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Steel, aluminium, titanium or carbon fibre, how do you decide?

If you’re shopping for a new road bike, you’ll be inundated with choice, which can make choosing the right bike for you a tricky decision. There are many factors you can use to filter the choice, from price, specification, style of riding, brand allegiance or even colour. 

Sometimes the choice can come down to the material the bicycle frame is made from. There are four common materials used to build road bikes: steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre and the material can influence the ride and purpose of the bike, so it's good to know the key differences before you make a decision.

- Buying your first road bike — everything you need to know

For some people, the material choice is just as important as the list of equipment and the price tag, with different materials suited to different types of riding. The frame is the heart of your new road bike and it's where the majority of the budget goes, and the material can play a big part in that, so it pays to choose wisely.

- road.cc Bike of the Year 2015-16

Here's a look at the key attributes of each material to help you make the right choice.

Aluminium

Aluminium is the most common material and it's used primarily for road bikes at the affordable end of the price range. It's ideal for bike frames as it provides a stiff and light frame. For a long time aluminium frames have been unfairly branded as providing a harsh and uncomfortable ride, but stiffness is a function of its design - the latest aluminium frames dispel the harshness myth and offer smooth rides.

While aluminium might be reserved for entry-level bikes by most of the big brands, there are plenty of premium options so don't discount it just because it's used for entry-level road bikes. Just take a look at the super light Kinesis Aethein (pictured below) or the new Specialized Allez as examples of the potential for high-end performance aluminium.

kinesis-aithein-1.jpg

kinesis-aithein-1.jpg

It's fair to say aluminium is enjoying a resurgence of interest at the moment. Some manufacturers have been pushing the material to achieve impressively lightweight frames, and smart consumers are realising that you get a lot of performance, and equipment, for your money. Just take the iconic Cannondale CAAD12 (and previously CAAD10) as an example, and there are plenty of others. For value for money, aluminium is tough to beat.

Buy aluminium because you’re on a budget or you want a light and stiff frame for racing, or you want the best specification for your money.

- 11 of the best 2016 aluminium road bikes

Steel

In years gone by steel was the only frame material choice so buying a new bike was relatively easy. Steel still has a place in this day and age, it is famed for its smooth ride, which is why touring and Audax cyclists still lean towards it, but the latest steel tubesets have given birth to renewed interest in high-performance steel road bikes and even for racing, as the Madison-Genesis proved a couple of years ago with the Volare 953. Steel isn’t used by large scale manufacturers these days, but the fact it is easy to work with has made it the material of choice for the UK’s burgeoning bespoke industry. If you want a customised frame, steel is a good option. 

Donhou Signature Steel.jpg

Donhou Signature Steel.jpg

Steel tube manufacturers, such as Columbus and Reynolds, thankfully haven’t given up on steel, and in fact, the opposite has happened, they've been investing in new tubesets. The latest steel tubesets which include the latest stainless offerings, are now lighter and stiffer than anything Eddy Merckx used to race, and a viable alternative to carbon and aluminium.

Buy steel because you want a bespoke frame or favour a smooth ride quality and don’t mind a bit of extra weight.

- 15 of the best steel road bikes and frames

Titanium

Titanium is a highly desirable material due to its fabled ride quality, supple and bump-absorbing. It's also lighter than steel, stronger than aluminium and its anti-corrosive properties and the fact the surface can be polished means it should last a lifetime, helping to offset the high price tag the material still commands, though it's nothing like as expensive as it used to be a couple of decades ago.

 Titanium can be used to build a high-performance race bike, and we've ridden some good examples over the years, but it’s often reserved for sporty Audax and year-round bikes, bikes designed to promote comfort for long distance cycling with or without luggage, such as the Sabbath September below. 

Sabbath September Disc-2.jpg

Sabbath September Disc-2.jpg

Most titanium frames are made from 3AL-2.5V tubing (where titanium is alloyed with 3% aluminium and 2.5% vanadium) and 6Al-4V, a harder grade of titanium, is seen on much more expensive framesets. Because it’s hard and expensive to make 6Al-4V into seamless tubes, it’s often used for machined parts like dropouts and head tubes.

Buy titanium because you want a bike to last a lifetime and value the light weight and smooth ride.

