The Man of Steel: Ave Maldea works on a magic
Text by Alfred Arreza
“Steel is real.” a phrase cyclists use to explain the rationale for being smitten by one of the oldest bicycle frame material known to man; good old plain steel. But what is the deal with steel anyhow? Why would anyone in this age of high performance bikes built using high end carbon fiber still be attracted to a frame material that last saw the top of the Tour de France podium way back in 1994?
Performance outweighs just about anything else in cycling. The top brands have fitted their professional teams with the very best their companies have to offer, all in the hope of victory in the pro peloton. A winning bike is a profitable bike, and with the realization of lighter and presumably better frame materials, steel has been replaced as the usual material. That’s progress, plain and simple. But why is there still a demand for steel framed bikes?
For the men who choose steel
For cyclists who wish to acquire a frame made from the same material that saw the likes of Anquetil, Merckx and Moser soar to legendary status in the pantheon of cycling, they go to one man. Bikers in the know say, if you want steel, you go to Avelino “Ave” Maldea.
Ave is the most widely-known frame builder in the Philippines. His shop is located in the municipality of Cainta in the province of Rizal, an hour’s drive away from Manila. The 49-year-old has been building custom frames and forks for about 25 years, at trade he learned 25 years ago from a backyard builder in Pasig. “Doon kasi sa tinutuluyan ko sa Pasig sa mga tiyahin ko, may gawaan katulad nito. Wala silang katulong, kaya nag-apprentice muna ‘ko. Sa kalaunan, natuto na ako gumawa.”
To ask Ave Maldea to build you a custom frame, you get two options for materials; high tensile steel or chromoly. “Mas madaling gawin yung Hi-ten pero mababagang klase kasi, medyo mabigat. Yung chromoly medyo mahirap gawin, maganda pero mahal.”
High tensile steel is cheap and easy to build but quite heavy and generally is of lower quality. Durability is also an issue for this material since it’s just plain steel tubes. Chromoly, on the other hand is an alloy of higher strength, durability and lower weight compared to high tensile steel. It is more expensive but has better ride qualities. For most cyclists who want custom steel frames, chromoly is the way to go. It appeals aesthetically too — when adorned with designed lugs, a custom frame made from chromoly steel looks absolutely stunning.
When asked if he ever tried building bikes from frame aluminum or titanium, Ave had this to say.“Sa aluminum wala akong balak. Kasi karamihan nasisira, baka mamaya balik-ng-balik. Sakit ng ulo. Sa titanium naman masyadong expensive…. hangga’t marami akong ginagawang hi-ten at chromoly hindi ako magshi-shift sa titanium.”
Frame building bordering on artistry
A bicycle frame in its construction is an expression of the designer’s creativity, style and emotion. He puts his effort into the design and build that one could argue that a part of the designer stays on the finished product, a sort of signature that cannot be seen, only felt. For Ave’s creations, his attention to detail is what makes his frames rather special.
In his mind, all his creations are his masterpieces. And it shows in the level of satisfaction of his customers. Were his work be inconsistent and substandard, word-of-mouth among cyclists would ruin him. But in his case, recommendations only strengthen his reputation as the leading frame builder in the country.
A single frame takes eight hours to build, but due to the sheer number of orders he receives, customers would have to wait up to four months before their frames could be ready for pick-up. This is quite a lead time. With most bike manufacturers outsourcing their builds to big factories in Taiwan, the turnaround for bikes dwarfs that of Ave Maldea’s. The difference is so big that four months would feel like an eternity. But for his customers, the wait is truly worth it.
Custom frame building however is not a growing profession. In fact the number of frame builders in the country has decreased over the years, and now only a handful of builders are known to still be active in the trade. And Ave is aware of this, and in keeping with the times of the business, he has two apprentices. He insists that frame building for him is a family business, which is why his two apprentices are his nephew and his brother. But he stops short of calling it as ‘just’ business. “Hindi kasi talaga to totally negosyo, kasi kung ako talaga magnenegosyo kukuha ako ng mga builder. Para ma-accommodate naming lahat ng orders, pero hindi kami ganon. Negosyo tapos passion. magkasama sila siyempre.” About the future of the Ave Maldea brand of custom frames and forks, he firmly believes that the continuation of the business rests in the hands of his apprentices.
Time has proven that steel is reliable, a material that you can trust. Carbon fiber may be the material of the future, but what steel lacks in performance, it makes up for in durability.
In an era of performance bikes, custom steel frames still have its appeal to modern cyclists. In a race, performance is everything. The tiny bit of advantage could be the difference between winning and losing. But life is not a race; it’s a ride. A ride that may be taken at race-like speeds or at a leisurely pace, the choice is up to who spins the pedals.
Custom steel frames don’t promise to make you go faster, but what it does promise you is the possibility of having a bike that more than an extension, but more like a part of you. When one finds himself in need of a custom frame, remember that there is such a shop in Cainta that does just that. If you want steel, you go to Ave Maldea.