“Steel is real.”
Those words are invariably uttered just about any time steel bicycle frames come up. It’s also an utterly meaningless phrase bandied about like any other generalization about frame materials, such as aluminum frames being too harsh, carbon fiber frames being too brittle, or titanium frames being magical because they’re alloyed with ground-up unicorn horns.
It’s all nonsense.
Frame performance has just as much – more, in fact – to do with how the frame is designed than what it’s made of. Steel certainly can be “real”, but it can also be real crappy. Likewise, I’ve ridden some remarkably comfy aluminum frames, carbon fiber can be phenomenally strong, and titanium bikes are hardly immune to riding like bricks.
But this custom steel all-road frame from Zukas Cycles? Damn, is it good.
What’s a Zukas?
Nate Zukas is a one-man outfit based in Augusta, Georgia. He started building frames in 2011, overlapping with his primary job as the head mechanic at a local shop for three decades, working, “10 to 6 at the shop and typically 9pm to 3 or 4am building frames.” It was only just last year that he left the mechanic gig to build frames full-time.
TIG-welded steel is his jam, but he’s no evangelist about the material. He’s also a fan of 7005 aluminum and has more recently fallen in love with titanium – and if you want to get extra-fancy, he’ll make any of those with a carbon fiber seat tube and integrated seatmast.
“It’s a bit of weight savings, stiffness, and some comfort,” Zukas explained. “I think it’s better power transfer when seated compared to a standard 27.2 mm seatpost due to it being stiffer, especially at 35 mm in diameter. The thinner-walled carbon tube does great for damping.
“Basically when a customer wants a totally custom frame with the integrated seatmast, this option adds some benefits to that style of frame build. I actually built my aluminum 29er with this mast and it’s awesome. This option is available for all three materials I offer.”
As far as the steel itself goes, Zukas isn’t married to any one particular main supplier, using a mix of Columbus, Dedacciai, True Temper, Reynolds, Plymouth Pro Moly, Nova, and Fairing tubing as needed for a particular design. Smaller bits are sourced from Paragon Machine Works, Bike Fab Supply, Ti Cycles Fabrication, and Wisecracker.
“I try to source as much US-made product from US-sourced materials as possible,” he said. “The 7005 aluminum is all Taiwan-sourced material with some parts machined in the US.”
As every frame is fully custom – there’s no stock tubeset or geometry – tube diameters and wall thickness are always selected on a case-by-case basis, determined by, “rider weight, riding style, and a bit of aesthetics.” That said, there are some themes that permeate through most of Zukas’s steel frames.
For example, the down tubes and chainstays are notably large for drivetrain and front triangle torsional stiffness, and more precise handling. But up high, Zukas tends to use smaller-diameter top tubes and seatstays for rider comfort. Up front, he prefers 44 mm-diameter head tubes as they offer lots of design flexibility for the adjoining tubes and can accommodate just about any steerer tube dimension.
Those seatstays aren’t just small in diameter, either; they sport deliciously curvaceous and exaggerated S-bends that are maybe evocative of a couple of other builders, but yet are still Zukas’s own.
“Like most builders of my era, I’m heavily influenced by other well-known established builders,” he said. “I absolutely loved the thin diameter of English Cycles seatstays and the gentle swoops of Speedvagen seatstays. I went with a slightly larger diameter but still smaller-than-most seatstay tube, and a bit swoopier S bend. My radii and bend placements are my secret and help with that signature look – about 5% compliance with 100% style!”
Smaller fittings are attached via either silver soldering or brass brazing, and there’s a lot of attention paid to details. For example, the drain hole on the underside of the frame is no simple round hole. Instead, it’s fashioned into a Z shape and backed with steel mesh to keep bigger grit from entering.
Zukas’s preference for oversized T47 threaded bottom bracket shells leaves plenty of room inside for the internal routing (particularly with the way the chainstays are offset toward the bottom edge of the shell), and Zukas also adds little hooks inside to keep the lines from sitting right up against the bottom bracket itself as a nice finishing touch. And those internal housing ports are pure artistry, with the upper one even sporting a small set screw to lock the lines in place.
Whereas many builders farm out the finish work, Zukas instead does it himself.
“I do my own paint,” he said. “It’s part of the process that I least like! Painting can go really great or really bad. Sometimes you get that little paint flaw that you’ll spend 3 to 4 hours trying to fix when it was probably easier to just strip it and start over. I also do high polishing of aluminum and titanium. Titanium finishes are also brushed with anodized logos or Cerakote logos. Titanium anodizing is done by me as well. That took some practice!”
The test bike
I first met Zukas at a small gathering of frame builders in Virginia back in 2015, and have wanted to do something with him since first gazing upon the stunning fluorescent pink steel gravel bike he brought with him. Keep in mind that this was well before gravel bikes were a thing in the mainstream. It was clear even then that he understood the genre.
For this particular test frame, I requested a steel all-road disc-brake bike with clearance for any/all 32 mm-wide tires, quick handling, and a fit that roughly corresponded to a typical 52 cm road frame. The internal routing was designed specifically with Shimano’s latest Ultegra Di2 wiredless groupset in mind, so there are entry and exit ports for the rear brake hose, and exit ports for the Di2 wire at the front and rear derailleurs.
I left many of the other decisions up to Zukas based on my weight and riding style. And for the finish work, I left the decision completely up to him – painter’s choice.
