Carbon fiber has become the most common material to make bikes out of and, due to its increased affordability, this trend doesn't look to be changing. But is the marketing hype true? Is carbon the best frame building material?
There are many experienced and knowledgeable cyclists out there who won't touch carbon fiber. In honor of these cyclists we've brought forward some other high end materials to offer an alternative. Not many of you would have considered titanium or steel simply because these materials aren't rammed in your face like carbon and aluminium are!
When you shop for a new bike why not spend a day checking out everything but carbon. Forget the marketing and "that's what everyone else rides" and make a considered choice as to which bike material suits you.
Steel and titanium ain't going nowhere...get used to it!
Designed to be super lightweight, carbon fiber is a popular choice in the cycling industry. Made of various layers of carbon and a bonding resin, carbon fiber is capable of maintaining incredible strength while remaining super thin in cross-section. This results in a material that can be shaped like no other, and manufactured to flex in certain ways, while not in others.
The downside of carbon is its susceptibility to damage, either through a moderate impact or even excessive flexing. Age is another contributing factor that can take its toll on carbon fiber. A 15 year old carbon frame will be more likely to crack than any other material. Leverage stress can also damage carbon such as overloading a pannier rack when you go touring.
- Light weight
- Easily shaped and moulded
- Easily manipulated to change frame dynamics (stiffness, flex, vertical compliance)
- Cheap carbon can equal an ordinary ride
- Prone to damage from impact/fatigue
- Long term performance
TIP: If you are a heavy or aggressive rider it may be sensible to avoid carbon in the critical areas of your cockpit. Items such as handlebars, stems and seatposts should be alloy for peace of mind. Each to their own...
The stuff real bikes are made of. Or should we say, WERE made of! Steel has made a comeback, and is being featured on more bikes every year. The main attraction to steel is its visual appeal as well as the ride characteristics it offers. A comfortable amount of shock absorption through the tubing means you'll be riding very comfortably for hundreds of miles! Steel is quite popular with touring bike manufacturers due to this shock absorbing ability, as well as a positively 'rebounding' amount of flex. That is, when a steel frame flexes one way, it tends to whip back rapidly - a characteristic that sprinters from past eras truly loved!
The downside of steel is its weight, and not much can be done about that. If a rider is looking for a performance bike, steel is usually out of question due to the weight of the material. Steel tubing can be butted, and made thinner; however it will always retain a substantial weight.
- Nothing rides quite like steel
- Strength and durability
- It may rust but it will still last forever
- Perfect to load up with cargo when trekking or commuting
- Lightweight and steel = money (and it still won't be as light as good carbon)
- Get used to narrow straight tubes!
The stuff dreams are made of - expensive dreams. Titanium retains many of the positive qualities of steel while getting rid of the excessive weight! Titanium frames are becoming increasingly popular in the custom bike manufacturing market, especially for riders who are exceptionally tall. The reason for this? Having a larger frame results in increased flex in most materials, except titanium. A large frame made from titanium will return very similar lateral stiffness readings to that of a much smaller titanium frame. In addition to this, titanium is a comfortable material to ride on, offering plenty of vibration damping and vertical compliance.
The downside of titanium is its inherent cost, and the specialty skills required to repair it. A titanium bike tends to be a long-term investment, custom made to suit the rider's needs, and ridden until the bike is passed down to someone else. This material is reasonably pricey, and doesn't come in affordable versions like carbon fiber or steel.
- The bike connoisseur's material of choice
- Superb ride dynamics (compliant/stiff)
- If steel lasts forever, titanium last forever AND ever
- Expensive, and there are no cheap options
- Still won't be as light as good carbon
- It won't break, but if it does it requires specialty skills and equipment to repair
At the end of the day it's important to consider the material your new bike is made of. We haven't bothered with alloy but you can read more about it in "Frame Materials and What to Buy". What we want to point out is that when shopping for a performance bike you will inevitably be steered towards carbon fiber. But what if you intend to keep the bike for 20 years? Or have zero interest in racing but like doing 200 mile rides? Carbon could be a very bad choice in these situations.
Instead of buying yet another carbon fiber bike, why not consider the ride quality and pleasures associated with a real bike. A steel or titanium bike that puts a smile on your face, not a small number on your scales. You'll no doubt become truly attached to the bike, replacing components over the years, instead of the whole bike. Give it a go, you might never look back!