The titanium choice 

Carbon fibre

For many cyclists, there is no choice other than carbon fibre. It’s the dominant material in the racing world, it’s the lightest and stiffest of the four frame materials, but it can also be the most expensive. That said, frame prices have dropped dramatically in recent years and you can now buy a carbon bike for under a grand.

Carbon is the most flexible of the materials and offers designers huge scope to tailor the way the bike rides, they also aren’t limited by tube shape, with aero road bikes being a good example of this versatility, like this Trek Madone. 

Trek Madone 9 series - full bike.jpg

Trek Madone 9 series - full bike.jpg

Carbon fibre frames aren't all equal, though. There's a huge difference between cheap and expensive carbon fibre, down to the type of fibres used, how it's manufactured and other important factors that make a big impact. Carbon fibre can be relatively easily manipulated by designers to create frames with the particular balance of properties they want, whether that's low weight, comfort, stiffness.

Buy carbon if you want the lightest and stiffest road bike money can buy, or because you want to go aero

- Great road bikes for under £1,000

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

17 comments

Avatar
clayfit [92 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
alotronic wrote:

Short version of the metals - Steel comfy but heavy, Alu light but stiff, Ti comfy AND light  1

Carbon:  light, stiff, comfy AND aero.

And before I get flamed for saying that, I got my bespoke steel-framed disk road bike on Saturday and she's a peach.

Avatar
alotronic [509 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes

Short version of the metals - Steel comfy but heavy; Alu cheap, light but stiff; Ti comfy AND light but expensive  1

Avatar
alotronic [509 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
clayfit wrote:
alotronic wrote:

Short version of the metals - Steel comfy but heavy, Alu light but stiff, Ti comfy AND light  1

Carbon:  light, stiff, comfy AND aero.

And before I get flamed for saying that, I got my bespoke steel-framed disk road bike on Saturday and she's a peach.

No flame from me - just yet to spend the kind of money on a new bike that would do that for me - something like a Genesis Datum could probably replace four bikes for me if it really was that good. But I do like the change in feel of each material - for me it's not a binary choice, even if I had the perfect carbon bike I'd probably still want each of the other ones still. With bikes being so cheap and good it's not really a case of one bike to rule them, but which one today  1

Avatar
jollygoodvelo [1614 posts] 11 months ago
7 likes

So what you're saying is, I need one of each.  Right?

 

Also: no mention of bamboo frames?  "Buy because: you live in Hackney and need a bike to transport you, your checked shirt and luxuriant beard to the local craft beer and ethical falafel emporium."

Avatar
BikeJon [184 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes

I have 3 alu bikes, 1 carbon, 1 steel and 2 ti. I'm going to sell the carbon and a couple of the alu ones. The ti ones are glorious. But I don't race anymore. TBH my carbon one is lovely too but I have an older groupset on that and I much prefer the disc brakes on my Ti bikes. The steel one is comfortable but heavy. I've loaded it up with a rack and just use it when I need to lug stuff about.

So ti all the way for me but it would be carbon for racing. But I'd never love it as much.

Avatar
drosco [261 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

I would say without a doubt the steel framed bike was the best looking bike, if that was the criteria.

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vonhelmet [841 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
drosco wrote:

I would say without a doubt the steel framed bike was the best looking bike, if that was the criteria.

That's because thin tubes are sexy.

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rjfrussell [362 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

 

[/quote]

That's because thin tubes are sexy.

[/quote]

 

I thought the ladies preferred a bit of girth?

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cyclisto [192 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes

Well all materials are good for me. Aluminium bikes are good for everyday use as they are cheap,  light to carry around and will not rust. Steel bikes are good for touring as they will withstand pretty much anything. Ti are the Chuck Norris of metals except when it comes to check out and CF is the Chuck Norris of materials except when it has to anticipate direct hits.

What I DON'T like is the new trend of blending CF forks with steel and Ti frames. Well you have a relatively heavy metal frame and CF at the three tubes that if one breaks you will have a nice faceplant. I just don't get it.

If I had to replace my beloved bike and if I had tons of money, I would buy a Ti frame with a Ti fork. Ti frames with CF forks are for me as susceptible to dangerous failure with a full CF frame, only heavier and more expensive.

