While today’s road bicycle market heavily favors carbon, bike frames can be built using a variety of metals and nonmetals — each with their own set of pros and cons.
What makes one frame material better than another ultimately comes down to budget and your individual needs as a cyclist. It sometimes depends on whether you’re a commuter or a century rider; you like racing or touring.
To help make your choice a little easier, let’s take a look at the major similarities and differences between the four most popular bike frame materials.
If you were into road cycling prior to 1990, chances are you were riding a steel frame. While you won’t see too many frame builders using steel today, it’s still an excellent choice because of its strength and durability. Steel also produces a very comfortable ride quality. In an accident, it bends instead of snaps, and it can be easily repaired.
The downside to all this durability though is an increase in weight. The material is much heavier than carbon or aluminum, which is one of the reasons steel isn’t used in today’s pro peloton. Since most of us aren’t suiting up to race in the Tour de France, it can still be an excellent option for cyclists despite the extra pounds.
Consider purchasing if: You’re a commuter, touring cyclist or weekend warrior who values comfort and durability and wants a bike that will stand up to years and years of abuse.
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From the mid-‘90s to early 2000s, aluminum was the way to go. It’s lighter than steel, and while not quite as durable, it’s easy to repair and should withstand plenty of abuse. When compared to carbon and titanium frames, it’s also an extremely inexpensive option, and because of how responsive the material is, a very nice race bike can be built for half the price.
Where aluminum gets a bad rap is ride quality. While it might’ve been true of early models, today’s aluminum is much better than it was in the late-‘90s. It still might be too stiff and unforgiving for some, advancements in wheel and tire technology should negate most of these complaints.
Consider purchasing if: You’re a racing cyclist on a budget or someone who wants a bike they can use for training or commuting that’s fast, affordable and won’t hold you back.
From the mid-2000s until today, carbon has been choice number 1 for it’s incredibly light weight and the ability to form non-traditional frame shapes that improve aerodynamics. Carbon frames are also extremely stiff, easily transferring the watts you produce efficiently into speed on the road. While not as comfortable as steel, depending on which carbon frame you choose, you can find plenty of bikes that won’t be too brutal on your body over long distances.
For carbon, the negatives come down to price and durability. Compared to aluminum and steel, carbon is a fairly fragile material that has the potential for catastrophic failure should an accident occur. It’s also harder and more expensive to repair and is usually just replaced. While the prices of carbon fiber bikes have dropped considerably in the last decade, it’s still more expensive than aluminum. You should also note that the weight and stiffness of the carbon you purchase can vary — with heavier, more flexible carbon that’s a step down in terms of quality being used on cheaper, entry-level road bikes.
Consider purchasing if: You value aerodynamics and light weight over price and durability.
At first glance, it might seem like titanium is the perfect frame material. It’s just as strong as steel, similar in weight to aluminum and carbon and one of the most durable options you can purchase. It also resists corrosion that’s common with other metals and is a natural at absorbing road shock, which makes it easy to ride over long distances.
While some might say frame stiffness is an issue when it comes to titanium, the real downside is cost. It’s by far the most expensive material of the bunch and not the easiest to work with for builders, requiring special tools and a unique skillset.
Consider purchasing if: You’re a long-distance cyclist who wants a bike that’ll last forever and are lucky enough to have a healthy bike budget.