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Reynolds 531 Tubing - the Cycle Tourists Friend

This article was written about 15 years ago and inevitably it has become a little out of date. It's still interesting and I hope you find it a good read, but 531 is now almost completely dead due to its unsuitability for TIG welding, and the fact most of the world's cycle frames are now made in the far east. In the case of our own holiday hire bikes, we've been forced to move to a Reynolds 520 butted Chro-mo frameset - yes TIG welded - and to be honest they seem to be as good as, and lighter than the old lugged 531 ST sets we used in the past - for info see our equipment page, and for what they are capable of see our Pyrenees charity ride report. IMHO Steel is still the best material for a touring bike - see also my article on that subject!
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Generally speaking the touring cyclist is poorly served compared to the racing or mountainbiker, often having to make do with strange mixes of groupsets in order to get what they want. But if you go to a cycletourist meet, or meet other cyclists at a campsite you will find certain items of equipment that come up again and again. These are things that have stood the test of time, and by word of mouth have become a regular port of call for those looking to go cycletouring. In this series I shall be looking at these "classics", one each month, and try to explain what makes them special.

The Reynolds 531st tubeset.

It is a clichι to say that the heart of a bike is its frame, but it is true nevertheless. The problem is that whilst the rest of the cycling world have every shape size and weight of tubing possible the poor old tourist is left to make do. Ah but there's always the old faithful Reynolds 531ST. And wait for it... that 'ST' stands for - "Super Tourist". That makes it the only widely available, quality tubeset on the market specifically designed for touring. So what makes it "specially for touring"?

531 is a seamless tubing made of Manganese Molybdenum, better than standard Cro-Mo, but time has caught up with it a little as the top tubes from Columbus and Reynolds have a higher UTS (ultimate tensile strength). Most critically it doesn't react well to the higher temperatures generated by TIG and MIG welding, and as these have become the standard for most quality mass-produced frames 531 has increasingly been sidelined.

531 tubing in various forms has been around in for over 50 years now. It was originally used in aircraft construction, then racing cars, motorbikes and most importantly for cycles. In that time it's notched up more Tour de France wins than any other tubeset (27). Originally plain gauge, it has over the years been available as taper gauged tube, butted, oversized, undersized, wafer thin, ovalized and even larger diameter in the centre of the tube than the ends used by the master builder Horace Bates in his 'Cantiflex' frames. Perhaps the weirdest incarnation was the "Curly Stays" fitted to Hetchins and now some Bob Jackson cycles. No other manufacturer of cycletubing offered this kind of range and flexibility (and probably will never do so again) so 531 became THE tubing for custom build frames as its availablity in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes so the custom builder can pick and mix to suit the rider and purpose..

It can also be cold set (bent about) unlike top tubing like Reynolds 753, which means that if you want to widen the rear width years after the frame is made there is no problem, and no fancy construction techniques are needed to build or repair it beyond the limit on brazing temperature. The relatively low UTS compared with the newer tubes isn't really a problem as the gauges need for touring are too thick to ever break even on a loaded bike, it only becomes a factor when the tube is drawn wafer thin then used by heavy riders, as in the past with 531 Professional.

The standard 531 set is the 531c racing tubeset which makes for a frame around 4 1/4lbs. This builds up into a fine responsive frame ideally suited to road racing, but lacking a little stiffness in the bottom bracket area. For smaller frame/riders it also make a nice touring frame, but it really has too much flex to be good for someone carrying full cyclecamping loads on a larger frame. To solve this weakness 531 st has a heavier gauge down tube which resists the flexing which causes the dreaded speed wobbles on a loaded tourer. It also has beefier stays for the loads imposed by cantilever brakes. The taper gauge forks are of a flattened oval profile to give clearance for wider tyres without using wide fork crowns, and that's it...

Built up, the frame will be stiff enough to carry you and your camping kit but give a lovely shock absorbing ride, and if you need a very large frame it can be further stiffened by using an oversized top tube. Have it built by a good custom builder and it will be made just for you, and last a lifetime.

THE FUTURE:- I have just ordered a new bike from Bob Jackson Cycles, and in discussing tube types with the manager Donald Thomas I was stunned to hear that there are moves afoot to stop production of 531 cycle tubes. Reynolds replacements will all be racing tubesets, once again the tourist will be out in the cold. To quote Mr Thomas, these road tubes - larger diameter tubing, short butts for TIG welding etc, will "really punish tourists on a long ride". Following this lead I contacted Keith Noronha at Reynolds and got the following comments

" Please note that we DO still offer in our literature a recommended combination ( containing the longer butt lengths, forks etc) of 531/525 butted tubes with a 531decal and "SUPER TOURIST" specific decal, this set is significantly different to our recommended 531/525 "Competition"set. The " Tourist " is certainly not ignored in our thinking "

So things are not quite as bad as they seem. One very good piece of news is that Reynolds are now offering 853 tubing in guages suitable for extended touring. This is the strongest steel cycletubing in the world - thanks Reynolds...!

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