Custom Bicycles
Press: Mountain Biking – December 1999

Carrying the Steel Torchpress_239

Simply Fast on a Strong Frames Stage III

Mountain Biking – December 1999 – Volume 13, Number 12

Vital Specs

Strong Stage III Foco Frame

PRICE: $1000 (Frame only) $3195 (as tested)

WEIGHT: 23.4 pounds

KEY SPECS

FRAME: TIG-welded Columbus Foco Thermacrom alloy (steel)

FORK: White Bros. SC72UL (3 ” travel)
RIDER COMPARTMENT: Easton CT-2 carbon fiber bar, Kore post and stem, WTB SST saddle, Chris King AheadSet

WHEELS: Velocity Aerohead rims, Chris King hubs, IRC Mythos XC K 2.1 tires
DRIVETRAIN: SRAM 9.0 SL shifters and rear derailleur, Shimano XTR front derailleur, XTR crank, XTR mega cassette

BRAKES: Avid Ultimate levers and Arch Supreme cantilevers

COLORS: Custom (powder-coated Green with powder-coated Bone White logo)

SIZES: Custom (19. 5 – tested)

When you think of Montana, the first things that probably pops to mind is the Unabomber and radical militias (or maybe a River Runs Through It), not Strong Frames. Chances are you’ve probably never heard of Strong Frames, but you’re going to be hearing a lot about them in the near future. Located In Bozeman, Montana, and headed by Carl Strong, a lifelong cyclist and longtime racer, Strong Frames has quietly been building frames for the past six years. Strong Frames doesn’t build the most frames in the industry.

That’s because every frame they build is custom hand-made to order. Strong offers three levels of custom steel frames, Stage I, II, and Ill. We tested their high-end hardtail, the Stage III.

The Stage III is available in either Reynolds 853 or Columbus Foco, Genius or Nemo, with fully custom geometry for $1000; we had ours, built with Columbus Foco tubing. The Stage I and 11 frames retail for $800 and $900, respectively.

The question we found ourselves asking when we pulled the Strong out of its box was, does a custom steel frame make sense in a day and age when a super-light aluminum frame can be had for a few Ben Franklins?

After extensive testing we’ve come to the conclusion that if you can pop for it, nothing beats custom steel.

THE FRAME

While Strong Frames are also available in titanium and will soon be available in both aluminum and Scandium, they’re best known for their steel frames.

Carl fancies himself an artisan, not just a guy pumping out hand-built frames, and it shows. Our Stage III was one of the most beautiful, meticulously crafted frames we have ever seen. Everything from the welds to the finish to the appearance of the tubes themselves was pleasing to the eye.

The TIG welds on the Stage III were so smooth they almost looked like fillet brazes. (For a few bucks extra, fillet brazing is an option, as are lugs, for all you retrogrouches out there.) The powder-coated green with gray and white detailing finish was gorgeous. Even the Strong logo is powder coated on, no cheap decals.

Foco is one of Columbus’s trickest tubesets. It’s made from a steel alloy called Thermacrom that is designed specifically for building bicycles; it is meant to be resilient but stiff. The tubes are drawn oversized and ultrathin to yield these ride characteristics. If the last steel frame you rode was in 1985, you’ll be surprised how trick steel tubesets have become. Every tube on the Stage III is tricked out. Even the seatstays are oversized to 19 mm (as opposed to the standard 16 mm). The downtube is mega-sized and has a coffin-shaped profile.

The result of all these trick tube shapes is a 19.5-inch frame that weighs 3.7 pounds – that’s lighter than some titanium frames that have come through the hallowed Mountain Biking halls.

THE PARTS

In addition to frames, Strong offers complete bikes. Customers can choose from standard or custom build kits. Our Stage III came equipped with an XTR-level kit with a few choice upgrades.

An XTR crankset, front derailleur, and cassette were joined by SRAM ESP 9.0 SL shifters and rear derailleur. Braking was handled by Avid Ultimate levers and Arch Supreme cantilevers. The wheels were Velocity Aerohead rims laced to Chris King hubs with IRC Mythos K tires. The White Brothers SC72UL air-sprung and damped fork handled suspension duties. A Kore seatpost and stern, along with an Easton CT-2 carbon fiber bar, rounded out the component package yielding a race-ready bike that weighted 23.4 pounds.

THE RIDE

Frankly, all the artistry in the world doesn’t matter if a frame doesn’t ride right. The Strong did more than ride right. It rode awesome just the way we wanted it to. Because we spec’d the 71/73degree geometry, its handling was perfectly geared to the cross-country racing we intended to use it for.

We were quite surprised to find that the Mega downtube really did keep the bottom bracket ultrastiff. So stiff in fact, that we felt the FOCO-tubed Strong had a stiffer bottom bracket than the majority of oversized aluminum bikes we’ve ridden. In other words, all pedaling effort translates directly into forward motion, and that’s what a race-bred machine is all about.

With the radically sloping toptube we’d spec’d, the Strong handled like a smaller bike and was easy to throw around for aggressive handling. On downhills the resilient Foco tubeset soaked up more bumps than an aluminum frame.

Of course shifting and braking were perfect with the unstoppable Avid/9.0 SL/XTR combo, a favorite of many of our test riders. We’ve always been big falls of Chris King’s jewel-like hubs, but this was our first ride on the Velocity Aerohead runs. They held their tension throughout the testing period and took a beating without ever going out of true.

The White Brothers SC72UL. weighs about half a pound more than its lightest competitor, but it provides ultrasmooth travel and tracks like a Formula One car through turns.

Overall, the ride was everything we thought it would be and then some. Nothing rides quite like a steel frame, and this steel frame was one of the best we have ever ridden with a few riders proclaiming it the absolute king.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Custom frames aren’t for everyone. But most stock high-end frames cost more than the Stage III. As the Foco tubeset on our Stage III proved, steel is still a more than viable frame building material. In fact, it rips. Our Stage III looked awesome, was light, rode perfect and reminded us of the aloha spirit of the good old days when everyone was on steel.

If you want a bike that fits you perfect and rides just the way you want with no compromises in performance or handling, then the Stage III is worth checking into.

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