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.
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.
Here's a look at the key attributes of each material to help you make the right choice.
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 Trek Emonda ALR as examples of the potential for high-end performance aluminium.
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 CAAD13 (and previously CAAD10 and CAAD12) 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.
Read more: The best aluminium road bikes
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.
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.
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, designed to promote comfort for long distance cycling with or without luggage, and it's currently undergoing a renaissance as a material for gravel bikes like the Van Nicholas Rowtag below.
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.
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 not much more than 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.
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
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.