Bart Haynes here in sunny San Diego with another entry in the Ask Bart series. Several weeks ago one of my readers asked the following question:
Bart, I have a few thousand dollars to buy a new bike, and am wondering if you have any opinion on what type of frame is best between aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber.
This is a question I have personally explored and have a bit of experience with. Different frame materials will suit different riding needs. It’s also important to make sure you are comparing relative quality – a decent steel frame is going to be superior in nearly every way to a cheap carbon frame.
So for the sake of this article, let’s compare high quality aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber bikes
Advantages and disadvantages of carbon fiber bikes
For the past 7 years, I’ve raced exclusively with carbon fiber bikes. It’s the most popular material by far in the racing world.
Advantages of carbon fiber bikes:
- Lightest of three frames
- Stiffest of three frames (meaning you get the post out of your pedaling)
- Are usually designed with aero tube shapes
Disadvantages of carbon fiber bikes:
- Most expensive, by far
- Fragile – I’ve cracked the frames on two carbon bikes, one from hard riding and one from crashing. Once cracked, you basically need to buy a new bike
I’ve put a lot of money into buying good carbon bikes. For the amount you spend on a good carbon bike, you can buy a custom, top of the line steel bike. That being said, carbon will allow you to get the “best” bike for racing.
Advantages and disadvantages of steel bikes
Steel is what I have historically spent the most amount of time on. My backup bike is a high quality steel bike, and really isn’t that much heavier than my carbon bike.
Advantages of steel bikes:
- Smooth ride
- Very hard to beet up (they can last you a long time)
- Excellent pricing – easy to get a custom bike for less than a stock carbon frame – allowing you to pump your money into every other part of your bike
- Recent advancements in technology lets you get very high-performance steel
Disadvantages of steel bikes:
- Heaviest of the three materials
- Has the most “flex”, which exchanges comfort for horsepower
If you spend a lot of time on your bike outside the confines of racing, such as a bike-commuter who also races, then steel is a truly excellent option. In other words, I think steel is without question the best “universal” rider option for someone who commutes, races, or goes on longer touring rides.
Advantages and disadvantages of aluminum bikes
Disclaimer, I’ve never owned an aluminum bike, so I’m only speaking out of limited experience riding them. I never purchased them because, frankly, when I have been in the market for a new bike I have always preferred to spend a little more to get a great steel bike or good carbon bike.
Advantages of aluminum bikes:
- Cheapest of three materials
- Very light
- Very stiff
Disadvantages of aluminum bikes:
- Harshest ride (traditionally very uncomfortable, though there have been improvements in recent years)
For a pure racing bike, aluminum is a cheap alternative to carbon fiber. You can a high quality aluminum bike for a fraction of the cost of a high quality carbon bike. That being said, if you are spending a lot of time in the saddle you might feel the price difference.