alloy.  However, the carbon fibre gang and titanium gang will have to look elsewhere for information.  I know very little about carbon fibre frame sets.  And I doubt that I will ever be able to afford a titanium one.

A steel bicycle frame set will be made either of pipe or tubing.  How can one tell the difference?  Look for a tube set decal and then look for the word tube, tubes or tubing.  If the frame is made from tubing, the documentation will say so.  Tubing is far more desirable than pipe.  I have seen a great many tubing decals.  But not one pipe decal.

Pipe is nothing more than a piece of flat steel, rolled into a tubular shape, with the joining edges welded together.  Pipe will always have a seam, however; at times it will be difficult to see the seam.  Pipe will always have walls that are relatively uniform in thickness.  Pipe will generally be heavy.  Pipe is much cheaper to make than tubing.

Tubing is the vintage bicycle connoisseur’s choice when it comes to selecting frame and fork material.  Tubing is very different from pipe, even though to the untrained eye the two seem to be the same thing.

Tubing, unlike pipe, has no seam.  Tubing is usually made from a steel alloy of some kind, deriving greater strength thanks to the material itself.  Tubing is made by forcing metal through special forms or dies at great pressure.  A single piece of tubing can, and often does, have varying wall thicknesses.  This thickness variation is a result of the process of butting, double, triple and even quadruple butting.  Tubing, pound for pound, will always be stronger than pipe in most ways.  However, it would seem to me that tubing, especially the really good stuff, is fragile when compared to pipe.  The thinner the wall of the tubing, the easier it will be to dent or crush.


A butted tube will have thicker walls, at one end of the tube only.  A double butted tube, will offer increased wall thickness, at both ends.  Triple butted tubes will have yet a third area of extra wall thickness.  And I have no idea what quadruple butting is all about.  But why bother with butting to begin with?

Butting of frame tubes allows for weight reduction, without loss of strength.  Of course, that statement is ridiculous.  Thinner walls will not be as strong as thicker ones.  However, different areas of a bicycle's tubes are subjected to different levels of stress.  The tubing wall is thicker only where it needs to be.  The balance of the tube wall thickness is left thinner to reduce both mass and weight at the same time.  And weight, or more appropriately the lack of weight, becomes a really big issue when determining the quality of a vintage racing bicycle.  The general rule of thumb is “Lighter is Better”.  And that rule can, and probably will, get a lot of people into trouble!  But that is another story and one that I am anxious to tell.


As mentioned earlier, bicycle frame and fork sets are made from materials other than steel.  Aluminum frame sets were, and still are, popular with many people.  Titanium is a wonderful material, but very costly.  Carbon Fibre, today’s material of choice, is also pricy stuff.  And it is the choice of almost all the high end racing bicycles, these days.  Black Bamboo, believe it or not, is even being used to fabricate high end bicycle frame sets.

For the vintage road bicycle owner, however, steel is still the material of choice.  In your travels, sooner or later, the “Steel is Real!” motto will present its brief but powerful philosophy to you.  Believe it or don't.  I am still unsure of what to believe but I can say this in all honesty.  All of my present road bicycles are steel of one kind or another.  But I do wish that I had kept one aluminum one!  For our purposes, steel frame sets will most commonly be the subject of discussion.

Needless to say, some chrome moly steel tube sets are more collectable and sought after than others.  Reynolds 531, a molybdenum steel and Columbus SL, a chrome molybdenum offering, are considered to be the grails of tube sets.  I am not suggesting that one is better than the other.  Nor do I believe that these older offerings are more sophisticated than some of the newer chrome moly offerings popular in today's vintage bicycle world.  I suggest only that these steel alloy sets are about as good as steel bicycle frames get.

On better bicycles, the tubing quality will generally be carried through to the stays and fork set.  In this case, the the 1977 Raleigh "Competition GS" has a set of Reynolds 531 forks to go with the full 531 frameset.  Hard to beat.

A frame set made from a good quality tubing material is usually worth immediate consideration .  Such frame sets were, generally, well made.  The craftsmen knew what they were doing and, as a rule, took great pride applying their skills.  One would expect the quality of workmanship to be all but flawless on two high end bicycles, a near top of the line 1977 Raleigh Competition GS and a 1971 Atala Professional, top dog of the Atala line in the early seventies.   The truth is a bit surprising.

