As carbon frames have become more accessible and cheaper to mass produce, the once-ubiquitous presence of steel bikes in racing has seemingly faded into nonexistence. However, the Pratt Frameworks and LA Sweat partnership prove that steel’s comfort and custom fit represent a rare opportunity to blend performance with purpose.
If ever there was a team that could be described as “alt” in the context of crit racing, it would be LA Sweat. As much a tool for women’s empowerment and shifting the culture toward inclusion, it’s also a team that doesn’t shy away from doing things a bit unconventionally.
So it was a natural fit when LA Sweat paired up with Max Pratt in 2019. The Rhode Island-based designer is hyperfocused on building world-class steel frames — and opportunities for a diverse cross-section of otherwise marginalized racers. Together, they’ve added a much-needed element of craft, artistry, and intention to the largely uninspired landscape of production bikes in the current criterium racing scene.
In short: This pure-bred road race bike, in one word — fast. Combined with steel’s ride quality, the bike possesses characteristics unmatched by the hordes of carbon competitors. And Pratt Frameworks bike has something most don’t — a meaningful relationship with a women’s racing team.
When I unboxed the bike, I was immediately struck by the frame’s distinct tubing. Aside from the pencil-thin stays (only 0.45mm thick!), the top tube is uniquely ovular. By shaping some of the tubes in-house, Pratt Frameworks has much more control over which specific zones in the frame are compliant. In the case of the oval top tube, it creates a vertically compliant front end without compromising torsional strength elsewhere.
Once I removed the protective styrofoam and bubble wrap and assembled the bike, I noticed the bike’s weight, or rather, its remarkable lack thereof. Tipping the scale right at 18 pounds without pedals, it fits squarely in the featherweight class of bikes. In some cases, the Pratt frame is a mere few hundred grams more than a carbon frame, which is pretty wild when you consider that it’s metal. Steel tubing has advanced remarkably since the days of your dad’s clunky chromoly 10-speed.
Beyond that, I would be remiss not to mention the crucial role of wheels and components in creating a high-performance bike. Adorning the svelte frame are rock-solid carbon Hunt wheels (54 Aerodynamicist Disc), a super-rigid carbon ENVE fork, carbon Zipp bars and stem (SL-70 and SL Sprint), and an SRAM Force AXS E-tap groupset. With all their powers combined, the frame and components made for a seriously fast and equally handsome bike.
Pratt Frameworks Ride Feel
Admittedly, I am not much of a racer. But I love a fast, responsive ride, and the other bikes in my quiver are carbon and titanium. So when I was asked to test this one, I quickly raised my hand. The world of steel bikes is flush with clichés about their mystical ride quality. But it’s also true that if you don’t feel quite right on a bike, you’re less likely to ride it. Simple as that.
So, how did that translate into a more aggressive geometry built for racing?
I expected a bike engineered for speed. What I didn’t expect was how relatively comfortable it felt for a race bike. The longer-than-I’m-used-to 120mm stem had me stretched out more than I prefer. But it’s a bike meant to transfer power into the pedals by keeping a more aero position and legs out in front of the cranks.
Braced for harsh ride quality, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I stayed pretty relaxed during a 40-mile ride. Pratt welds the frames using a mix of Columbus (typically SL or Spirit), Japanese Tange, and 4340 chromoly steel, and prefers tubes that allow for a very stiff drivetrain while maintaining all-day comfort in the saddle.
Riders should not ignore that element of comfort, even in the context of racing. Recent evidence and research suggest performance gains due to a more comfortable ride, where steel compliance shines. If I’m being honest, my eyes often glaze over when I read about the superior compliance of steel bikes. I understand conceptually what that means in terms of “desirable flex,” but it’s hard to extract and comprehend tangibly.
However, the word “supple” resonated more clearly despite generally being used to describe tires. It’s also a word I thought about often while riding this bike. After several rides, my body (especially my contact points — hands, feet, sit bones, etc.) detected suppleness where I wanted relief. Subtle, yes. But noticeable, especially compared to a carbon frame.
The Pratt Frameworks bike also possessed an undeniable snappiness, like it wanted to move seemingly of its own accord. Pratt optimizes the frame to be especially stiff around the drivetrain. The energy transfer was crisp and direct, leaving absolutely nothing to waste.
On the topic of optimization, it’s an obvious statement but one that bears repeating — a custom bike is custom-built. Being able to fine-tune every aspect of a bike, down to its personality, is a massive advantage for any rider but arguably even more so for racers whose needs extend beyond brute speed. Criterium racers, for example, are constantly making tight turns, and having a bike crafted with that in mind is beneficial.
Beyond the Podium
A maelstrom of supply chain issues hampered the cycling industry in the last couple of years. It feels like we don’t have quite as much of a choice as we used to. These days, a bike part simply being in stock is reason enough to buy it, often without hesitation. As a result, you could argue that the disconnect between brands and cyclists has grown.
Riding this bike, however, and knowing that a professional race team made the conscious decision to collaborate with a person instead of a major manufacturer, has reminded me how important it is to create relationships with actual industry members. It’s a belief that the LA Sweat team modeled brilliantly.
Are custom hand-built steel bikes for everyone? Definitely not. But for cyclists who care about fostering a more meaningful connection with their bike and all the experiences it enables, supporting small producers like Pratt Frameworks is a powerful way to take back some of that control. And, in this case, without sacrificing any bit of performance.