Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Aluminium, Carbon, Steel, Titanium: Does Bicycle Frame Material Matter?

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.
I have read up and spoke to a variety of individuals on this topic over the years and I thought I had a clear grasp on the subject, but after reading some forum posts recently (which I do realize can only be taken with a grain of salt) and having some personal experiences of my own, I am a bit perplexed. So, I am hoping that if this subject is of importance or interest to someone else or if there is a person who does have experience with one or more of the frame materials you will chime in and offer up your thoughts or potentially your expertise on the matter.

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.

Aluminium:
- 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

Carbon Fiber:
- 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

Steel:
- 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

Titanium:
- 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.

14 comments:

  1. I am no expert either, and I have far less experience of different bicycles than you do. I must say I prefer the 'feel' of my steel Pashley to the feel of the aluminium/carbon fork Giant I use for fitness and exercise. It just feels like a smoother ride ... it rolls over bumps and potholes and I feel them less than I do on the alu/carbon bike. It may be the geometry ... I just don't know. I do dream of owning a steel long-distance/tourer bike one day ... A Rivendell, Seven or Soma bike that fits me (I am only 153 cm tall) and that I can tour the UK with. Somehow, an aluminium or carbon bike just doesn't have the same allure for me at this point in time.

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    1. I wonder if it's the weightiness/solidness of the Pashley that helps with the comfort, or if it is actually the steel material? In the past I would've said that it definitely must be the material, but I'm starting to wonder if the weight of the materials is a bigger factor than I've thought prior. I'm just kind of pondering aloud (or typing, I suppose) as I'm curious if you had a Pashley made of a lighter weight steel or aluminium... or if you had a Giant that was made of steel if it would have the same effect on you/comfort while riding. Of course, that doesn't exist, but it would be interesting to be able to compare side-by-side the same bike in a different material.

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  2. I have always avoided other materials than steel because everything else (except maybe some aluminum frames) is really ugly in my opinion.
    Unless you are a racer i don't see any purpose of having a bike made of titanium, aluminum or carbon. The only "disadvantage" of steel is it's weight but if you're not racing anyway, what is the purpose of saving 2 pounds? Out of curiosity, i would of course ride any good bike made of whatever material, just to see how it performs (even bamboo!).
    You are also mentionning flex as a possible negative attribute of steel. I am really no expert but i have the feeling that frame flex can be controlled by adjusting the frame geometry and the choice of the tubing. Plus, as you are saying, the feeling of stiffness or flex are often felt through the type of tire, tire inflation and of course the spoke tension of the wheel. To make a really objective comparison, i guess you would have to exchange all components between the tested frames and that is often no possible. I believe that a well made steel frame with a geometry suited to the ride, with the right choice of tubing, will outperform any other material for the non-professional rider. But lacking experience riding other materials, i can not know it for sure, i just count the advantges vs. disadvantages of each material and the winner is always obvious: Steel.


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    1. I don't necessarily think flex is a negative attribute, so if it sounded that way, that was not my intention. I think part of the benefit of flex is that it makes for a more comfortable ride - at least generally speaking. Not being a racer, I've always assumed that steel is perfectly fine for my needs. Of course, that doesn't mean that another material couldn't work, but it's interesting to have had an experience on a steel bicycle that did not line up with past experiences. It caused me to question material more and to wonder if it was steel that I'd enjoyed in the past, or simply that the geometry of other bicycles had worked better for me. As you've said, I think in order for it to be completely objective, everything would have to be exactly the same except to change the frame material... and I suppose that isn't very likely to happen. :O)

      Ultimately, I think any material that gets a person excited about being out on a bike is a great thing.

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  3. I, Like many others, had always assumed that steel provided the best ride. After recent discoveries, I don't believe the material really matters as much as the fit/geo. I think all of the attributes come through, regardless to some extent. My personal columbus steel frame pushes an ample amount of road vibration to my hands, however, it does not "buzz". I think a lightweight steel frame can rattle you just as much as Aluminum, depending upon the geometry, and build.

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    1. I think geometry is indeed the key in all of this. I do wish that it were possible to snap my fingers and have an exact duplicate in another material - just to be able to test the theory.

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  4. The Moots folk claim that Ti has a longer lifetime than steel but I guess they almost have to say that. http://moots.com/wp-content/uploads/MOOTS-199_WhyTi.pdf What about mixed bike construction? My Al bike has a carbon fork, seatpost, and seatstay, all put there for shock absorption. And you almost always see a Moots Ti bike with a carbon fork. But in the end, I agree that fit is much more important than the metallurgy (or lack thereof).

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    1. I wonder if that's true, Peter? Perhaps it's Moots particular blend for Ti?

      I cannot imagine riding an aluminium bike without a carbon fork, honestly... but that could just be me because of my personal injuries. Those I've known with alu bikes that had an aluminium fork seemed to find themselves in a lot of pain. I know that they were made for a number of years, but I think adding carbon forks to aluminum frames was a great solution.

      Anymore, it seems that many bikes have crossed over into using bits from different materials. We find steel, titanium, and aluminium bikes with carbon forks, steel frames with carbon chain and/or seat stays, and so on. Perhaps a mix of materials provides the answers?

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  5. I have ridden steel and aluminum. Thousands of miles on each.

    I agree that tires can go along way to counter some of the harsh effects of a stiff aluminum frame. But I will also note that many aluminum frames are harsh because the designers of aluminum bikes typically use "oversize" tubing. That is, larger diameter tubing, which makes for more stiffness in the frame - especialy in certain directions. The steel bikes I've risen have had conventional size tubing, or slightly larger, "ovalized" tubing in the case of one steel-framed road bike. The steel bikes all rode smoother than the aluminum. However, some steel bikes I've seen have large, ovalized tubing (to save weight), and I suspect they can get pretty stiff (like aluminum) with some of the higher end steel tubing that is used on more expensive bikes.