Actual weight for the frame as delivered was 2,013 g with the rear derailleur hanger (but without the rear axle). The complete bike was built with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic groupset, Shimano Ultegra carbon clincher wheels, a Pro PLT aluminum seatpost and stem with a carbon bar, a Pro Stealth Sport saddle, 29 mm-wide (actual width) Vittoria Corsa clinchers, and a painted-to-match Enve Road Disc carbon fork.
Total weight without pedals was 8.70 kg (19.18 lb).
According to Zukas, retail price on the frameset is US$2,175, plus US$590 for the painted-to-match Enve fork (pricing for other regions varies with exchange rates).
So remember what I was saying earlier about frame design being about more than just material? About how any of the major materials can be made into a good or bad frame? Well, this Zukas is a seriously good steel bike.
The ride quality is everything steel bikes are usually made out to be. It’s remarkably smooth on smaller bumps and road texture, and it positively floats across good tarmac. It’s springy and lively with heaps of good feedback on what’s going on down at the tires, and it practically sings on most roads. There’s not a whole lot of damping to speak of, but the vibration frequencies that are coming up through the frame may as well be music.
When you hear people going on and on about how steel bikes ride, this is what they’re talking about.
Even better, the extra tire clearance literally leaves room for more. The aforementioned ride quality was with the 29 mm-wide Vittoria clinchers. With some supple 32s installed, the Zukas obviously got even cushier and more capable, and even felt at home on much of the buffed-out dirt roads that litter my local stomping grounds.
Despite the spindly-looking seatstays and top tube – and just as Zukas promises – frame stiffness feels just about right for my average power output and 71 kg weight. There’s a hint of flex at the bottom bracket when you really mash on the pedals, but only just a hair before the frame seemingly firms up against the load – almost as if it’s steeling itself for the effort (pun intended). In that sense, it’s unlike higher-end carbon bikes that offer a more immediate reward for your effort, but it’s barely perceptible and almost not even worth mentioning.
Similarly, the front end feels reassuringly solid when sprinting for a sign or climbing out of the saddle on a steep pitch, but still with that little bit of springiness that so many prize in ferrous frames.
Handling-wise, this Zukas is spot-on, although that’s almost not worth discussing since every frame is custom-built. That said, my particular sample was an absolute demon on fast descents what with those compact dimensions, quick 59 mm trail figure, and sneakily low bottom bracket (80 mm of drop!) for additional stability. It’s super fun to toss the thing around through a series of corners, and exactly what I’d hoped for. The fact Zukas was able to build something so aggressively proportioned that still had the clearances I was looking for is impressive, particularly for a steel frame with such comparatively minimal tubing manipulation.
Aesthetically, I don’t think many people will argue with me that this thing is a home run. In profile, the silhouette could hardly be more traditional what with its mostly straight lines, classic proportions, and only modestly sloping top tube. But when you start to make your way around the back, those seatstays are impossible to miss – and easy to stare at. It’s almost a shame they overshadow the also-artful curves of the chainstays, which aren’t quite as dramatic, but are no less skillfully formed.
As much as I would love to say this frame was perfect, that wasn’t quite the case.
Weight may not be everything when it comes to bike performance, but even compared to other high-end steel frames, the Zukas is on the heavier end of the spectrum by a couple hundred grams, and it’s roughly a full kilo heavier than even a mid-range carbon frame. That extra heft doesn’t exactly turn the Zukas into a boat anchor – not by a long shot – but it’s noticeable nonetheless, particularly when trying to accelerate on steeper climbs. Overall, the additional mass mostly serves to dull the Zukas’s reactions just a hair, and it’s a tradeoff you’ll have to be comfortable with to gain the other positive attributes I’ve already mentioned.
Likewise, the frame’s non-aero shape requires a handful more watts to maintain higher cruising speeds. It’s not a massive difference, but I’d also be lying if I said the Zukas was just as efficient as some of the latest-and-greatest aero superbikes out there, all of which are tangibly faster at higher outputs. In fairness, it’s most likely racers that’ll care about that aspect, and realistically speaking, my guess is Zukas’s primary customer base isn’t pinning on numbers for road races with regularity.
And although the ride quality was silky smooth in most situations, Dr. Jekyll could still turn into Mr. Hyde on particularly nasty impacts, almost as if the steel frame ran out of flex. Mind you, that trait is hardly unusual for steel frames – even nice ones – but it’s something worth noting regardless.
Other gripes? If I’m being perfectly honest, some of the weld beads on my test frame aren’t quite as even as I’d like to see in a high-end steel frame. They’re hardly lumpy or unsightly, but still, for this kind of money, I could see someone being a little bummed.
But aside from that? Um, uh …
I’ll be the first to admit that custom doesn’t make sense for everyone. Do you not care about standing out from the crowd and are you fortunate to have average proportions? In that case, something off-the-shelf will likely suit you just fine. But the beauty of custom – particularly for steel – is that you can often get exactly what you want or need in terms of the geometry, and often at similar (or often even less expensive) prices than what you’ll find from a mainstream brand.
Zukas certainly isn’t a household name, even in cycling, and buyers looking for brand cachet aren’t going to find it here (not yet, anyway). Although it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Zukas sure does seem to have an ardently passionate customer base, judging by comments on social media.
Let’s just put it this way: I was pretty bummed when the day finally came to tear this bike down and stick it in a box to send back to Georgia. So long, dear friend, and congratulations to the fortunate soul who will ultimately end up with this thing.
Oh, and don’t forget: steel is real.
More information can be found at www.zukascycles.com.