At the very core of every bicycle, there is a frame. The material that frame is made out of has a dramatic effect on the way it rides, its durability, and cost. Every frame tells a story, so we’ve delved into some of the rationale, motivations, and infatuations behind bicycle builders decisions…
Alloy is bicycle business shorthand for aluminium alloy. An alloy is a solid solution made of metal, and another element – the metal in this case being aluminium. A high proportion of bikes are made of aluminium alloy – it’s an easy material to manipulate into an efficient shape, and it’s the cheapest way to make a relatively light bike. Heaver than carbon, and lighter than steel, an alloy bike has the drawback of being harsher to ride as it doesn’t soak up road vibrations as well as other materials. Not only that, it will fatigue and doesn’t last as long as steel or titanium, the average alloy bike has a lifetime expectancy of 4-6 years if well used. All that said, aluminium alloy is a very popular and sensible choice if you want a fairly durable bicycle that will last a few years, be light enough for easy riding, and you can still an alloy frame with quality components for under 1k.
Steel bike owners generally love steel bikes, and their bikes can last a lifetime kept in the right hands. The material will rust if not cared for, but it won’t fatigue like alloy and is very hard wearing. Very high grade steel can be quite light – but to make it so, it needs to be thin, and that means handmade, not manipulated by factory robots. For that reason, modern, high grade steel bikes are a labour of love and are more expensive, whilst lower grade versions have a bad reputation for being heavy. That said, in return for added weight, the rider gets a more comfortable ride as steel is not as harsh as alloy. Steel is for a bike that will be loved and cherished for a lifetime, likely by a rider who favours a comfortable pace over many miles.
The racers paradise, carbon fibre is a composite made using an epoxy resin in carbon fibres. It’s very light, very strong, and incredibly easy to manipulate, so manufacturers can create a frame that is stiff where it needs to be and responsive and springy in other areas. Carbon can create a light bike that rides like a racing machine. The drawback is that it has a higher chance of cracking or failing. Many racing cyclists go for carbon, but if caught in a crash, the beloved bicycle is more likely to be written off than an alloy or titanium frame. It’s also worth looking carefully at the facts and figures before splashing out carbon – a light frame with poor components will be heavier than a weightier alloy frame with quality accessories such as a featherlight cassette, quality cranks and above all wheels.
Titanium is a beautiful material. Doesn’t rust like steel, doesn’t fatigue or give way to rumbling road vibrations like alloy, is strong and won’t crack like carbon… what’s the catch? The material alone is cheap, but it’s an expensive job to hand cut and weld it, so the resultant frame is no cheap item. A titanium bike is a carefully considered purchase, made by someone who is looking for quality at a high price, though for a little over 2k you could get an equilibrium by Ti genius’ Genesis with Shimano 105 components, so it’s not a possibility to wipe off the table if you’re looking at the 2k+ mark.
Admittedly – Bamboo bikes are not seen on the roads quite as commonly as the others mentioned above. However, they do exist, and I’m reliably informed the Panda’s dinner makes a very light, stiff, strong frame. Frames are custom built, take 6-8 weeks to arrive with you, but bikebamoo.com state that it is “an ideal material for bike construction where stiffness and strength to weight ratios are important.” Who am I to question? This is a bespoke frame for the rider who wants to step outside the box and try something both different and possibly very effective.
Buying a new bike, or love your own?
If you’re thinking of splashing out on a new ride, why not check out some of our London Cyclist reader comments on what to consider when buying a new bike. Of course, if you’re well and truly happy with the ride you’ve got, we’d love to hear what material your frame is made of, and why you think it tops the rest…
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.