Bicycles come in many shapes and sizes to compensate for every rider and every riding style, bicycles also use many different frame materials to cater for many different riding styles. This page will walk you through each frame material and what its pluses and minuses are.
+ Cost, aluminum makes up the majority of bikes ridden today because it is inexpensive to produce and has many desirable features.
+ Durable, aluminum can take abuse well. Aluminum bikes seldom have issues with breaking.
+ Weight, aluminum is not the lightest material out there but it is light weight especially for the cost of producing it.
+ Stiffness, Aluminum frames (higher end ones) have little side to side flex and make for a very ridged fast bicycle.
+Scarcity, Aluminum frames are found everywhere and you can assure there will be no shortage of options.
- Repair, dents or cracks in tubing usually is not repairable (cost effectively) on an aluminum bike. With an aluminum frame a warranty is very important because of a possible unrepairable crack (reason to buy new from a shop).
-Ride Quality, Aluminum bikes are ridged and are not always the most comfortable riding bikes. Aluminum frames are known for transmitting a lot of vibration up through the frame creating a less comfortable ride. Higher end aluminum frames often use other technologies to improve ride quality (An example would be Cannondales SAVE Technology).
-Noise, aluminum frames often are known for emphasizing small creaks (usually aluminum on aluminum) weather it comes from bottom brackets, cable guides, or other areas.
Aluminum is everywhere. Its the best way to make an affordable bike for the general rider that is light weight and good quality. Aluminum has become a more price point driven material but it does have some exceptions, especially Cannondale who puts about as much research and design into their aluminum racing bikes as their carbon fiber frames and the resulting bikes are pretty darn impressive.
+Ride Quality, Steel rides very smooth and comfortable. A steel frame is very vibration dampening and absorbs road shock well. These bikes feel solid and glued to the ground.
+Durability, Steel frames are very durable and seldom brake, this is why almost all touring bikes are steel. They can rust if treated improperly.
+Customization, Most custom frame builders use steel because it is the easiest material for small scale production. There are many other reasons custom builders use steel as well such as the classic look and feel of steel.
+Noise, Steel frames are very quiet. Steel bikes tend to be the quietest due to steels vibration dampening qualities.
-Weight, Steel tends to be heavier (unless you want to pay a lot) and is generally the heaviest frame material.
-Cost, There was a time when most bikes were steel and back then steel was the most cost effective. Unfortunately the demand for steel has gone way down since the creation of aluminum frames. Due to less demand production costs are higher for steel frames. Many manufacturers have stopped steel frame production entirely while others still produce and push steel (Jamis Makes steel bikes in all categories, even hybrids).
-Repair, dents or cracks in tubing usually is not repairable (cost effectively) on steel bike. With a steel frame a warranty is also very important because of a possible unrepairable crack (reason to buy new from a shop).
-Scarcity, Steel frames are not super common in the average bike shop. Your options might be limited (depending on the category of bike you want).
Steel may seem old fashion but its still super popular today. Personally I love steel bikes for how amazing they ride. Steel is arguably the most comfortable and smooth riding material for a frame. These characteristics of steel have created the phrase “Steel is Real”. Do not be fooled by anyone who tells you steel is an outdated material, It simply is not. Steel bike have come a long way and can be just as nice (and expensive) as carbon fiber bikes. Personally I think steel is the ideal material for recreational riding in general but there are also obvious advantages to aluminum.
+Weight, Carbon fiber is the lightest material being used for bicycle frames.
+Stiffness, Carbon Fiber is very ridged when constructed to be rigid (such as the frames bottom bracket).
+Repair, Carbon Fiber frames can almost always be repaired as appose to replacing. (Not necessarily cheap but for expensive carbon fiber frames it is worth it).
+Ride Quality, Carbon fiber is very vibration dampening (this is why its used in most high end ridged forks, seat posts, and other components). Carbon fiber feels very solid and smooth.
+Compliant, I know I said above that it is stiff but that is the beauty of carbon fiber it can be made to be compliant in a micro suspension sort of way for comfort and also stiff for performance. Different parts of a carbon frame are laid up differently and this fine tunes the perfect balance of stiffness and comfort.
+/-Scarcity, Carbon fiber frames are super easy to find… if you want a racing bike. If you want a really nice carbon fiber hybrid frame they exist… but many shops refuse to stock them due to the lack of demand and the high cost of them.
-Durability, Carbon Fiber can crack if crashed or mistreated. This is a composite not a metal so it doesn’t act the same way as a metal. Luckily as stated above it is repairable (or warrentyable).
-Cost, In general carbon fiber is not cheap. Any high end bike isn’t cheap but carbon bikes sell at a premium. The reason for this cost is that carbon fiber costs much more to produce. It is not as abundantly used as aluminum or steel in the world and it also cost more to mold into frames.
-Noise, Carbon fiber frames tend to have an echo effect to them. This makes any noise your bike is making amplified. A well tuned drive train is essential on a carbon bike.
Carbon fiber is the newest and most widely used material for performance bikes. This material is what makes up every bike in the pro peloton and I have to believe it is not just because the pros are paid to ride it. This material makes sense for racing, its super light and stiff. One thing I will warn you about carbon fiber is that not all carbon frames are created equally. Carbon fiber frame technology can vary A LOT! Budget carbon frames may seem like a sweet deal but trust me they are not. Budget carbon is heavy and non compliant, these frames loose all the ride characteristics that you want in a carbon frame. Another point about carbon fiber is that being made in Asia is not a bad thing. Asian countries are the leaders in carbon fiber production and they basically mastered it. Almost all of the raw carbon fiber is made in Japan then sourced to countries like China and Taiwan for molding. China and Taiwan are known for carbon fiber production and make almost all of the best carbon fiber frames on earth. They have the technology and tools to make carbon fiber products really well.
+Durability, Titanium is arguably the most durable material for making frames. many people say that they want to buy titanium frames so they will never have to buy another frame. This is true they do last a really long time BUT! Just like anything (especially computers) the technology will change and leave your old frame keeping the cobwebs in your garage company. So they will last but how long before you tell yourself you wont be caught dead on a bike that old.
+Weight, Titanium is very light, especially for a metal. Titanium is lighter then aluminum but not as light as carbon fiber.
+Stiffness, Titanium is a stiff material, its stiffness is very similar to aluminum.
-Cost, Titanium bikes are scarce and expensive. Titanium is very hard to manufacture and the production costs bring up the price. In addition to high production costs titanium is in fairly low demand so the manufacturers who use it are mostly smaller companies and charge a premium.
-Repair, If you can repair a Ti bike I salute you. These bikes are made to not need repair, but things do break and these bikes are not something you will be easily fixing.
-Scarcity, Titanium has very few manufacturers in the bike industry. Many shops wont stock a Ti line. Some larger brands do offer a Ti frame but they are usually made by a Ti specific brand and re branded for larger manufacturers.
-Ride Quality, Not horrible but not great. Titanium rides similar to aluminum and is not the most comfortable frame.
Titanium is a cool material and has many advantages to it. Its really popular among certain crowds of people and for good reason. Unfortunately this material is fairly scarce in cycling due to demand and production costs (these bikes are most likely forged in the depths of Mordor). What weights more a pound of Titanium or a pound of Carbon fiber?
No matter what material you prefer and or ride they all have a place. No frame material is better then another because of all the different properties they have. If you are a new bike consumer who does not know much about bike shopping this may be helpful but what is more helpful is test riding. These things might seem subtle but they are not, new riders are usually shocked when they try out a few different frames especially with a few different materials. Even the most amateur of riders can see a difference between frames right away.