In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, we take a look at a stainless steel frame from Saffron Frameworks and talk to the owner about his fascination with steel and his desire for an unfinished frame.
Jamie Green was given his first bike by his father when he was about 10 years old. It wasn’t new, but his father had re-sprayed the frame red and stencilled “Jamie’s Flyer” on the down tube in white. For young Jamie, it was a magnificent bike, and it ignited his passion for the sport.
When he was older, Jamie inherited his first road bike from his father, a Raleigh. It was a modest bike built from Reynolds 531, but it gave Jamie his first taste of steel. “I definitely subscribe to the notion that steel is real. It gives the bike a soul, and I’ve never owned a road bike that was made from anything else.”
While this might sound like a prelude to a long procession of storied steel bikes, Jamie’s “collection” is very modest, amounting to just three bikes. One is a Merckx Corsa Extra in ADR team colours, which gave him first-hand experience with one of the icons of steel tubing, Columbus SLX. Another is a custom-built Paconi that Jamie commissioned in 2013 after finding a set of Reynolds 753 tubes on eBay. And the third, his most recent, is a stainless steel Saffron.
“There is always room for one more”
Anybody that has ever connected strongly with cycling and has a fascination for the equipment will understand the temptation to add another bike to their collection. But for Jamie, there was more to his decision than simply filling up his shed. “I am a Campagnolo fan — my Paconi and Merckx both have Athena groupsets — and I wanted to experience Super Record, because it’s the pinnacle of its mechanical groupsets.”
A modern groupset deserves a modern chassis and, for Jamie, he felt it would look classy against a naked frame. “At first, I considered a titanium frame, however I veered away from that idea once I learned that the ride is different from steel.”
The natural choice was therefore, stainless steel, a relative newcomer to the world of framebuilding. Reynolds launched its first stainless steel tube-set in 2007, which was dubbed 953 according to the company’s penchant for triple-digit monikers, while Columbus unveiled XCr soon after, so named for the chemical composition of stainless steel (X4CrNiMo16-5-1).
The new tube-sets had much more to offer that just a high level of corrosion-resistance; strength and weight were on par with titanium, and while both were considerably more expensive than traditional steel alloys, they were still (a little) cheaper than titanium. Those strengths were enough to convince Jamie that it was the ideal material for his new frame, so he went in search of a framebuilder that could meet his needs.
Jamie’s brief for the new bike was pretty simple, at least in terms of performance. “I like long rides, 6-10 hours, so primarily, the frame had to be suitable for that, but I also wanted something that could manage a bit of racing.”
He also had some pretty clear technical requirements. “I was keen on a silent ride, hence a threaded bottom bracket, and I wanted internal routing for the brake cable and room for 28mm wide tyres. And aside from a naked finish, I wanted the frame to be fillet-brazed rather than lugged or welded.”
All told, Jamie’s wish list was quite modest and well within the norm for a custom-built frame. It was the finish — or rather, the lack thereof — for a fillet-brazed frame that proved to be the biggest stumbling block. He started by surveying framebuilders in Australia and then the USA., but it wasn’t until Jamie discovered Saffron Frameworks in the UK that he was able to get what he wanted.
Jamie was immediately drawn in by the quality of Matthew Sowter’s craftsmanship. That Saffron has had extensive experience with building stainless steel frames, and Sowter counts fillet-brazing as one of his specialties, quickly sealed the deal for Jamie. Importantly, Saffron was not only happy to leave the frame unpainted, Jamie was given a choice of three distinct finishes for the raw stainless steel tubing.
Know your stainless steel
This is the third stainless steel frame from Saffron Frameworks that has made it into our Bikes of the Bunch. The first was made from XCr while the second was made from 953. Jamie had a choice of both materials, so it was a matter of picking the one that was best suited to his needs.
XCr and 953 are both stainless steels, however the chemical composition of each is quite distinct, as are the physical properties. XCr contains more chromium than 953, which provides extra resistance to corrosion. 953, by contrast, has more tensile strength to offer, which is produced by an extended heat-treatment process that ages the alloy during production. Yet another point of difference concerns tube production: XCr is cold-drawn from billets, so the tubes are seamless, while 953 is fashioned from plates, hence each tube has a welded seam.
In practical terms, the differences between XCr and 953 (and the newer stainless steels, such as KVA MS2 and MS3) are not so great. Both tube-sets can be TIG-welded, fillet-brazed, or used with lugs, and it is not uncommon for some framebuilders to mix-and-match the two when creating a frame. In the case of Jamie’s frame, and the specific desire to leave it unpainted, Saffron recommended XCr over 953 because of the difference in corrosion resistance.
