So one of the most common things we get asked is around the material for frames. We did a blog on this a few years back but both our understanding and technology has moved on fast with new bikes and even more niches developed. We own and use Carbon, Steel, Titanium and Aluminium bikes and one is still not better than another at everything. This blog explains why you might be best suited to one material but it is mostly to understand that a bike which rides really well could be any material – it is more down to how it is made.
Purely the material alone does not determine how a bike rides
Firstly, consider that a material is not uniform. One aluminium bike simply does not ride the same as all others and that (relatively) cheap titanium or steel bike is cheap for a reason. As most probably know the particular alloy used for steel, aluminium or Ti varies the ride and weight of a frame, but then it is also how the manufacturing of that particular alloy of metals allows for clever tube shapes and profiles and then how these work together to impact greatly on a bikes feel. Don’t put all bikes of the same material down as the same as one another and then compare costs on the internet!!
The classic example about one material riding vastly different is Aluminium. This can be a really cheap alloy that is weaker and made cheaply so needs a lot of material to give it strength in standard profiles, this gives that traditional stiff and harsh ride feel we all associate with aluminium, but if the brand uses a high end aluminium alloy (like Scandium) with higher strength and clever forming (Hydro formed or Super Plastic formed) tube shaping. You can then get a bike that rides much better than your cheap carbon bike would.
The Tripster AT using Scandium really surprised us; the pretty straight gauge 7005 bike I used to ride to Istanbul a few years back was horribly harsh; my arms were numb each day. The Tripster AT changed our whole outlook, there was no numbness and feedback on long bikepacking rides and trips. The frame rode much like steel or Ti in terms of comfort. Why is this? Firstly it uses the best in Aluminium the Kinesium tubeset, secondly the tube profiles are pretty unique using super plastic forming to create clever shapes and profiles. It is also crazy light for aluminium.
Titanium must be used cleverly to get the best out of it
High end titanium bikes use a combination of tube profiles, butted tubes and curves (like snaking rear stays), these combine to flex where needed and stiffen up where needed. A cheap Titanium bike might be the same grade Ti but will be plain gauge and straight tubes to give lower costs to produce. These give you a harsh ride, in fact you would probably be better off with a very well made aluminium or steel frame.
Titanium is very hard to work with too, selecting proven designs and experienced /good quality manufacturers are important to prevent failures. I’ve heard stories of frame eyelets, cable housings, cross braces all badly designed which cause failure in frames. In my experience the Tripster ATR was an awesome bike but even then Kinesis refined from the V1 to the current V2 and these frames are now almost indestructible. Good titanium bike brands have staying power and long reputations for a reason.
The ongoing myth about carbon is that it ‘soaks’ up feedback and vibration, but recent research shows the exact opposite; a stiff carbon frame means your body has to absorb more of the energy from the road surface. The impact on the rider from carbon parts is only now getting better understood and in the next few years we’ll hear more and more. Manufacturers are already experimenting with rubberised resins in the frame, foam to dampen the feedback better in bars, new additives into carbon rims and forks – this is all for a reason.
On gravel this impact is increased as the energy feedback is greater from the rougher surface. However comfort can be mitigated to some extent, by spec’ing narrow seat posts, relaxed geometries, features like flex stems, lauf forks and also the lay up and profiling of the carbon itself is key to the performance. This is why the cost and the ride quality varies so much from carbon bike to bike.
Take the review we did here to highlight this fact the carbon 3T Exploro is lightning fast and accelerates like an ebike but it gives you aches and pains on long days with few compromises in the carbon over speed for comfort. While the Open UP uses some of the above mitigation features in carbon to improve comfort.
The inherent issues for each material still exist and include things like steel is inherently heavier but it is strong and can be easily repaired by a skilled welder. Titanium bikes are corrosion free, carbon can still fail suddenly and catastrophically mostly from side impacts, from accidents in transit for example.
The final consideration for bikepacking adventures is; how much weight are you carrying?
If the answer is a lot of weight then go for steel or strength as your bike won’t ride great regardless, but if you’re lightweight bikepacking or often riding unloaded then your not as restricted when choosing a bike and consider your budget and what the best bikes are that you can get at that price point.
Essentially if you are looking for a new adventure/gravel bike don’t just choose a material and the cheapest option, choose some brand’s bikes at your price and compare reviews etc. Technology has moved on and most the traditional assumptions about materials have changed.