Special Report: Peak Oil

Steel, Cycling, and Steeltown

Hamilton's current industrial base will not survive the end of the automobile era. Bicycles could help save it.

By Undustrial
Published August 31, 2010

As the effects of Peak Oil make themselves felt, they will go far beyond gas prices.

The Canadian auto industry employs around a half million people directly and indirectly, almost all of which is in Ontario. This isn't just building and selling cars - there's a massive manufacturing empire needed to mine the ore, make the steel and machine the parts that extends well beyond Ford or Toyota.

This is something we understand all too well in Hamilton. Every time the auto industry hurts, we feel it. All signs at the moment seem to suggest that the pain is only beginning.

So what do we do with two of the nation's largest steel mills? With a machining and manufacturing capacity spanning the whole north edge of the city? More and more of this is going idle all the time and sending a lot of highly trained professionals home.

Raleigh Safety Bike (Image Credit: Nottinghamshire City Council)
Raleigh Safety Bike (Image Credit: Nottinghamshire City Council)

Marinoni Pista (Image Credit: Cycles Marinoni Inc)
Marinoni Pista (Image Credit: Cycles Marinoni Inc)

In the past, steel was almost always the default material for bike-building. It's far stronger and more durable than wood, but much cheaper and far less energy-intensive than metals like Titanium and Aluminum. Steel bike frames, well cared for and not run over (too often) last decades, easily.

Steel Bikes: Cheap, Strong, Durable

Right now, on the roads of Hamilton, hundreds of cyclists on old "ten-speed" racers from the 1970s are blasting past many newer, much more expensive bikes. These bikes are the product of a "bicycle boom", largely as a result of the Oil Shocks, which took the streets of Hamilton and other cities by storm.

Because of their simple construction and high-quality steel tubing, cyclists just keep turning back to them as an alternative to modern frames. Talk to anyone in the Fixed Gear or Singlespeed crowd - these frames are perfect, and available everywhere.

Raleigh Record (Image Credit: Sheldown Brown)
Raleigh Record (Image Credit: Sheldown Brown)

Since then, he bike industry has turned to far less practical machines. Since the 1990s, largely thanks to the boom in mountain bikes (basically the bike equivalent of an SUV), bikes have been getting heavier, more complex and far less practical. These bikes turned cycling from a serious transportation option into hobby or sport, and have played a huge role in the decline of cycling.

The industry did this in two ways. Higher end bikes exploded in price, equipped with space-age technologies designed primarily for the professional racing crowd. These bikes can cost thousands of dollars, which scares off a lot of people who'd like to get into cycling.

On the other side of the coin are those bikes found at stores like Canadian Tire and Wal Mart. While they're cheap, the quality is cripplingly low. Owning one of these things is one of the best arguments against cycling out there. They're slow, heavy, and often break down within hours or days of leaving the store. They simply aren't a serious transportation option.

Supercycle Hooligan (Image Credit: Canadian Tire)
Supercycle Hooligan (Image Credit: Canadian Tire)

Future for Steel

If cycling is going to catch on as a major means of transportation, somebody's going to have to start building new affordable and practical bikes. That's where steel comes in.

Cutting-edge alloys are still being used to build competition-grade racing bikes which are almost as light as aluminum or carbon fiber. Good examples of this would be the Colnago Master X-Lite or the Cinelli XCR.

For those with a more modest budget, talk to Brian at Central Cycle about a Masi or Marinoni.

But more importantly, the technology to build a basic 20 pound bike is now almost ancient. If we can produce a decent quality of steel tubing, most of the rest of the serious work involved in frame-building can be done with hand tools and a TIG welder. Spokes can be made straight from steel wire. Bearings, cups, and bolts are all produced in town already.

People do this kind of thing in their garage or back yard all the time. Hamilton Freeskool had a class on it.

Manufacturing and Distribution

For a large manufacturing facility, this means the option of bringing the price of a decent price down by a lot. The entire industry is waiting for this right now. If you can build a "downhill bike" and retail it for $200, why not something more efficient?

Think of Dell, with its online ordering system combining the benefits of mass production and custom ordering. By shipping locally and directly, costs could be cut further, and savings reinvested into quality production.

Most important, not only would re-tooling a mill to put out high-quality tubing for bike frames mean renewed life for our steel operations, it would open the door to hundreds of small, custom and affordable framebuilding shops.

What's missing in today's cheap bikes is a frame worth holding onto, upgrading, or experimenting with. Something which has potential for expansion - which means standard fittings, versatile geometry, and good quality metallurgy. If mass producing this in the 1970s was possible, then why not today? For small-scale operations, this means a lot of options.

