Basic Guide to Bike Frame Materials
There are four basic categories of bike frame materials which all have individual advantages and disadvantages in areas such as weight, strength, manufacturability, stiffness, density, and durability. As a rule, higher performing, lighter frames will carry a higher price, but that doesn’t mean choosing a less costly material means a low-quality bike—our goal, as always, is to get you on the bike that’s right for you, the bike you will love. Here’s some general information that will put you in the know when shopping for your first bike, or when considering taking your riding to a new level.
Carbon fiber is used to construct today’s high-end road and mountain bikes.Carbon fiber’s benefits include its unprecedented light weight and its versatility of shaping to accommodate all kinds of frame designs. Carbon fiber also is less dense than metal, which means it doesn’t transmit incidental road vibrations as much as other frame materials. That means a more comfortable ride for you.
Carbon fiber can also be built up in a variety of shapes, giving bike builders more liberty to incorporate high performance characteristics into their designs. For example, many of today’s road bikes have exceptionally thin seat stays (on the rear part of the frame), which gives a bike a more vertical compliance and a softer ride. And since it’s not metal, carbon fiber has a high resistance to corrosion.
Essentially, carbon fiber is a composite of strands of carbon pressed together in layers that are held together by an epoxy. Due to the alignment of the individual fibers, carbon frames can have different amounts of stiffness in different areas of the bike. Although the price has dropped in recent years, carbon fiber bikes are still the most expensive.
Titanium bikes saw a hey-day during the ‘90s before being eclipsed by carbon fiber, but have seen a resurgence in the last few years thanks to a devoted following. Titanium has the highest weight-to-strength ratio of any known metal, which makes it sort of wonder material for frame building. It’s lighter than steel, more durable than carbon fiber, and more forgiving than aluminum. This means you can have a lightweight, race-worthy bike that can last for years and survive a crash or two. Titanium is however, a relatively rare and strategically important material that takes great skill to work with, so titanium bikes tend to be among the most costly.
Titanium bikes have a ride all their own. Titanium bikes are often described as being "silky" with legendary road feel and vibration dampening properties, but with an unexpected stiffness-- when you step on the pedals the bike will often feel like it takes off from under you-- almost like you are uncoiling a spring. This magical combination of a forgiving ride and need-for-speed performance make titanium bikes ideal for everything from serious racing to casual long distance riding on either the road or trails.
The most commonly used bike material, aluminum offers excellent performance, light weight (not as light as carbon fiber), and a more accessible price point. Although less expensive than their carbon fiber cousins, aluminum bikes are not cheaply made. Using thin walled, wide diameter tubes, manufacturers can create aluminum frames that are light, stiff and strong. In addition to its use in frames, aluminum is used for most bike components, including stems, cranks and handlebars.
Aluminum frames are stiffer than most steel frames due to their use of larger diameter tubes. While stiffness can improve handling and acceleration when sprinting or climbing, stiffer frames don’t absorb road shock as well, making for riding that can be a bit bumpier. Higher end aluminum bike tubes are often shaped using what’s called hydro forming, which allows for tube conformability similar to that on carbon fiber bikes (where you can tailor the size of the tubes to achieve certain ride characteristics).
Chromoly is a steel alloy (steel, chromium, and molybdenum) that was developed as a lighter and more durable alternative to hi-tensile steel, which was the prime bicycle tube material for decades. Chromoly is still the material of choice for high-impact riding such as BMX or big-air mountain bike jumping. It is also still fairly common in single speed bikes and entry-level mountain bikes. To be sure, Chromoly is a quality material that boasts extreme durability, considerable light weight, and a very nice price.
Hi Tensile Steel (Hi-ten)
The bike building material of choice for many years, hi-ten steel is still used by many bike builders. It’s cheap and easy to work with, and can deliver a very high level ride quality. Steel offers a plusher ride for comfort bikes, and is often used in entry-level mountain bikes as well. While price is a great advantage, steel’s increased weight could be seen as a negative. Remember…it all depends on what kind of a rider you are—steel may be a perfectly suitable, durable, and well-performing option if you’re a casual, around-the-neighborhood or park kind of rider.
We hope that this information has been helpful. And as always, if you have any questions about anything cycling, hit us up wherever you like, Facebook, email, or by phone (1-800-553-TECH). Happy riding.