    I trust the safety of steel more than aluminum, as steel twists and bends under duress, and aluminum can fracture - that is break in two - causing catastrophic failure of the frame. I've seen aluminum frames broken in two, where they fractured at the point the down tube attaches to the head tube. Very scary.

    Both aluminum and steel bikes I've owned have suffered from some flex in the bottom bracket. I'm a big guy and I can flex most bottom brackets when I pedal hard. That is, my pedal strokes cause the crank to twist the bottom bracket tubing at the base of the frame. In extreme cases, I can get the chain rubbing on the front derailleur with each down pedal stroke on the right side - as the twist of the crank causes the chainring to tilt over. Stiffness in the bottom bracket area is good in my mind and helps alleviate this issue.

    I've never ridden titanium or carbon fiber, but low weight is not important to me. I ride for exercise and pushing another couple pounds up a hill just gives me more of a workout. Plus, I have a comfortable, oversized Brooks saddle installed, along with a rack and panniers - so the weight of my bike is already pretty heavy.

    Finally, even though steel bikes are purported to rust, I've found that in practice, they seem to do pretty well. There are a lot of 50+ year old steel bikes out there still kicking around.

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    1. I think that unless one leaves his/her steel bike sitting out in rain constantly and never bothers to clean it off, there's no reason steel cannot last for many years. These days, it seems that a lot of manufacturers of steel frames are doing a coating to help alleviate the possibility of rusting as well.

      When I had my aluminium road bike, I switched out to a softer tire in an effort to help soften the ride a bit. I actually liked the fact that the bike was stiffer because it allowed me to feel faster - even if I wasn't necessarily actually speedier - but I think that it also caused me to feel more vibrations through my hands. When I put a slightly softer tire on the bike, it did seem to change things a bit, but it wasn't enough to complete alleviate the sensations/pain I experienced. The geometry of that bike seemed really close to right for me though, and I think it is what allowed me to continue riding it, despite some of the pain I experienced.

      I agree with you that the possibility of breaking aluminium is a little scary to me. I have far more trust in steel than any other material... but, again, I haven't ever owned a titanium bike frame, so I can't speak to that material with any kind of personal experience.

      I fear carbon a bit as well. I know that it's not a life-long material (although that seems to be changing a bit too as time moves forward). It seems more practical for those who want higher speeds and intend to replace the frame every several years (maybe 5-10, depending on how many miles and how harsh the rider is on the bike?).

      For me personally, I've generally enjoyed my steel bikes more, but I've found my ability for speed and distance to be increased on aluminium or carbon to date. Given, I obviously haven't ridden every bike on the market or experienced all the different possibilities available, but it's interesting to try to figure out what makes one feel so much different than another.

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  6. I'm reading all of these great thoughts in the middle of a swampy mess with little coverage, but I promise I will respond when I'm back to civilization and better coverage after the weekend.

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  7. Interesting you are mulling these points over... I have been too. It has occurred to me that I may have done just as well having a new custom bike (that fit) made of steel as I have with a titanium one. I wouldn't change a thing and have no regrets, but I do wonder if it's mostly done to fit. But if I'd gone with steel and it hadn't all worked out so well, would I have had regrets, wished I'd coughed up the extra money for titanium? Meanwhile, the cushiest/floatest ride I have in my stable is the Cross Check with its 32mm tyres while everything else has 28mm. Sure, it's as heavy as a tank and the long reach makes my neck ache after 20 miles. But the ride quality is superb. So, I'm aiming to fit as fat tyres as the Enigma will take -- probably 32s -- though I'd even consider taking the mudguards (fenders) off to try 35s.

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    1. I agree with your thought to go to wider tires. Tires are a very interesting topic in their own right. As is mentioned above, the right tire can make a stiff, efficient frame (e.g., aluminum) something enjoyable to ride.

      We are currently riding Schwalbe Fat Franks on our steel-framed city bikes, which are 2.35 inches wide, or about 60 mm. Just a few years ago, I would have considered riding on such a wide tire an outrage. Now that we've been doing it for a year, I could not image going back to "skinny" tires. Interestingly, even the Tour de France riders are racing on relatively wider tires today compared to what they rode even 10 years ago.

      If a cyclist is not racing and is instead riding in urban conditions (broken pavement, trolly tracks, etc.), I think 38 mm or 1.5 inch tires would be a good minimum width. Admittedly, most long time cyclists are not ready to accept tires this wide, however. When you get into the 38 - 60 mm range, you will have considerations such as fitting fenders and clearance for brakes.

      I find that with going to the wider tires, you gain comfort and the ability to stay seated and keep pedaling over the rough stuff. That said, you will suffer from increased rolling resistance. I don't care so much about speed, so it is an acceptable trade-off in my book.

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    2. Rebecca,

      I have a friend locally who has never had a steel bike, but purchased a titanium one (not custom) because she was curious to see what all the fuss was about. She's had a lot of difficulty trying to get it to a place that is comfortable for her, and I think she's wondering herself if going custom may have been a better route than opting for titanium simply because it seemed like the the material to get.

      I really do think wider tires can create a plusher or more comfortable ride, as Augsburg points out above. I think the challenge on many road bikes of late is having the ability to fit anything above a 25, or possibly a 28 mm tire. Often times, the fork/brakes/etc won't allow for it.

      I had the same experience with my Cross-Check. The ride was really great, but I just couldn't ever quite get it to fit properly. Oh, I rode it all over the land regardless, and I think Surly makes some really comfortable frames, but even the smallest of the CC's was just a tad long for me.

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