High-Skilled, Green, Small-Scale

A custom-built steel frame is nothing to scoff at. This is the kind of high-skilled, green, small-scale employment which Hamilton needs. From frame repairs and modifications to made-to-measure bikes, this is an industry that prizes individual workers and shops over larger operations, and is capable of reaching the whole range of price brackets.

It would permit a lot of immediate work in important areas like trailers, cargo bikes, tandems, recumbents, hybrid-electric bike-cars (like the Twike) and even tall-bikes. The materials to build even a carbon fiber bike frame in your garage are cheaper than those for many basic auto repairs.

This also provides countless spin-off benefits for everyone from painting shops to component manufacturing.

Whether you're measuring economic or energy efficiency, bicycles simply deliver far more performance per pound. Though they probably won't be the only transportation option in the future, there's little doubt that they'll play a far larger role than they do today. We can get in on this today, or we can let it pass us by.

Retool for the Future

Green jobs are cool and green economies are even cooler - but this is about more than that.

Five years ago, predicting the death of the automobile era was "crazy talk". That was before doom and gloom hit GM, Ford and Toyota in the last two years. Cars have dropped in value like rocks, gas prices have exploded and cycling everywhere is getting renewed attention.

But it's not enough to say "ride a bike". We can be on the cutting edge of this change, or we can be buried beneath it. Hamilton's current industrial base will not survive the end of the automobile era. If you doubt the near-apocalyptic potential of these changes, take a drive down to Detriot, and the Rust Belt towns beyond.

We can rebuild and retool for the future, or we can wait for another hundred stadiums to be built to remediate the decaying brownfields of our former employment lands. Preparing for the future means more than talk - it means building alternatives today. That can mean a volunteer-based bike co-op, or it can mean looking at going into full scale production.

Either way, it can't wait.

Undustrial is a writer, tinkerer, activist and father who lives in Hamilton's North End. He chooses to remain pseudonymous as he frequently works with much of Hamilton's Development industry.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 21:59:36

I'm really enjoying your articles lately, and I have to say this one is my favourite so far. I share your perspective on all things bikes - from the unbeatable price/performance ratio of a quality steel frame to the absurdity of the impractical junk being sold half-assembled and ready to fall apart at large retailers. When I was in my teens I ran a repair shop out of my parents' garage and I couldn't count the bikes that people brought me almost straight from the store, assembled and adjusted just plain wrong.

I believe the times are changing and practical, transportation driven cycling and its requisite products are coming back into style. I remember reading a couple years ago when gas prices were high about bike shops running out of bikes because they couldn't keep up with sales - and it was commuter bikes that were most in demand. I went to a local bike race a couple weeks ago and met someone with a new CCM road bike - a modern, steel frame bike with similar performance to my old school road racer, now in mass production for a few hundred bucks. I don't set foot in box stores, but I'm pretty sure 3 years ago all they were selling were 60lb full suspension bikes and balloon tire retro style cruisers - bikes people buy for style, not necessarily to use.

Obviously people are cluing in like never before to how easy, cheap and practical it is to use a bike as primary transportation. Now I don't know how much 20lb of steel per bike could support an industry previously geared to producing steel for 2000lb cars that everyone had at least one of, but the steel industry is older than mass car ownership. I believe the future of industry in Hamilton is in sustainable energy, advanced manufacturing and still in part steel, because there is no replacement for it. As LRT becomes more widely used, technology more standardized and equipment more mass-produced, and the cost goes down accordingly just like it did with cars, that stands to be our best chance at salvaging and reinvigorating our steel industry. A local bike industry fed by that steel would naturally follow.

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 22:47:21

Really interesting senor Undustrial. I think it would be wonderful to see a proliferation of steel frame bike shops.

The potential is also huge in alternative transportation and Hamilton could be at the forefront. Great proving ground for alt vehicles / ebikes with its extremly challenging mixed terrain. If it can run well in Hamilton it will run well in better than 90% of the planet.

The ideal electric bike requires a purpose built frame and suspension. Something in between a bicycle and motorcycle. There are lots of cobbled up "close but no cigar" "frankenbikes" out there; I know having cobbled a few myself. My pockets are not deep enough nor can I devote in time and energy to develop this and other ripe opportunities. I hope someone does and runs with it though.

You have really helped point out the tremendous opportunities in this market here in Hamilton.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 01:28:16

Making bikes in Hamilton is a terrific idea. I'd even claim that there's huge latent demand for serious urban bicycles. I wonder whether WorkCycles would be interested in setting up a Hamilton operation....

An interesting example might be Portland, which now makes their own streetcars and has several different bike builders.

