07 October 2015

Is It High Time For Ti Again?

It's soo '90's!

And if it's soo '90's, it must be reeealy...'70s!

What am I talking about?  It has nothing to do with food, clothing or hairstyles.  It's not a musical genre, either.

Since you're reading this blog, you surely realize that it has something to do with cycling.  Indeed it does.

So what is it from the '70's that became all the rage--or, at least, seemed poised to become all the rage--in the '90's?

Why, titanium frames, of course.

About two decades ago, the Great Titanium Debate, at least in road bikes, was Litespeed vs. Merlin.  It seemed that all of the titanium bikes that weren't being made by custom builders were made by one of those two companies--including many that bore the labels of leading mass-producers (like Bianchi) of the time.  Oh, there were builders like Dean and Moots, who made their bikes one-at-a-time, by hand, in smaller volumes than Litespeed or Merlin.  And a few custom builders, such as Serotta, made frames of the material.  But the vast majority of titanium bikes that rolled out of bike shops (at least in the US) during the '90s came from Litespeed or Merlin.

At that time, "Ti" seemed poised to become the material of choice for the most demanding or well-heeled cyclists.  It seemed to have everything going for  it:  light weight, resistance to the elements and a silky yet swift ride.  The world's pelotons--and cyclists who wanted to emulate them--were not sold on carbon fiber.  And, aluminum and steel seemed to reach plateaus in their development.

So what happened?  In a word:  cost.  Titanium is an expensive material; so is manganese-molybdenum (Reynolds 531) or chrome-molybdenum steel tubing.  More important, their production techniques are more labor-intensive than those of carbon fiber or aluminum. 

Also, welding titanium properly is more difficult because the process attracts the very elements--nitrogen and hydrogen--that contaminate titanium and render it weaker.  That is one reason why some of the titanium frames made during the 1970s--and a few in the early '90's--failed:  The welders didn't seem to realize that the weld area has to be shielded by argon, not only during the process of welding, but until the weld has cooled.

In fact, in the 1970s, little besides its light weight was actually understood about titanium.  That is the reason why most titanium components of that time--even the ones made by Campagnolo--didn't stand up to the rigors of hard use.

Speedwell Titanium Bike (UK) with Campagnolo Record equipment, circa 1975

On the other hand, carbon and aluminum aren't as expensive to fabricate as frames, at least with current production methods.  As titanium's popularity peaked just before the turn of the millennium, and carbon was in ascendancy, most of the world's bicycle production--even of high-end models--was moving from the West and Japan to Taiwan and China.  For bike and parts makers that had committed themselves to carbon, the choice between retooling old factories (or building new ones) in the high-wage, high-cost countries of Europe and North America (and Japan), or building new facilities with modern production methods in low-wage China and southeast Asian countries was a no-brainer.  Thus, nearly every carbon frame available (and, to be fair, the vast majority of those not made by custom or specialty builders) comes from that part of the world.

Is it possible to shift Titanium--and high-end steel--production to those areas?  Possibly.  Does that mean that Titanium will once again become "the frame material of the future".  Well, it was in the '70's and '90's.  Every other decade...hmm...could it be time for another Ti renaissance?


  1. Interesting. Enigma shifted all its stock-size frame building to a Taiwanese facility several years ago. (Custom frames are still made post-fitting from scratch by hand one-by-one on-site in West Sussex.)

  2. Rebecca--That sounds like what we're witnessing all over the Western World. As an example, Trek and Specialized still make their most expensive racing bikes here in the US, but everything else comes from Taiwan and China.

    Here in the US, there are Ti frames available for about the same cost as a good aluminum bike. Those frames, as I understand, are made in Russia.

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  4. This welders decided not to often be aware that this weld spot really needs to be shielded by means of argon, besides over the strategy of welding, although till the weld possesses refrigerated.
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  6. Thanks for posting a photo of my Speedwell. The bike on the green background is actually a 1973 frame. The serial number indicates it was built in January of 1973.

  7. Hi Steve: I didn't realize it's your bike. Well, I'm glad you have a piece of history.