Introduction to Bicycle Frame Materials

Trek Y Foil
Trek Y Foil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I get this question a lot at the bike shop: “What’s the difference between aluminum, steel, or carbon fiber?” Anyone who has worked in a bicycle shop has heard that at least 1.3 million times. Don’t worry. I’m not mad about it. You don’t know if you don’t ask right? Over the course of several posts, I will attempt to clear up at least some of those questions. You’ll probably have more, and that’s okay too.

Now be prepared. These posts are going to be mostly factual from what the industry is using the specific material for, then my opinion, which I use when people ask “What do you ride?” I will also throw in some anecdotes from my years of bike shop wrenching. Just realized, if you go trolling in a forum about frame materials, it is mostly going to be anecdotal and opinions.

The materials we’ll be looking at are Steel, Aluminum, and Carbon Fiber.

Wait! Aren’t there others? Yes, if you’re talking about Titanium and Bamboo. I wanted to concentrate on the common materials that most bike manufacturers use. Titanium and bamboo are now the realm of the smaller frame/bike companies. The three materials I mentioned previously are what most people are going to run into the most when shopping for a new bicycle.

Brief introductions to the players await after the break!

Steel

English: Colnago Master X-Light bicycle
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steel is the granddaddy of the materials. Not the original mind you. The original material for bicycles was actually wood for the first ones. Thanks to the industrial revolution, the “Iron Pony” was born. The credo for cyclists who favor steel should sound familiar: “Steel is real!” We could get existential about this and say all materials are real, otherwise they wouldn’t exist, but I digress, this is a bicycle blog not a philosophical blog. Although steel bikes aren’t as common as they once were, steel is still used in all kinds of bicycles from department store to exquisite customs.

Aluminum

An aluminum racing bicycle made by Raleigh and...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What used to be a high end material 20 years ago, is now the ubiquitous material used in making any bicycle nowadays. You can thank the ease of production for that one, and all the recycled pop cans from the 80s and 90s. Just kidding. Aluminum is a lighter, more rigid material than steel, giving aluminum bicycles a different ride quality. Bonus: Frames don’t rust. Little known fact: Aluminum does oxidize. It’s that white powdery substance you see on old aluminum.

Carbon Fiber

Celeste.
 (Photo credit: Travis Isaacs)

The youngest player in the group, carbon fiber, was arguably born out of the glut of aerospace engineers that flocked to bicycle industry during the 90s boom. Regardless of how it started, bicycle companies wanted a high performance material and they got it. Tuneable ride quality, lightweight, and the ability to make any shape allowed engineers to experiment with bicycle design. Prices have dropped on carbon fiber bikes, but they are still expensive due to the hands on manufacturing process.

Those are the players so stay tuned as we take the roller coaster to bicycle materialville! As a bonus, I will talk about Titanium and bamboo to satisfy your curiosity.

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