Raw bikes generally don't attract my attention. But this bike is a bit different...
This is an Otso Warakin Stainless gravel bike. The “Stainless” in the name refers to the stainless steel tubes used in its construction. Steel bikes have long been renowned for their durability and ride quality, but the one thing that can force them into an early retirement is rust.
Otso is based in Minnesota, a salt belt state with rough winters that threaten to eat holes in any steel frame. So building a bike out of a more corrosion-resistant material like stainless steel would be a no-brainer, right? But if you go looking for them, you actually won’t find that many stainless steel bikes like this Warakin out there.
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So Where Are All the Stainless Steel Bikes?
The Warakin Stainless was one of the first bikes Otso built when it arrived on the scene in 2016 and it quickly became its most popular offering. It’s more or less your standard gravel adventure bike. The frame can clear 700c x 50mm tires. There are extra mounts for bags, racks, and accessories. The geometry favors stability but can be adjusted with a “Tuning Chip” at the rear axle that changes the chainstay length and bottom bracket height. Then it’s finished off with a lightweight carbon fork from its in-house component brand, Lithic.
Otso is an offshoot of Wolf Tooth, who makes the Tuning Chip and Lithic fork. Wolf Tooth happens to be one of my favorite component brands BTW.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Warakin Stainless. But it stands out because it's made from stainless steel instead of “regular” steel, which is surprisingly uncommon in the bike world.
Our sister site, The Radavist, might be the internet authority on steel bikes. Or at least it posts more about steel bikes than anyone else. Just search “steel” on the Radavist and you’ll find 1,000s of stories, reviews, and news articles featuring steel bikes. Add “stainless” though, and the results shrink into the low-100s, and most of the stories are about components (e.g., stainless steel bottle cages, racks, and hardware) rather than bike frames.
This Cinelli XCr made from Columbus XCr tubing is one of only a few stainless steel bikes/frames I've seen in person over the years.
Hundreds of bikes come through TPC every week, but I can probably count the number of stainless steel bikes I've seen in my time here on two hands. This Otso Warakin Stainless is the third one I’ve seen. There have been a couple of Cinelli XCr's. I’ve also seen an old stainless steel Salsa Vaya and an Alchemy MS2 too. There have likely been a few more, but the fact that I struggle to remember any others is telling. It just isn't something you see that often. But maybe that's what makes it cool.
Building a Stainless Steel Bike Is Hard
Building a stainless steel frame is a bit more complicated than building with traditional steel. Because it's so strong, builders need a very good milling machine with plenty of fancy and expensive cutters to adequately prepare joints for welding. Contamination is also a greater concern so the tubes need to be kept very clean before welding to maintain a good finish, which adds extra hassle.
Stainless steel is also less forgiving to weld. Stainless steel tubes are super thin, which adds to the difficulty, and excessive heat will affect the tube's strength, finish, and anti-corrosive properties.
Way back in 2011, Alchemy built its MS2 frames using KVA stainless steel tubing. The sales manager at the time, Dave Ryther, told Road Bike Action Magazine: “[Stainless Steel is] the hardest metal we work with, literally and figuratively. It dulls, breaks, and shatters cutting tools constantly, and it’s very difficult to weld. The assembly process of stainless is tortuous.”
Some builders like David Kirk of Kirk Frameworks get around these headaches by brazing stainless steel frames instead of TIG welding. But this is also more complicated than brazing normal steel because bronze, the material traditionally used for brazing, has a melting temperature that is too high for stainless steel. Builders need to use silver instead, which has a lower melting point. The finished product has the same qualities as bronze, but the main downside is that silver costs more than bronze.
The Matter of Cost
Complete Warakin Stainless builds start at $3,550.00. It's definitely a better deal as a complete rather than a frame.
This leads us to the big reason stainless steel frames haven’t completely usurped regular steel: price. Stainless steel tubes are already more expensive, and more involved labor means higher costs.
If we compare just the frames, the Otso Warakin Stainless frame, which is built in Taiwan, currently retails for $2,200. That’s pretty expensive for a production steel frame and it’s close to the cost of a basic titanium gravel frame from Lynskey or Litespeed, which are both made in the USA. It's the same story when looking at boutique frames, with boutique stainless frames often matching or sometimes exceeding the price of titanium options.
Stainless steel is quite similar to titanium in terms of the tooling, labor, and skill required, so stainless steel frames can't really beat titanium when it comes to value. They have trouble beating titanium when it comes to weight too. So if the price is similar, would you choose stainless steel over titanium?
The Bright Side of Stainless
Renowned frame builder, Jay Sycip, who built stainless steel frames for Chris King’s Cielo brand explained, “The ride quality of stainless can be a little crisper compared to a normal steel frame, but fairly similar to a frame built with a very high-end steel tube set.”
For some, the major selling point of stainless steel is that you get durability on par with or exceeding titanium, without losing the distinctive ride quality of high-end steel.
You’ve heard “steel is real,” right? For some, nothing compares to the springy compliant feel of a high-quality steel frame. Of course, ride feel is largely influenced by the tube selection, thickness, and butting, and the overall design of the frame. But because stainless steel tubes are strong enough to be made with super thin walls, their ride quality is often comparable to the very best steel frames.
The Warakin Stainless seems to prove this. It hides its weight well (this medium is ~20lbs), and when you get on the power it feels lively and responsive. At the same time, the rear end is decently compliant over bumps and chatter. It’s not the snappiest or plushest feeling steel bike I’ve tried (my favorite is Speedvagen) but it’s definitely up there. And unlike with a “normal” steel bike, I definitely wouldn’t feel bad about leaving it outside or riding it down a salted road in the winter.
Some Minnesota riding weather. Photo: Otso
In terms of strength and longevity, the stainless steel tubes designed for bike frames can compete with titanium tubes. Along with the strength, you get excellent corrosion resistance, so stainless steel frames will be lower maintenance and don’t require paint or rust inhibitors like carbon steel frames to stay rust free.
The stainless steel used for the Warakin is similar to Reynolds 921 stainless steel which is 21% Chromium, 6% Nickel, and 9% Manganese. In the aviation industry, it’s called “21-6-9” and it is used extensively for highly stressed hydraulic lines and other aircraft components. It also sees a lot of use in the marine and oil and gas industries because of its high resistance to corrosion. It’s a material that has been proven to stand up to serious abuse.
The Otso Warakin Stainless Has a Unique Appeal
The Otso Warakin is also available in a titanium version which retails for $750 more than the stainless version. But of the two, the Warakin Stainless is probably the bike I’d choose.
A bike like the Warakin Stainless attracts a very particular and utilitarian customer. This rider isn’t looking for a blingy featherweight racer. They need a do-it-all adventurer that can comfortably conquer their daily commute, explore rough roads and singletrack trails, take on multi-day bikepacking trips, and then maybe occasionally race too.
Cyclists who indulge in this type of riding generally want something indestructible and low maintenance. Sure, titanium fits the bill, but it might feel a bit too pretentious for a bike that is meant to be used as a workhorse. Stainless steel, in my opinion, suits the rough utilitarian attitude of the Warakin a bit better.
Whether you agree with that or not, I think the Warakin Stainless is pretty neat. The fact that it’s built out of a material that is uncommon in the world of framebuilding just makes it feel unique and special. I picked it out to photograph because the material made it stand out from the bike next to it. You can immediately tell that it's different from all the other bikes, and sometimes, it’s cool to be different.
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