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By Trapper (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 03:38:43

Excellent article, Don.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 08:46:56

I'm going to stray a bit off topic here but I have a question regarding the boom of biking if people continue to ride on sidewalks. I find this the MOST unsafe practice possible. In the last 2 weeks I've personally witnessed a guy get hit by someone backing out of a driveway and a near miss at an intersection between a vehicle turning right and a cyclist appearing from behind a building. I'm tired of it! I've seen guys on electric cycles blasting down sidewalks only to hop onto the road when there are people there somehow expecting vehicles to anticipate their erratic movements. How many more people have to die like the young man on Upper James a few months ago before people clue in? How can this type of practice be minimized or cut out completely?

I used to own a nice Canadian built hybrid bike and had to sell it at one point. I thought I'd be smart and purchase a cheap bike from Canadian Tire as I don't do too much cycling...BAD idea! POS through and through!

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By kevin (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:26:57

Great piece. I bought a good cruiser at Central Cycle (on King, east of Sherman) a few years ago. It's a small "mom and pop" shop and they sevice bikes at a reasonable rate.

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By Locke (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:37:40

Very cool.... although I do enjoy my alum mtn bike, I'm holding on to my steel hybrid for city riding. Also published today is an article on the 'hybrid wheel' designed to be retrofitted onto your bike to easily turn it into an electric assist vehicle. Add this to the puzzle and I think you'll see far more people willing to get on a bike to run to corner store or to their workplace. http://www.fastcodesign.com/1662213/how-...

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:41:25

frank - For people to cycle on the road, they need to feel safe while doing so. That means wide bike lanes on slower roads, and segregated cycle tracks on faster ones. And intersections that are designed for all users - which may mean painted bike lanes, bike boxes, bike signals, etc.

Basically there won't be much of a bike boom if cycling involves either narrow sidewalks or scary roads. The cities experiencing an increase in cycling as transportation are seeing it thanks primarily to infrastructure investment.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 11:18:40

For a simple electric assist bike, all ya need is a bike with a cog on each side of the back wheel. Thanks to the booming popularity of fixed-gears (with many hubs threaded on both sides). Then a back rack and a motor chained to the left side - even a cordless drill will do, and some way to route the power switch to the handlebars.

Simple, easy, effective. My neighbourhood is already covered with gas and electric hybrid bikes.

I will probably never use one, or advocate them much, though. It's a lot of trouble to accomplish something your legs would do on their own if you let them build up to it. And while I recognize not everyone has the physical ability to run an un-assisted bike, I have to wonder about the number of people who are un-able simply because they choose not to. Muscle atrophies very quickly - ya use it or lose it. And physical inactivity is crippling and killing a lot more people than any disability you can name. I'm not a cyclist because I'm healthy - I'm healthy because I'm a cyclist.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 13:21:00

mdruker I completely agree, but there will be no need to create that infrastructure if they just use the sidewalks...it's a Catch-22. I find it funny that people feel safer biking on the sidewalk if it involves near death experiences (or deadly ones). Driving predictably on a roadway is FAR safer IMO.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 16:09:27

frank - The cities that are building the cycling infrastructure aren't building it for the existing cyclists, but in order to make cyclists out of more of the population. That's also the reason it makes sense to spend infrastructure money on cycling - so that it can make up more than some measly 1% of transportation modal share.

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By VisionChange (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 17:11:55

With current leadership and unfortunately it seems current city staff I can't see how any biking infrastructure will improve at any quicker pace then we've seen in the past.

Remember at the ballot box to vote for a candidate who views biking in a positive manner. Progressive councillors are needed.

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By Quicksilver (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 20:25:55

Last Sunday, I had a group of cyclists (13 - 15) promoting a candidate ride past my house all in the same t-shirts. It got my attention, so maybe there is hope for Hamilton cyclists in the upcoming election.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 20:52:50

There is one argument which will convince people pretty well everyone about bike, bus or rail infrastructure.

Every car we take off the road makes every other car faster, cheaper, and more energy-efficient. Traffic density drops, prices fall. We don't see it, but it's there.

As annoying as it is to have a cyclist zip past you through rush hour gridlock, it's one more car that isn't added to the traffic jam, as with every passenger on a bus.

Comment edited by Undustrial on 2010-09-01 19:53:40

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By Quicksilver (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 20:57:39

I'm the guy zipping past. To all the non-cyclists out there, "Yes, it does feel great" ;).

