Choosing the Right Frame Material by Patrick Brady

Craig Alexander's Triathlon Bike- winner of 2008 and 2009 Ironman Championships I met Patrick Brady in Italy as one of our guides on a bike vacation from Florence to Rome.  I quickly learned that Patrick is a knowledgeable cyclist and writer.  You can find great articles of his at Red Kite Prayer.  If you like cycling, you'll love his articles.  I asked him to do a piece on choosing a bike frame for my clients who would like to buy a new bike, but do not know where to start.  Enjoy!

Choosing the Right Frame Material

By Patrick Brady

When shopping for a new bicycle, you have to make a few firm choices. Naturally, you have to choose a category of bike. No one but you can decide if your idea of fun is competing in a triathlon, riding a century or going for a mountain bike ride. The more specialized the bike you purchase, the more limited its use will be (time trial bikes are no fun off road), but the more it will excel in its particular discipline, so choose carefully. Your next big choice is your budget. No one can tell you what to spend, but your likely satisfaction can be gauged by matching your spending to your frequency of use. In broad strokes, it’s good to consider spending $500 to $1000 for every day of the week you plan to ride your bike. If you plan to ride at least two days a week you’ll get a good experience from a $1000 bike and a very satisfying experience from a $2000 bike. Okay, so once you’ve made those two all-important decisions you can move on to a much less important but much more easily debatable choice: What frame material is best? Debating the merits of each frame material can seem a bit like debating who the best Bond was. Sean Connery? Manly, but a bit misogynistic. Roger Moore? Dapper; too dapper? Daniel Craig? Badass, but distant. Where were we? Generally speaking, bike frames are made from four different materials: steel, aluminum, titanium or carbon fiber. Some frames combine two of these in hybrid forms (usually carbon fiber with one of the other two). Strong Points So what are the relative merits and weaknesses of each material? Carbon fiber is the material of the day. It is lighter than a pickpocket’s hand, eats energy-zapping vibration and is as fragile as a man’s ego. Titanium is fairly lightweight (though not generally as light as carbon fiber) is more durable than the Terminator, and is guaranteed to be more expensive than a weekend getaway. Aluminum is the one material that offers great stiffness and low weight for those on a budget; its only drawback is that its ride can be as harsh as a shot of cheap tequila. Steel frames can be rolling-sculpture beautiful or inexpensive; either way they offer luxury sedan comfort. What material you choose will be driven to some degree by the style of bike you wish to purchase, so I’ll take you through this by bike, not by material. Road bikes In selecting a road bike you have more latitude to choose than in any other category. The very lightest, stiffest, most sophisticated—and most expensive—road bikes are being made from carbon fiber. Think Mercedes Benz. From sports car to grand touring sedan you can find whatever you want in carbon fiber, except for custom dimensions. Titanium, with its exotic satin sheen, is light and can be made to custom specs but isn’t the stiffest material out there, ounce for ounce; be prepared to open your wallet like it’s a garage door. Aluminum balances low weight, great stiffness and affordable cost with the confidence of a team of Chinese acrobats. Steel is your chance to put beauty ahead of all other concerns; that said, this old-school material is the ’68 Mustang of the bunch: It lacks today’s sophistication, but it’s gorgeous, easy to customize and will outlast Lady Gaga’s career. What you pay will be directly proportional to its customization and beauty. Triathlon bikes With tri bikes your choice is significantly easier. Because aerodynamics are as crucial to a tri bike as the moon is to a vampire, the vast majority of all tri bikes are made from either carbon fiber or aluminum. Carbon fiber is clearly the best choice for a tri bike. The frame and fork designs using carbon fiber can be vastly more aerodynamic than even aluminum designs can be. Below about $2500 you will see very few tri bikes made from carbon fiber; aluminum may be your only choice in that price range. Mountain bikes Your big choice here begins with the style of mountain bike you wish to ride. Do you want a hardtail or full suspension? If you plan to stick to cross country style riding, the best, lightest bikes are made from carbon fiber. Those on a budget can find relatively lightweight offerings made from aluminum. Consider steel or titanium if you plan to keep the bike until your retirement party. For full suspension rigs, your choice is easy … mostly because there aren’t many. The vast majority of all full suspension mountain bikes feature aluminum frames. The exception to this are lightweight rigs destined for cross country racing. Hybrids and town bikes If cycling isn’t an important part of your life, but you still want to go for the occasional ride and maybe run local errands on two wheels rather than four, aluminum is a terrific choice. An aluminum frame can cut a pound from the frame weight of the average hybrid or town bike.