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 since then both our understanding and technology has moved on, 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 and designed.
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 of you 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 and then compare costs on the internet!!
The classic example of 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 tube 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 and compares to cheap Titanium or carbon.
The Tripster AT uses Scandium and it really surprised us. Before this Tripster AT I used a straight gauge aluminium 7005 gravel/CX bike (from Kona) to ride to Istanbul a few years back and it was horribly harsh; my arms were numb each day and I just thought that was from the long days. However the Tripster AT changed our whole outlook, there was so much less fatigue on long bikepacking rides and trips. The frame rode more like steel or Ti in terms of the comfort expected. 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) and these combine to flex where needed and stiffen up where needed. A cheap Titanium bike could be the same grade Ti so sounds identical, but it 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, therefore you should be selecting proven designs and experienced /good quality manufacturers to prevent failures. I’ve heard stories of frame eyelets, cable housings, cross braces that are badly designed and have caused failure in Ti frames. In my experience the Tripster ATR V1 was an awesome bike but even then Kinesis refined from the V1 to the V2 and now V3, updating weld areas, brace designs etc. and these frames should be almost indestructible. Good titanium bike brands have staying power and reputations for a reason.
Carbon is direct, stiff and fast. 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 and lay ups 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 what is all just described as a carbon bike. Weight varies too, a cheap carbon bike can weigh more than a high end Alloy 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 will increase the load on the body and potentially gives you more aches and pains on long days because there’s few compromises in the carbon design over speed for comfort. While the bikes like the Lauf True Grit or Open UP uses some of the above mitigation features in carbon to improve comfort.
The final consideration for bikepacking adventures is; how much weight are you carrying?
If the answer is a lot of weight then go for resilience and 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.
The inherent issues for each material still exist and include things like steel will be heavier whatever the tubing used but it is strong and can be easily repaired by a skilled welder. Titanium bikes are corrosion free and paint free too but can’t be easily welded if cracked. Carbon can still fail suddenly and catastrophically mostly from unseen damage from side impacts, from accidents in transit for example.
Essentially if you are looking for a new adventure/gravel bike don’t just choose your material and look for the cheapest option, think about what you are using it for then choose some brand’s bikes at your price in various materials and compare reviews etc. Technology has moved on and so have most of the traditional assumptions about materials too so I hope this helps!