Carbon may be dominating bicycle frame manufacture at present, but consumers are torn. Bike frame materials and their pros and cons one of the hottest topics at brunch after the morning tour, with titanium, carbon, aluminium and steel enthusiasts getting in on the action.
Which metals and non-metals are trending, what are the pros using nowadays, which frame designers are going against the grain and how do you make the call? Matmatch gets the specs and takes you through it.
This is where it all began. Although the first bikes were made from wood, steel was the primary metal used in bike frames from the late 1800’s right up until the 1990’s. It remains strong, durable and reliable even today, and will bend in an accident rather than snapping, which facilitates easier repair work.
Although many manufacturers no longer favor steel, it is still called upon to create custom bike frames. Modern use of steel calls for thinner tubing walls to reduce weight. A steel frame does good shock absorption work but it does create extra weight in comparison to other types of materials.
Frame designers began experimenting with aluminium straight-gauge tubing for frames in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s, these models were replaced with lighter, stiffer, TIG-welded oversized aluminium frames. Between the nineties and the noughties, steel was somewhat left behind in favor of aluminium.
Although carbon composites have since captured the market’s attention, aluminium has unique qualities that cause many manufacturers to stay true. Aluminium is lighter than steel, durable enough for its structural purpose, very workable and above all, affordable.
Aluminium frames are sometimes criticised for making things slightly less comfortable on the road (the rider bears the brunt of road vibrations with an aluminium frame), and it lacks the stiffness of steel or carbon, but modern bikes address these concerns by using modern wheel and tire technology and/or hydroforming.
This readily available and cost-effective metal is more popular for entry-level bike frames but also used in high-performance frames.
Titanium is a fascinating compromise between aluminium and steel, a lightweight yet highly durable metal that doesn’t rust, dampens well and lasts significantly longer. Though it is around twice as dense as aluminium, it is about half the density of steel and yet still provides good shock absorption.
In terms of safety, titanium for bike frames is cold worked and stress relieved, boasting a much better yield strength than steel and a favorable elongation, which means that titanium will bend before it breaks, though frame repairs can be challenging.
The non-metallic element carbon is endlessly flexible. In the cycling world, it’s produced as carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is incredibly popular in aerospace but also very workable on smaller scales. The most common bike frame material is polyacrylanitrile (PAN), which is reduced into long and fine fibers after heating at very high temperatures. It is then suspended in epox resin and molded into a composite material.
Big manufacturers and even some artisan frame builders create bike frames from carbon fiber sheets, and are therefore not limited by tubing shapes. This makes it possible to manufacture specialty frames, such as aero bikes.
Carbon fiber is a fragile material that is hard to repair after impact, but for experienced cyclists, the lightness and stiffness of carbon fiber has made it a go-to material for bike frames, particularly in competitive cycling.
Factors to Consider
Budget consumers often opt for aluminium frames, as do racers seeking speed over comfort. When comfort is a big consideration, steel frames are affordable and can be customised.
Titanium is a desirable compromise of all the relevant factors: lightness, durability, smooth riding and price. Although it comes with a hefty price tag, carbon fiber is the most common choice for pros and hardcore cyclists, appreciated for its flexible design properties, stiffness and unbeatable lightness.
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