Compare the rear drops for each bicycle.  The drop-outs are identical Campagnolo units.  Both have been chrome plated after installation.  But the difference in quality of workmanship is horribly apparent.  The third for top of the line Raleigh sports a fairly clean nicely, but not perfectly, installed rear drop.  The top dog Italian steed is poorly polished and offers a deformed fender eyelet, suggesting questionable workmanship, at best.  This sort of thing troubles me.  If a top of the line offering is substandard.  What are the entry to mid level bicycles like?  I must add that this example of lack of workmanship quality is fairly common.  Just because is says Raleigh, or Atala, or Bianchi does not mean that you are getting a quality bicycle.  And consider the rest of the bicycle.  If one craftsmanship flaw is immediately visible.  What about other areas of the bicycle?  Is it all poorly made?  Or am I just judging a book by its cover?

Quality Indicators are readily apparent in every frame and fork set.  And quality indicators deal with two things and two things only - materials used to build the frame set and the skill/knowledge combination in building itself.  Nothing else counts when it comes to the frame and fork set quality!  And, interestingly enough, it is not all that difficult to figure out what is and is not a quality frame set.

I could go out tomorrow and build a bicycle frame set out of the very best materials.  I have the knowledge and understanding to do so.  But the set will be substandard, thanks to my lack of skill.  Skill can only be achieved by doing something, over and over, until the hands learn what the mind already knows.  On the other hand, a craftsman can build a frame set out of pipe and, though the workmanship is beyond question, the resulting frame set will be every bit as ordinary as the materials used to build it.  Both quality materials and quality workmanship should be part of a high end vintage frame and fork set.  If you are ever lucky enough to find a frame and fork set made from quality materials (chrome moly tubing, brand name forged drops, silver solder) and is free of assembly blemishes (no file marks, no sloppy welds, no unpolished lugs, no misalignment of stays to drops), buy it.  Really good frame sets, regardless of the name they wear, are few and far between.  At least, that is what I have come to believe based on the hundreds of frame sets I have worked on over the years.

I have owned a good two dozen top of the line or close to it vintage road bicycles.  And I have ridden each extensively.  Without a doubt, the nicest made was my Pinarello Trevisio.  The best materials were assembled by a craftsman.  Perfection is hard to achieve, regardless of the medium concerned, however; my Pinarello came darn close to being perfect.  Consider the workmanship demonstrated at the seat tube lug.  Flawless and that state of preparation was consistent throughout the bicycle.  The Pinarello absolutely qualifies as a quality bicycle, in my opinion.  I should have kept this one but I didn't.  Though the bicycle fit me like a glove, I just had too many in my collection at the time.  Something had to go and the Pinarello was that something.

Quality Indicators are also considered when evaluating the components installed on the bicycle.

I spend a lot of time getting my wheels round (no hop) and true (no wobble).  It has sadly come to my attention, however, that many tire manufactures don't sell tires that are always round.  Knowing which tires are round, and which are not, is valuable information to be armed with when it comes time to shop for tires.  And knowing which tires are round and which are not is a tricky business.  I have never seen a tire manufacturer mention that their tires are not round.  Nor have seen one suggest that they are round.  You and I assume the tires to be round.  Well they are not round!  Finding a round tire, or any good component for that matter, is a tricky business.

Such a quest becomes, not only an actual evaluation of the components themselves, but also an exercise in knowing which name brands are most likely to be associated with quality materials and quality workmanship.  Is Campagnolo good stuff?  I like it, well most of it anyway.  But Campy has allowed some goofs to enter and remain in the market place too. How about Simplex, Gipiemme, Modolo, Shimano, Suntour and so on?  I make no claim that one brand is better than the other.

Are French components better than Italian, or English, or Asian?  Campagnolo and Shimano or English and Italian are only labels, and you cannot go by labels!  You must actually take a look at what you are buying.  If you see workmanship flaws, be forewarned.  If workmanship error is tolerated at the assembly level, what does that say about the design consideration, when management is deciding to use the best alloy or the cheapest steel.  I hope you see the point.  Quality shows, if you look for it.  And, more importantly, so does lack of quality!  It is important to learn how to read quality clues or indicators, if you will.

Components, in my mind, are not just the pieces that bolt on to a bicycle frame.  Components can be part of the frame set itself.  In addition to the tubes used to construct a frame or fork set, there are also drop-outs, lugs and fork crowns to consider.