A bicycle’s heart and soul is its frame. It holds everything together and also defines a bike’s character and ride dynamics. To sum it all up, the frame is the most important thing to consider when buying a new bike with multiple options to choose from – designs, geometries, and frame materials.
Most bikes are made of Steel, Aluminum, Carbon fiber or Titanium. The Steel and Titanium bikes are a niche market especially prominent in the handmade bicycle segment. A vast majority of bikes are made of Aluminum or Carbon each having its own set of pros and cons which ends up confusing most riders looking to decide on their next frame material of choice.
Be wary of cheap carbon frames – these end up having more resin and less of actual carbon fiber. Not only can they end up weighing more than an Aluminium frame, but they might be unsafe and deliver a sluggish ride quality.
While there are a ton of things to consider while choosing between Carbon and Aluminum the following are the four main factors to really consider
A frame’s ride quality is determined by its riding dynamics on different road conditions and surfaces. Most modern frames are efficiently stiff yet compliant enough to soak up the rough terrain. These frames are mostly laterally stiff and vertically compliant. A good frame must resist torsional flex i.e the sort of flex that occurs when you pedal with a lot of force or corner really hard. This sort of flex in the frame can rob the rider of precious power and efficiency output. Most good frames these days are designed with this in mind.
Carbon is the clear winner in this space with frame manufactures easily altering the carbon strands, weave patterns, and thread direction to influence rigidity and compliance in each area of the frame. Aluminum is a lot tougher to manage and requires manufacturers to use tubes of varying thicknesses to allow for more compliance in certain parts of the frame compared to others. This makes carbon frames a lot more precise when it comes to handling and ride comfort.
With the advancement in Aluminium technology these days, both carbon and aluminum frames can be engineered to similar levels of stiffness and responsiveness. Aluminum is a clear winner with respect to price points as a Carbon frame ends up being a lot pricier compared to an Aluminium frame.
Weight is often a big factor for buying one bike over another from a consumer’s point of view. Heavier bikes typically indicate low-quality components or a low-quality frame which in turn delivers a low-quality ride.
Having a lighter bike ensures your ride is agile and nimble and will also accelerate fast and will climb a lot better. Carbon has an edge over aluminum here as it will almost always be lighter than an aluminum frame in a similar segment. Some of the lightest bike frames in the world are built purely of carbon.
Aluminum just cannot be built as strong and as light as carbon frames can be. They do come close though.
One major factor to keep in mind is that the overall weight of a bike is dependent not only on the frame but includes all the components on the bike.
Carbon ends up being more expensive because of the raw materials used, special molds and machinery necessary and because most of the processes are manual and require skilled craftsmen. Aluminum frames, on the other hand, are mostly built by automated machines.
On a fully built bike, the cost of the bike is split between the frame and the components. At the same price point, an aluminum bike is likely to have better components than a carbon bike as the Carbon frame ends up being a lot more expensive. To reduce overall cost on a Carbon bike, the frame ends up taking a hit and contains a lot more resin and filler which reduces the quality of the carbon frame.
As a rider, there is always a constant balance between components and frame quality. Our recommendation is to choose frame quality over components as the frame is the heart and soul of the bike. Components can always be upgraded further down the line. The frame always outlasts the components.
There is a misconception that Carbon is fragile and carbon bikes break easily. It is definitely not so!
Carbon has been used extensively in the aeronautical and motorsports space for decades and has just made an entry into the cycling world and has proven itself in some of the most demanding cycling disciplines such as Enduro and Downhill racing.
Carbon has been known to be stronger than steel.
Frame durability often comes down to the quality of materials used and how the frame is built. This is true for all frame materials – carbon and aluminum included. If a frame fails under normal usage its usually down to poor manufacturing or poor design.
A frame of any material can crack or get damaged under heavy and violent usage. That being said, carbon frames fail very differently than aluminum frames.
If an aluminum frame was to meet with an impact, it would most likely bend or dent. A heavy crash might lead to a crack, but that’s very rare.
Carbon frames, on the other hand, require a large amount of force to be concentrated on a small surface area to cause a crack. When it comes to standard impact that we experience while cycling, such as a big jump or a harsh landing, a carbon frame is just as durable if not more durable than an aluminum frame.
Cracks in a Carbon frame can be repaired professionally by layering carbon fiber patches. Aluminum, however, cannot be repaired.
Having said that, modern frames are highly durable and longevity comes down to maintenance and care taken while riding. An aluminum frame had a finite lifespan of about 5 – 7 years, depending on usage, and carbon bikes usually last a lot longer. The latest manufacturing techniques have closed in on that gap and most good bike manufacturers now offer a lifetime warranty on their bike frames.
Choosing a frame material for your ride depends on your riding style, requirements, and budget.
Carbon bikes are great if you plan to get competitive at some point. They offer good weight savings and excellent ride quality. Most professionals end up choosing carbon fiber because of the weight and performance characteristics carbon offers at a good price point. Carbon is a great option if you’ve been riding for a while and are looking to upgrade your ride as Carbon bikes end up being top of the line product.
Aluminum frames have been in the cycling industry for ages and have proved their mettle in the performance segments with pro riders racing Aluminium in a complete carbon field. Aluminum bikes have a great balance of ride quality, price, and component spec and are a popular choice with beginner riders, serious cyclists, commuters and for weekend club races.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CYCLING
I’m an avid mountain biker and I like riding fast and flowy singletrack. As I keep riding, I continuously work on honing my riding skills. I like to ride whenever possible, especially with friends. I also like to influence folk into getting to ride more often.
Working on bicycles has also been a keen interest of mine for quite some time.
DISCIPLINE: Mountain biking and Road biking
CURRENT BIKE: RockRider 5.3
DREAM BIKE: Santa Cruz Nomad