Avatar
keirik [132 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
BikeJon wrote:

I have 3 alu bikes, 1 carbon, 1 steel and 2 ti. I'm going to sell the carbon and a couple of the alu ones. The ti ones are glorious. But I don't race anymore. TBH my carbon one is lovely too but I have an older groupset on that and I much prefer the disc brakes on my Ti bikes. The steel one is comfortable but heavy. I've loaded it up with a rack and just use it when I need to lug stuff about.

So ti all the way for me but it would be carbon for racing. But I'd never love it as much.

 

now that is beautiful!

Avatar
P3t3 [382 posts] 10 months ago
2 likes
cyclisto wrote:

Well

What I DON'T like is the new trend of blending CF forks with steel and Ti frames. Well you have a relatively heavy metal frame and CF at the three tubes that if one breaks you will have a nice faceplant. I just don't get it.

If I had to replace my beloved bike and if I had tons of money, I would buy a Ti frame with a Ti fork. Ti frames with CF forks are for me as susceptible to dangerous failure with a full CF frame, only heavier and more expensive.

Isn't this just paranoia? Surely for >99℅ of riders carbon forks are fine? It's going to depend partly of the weight to which the fork is made. I'd imagine steel are most durable in the long term but again it comes down to how they are made, with high failure rates comming from building too light.

Could be talking nonsense though, I'd like to know more.

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Vejnemojnen [239 posts] 10 months ago
1 like

so, how many cf forks have you seen to fail?  1 

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cyclisto [192 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
Vejnemojnen wrote:

so, how many cf forks have you seen to fail?  1 

 

How many cf frames have you seen to fail? If none, then why not buy a CF frameset which will outperform all other materials in compliance or rigidness right where you want it, and it could be even cheaper from posh steel frames and Ti?

 

Lets face it, CF is a very strong material but not the best solution when it comes to durability in direct hits or spots that it is not meant to be loaded. To make it easier to understand, a 3mph fall directly on a rock or a muscleman who has decided that he needs a longer stem and dislikes torque wrenches, could seriously hurt your CF bike.

 

I could somehow accept Ti frame/CF fork, but no way the steel frame/CF fork.

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Richard1982 [70 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes

 Frame materials can be different yes, but they don't define the bike. I've ridden aluminium bikes that felt springy and carbon bikes that boneshakingly ridgid.

Avatar
rix [162 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
Quote:

...smart consumers are realising that you get a lot of performance, and equipment, for your money. Just take the iconic Cannondale CAAD12 (and previously CAAD10) as an example.

I wote for aluminium! They can look as good as carbon frames.

Often people are asking me if my Cannondale (CAAD10) is carbon.

//lh3.googleusercontent.com/-q3riX98pfvA/V5ot8APFjtI/AAAAAAAAgqc/KoJcYJyMC-Im5Z_D_vj8-IilRB2CefJRwCCo/s640/P1040878.JPG)

 

Avatar
reippuert [67 posts] 10 months ago
1 like
clayfit wrote:
alotronic wrote:

Short version of the metals - Steel comfy but heavy, Alu light but stiff, Ti comfy AND light  1

Carbon:  light, stiff, comfy AND aero.

And before I get flamed for saying that, I got my bespoke steel-framed disk road bike on Saturday and she's a peach.

 

Carbon:  light, stiff, comfy, aero and NOT durable.

 

Titanium: unbeliveable durable:

You can offload  it "as-is" and the airport - no need for a flightcase, softcase etc.  All you need to fly in/out of your favorite destination is a roll of tape and two allen keys (one for lowering the seatpost and stem faceplate + one for removing your pedals).

pict from my recent Italy north->south trip in regional train from Reggio Calabria to Lamezia Terme airport  1

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Ko [202 posts] 9 months ago
0 likes

Like (almost) everybody else go for the "at least one of each" yes

- Aluminium, cheapest option for an everyday bike, although these old Principia frames might feel rather stiff. Such frames can be found s/h at 200 quid.

- Steel, modern frames offer a good balance between comfort and power transfer thanks to tube design combined with a carbon fork a frame set is about 2.2 kg, which is almost one kg lighter than the old frame sets with steel fork. Current project will be based on a Condor Fratello steel frame.

- Carbon for lightness, comfort and image (city cycling is not about going fast - but looking good!

- Titanium for the winter cross bike, compfy, robust. And if you divide the cost by the years of use this 2006 Kocmo is a clear winner!