With a seemingly endless number of bike styles and choices on the market, selecting which type of frame to buy can add significant confusion in the selection process. Each type of material on the market has pros and cons, and the purpose of this article is to highlight the different characteristics of those materials. Strength, stiffness, weight and price are the main features explored here, but riding style and rider weight are also important factors to consider when making a selection.
Covered in this article are the following metals:
- Chromoly Steel
- Carbon Fiber
Chromoly steel is considered the more high-tech version of carbon steel. It’s lighter than carbon steel and equally as strong, but it typically carries a higher price tag. Steel tends to be the least stiff of frames on the market, so despite the weight, when any type of steel frame is built well, it can offer the best combination of responsiveness and flexibility (comfort!) when compared to other high-end materials.
Compared to steel, aluminum is lighter but also stiffer in its design. This stiffness means less shock absorption and can reduce the level of comfort for riders. This material is widely used on both recreational and race bikes today because it has a high amount of strength compared to its weight. With improved manufacturing processes and designs, the traditionally large tube sizes and price tags have come down significantly, so aluminum is a good choice if you’re looking for a light, strong, solid ride.
Backroads Pro Tip
The major downside to aluminum bikes is that they will not stand the test of time as well as steel, so don’t expect any aluminum bicycle to be your only bike for life.
Titanium is the supercharged version of steel, so naturally it comes with a higher price tag. It’s a surprisingly lightweight, exceptionally hard, durable and corrosion-proof material. Although titanium will not ride as flexibly as traditional steel, it will still be more flexible (read: comfortable) than aluminum and carbon fiber frames. The tubing size and load weight on titanium bikes will help determine the amount of give and if the bike is stiff or soft. This material offers excellent shock-absorbing properties and is typically found on high-end road or cross-country mountain bikes. Failure of titanium frames, like most steel, is incredibly rare, so this is a bike that will surely stand the test of time.
Backroads Pro Tip
Titanium is light like aluminum and equally as strong as traditional steel frames, so, if you’re debating between steel and aluminum frames, titanium might just offer the best of both worlds.
Traditionally used in the aerospace industry, carbon fiber is the lightest of all materials used to build bike frames and forks. All carbon begins as fibers woven into sheets. These are then combined with a glue-like resin and the resulting material can be shaped into any desired form. Carbon fiber bike frames vary widely in price, and the cost has much to do with not only the quality but also the complexity of a manufactured frame. (The more complex the frame design, the higher grade of carbon needed to meet a manufacturer’s stiffness, strength and weight goals.) Historically, carbon was criticized because of its failure rate, which is high when compared to steel and aluminum. However, advances in today’s engineering have all but eliminated the reliability issues. Still, this is something to be aware of as frames will wear over time. Carbon fiber can sometimes have a harsh feel on rough roads when compared to steel models. Also, carbon is not nearly as durable as steel. Like aluminum, it’s prone to dings and damage if ridden hard or not cared for properly. Overall, carbon fiber is incredibly stiff, super light and a great choice—if you don’t mind the hefty price tag and wear over time that go along with it.
Backroads Pro Tip
Don’t forget that another option to consider is a mixed-material frame. High-end mixed titanium/carbon/aluminum bikes use carbon or aluminum where it enhances ride or weight savings and titanium where it can enhance durability. These high-end options are a costly proposition, but they could offer exactly what you seek in a bike frame.
In summary, a traditional steel or titanium bike offers a smooth ride on a durable frame that will stand the test of time. Combine that with a good set of tires, and the recreational rider will hardly notice the weight of a steel bike. And the price tag, especially if you’re going with a non-titanium bike, is hard to beat. If you opt for the titanium upgrade, you’ll pay a bit more but the benefits are numerous. If you are a regular serious cyclist looking to shave every ounce, aluminum (if price is a concern) or carbon fiber (if your budget allows for it) should be your choice for your two-wheeled companion. Just be aware of the greater stiffness and relatively less-durability found in these rides.
If you want to compare, go take a test ride and see what feels good. Remember, much of the decision regarding bike frame material comes down to fit, feel and personal preference. Regardless of the bike material you choose, though, the important thing is that you get out there and ride!