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 want one material but mostly to understand that a bike that rides really well could be any material.
A 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 another and that cheap titanium or steel bike is cheap for a reason. The particular alloy used for steel, aluminium or Ti varies the ride and weight of a frame, but mostly it is how the manufacturing of that particular alloy of metals allows for clever tube shapes and profiles and how these work together that impacts most on a bikes feel. Don’t put all bikes of the same material down as the same as another.
The classic example about one material riding vastly different is Aluminium. This can be a cheap alloy that is softer and made cheaply so needs a lot of material to give it strength (especially around welds), this gives that traditional stiff and harsh ride feel we all associate with aluminium, but use a high end aluminium alloy (like 7046 Scandium) with higher strength and clever forming (Hydro formed or Super Plastic formed) and tube shaping and you get a bike that rides much better than your average carbon bike would.
The Tripster AT using Scandium really surprised us; the pretty straight gauge 7005 Kona Jake CX 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 like steel or Ti in terms of comfort. Why is this? Firstly it uses the very 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
The Tripster ATR Ti like other high end titanium bikes uses a combination of tube profiles, butted tubes and snaking rear stays, these combine to flex where needed and stiffen up where needed. A cheap Titanium bike might be the same grade but will be plain gauge and straight tubes as lower cost to produce. This gives a harsh and less appealing ride, in fact you would probably be better off with a well made aluminium or steel frame at a lower price. Titanium is very hard to work with too, selecting experienced and good quality manufacturers are important to prevent cracking. The Tripster ATR V2 was refined from the V1 and meant these frames are almost indestructible. Good titanium bikes have staying power and long reputations for a reason.
Carbon is harsh, but fast
The myth about carbon is that it ‘soaks’ up feedback and vibration, but recent research shows the exact opposite, in part it is the same reason a carbon bike accelerates so fast but essentially your body will feel all the feedback 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 experimenting with rubberised resins in the frame, foam to dampen the feedback better in bars, rims and forks – this is all for a reason.
On gravel this impact is increased as the feedback is greater from the rougher surface, comfort can be improved, or maybe put better, mitigated by specc’ing narrow seat posts, relaxed geometries, features like flex stems, lauf forks and post and also the lay up and profiling of the carbon itself is key and this is why 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 it is lightning fast and accelerates like an ebike but gives you aches and pains on long days from few compromises over speed for comfort. While the Open UP uses some of these mitigation features to improve comfort but while it is faster it is still less comfortable than high end Titanium.
The inherent issues across materials still exist;
- steel is inherently heavier but it is strong and can be easily repaired by a skilled welder. Steels that are stronger cost more but ride best as they are normally triple butted (material taken away where not needed) and thinner meaning they can be carefully selected and worked to tune a bikes handling better.
- aluminium and titanium are corrosion free but are hard to tune and need to consider the above points but can crack and fail without much remedy but very rarely
- carbon can still fail suddenly and catastrophically mostly from side impacts, from transit for example. This is due to the inherent brittleness but again when in normal use it is so rarely I wouldn’t consider this.
The final consideration is how much weight are you carrying? If the answer is a lot 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 consider it on a bike v bike basis not the material!
The purpose of this blog is to change the question of material into how it is applied in a bike to bike basis. Technology has moved on and most the traditional assumptions have changed.