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There is a never-ending debate about the best use of suitable materials in the building of bicycle frames. Is this much ado about nothing? Well, perhaps. It is important to remember that all of the leading, high quality bicycle designers and manufacturers know an equal amount about bicycle design. The makers of Specialized, Fisher, Bianchi, K2, Kleineven many of the brands that are not carried by HTO, such as Trek and Cannondalemake excellent bikes. Oftentimes, frame decisions about frame materials are based strictly on current market trends and consumer preferences.



First, some very basic points:

Bike manufactures build bikes. They do not make frame materials. That is farmed out to others who truly do specialize in the production of metals and carbon formulations. The good ones are Reynolds, Easton, and Columbia, just to name a few. These specialists understand the characteristics of Reynolds 520 steel versus Easton T7071, thin-walled, drawn aluminum.

Bike designs will always try to maximize the best combination of materials so as not to reduce the performance characteristics of the intended design. Most of the time, bike designers really do know what is best!

Every frame material choice is a compromise. There is not any one, perfect material. Each has its own qualities and characteristics. The overall, complete bicycle is the more important consideration, rather than just the frame material.

Material design and fabrication makes a difference. The producers of frame materials are able to alter and manipulate the manner in which the material is rendered. This manipulation will have a significant impact on how the frame performs. There can be variable thickness steel; there can be fat-tube, thin-walled aluminum; there can be drawn and pulled aluminum, which is very strong but very lightweight; and there can be strong steel that is very flexible in a bike frame. Again, we urge you to be confident in these designs from any of the well-known makers. Riders in the Tour De France rode bikes of all frame designs and materials - steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and probably some materials of which none of us are aware. For superior performance, it probably matters more just who the rider is.



Lets look at some of the materials:

Titanium: A very strong, lightweight material. For comparable materials, titanium will weigh about 50% of that of steel and about 20-25% more than aluminum. Titanium can be more flexible than steel but is usually not stiffer than aluminum. (This is with the understanding that we must be comparing comparables.) Titanium has some questions of durability. Under normal uses and from most providers, a titanium frame will certainly prove to be durable enough to satisfy the intended use of the original buyer. Do not let slick sales people scare you off about the brittleness of titanium, particularly around the welds. There is some truth to this but it is out of context when we are referring to high quality bicycle manufacturers. Overall, the best quality found in titanium is its strength-to-weight ratio. Weight is low for how strong the material proves to be. Because titanium is relatively exotic, and not a lot of bikes are built out of it, these bikes tend to be more expensive.

Steel: Good old reliable steel. Strong, but can be heavy. If it breaks, or if you have cracks in a weld, it is fairly easy to get repaired. Steel is a fine material from which to make frames because bike designers can get a wide variety of tube stock. The more high performance (strong and lightweight) the stock, the more exotic and expensive the stock. From any of the steel bike makers known for quality and performance design, their steel bikes are exceptional, even the ones that are not carried by HTO. Makers like LeMond and Bianchi have more history with steel bikes than most bike makers have with all of their bike production. Many riders prefer steel because it tends to be more lively and their bikes seem to breathe with them.

Any downsides to steel may rest only in weight. It can be a bit heavier than, aluminum, and it is certainly heavier than titanium and/or carbon fiber. There is the chance that a steel bike might rust, as steel is subject to rusting, but for most people interested in the usable life of their riding machine, this is not a major issue.



Aluminum: Definite advantage for weight but, again, be careful. Lesser quality bike brands will advertise an aluminum frame yet the frame will weigh more than most quality steel bikes and will ride as stiff as a rock. Not fun! Aluminum tubes can be engineered and designed in many, many different variations. This matches the bike designers vision. Aluminum bike frames tend to be a bit stiffer. Sometimes this might mean that road bumps are felt more by the rider. Usually the increased road feel is minimal and the improvement in response and handling a stiffer aluminum frame provides, are well worth it. Good quality aluminum frames can be had at very reasonable prices; thus, there is a bit of an advantage in terms of price. With aluminum frame bikes, you can get a little more bike for the money, however, aluminum frames may be slightly less reliable over time than steel. A crack in an aluminum frame is not going to get repaired and it would be unlikely for you to find anyone in your neighborhood who can actually repair an aluminum welded joint. Butand pay attention to thisany quality maker of aluminum frames will have a Lifetime Warranty on its frames.

Carbon Fiber: It is a very exotic bike that is built with a 100% carbon fiber frame. Carbon fiber (CF), when used properly in the design of a bike frame, can be much lighter and stronger than more conventional metals. Additionally, it can be easily shaped (sometimes beautifully so) to comply with very sleek and specific designs. This inherent quality to take shape further enables designers to build CF bikes with very specific qualities of strength, flexibility, geometrics, and stiffness. CF bikes tend to be very forgiving, seem to absorb bumps, and generally render a very smooth ride. Downsides to CF bikes include potential deterioration over time due to exposure to the elements, as well as serious questions about reliability and durabilitywhether and how long they will stay together. More significantly, today 100% CF bikes are hybrid/fusion bikes that include main frame triangles built of steel or aluminum and front forks and rear triangles built or co-joined with CF elements. A carbon fiber component joined to more contemporary and commonplace metals is an ever-growing trend that looks to offer the best of both worlds. There is a lot of excitement about this trend in frame design.

In Summary



Buy a quality bike! There is not any one absolute best material for bike frames. When you are in a store where the salesman tells you something contrary to this, walk away. If you buy a cheap bike, it matters very little what the frame is made of. There are pluses and minuses to all frame materials. Shop for your bike at a competent, cycle sports specialist store and be specific about your cycling objectives, needs, and intentions. Not only will they be able to point you in the right direction, but you will also get to test ride an assortment of bikes. ABSOLUTELY make sure to take a test ride. The frame material is important, but the overall quality and feel of the bike is much more important.



See you on the trail!


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