Whats the best bicycle material?
Bicycles as we know them have been around since the 1800s are now very popular as a way to get around during the coronavirus crisis. Lets look at many of the most popular materials bicycles are made out of and make some recommendations for those looking to buy their first / next bicycle! When we refer to the bicycle material we are talking about the frameset, that is the frame and fork on which the rest of the bicycle parts mount to. The frameset determines the geometry, rider fit, ride feel, style and many other specialized attributes such as compatibility with shocks on mountain bikes or the ability to handle heavy loads on cargo bikes. A bikes frame and fork can be made out of different material - for example metal frames with carbon forks are a common option. The frames themselves can be made out of multiple materials - one of the most common are metal frames where some of the tubing is replaced with carbon. Even metal frames can be made out of different blends of the same metal - a chromolly frame can have different metal composition in different parts of its tubing, different butting, tapering, heat treating and etc. For the purposes of this article we are going to generalize for framesets that are all made out of the same material. // Steel // Steel frames have been around with us for centuries at this point and are the most time-proven material on this list. It meets the perfect balance of needs for new as well as experienced riders because it can both be made very cheaply or shaped into very lightweight and raceworthy tubing. Most modern bicycles are made out of the High Tensile steel mixes ( Hi-Ten ) for lower-end bikes or Chromium Molybdenum ( Cr-Mo ) for practically everything mid to high end. Really cheap bikes or bikes from the 70s and older can be made out of even cheaper and heavier material than Hi-Ten ( if you can believe it ) which is uniformly nicknamed 'gaspipe' tubing. High end or exotic bikes can also be made out of an innumerable variety of other steel alloys that may not exactly be Chromo but for our purposes close enough when compared with non-steel bikes. The best benefits of steel are its affordability and reliability. Steel bikes come in at a good price point and can be knocked around a fair bit before incurring damage that would cause issues riding. Even when damaged a steel frame can sometimes be bent back and in serious situations repaired ( although the repair costs usually outweigh the cost of a new steel bike ) The main con of a steel bike is weight where it costs a significant amount of money to get one that is at a comparable weight to carbon fiber. // Aluminum // You may recognize this less common metal as something cans and Apple computers are made out of. It is a relatively new material in general because it requires very high amounts of energy to manufacture even before turning into a bicycle frameset. For the most time Aluminum bicycles have only started to be mass produced in the 80s and 90s through the crossover adoption of technology from aerospace engineering. Aluminum bicycles generally come in two main blends: 6000 series ( bit more flexy ) and 7000 series ( bit less flexy ). As bikes made out of this material have been made a few decades now markets are full of both cheap and very expensive aluminum bicycles. In general the benefit of Aluminum is that it can be made lighter than steel although if done wrong it can also be definitely heavier as well. Like steel aluminum bikes can also be knocked around quite a lot - however one must mind their weaker tensile strength. Once aluminum bends beyond a certain point it will crack and unlike steel once cracked, can not be easily mended. It is for this reason aluminum bicycles come with steel derailleur hangers so that when bent the hanger can be replaced instead of the whole frame. Unfortunately this also means theres a kazillion different proprietary derailleur hangers for aluminum bikes in the event you happen to be so unlucky as to break yours. // Titanium // This material is rare and very expensive and it is precisely for this reason it makes great marketing. Most Ti bicycle framesets and parts are made out of an alloy with some small mix of titanium added in otherwise the bike would be worth its weight in gold. The other tricky thing about creating a titanium frameset is that it must be welded with a special gas running inside the tubes as its welded. This all makes titanium bicycles more expensive on average than steel or aluminum while providing very similar ride quality and durability characteristics. While frames and parts are supposed to be more rustproof in practice you are more likely to physically damage the frame or wear down the part first. // Carbon Fiber // The preferred material of professional racers it can make the lightest bicycles possible with todays technology, and in any shape imaginable to boot! There are a large variety of different variations on carbon fiber technology and essentially they all involve fibers of carbon being glued together and layered to form a shape. That being said the custom work involved in making the machining setup for every model bike, the making of the frame and fork themselves and the testing insuring their safety usually puts them out of the price range of cheap bikes. Specifically carbon is engineered for racing to shave as many seconds as possible for the win. For those racing competitively it is a godsend but for those of us who are not serious weekend warriors it does not offer anything additional other than extra hassle. Carbon frames and parts are susceptible to micro-fractures both from impacts ( such as through falls/crashes ) and regular wear-and-tear. It is difficult to see if a bicycle has been damaged which is why you see less carbon framesets on the used bike market. It is also this reason why even pro riders avoid using it for handlebars, seat posts and cranks. // Bamboo // A naturally grown, strong and resilient material it makes for a unique look and feel and can be molded into some very high end frames as well. First solved by Greg Calfee of Calfee Design using a method fo joining the bamboo with wrapped carbon fiber as lugwork its been available for around 30 years as a reliable bicycle material. Theres such a wide range of bamboo bikes from home made to professional that its difficult to compare it to other materials. When compared to the other commonly found bicycles its still relatively rare to see a bamboo bike - therefore chances are that one wont even cross your path when youre shopping unless you actively seek it out. // Wood // Yes there are wood bicycles. We've seen one or two! Should you ride it? Well theres probably a reason there are so few out there... // Other // You may come across bicycles made out of other exotic materials. Things that are generally not used in bicycle framesets such as plastic or whatever. If your'e considering buying one of these 'will it work' bikes please do your own research as theres probably a safety reason it hasn't reached mass adoption ======== What do we recommend? Generally steel that is Chromolly of some good quality. Bicycle frames usually have a sticker on the frame and sometimes also on the fork designating what model of Ch-Mo was used for the frame or fork. Branded Chromolly such as that from Reynolds, Columbus, Tange is usually better than vanilla ( however some brands make stickers specifically to trick buyers ) The truth is that steel bikes are a great value and if taken care of can last 70 years or more! Theyre fairly hard to break on accident and hold up well to abuse so you dont need to baby them like carbon fiber. Steel frames are also the only type of material which can be repaired at any welding shop which makes them the most affordable to repair and the preferred option for long distance touring for this reason. Its true what they say - "Steel is real" ! Thanks for reading :) If youre on the market for your next steel steed check out the Sprocket bike marketplace app for great deals near you