What is your bike made of? Bike frame materials and their properties

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

Specialized Allez - one of the best selling alloy bike on the market

Specialized Allez – one of the best selling alloy bike on the market

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

Old fashioned and reliable steel

Old fashioned and reliable steel

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.

Carbon Fibre

Carbon can throw some pretty awesome shapes

Carbon can throw some pretty awesome shapes

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

The Genesis Equilibrium

The Genesis Equilibrium

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.

Bamboo

Image: bikebamboo.com

Image: bikebamboo.com

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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10 Responses to What is your bike made of? Bike frame materials and their properties

  1. Chris 06/12/2013 at 9:41 am #

    You have left out a few other materials that frames are made of:

    Wood:
    http://www.renovobikes.com/
    http://www.sandwichbikes.com/

    Cardboard:
    http://www.cardboardtech.com/

  2. Alan Moore 06/12/2013 at 9:49 am #

    My Gazelle is alloy.. thought they were built to last forever, bit disappointed if alloy degrades over time :-/

  3. MJ Ray 06/12/2013 at 10:27 am #

    What’s the source on that alloy claim? Seems contrary to http://forum.ctc.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=82123&p=731464 unless you are doing thousands of miles under heavy load.

  4. Simon Wilcox 06/12/2013 at 11:16 am #

    The frame is the one component of a bike that you’re not likely to change so if you’re budget constrained I’d argue for buying a carbon frame with cheaper components as the latter can be easily upgraded over time.

  5. Steve A 07/12/2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Where does the “..the average alloy bike has a lifetime expectancy of 4-6 years if well used” nonsense come from? I guess my own well used alloy bikes are LONG overdue…

  6. John Bourn 10/12/2013 at 12:17 am #

    All the bikes I’ve owned down the years have been steel framed. All that is except one. I currently run three all of which are steel framed.
    The one exception was a mistake, the name of which I cannot write here. Service to say it was like riding something that had died. It was aluminium.

  7. Shades 11/12/2013 at 12:37 pm #

    I got a steel Genesis road bike earlier this year and it looks, and rides, great. Alloy is just a bit harsh – I just got rid of a suspension seat post on my commuter bike and boy did I feel the bumps! My wife has just bought a road bike and did a fair amount of testing; the LBS said she’d notice a big difference between carbon and alloy (similar priced bikes) but she came back and couldn’t feel any real change. She ended up with the alloy Trek Domane with seat damping which made a real difference; also better components than the Specialised carbon bike. I’m just not sure about carbon; possibly the risk of a crash writing off the frame. For some reason carbon frames reminded me of buying skis; all sorts of ‘fancy’ functionality that meant you’d be upgrading every few years. I think I’d go for titanium if I was really splashing the cash.

  8. denbrewers 12/12/2013 at 12:26 am #

    No mention of how alloy frames kill your joints and the spine in the long span due to their exasperating of road vibrations. Folk, don’t ride the alloys for any longer then you’d really need. Move on!

  9. Michelle 12/12/2013 at 6:15 am #

    Hi guys – I’n terms of aluminium frame fatigue.. my winter bike (also used for touring) is now 3 years old and has worked hard and done very well. However – all the sources below suggest aluminium will fatigue over time and is more likely to crack in a crash than steel or titanium:

    You should be aware that aluminium has a limited life – aluminium frames usually have a guarantee of five years maximum as they fatigue.
    http://www.whycycle.co.uk/bike_jargon_buster/bike_frame_materials/

    Aluminium is corrosion resistant, but is more susceptible to failure from fatigue stress over time. Aluminum frames are both harder to repair and more a bit more likely to be damaged by a hard impact than steel, but modern alumnium frames are durable enough to provide years of reliable service.
    http://www.brightspoke.com/c/understanding/bike-frame-materials.html

    Aluminum frames differ from other alloys because they have a low tolerance for bending. An aluminum frame will more than likely crack in a catastrophic crash, making it difficult or impossible to repair.
    http://livehealthy.chron.com/titanium-vs-aluminum-vs-carbon-road-bikes-3605.html

    The earlier problems of aluminum’s tendency to fail after only a short time has been basically solved. But the lifetime of an aluminum frame is not and will not be that of a steel bike. The rider has to accept that in his search for high-perfomance, compromises must be made. These are not lifetime bikes.
    http://bikeraceinfo.com/tech/materials.html

    Although, over-sized aluminum does have a very non-forgiving characteristic – if it is over-stressed or cracked, it can fail very abruptly. Because of this characteristic, it is important to inspect aluminum frames after an accident for any sign of cracking or stress, even if the bike rides perfectly. Some manufacturers put a warning sticker right on the frame advising the owner to inspect frequently for cracks.

    The super light aluminum bikes will not last forever, and aren’t advertised that way. On the other hand, I see a lot of the old original Cannondale and Klein frames still on the road after all these years. As a matter of fact I saw one of those original 1983 ~ 1984 Cannondale bikes in the repair shop for a tune-up just yesterday. I also have a neighbor that rides his Vitus aluminum frame as his daily commuter, so I’d have to say that aluminum as a material can have a very long life span if not damaged.
    http://www.rodbikes.com/articles/material-world.html

    Drawbacks of Aluminium
    Lower life expectancy, can suffer from metal fatigue
    http://cyclinginfo.co.uk/blog/216/bikes/best-bike-frame-material/

  10. TOM 17/12/2013 at 4:07 am #

    I ride a pair of Novara Randonee’s , (summer & winter) they are longer frame steel touring bikes. They soak up the bumps and I don’t think that going back to alloy is a possibility anymore.

    As long as you touch up any scrapes and never leave any bare metal , rust should not be a problem . They are both1999 vintage (early RSX STI)

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