“I was happy with that recommendation, so all I had to do was choose the final finish,” explained Jamie. “The first option was bead-blasted, which is cheap to prepare, but it’s not especially attractive, and it can tarnish. The second was a brushed finish, which is a little more expensive, but it looks good, and more importantly, can be maintained by the owner. And the third was a polished finish, which looks fantastic, but it’s expensive and prone to scratching. I went for the brushed finish, and it’s been very easy to keep looking great.”
Interrogating the design
Saffron used a Retül frame-fit supplied by Jamie in conjunction with the geometry from his Merckx to guide the design of the new frame. “Matthew asked me which of my existing bikes I preferred from a handling point of view, and the answer was simple, my Merckx. In the end, he was able to couple the handling of my Merckx with the precise stack and reach from my frame-fit to create a modern frame with a bit of traditional background.”
The design of the frame went through a few iterations before Jamie was ready to sign-off on the project. “It was great to receive a CAD drawing of my bike from Matthew. I had been dreaming of it for several years and it was amazing to finally see it coming to life. Being an engineer, I pored my attention over the drawing, then reproduced it in a free version of BikeCAD to start interrogating the design.
“The joy of having a custom frame built is that you get to provide input on every single part of the build. This is a two-way process between rider and framebuilder, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work on the tiny details such as the slope of the top tube and the position of the bidon cages.
“My Merckx and Paconi bikes both have traditional horizontal top tubes, and it’s classic aesthetic that I love. However, after Matthew told me that he could provide more comfort for longer rides by increasing the amount of seatpost that was showing, I was open to a sloping top tube. He initially proposed a slope of 6°, but I wasn’t impressed with the aesthetics, so we tried a few different angles before I settled on 3°.
“Being a rider of large frames, I have found that I have a long way to reach my bidons. Working with Matthew, I was able to move the cage mounts to decrease my reach to the bidons without ruining the lines of the frame while being mindful that they were still located within the thicker parts of the tubing.”
The seatpost clamp was yet another one of the minor details that received a lot of attention from Jamie. “I was aware of Matthew’s speciality ‘hidden’ seatpost binder, and while it looks great, I wasn’t keen on it for a few reasons, like the risk of weakening the frame and water ingress. I was therefore left with two options: a standard seatpost clamp or an integrated part from Bentley Components.
“After researching Bentley’s products and their processes, I was massively impressed, and the Bentley binder now appears to have become a favourite for a lot of bespoke builders, which is not surprising given its clean, machined look.”
As for the fork, Jamie opted for carbon chiefly to save weight. “I sought Matthew’s advice on fork type. A carbon fork was going to be 4-500g lighter than steel, and being black, it was a perfect match for the rest of the bike. He also mentioned there would be very little flex, and that it would provide a more positive ride.”
Frame: Saffron Kaalgat, Columbus XCr tubing, silver fillet-brazing
Fork: Enve Road 2.0, 43mm rake
Headset: Chris King
Groupset: Campagnolo Super Record with a classic 5arm crankset.
Handlebar: Zipp Service Course SL-88, 40cm wide
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL, 120mm
Wheels: Ronin Series 5 carbon rims, 32h Royce hubs, DT competition spokes, Continental 25mm GP4000s tyres
Seatpost: Kent Eriksen 27.2mm titanium ‘sweetpost’
Saddle: Black Fizik Arione R3
Pedals: Look Keo
Bar tape: Fizik
Bidon cages: King stainless steel
Once Saffron had built the frame, Jamie was able to enlist his parents to deliver it to him in Australia. “My parents travel to Australia once a year and they brought the frame with them as part of their baggage allowance. They declared the frame upon arrival in Melbourne and customs staff let them use their joint allowance to offset the GST.”
Jamie left the final build in the hands of Dan Hale at Shifter Bikes, who was a source of guidance and support throughout the entire project. Needless to say, he was pleased with the result, and the bike was quick to impress.
“The first thing that struck me was how comfortable the bike is to sit on and ride. It is like sitting in a favourite chair. It is certainly a lot stiffer than my Merckx and Paconi bikes. The rear end does not flex under load and it feels like more power is transferred to riding.
“And my descending has improved, which I put down to being more comfortable and relaxed on the bike, along with a quicker steering response. It’s an absolute joy to ride, but most importantly, it makes me smile and want to ride more.”
At this stage, there is every indication Jamie is content with his trifecta of steel bikes, and while the future may bring a fresh temptation, he can see many years of use for them all. “I like the thought of my Paconi, Merckx and Saffron frames outlasting me and being able to pass them onto my son.” Any one of those bikes would make for a decent heirloom — having all three promises to be something special.