August 10, 2023
When it comes to building bikes, someone out there has put together a two-wheel contraption of just about every material you could think of. There have been wood bikes, bamboo, steel, scandium, titanium… the list goes on. While the bike world doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in experimenting with new designs and materials, a few frame-building materials have risen to the top and dominate the current market. In today's market, nearly every bike is made of carbon fiber, aluminum alloy, steel, or titanium. So let's look at some benefits and drawbacks of the most popular bike frame-building materials.
Steel-framed bikes certainly have the richest history in cycling. The history of steel-framed bikes runs back to the very first bikes, and there are plenty of reasons why it remains a popular option today. Steel has remarkable compliance; it is springy and responsive and provides excellent damping for high-frequency vibrations. This makes it feel lively and comfortable. On top of this, high-quality steel is relatively easy to source and manufacture, meaning you can buy a high-quality steel frame for reasonably less than other materials. In addition to being more affordable, steel is highly durable, making it an obvious first pick for anyone looking for top value in a bicycle frame. On the downside, steel frames can be heavier than other materials, and the selection of steel frame bikes on the market is limited due to fewer bike companies producing steel frame bikes.
Excellent ride quality
Easy to repair or recycle
Fewer options on the market
Nearly every industry across the world was revolutionized when aluminum first came along, and the bike industry was no exception... many bike frame manufacturers were quick to take advantage of the new wonder material. Aluminum is less dense than steel and can be compounded into specific alloys, providing incredible strength at a lower weight. Modern aluminum alloys have taken the bike industry by storm, allowing manufacturers to produce lighter frames that are more than strong enough to handle the forces created while riding a bike. Designing and testing aluminum frames is relatively straightforward, making it easy for bike brands to offer excellently designed bike frames at a reasonable price. On the downside, aluminum can be known for a slightly less comfortable and precise ride feel and tends to fatigue and fail with heavy use.
Great strength-to-weight ratio
Easy to manufacture and test
Less smooth road feel
Not as compliant or stiff as other materials
More difficult to repair than steel
Difficult to weld
Fatigues over time and loses strength
For good reasons, carbon fiber dominates the performance bike world across nearly all bike disciplines, from road cycling to downhill mountain biking. Carbon fiber is lightweight and stiff and can be very precisely designed to emphasize the exact characteristics pros want, like compliance and flex or stiffness and strength in precise locations on the bike frame. This makes carbon fiber the best choice for riders wanting to get every drop out of each pedal stroke and turn of the handlebars. Carbon does come at a cost, though, both to buy and produce. Designing, testing, and building carbon fiber bikes is very costly. On top of this, if they become damaged, they can be tough to repair and nearly impossible to recycle.
Can be precisely designed for specific ride characteristics
Smooth feeling and dampened vibration
Large environmental footprint
Difficult to repair
Difficult/impossible to recycle
Costly to engineer and test
Titanium offers an excellent balance between strength, weight, and durability. It provides many favorable ride characteristics of steel, like vibration control, responsiveness, and durability, but with less weight. Expectedly, all of these benefits come at a cost. Titanium is a pricey material. It’s challenging to build with, and most importantly, it's costly to invest in any titanium frame bike. Titanium frames tend to be built on a much smaller scale, and many builders offer custom options making titanium frames an excellent choice for personalization and longevity.
Great ride characteristics
Difficult to produce
Expensive to Produce, build and buy
Prone to manufacturing defects
Different frame materials will all have unique pros and cons. It is essential to consider what type of riding you like, the ride characteristics you are looking for, and your budget when choosing what frame material works best for you.
Still not sure ? You can reference our frame material matrix below to get a quick reminder of which material will best fit your needs.
99 Spokes makes it easy to find bikes that are available in the frame material of your choice.
Here are a few examples to get you started!