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    Choosing the Frame Material For Your Next Bike

    There are more options in bicycle frame materials than every before. If you are having a hard time figuring out which is right for you, read on and educate yourself.

    We are in an interesting time as far as bicycles are concerned as you have rise in popularity of both the newest technologies and retro, no frills machines. While we all would like to have a garage full of bikes for every type of riding this isn’t practical for most people. When you are looking for a new bike, the frame material is one of the most important decisions you have to make. This will dictate the weight, durability, ride quality and price range.

    While there are some exotic materials that are in limited use, I’ll limit this to the most common you will see on both mainstream and custom bikes.

    Steel

    Steel is a material that you see in really cheap bikes or mid to high end ones, depending on the quality of the tubing used. For the sake of this article I’m going to focus on the better quality cromoly steel you will get on a bike from a bike shop. A steel frame is the heaviest of the material options but still light enough to build up light bike. A steel frame will be about a 1/2 lb heavier than a comparable aluminum frame so the overall weight penalty isn’t too high. What makes steel attractive is it’s durability and ride quality. A well made steel frame has an infinite fatigue life which is why you see 30 year old bikes still kicking around in good shape. It also takes the dings and is harder to dent than aluminum. This durability makes for a good option for commuting, touring and bikes for jumping. Steel can rust if left untreated but will minimal up keep it is easy to keep the tubes from rusting. Touch up any scratches in the paint and periodically spray the inside of the frame with a oil or wax spray.

    While durability is a great practical reason to ride a steel bike, the thing that draws many people is the ride quality. There is a reason that springs are made from steel. It has a natural elasticity that translates into a smooth but lively ride. While geometry plays a role as well in how a bike handles, a nice steel bike hugs the road or trail through corners. Over a long ride, you don’t get beaten up quite as much. Steel is best suited for rigid or front suspension bikes but is overly heavy when built into a full suspension bike.

    Aluminum

    This is currently the most common material used for bikes. You can get an aluminum framed bike starting under $300 and going up to many thousands. Just as with steel there are different qualities of tubing. Aluminum is inexpensive for the weight. This attracts a lot of people who want a light bike. The downside to aluminum is that it has a limited fatigue life and has a harsher ride than the other materials. Over time aluminum will fatigue and developer stress cracks. For most people they don’t keep a bike long enough or ride hard enough to exceed the fatigue life of an aluminum frame, but I have had a case where I personally went through three aluminum frames in three seasons. Aluminum is a soft metal so the tubes need to be oversized for strength which tends to lead to a harsher ride than steel or carbon fiber. Over a long ride this can lead to discomfort and more fatigue in your body. Because it is weldable and machinable, aluminum well for light weight hard tails, road bikes and full suspension bikes.

    Carbon Fiber

    While the other materials used for frames are metals of some sort, carbon fiber is a composite material that is a woven fabric molded in place with resin (high tech plastic). Because of this carbon fiber can behave how ever it is engineered. It can be stiff or forgiving. In many cases a carbon fiber frame is designed to be stiff torsionally and have a bit of give vertically for comfort. Because it is molded the options for shapes are almost limitless. Many frames look more organic than a mechanical creation.

    For road and mountain bike riding where the choice has been made for the best performance (light weight and maximum power transfer) at the expense of all else, carbon fiber is an amazing material as it can be light, stiff and smooth riding all in the same package. The downside to carbon fiber is the cost and durability. While designed to withstand the load from riding, carbon fiber tubes don’t stand up to impacts very well. What would dent a steel tube can crack or crush a carbon tube. Metal tubes tend to bend but carbon will often shear off when it fails. This makes it a good material for road riding but unless you are racing at a very high level, it’s hard to recommend it for mountain bikes impacts are going to happen offroad.

    Overview

    Each of the materials has it’s place. Carbon fiber for performance road and mountain bikes. Steel for people that want a great riding bike but are willing to have a slightly heavier bike. Aluminum for full suspension mountain bikes and affordable light weight bikes.

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