The Pros and Cons of Different Bike Frame Materials
Bike materials and technology have continually evolved over the years. This is true for seemingly everything — from helmets and lights to brakes and shifters. But it’s perhaps nowhere more noticeable than in the bicycle frame itself.
Bike frames have gone from tubular and heavy to light and aerodynamic over the last few decades, and this is thanks largely to changes in the materials used to build them. The original steel bikes have been supplanted by other frame constructions, and now carbon fiber is king of the road.
Each frame type has unique benefits and disadvantages, though. And before you shell out thousands on a bike, longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie recommends learning what makes each frame type unique so you can find the right one for your cycling style.
The Many Factors of Bike Frame Choice
The first thing that’s important to understand about bike frames is that there’s no single best choice.
“What’s best for one person isn’t best for another,” explains Coach Darryl. “The ‘best’ type depends on what you want out of it.”
Ultimately, there are a host of factors that contribute to your overall experience with a bike. Many of these relate to frame material and construction, such as:
- Price: This is certainly a factor for any cyclist, but how prominent of a factor it is for you will significantly affect what type of frame material you favor. Steel is much less expensive than carbon fiber, for instance.
- Weight: Bike weight can have a significant impact on other factors, such as speed and road feel. But there is often an inverse relationship between price and weight.
- Stiffness vs. flexibility: Your frame’s rigidity plays a major role in your speed and climbing power. The stiffer the frame, the more of your pedaling power goes directly to the wheels. A more flexible or “spongy” frame, on the other hand, will diffuse some of your power throughout the whole bike, making each pedal stroke less effective.
- Road feel: This describes how well the bike transmits to the rider the feel of what’s happening on the road. Think of it like wearing thick vs. thin gloves. With a thinner glove, you can more accurately feel and manipulate what you touch. The same is true with some bikes — the material makes it easier to feel how the tires are gripping or slipping on the road so you can respond accordingly.
- Longevity: Some materials rust and corrode more quickly than others.
- Repairability: Certain materials and frame constructions are easier to repair, while others make it much more likely you’ll need to replace the entire bike even for seemingly minor damage.
- Aesthetics: This is largely a matter of personal preference, but certain frame materials have become associated with certain aesthetic styles. If you like the look of a carbon fiber bike, for instance, you’re not going to get it with any other material.
- Riding style: Different frame types work better for different types of riding, so your preference for road, gravel or mountain biking will play a big role in shaping your frame choice.
Advantages and Disadvantages of 4 Types of Bike Frames
For the most part, there are four types of materials used in bike frames. We’ll explore some of the key features, benefits and downsides of each one below.
Before 1990, frames were made almost exclusively from steel. This makes it a classic style among many cyclists, so much so that its most avid devotees are known for their slogan, “Steel is real.”
Steel bikes are noticeable for their round tubes, which are joined by welds, braces or lug nuts. They’re incredibly strong, yet easy to repair when broken. They’re also relatively inexpensive to build, making steel frames a great choice for a first bike.
That said, they also come with some notable downsides. Steel is prone to rust and corrosion, so these bikes don’t last as long as some other types. It’s also extremely heavy, so steel bikes aren’t the best choice for speed and maneuverability. Finally, although it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s still pricier than what came next: aluminum.
Aluminum bikes first hit the cycling circuit in the early ‘90s. They made a big, immediate impact because they were so cheap and light. They also allowed for a bit more creativity in frame design, as aluminum’s flexibility made room for less rounded and varying tube sizes.
Aluminum’s biggest advantage, however, lies in its stiffness, which makes for a highly efficient ride.
“It delivers the power you’re creating directly,” says Darryl. “You can almost feel like the bike pedal is pushing back at you because it’s not spongy at all.”
Still, aluminum bike frames aren’t without their disadvantages. They’re not easy to repair, so minor issues can become major expenses. Plus, the material tends to wear out over time, losing some of its original stiffness and delivering a less direct road feel. And, with less expensive materials comes lower quality — very inexpensive aluminum bikes can deliver a distinctly “harsh” ride, as Darryl puts it.
Titanium took the pro cycling world by storm in the mid-1990s and into the following decade. It looked great without the need for any dressing up — bare metal with no paint is a trademark of titanium frames. Its combination of supreme strength and extreme lightness was second to none at the time, making it extremely durable yet fantastic for road feel.
One cyclist told Darryl when he bought his first titanium bike, “This will probably be the last bike you ever own.” And, so far, it’s proven to be true. Despite owning many other bikes over the past 25-plus years, he still has that same titanium bike, which is so strong that it withstood a run-in with his garage door frame — and bent the top of his car instead of giving out.
Titanium has some distinct downsides, though. Its extreme strength makes it very difficult to work with. It can’t even be welded in air, and that means repairs can be quite expensive. The material itself isn’t cheap, either, as it’s rarer than other metals used in bike frames.
Despite the many advantages of the above frame types, another material quietly made its way onto the scene in the ‘90s and took over by the late 2000s.
“All of these sort of got swallowed up by carbon fiber,” says Coach Darryl.
And, in many ways, it’s easy to see why. Carbon fiber, which is made by layering thin strands of carbon together with a resin, boasts a strength-to-weight ratio that simply can’t be beaten. Its combination of material strength and lightweight feel makes it unlike any other material.
Carbon fiber’s construction also makes it incredibly versatile — you can bend and mold it into virtually any shape. That’s why carbon fiber bikes are known for their unique look, an aesthetic that’s all their own. You can customize not only the look but the feel, which explains why these bikes have become the go-to for pro cyclists.
Nonetheless, carbon fiber bike frames aren’t for everyone, as they come with a few distinct disadvantages. First and foremost is the cost — these are usually the most expensive by a wide margin (though in some cases, titanium wins out).
Also, despite carbon fiber’s strength, this feature only tends to work in one way. In other words, it’s strong in the direction it was designed to be strong, but weak against forces from other directions. For a bike frame, that means a glancing side blow or even a casual lean can actually deliver significant damage (and Darryl has seen this happen many times). This can be a serious problem, as it may debilitate the bike with irreparable damage. And, in some cases, you may not even notice. That exposes you to serious risk on the road if your frame gives out.
Choose the Right Frame for Your Cycling Needs
Carbon fiber may be king of the road these days, but ultimately, bike frame material comes down to a personal choice. It’s less important to go with the prevailing style than it is to find a frame that fits your style of riding and budget. You might even try a different type of frame — we’ve even got a bamboo one we love. Whatever you choose, for cycling to truly become a lifelong habit, you have to find that perfect balance between enjoyment and affordability.
Now that you know a little more about bike frames, you should be a little closer.
Your bike frame is a critical part of the cycling experience, but no bike is complete without a high-quality saddle. Shop our lineup of tensioned leather saddles to find the perfect fit for a comfortable ride.
Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.