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By Locke (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 22:14:57

Sure, you can steam-punk modify pretty much any bike... and I can't say I'm very impressed or think we've improved anything when a lawn-mower engine powered bike roars down the street. However, don't knock the power good design can have in changing attitudes. And that means form and function. Part of the appeal of the hybrid wheel is the simplicity of the design; part of it is in the adaptability to most any bike; part of it is in the connection with your smart phone. For some, riding a bike is a step back to the old country or a time when they didn't have the income for a car or they simply view it as beneath them. Not me... but a product that helps make biking or electric-assisted biking sexier to a larger crowd is a good thing.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 02:17:03

I definitely love the Copenhagen Wheel. Will totally blog it within the hour, in fact. It's a beautifully simple and elegant design.

Unfortunately, I feel, as someone who's spent more time riding and working on bikes than I have sleeping, that it goes against everything else I know about bikes. If you're going to spend this kind of money on a bike, go test-ride something like a Specialized Allez first. You'd be surprised how far good design will go. 30kph, almost effortlessly, along city streets, with the ability to nearly stop on a dime. Good design beats the application of mechanical energy any day.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 08:32:07

mdruker, I get that. I'm one of the guys who would be biking if the infrastructure was there. I'm simply saying that as it is, cyclists who use the sidewalks create far more perilous situations that there would be if they used the roadway and I'm sick of motorists getting blamed for hitting cyclists on the sidewalk.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 09:21:50

I don't understand how those chainsaw powered bikes are even out there, or get the logic of using a 1/4hp engine instead of the equivalent 3hp our legs provide. When I was 15 I got arrested for riding a motorbike I made out of a bed frame and some BMX parts. My parents had a fit and fun immediately ceased to be had. Granted mine was actually fast, but I don't know how these technically illegal machines are still riding around.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 10:08:16

Fixies are all well and good for you hardcore guys out there, but us mortals would like to be able to start moving in under 30 seconds on an incline with every driver behind us leaning on his horn and screaming profanities while we struggle to get the damned thing moving.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 10:14:01

'Fixies' are the standard in ultra bike friendly cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Trondheim. There must be something to them.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:13:59

The thing about "fixies" is that it isn't an instant thing. It's like learning to ride a bike all over again, but it does wonders for your leg strength. Even Lance Armstrong rides one in the off-season because it's such good training.

As for the whole hill-climing thing, that's an issue of gearing as much as anything else. My track bike has a 42x16 ratio, which gives it the accelleration (and stopping power) of a jackrabbit. And it climbs mountain accesses almost effortlessly, because as long as you keep the pace up, it pedals with ya. The problems come when people try to be macho and ride a bike that is clearly set up for a velodrome (with very high gearing and no brakes), when they don't have the muscles to use it. Messengers in Winnipeg and track stars on hardwood ride with ratios like 52x12 because THERE ARE NO HILLS, and they've been doing it for years. Go to Vancouver, on the other hand, and you'll see a pile of hipsters trying to be cool and getting themselves seriously injured because they try the same thing in one of Canada's hilliest cities.

There are a hundred ways to build the perfect commuter bike - it's all about individual preference.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:52:12

That lengthy discussion is why I'd rather have my cake and eat it too and get some 19th-century technology onto my bike - a gear-shift. Yes, it costs more, weighs more, and adds maintenance... but I feel much better knowing I'm never going to be stuck trying to dog-leg in front of traffic and barely moving. Unless the chain slips off, of course. Wait, what was I talking about?

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By Quicksilver (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:52:13

@john dalton. Once had a guy pass me on King doing 50 - 60kmh. He was catching traffic.

Recently, I've seen it reported the police catching 2 people on gasoline powered bicycles, so they must now be on the police's radar (pun intended).

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 18:50:15

Gasoline-powered two-stroke engines are without a doubt the coolest looking, sounding, and most steampunk. The problem is, it's also by far the worst idea environmentally. Two stroke engines just don't burn clean.

There's some real safety issues here too. It takes practice and training to get to the point where you can move at 50-60kph on flat ground with a bicycle. But with a motor, that becomes a lot easier for untrained people to do. My roommate has a motorcycle, so I know all the stats. If you live through the first six months of riding, or owning a new unfamiliar bike, you're probably ok. But if anything goes wrong at those speeds, you'll be lucky to be an organ donor. At what point should a hybrid bike rider wear leathers?

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By RedNIc32768 (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2010 at 18:19:32

Great Article ... Modolo (an old brake company) worked something like this. Components where all made in 'home' workshops. One guy made the springs another the caliper arms etc.
It seems sad that with all the idiocy regarding the stadium that the velodrome seems almost forgotten about, and no one is taling about it being permanent thing. It could really cement Hamilton as a cycling destination. Day Rides to Niagara, the perfect terrain, and a velodrome

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By stoett22 (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2012 at 04:00:40

Every industry needs to reinvent itself periodically, and it is good that the auto industry has managed to shift its paradigm and start moving towards green technology.

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