While I know that most of us who will come upon this post are in no way experts on the subject, I am hoping to have a bit of a discussion about frame material and its affect or lack thereof on ride quality when it comes to bicycles. Because most of us are not experts (myself included), I don't know that we can put too much stock in the information, but I am interested to know what others have experienced and it's nice to be able to have a chat in a manner that is understandable to more than a few. Often I find myself overwhelmed when I get deep into this topic, but let's give it a try and hope for the best.
To begin, I will offer what has become my understanding of the basic qualities of a few frame materials - but again, I am no expert and only have information that has been shared with me (or that I've experienced myself), so if something seems off, please provide your input below.
- Provides a stiff ride
- Can be made fairly lightweight
- It is strong
- Cost: it is less expensive to produce an aluminium frame making it a more monetarily palatable option
- Moldable material
- Can last longer than some other materials, but can also get stress fractures if over-built or not built properly
- Doesn't rust over time
- Is repairable, but it is more difficult and therefore more expensive than some materials
- Less expensive than steel, carbon, or titanium
- Can be harsher on rough roads
- Stiffer ride than some other materials
- Lightweight material
- It is strong
- Strength and stiffness can vary from one manufacturer to another and depends on the design
- Cost: it is more expensive to produce making it a more expensive alternative (especially for a custom build)
- Highly moldable material - can be made into just about any shape desired
- Doesn't rust as steel will over time
- It is potentially repairable, but it is highly expensive and may end up looking as though it has been repaired
- More expensive option than aluminium or steel
- Offers dampening qualities that aluminium may not provide
- Material quality can vary significantly, creating very different results, and potentially fractures/cracks over time
- May not last as long as steel, aluminium or titanium
- Provides a softer ride due to flex in material (comfortable), but has a "livelier" feel
- Can be heavier or lighter weight, but has been traditionally considered a "heavier" material (this has changed as lighter weight steel has become available)
- It is strong
- Cost: it is a less expensive material
- More durable material over time
- Can rust if not properly cared for
- Is highly repairable, making it one of the easier frames to fix if there is a crack or fracture
- May have too much flex for some riders
- Probably the most economical choice of material overall (because it is less expensive and easier to repair)
- Could potentially last a lifetime
- Stiff, but shock absorbing
- Can be made lighter in weight
- It is strong
- Cost: it is a more expensive material (one of the two most expensive described here)
- Durable material, but it is not unbreakable
- Can corrode
- Is repairable, but like carbon can be extremely expensive
- More expensive option than aluminium or steel - an potentially than carbon, depending on the manufacturer
- Quality of ride can depend on how it was made, weight of rider vs tubing, etc
- Can potentially be smooth, stable, and responsive
- Longevity is probably somewhere between aluminium and steel
Recently, I have come upon some ideas that conclude perhaps frame material has little or nothing to do with the overall ride quality one experiences on a bicycle. That in fact the items that really matter are:
- Tire choice
- Geometry of frame
- Saddle selection
This information was shared by a former frame builder (and a few other places as well) who believes that potentially any of the frame materials mentioned above can feel just the way a rider wants them to feel. That more of the actual ride quality is based on these three components rather than frame material itself.
Of the four materials listed above, I have never ridden titanium, so my experience with it is non-existent. However, I can say that based on my experiences with the other three materials, there may be something to the idea that frame material is of far less consequence than frame geometry, tires and saddle.
I was once under the strong belief that I would never in a million years be able to ride an aluminium bicycle for any kind of distance. I believed that the "rattle-factor" would be too much for my ailments and always chose to skip over this as an option for a road bike. When I obtained an aluminium road bike and was able to ride it on a 100-mile ride, I began to question everything I'd believed to be true in the past. I had owned other aluminium bikes prior to that one and they'd just been far too much for me to deal with. I'd always return home shaken and in pain. Then, when this "miracle" happened, I couldn't quite wrap my head around what exactly had taken place.
A similar, although a bit opposite, experience has happened with steel too. I had always believed that steel would be the smoothest, most comfortable ride possible. Every steel bicycle I have owned, whether heavier or lighter in weight, was the easiest for me to ride without pain. Then, a steel bicycle happened along that left me with some of the most debilitating pain I've experienced from riding a bike. The bike was seemingly the proper size and geometry like all of the others, but somehow, no matter what was done to it, I was left with lingering effects for days. Much like my surprise findings of comfort with the aluminium bicycle, I was perplexed by the harshness of this steel bicycle.
In my experience, I have ridden comfortable, fast, and easy to ride bicycles in aluminium, carbon fiber, and steel, just as I have had the opposite experiences. It causes me a bit of pause when I really stop to think about it, and thus my query to you. I know that there are lovers of all the different materials available, and I'm not trying to convince anyone that material makes absolutely no difference in the feel of a bicycle, but I am curious to know what you think about this idea. What have your experiences been and how have they affected your decisions to date? Have you had any rides that were opposite of your knowledge base?
Edited to add note: If you're looking for a different perspective on a related topic, check out Velovoice's thoughts on geometry, fit and ride quality.