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The story of how I saved money, quit my job, sold my possessions, and set off to endlessly travel by bike around the world. My Plan

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I write, self publish and sell books about touring

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India and Neighbors
May 2010 to present

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May 2008 to April 2010

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Sept 2007 to May 2008

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Sept 2006 to Sept 2007

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Nov 2004 to Sept 2006

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June 2003 to June 2004

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March 2002 to April 2003

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Equipment Pages Index

Introduction
How Much to Bring and Weight
Some Advice About Advice
A Note to Perspective Sponsors and Gear Suppliers
(See more about Sponsorship)

START HERE for Touring Bikes and Commuting Bicycles
Custom Touring Bicycles and Bike Upgrade Buyers Guide
Bicycle Touring Frames 
The Steel Repair Myth.
Steel and Aluminum Derailleur Hanger Repair.
Bicycle Touring Wheels
Phil Wood: The Best Bicycle Hubs

Panniers / Bike Bags
Cargo Trailers Vs Panniers
Tires for Bike Tours..
Bicycle Touring Saddles.
Women's Specific Bike Touring Saddles
Brooks Leather Touring Bicycle Saddle Care and Conditioning
Bike Computer
Touring Handlebars, Bar Ends, Adjustable Stems, and Padded Grips.
Kickstands
Sealed Cartridge Headsets

How to prevent flat tires
Bike Route Trails and Maps

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Buying Camping Equipment
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(see all 3 book)

Steel Vs Aluminum: touring  bike frame materials

 

DEBATE

Bicycles can now be built with a wide variety of materials including Chrome Molly (Cro-Mo) steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and other exotic materials.  Which is the best frame material for building a bike frame is an emotional debate in the cycling world.

Bicycle Frame Materials: Cro-Mo Steel, Aluminum, Titanium, Carbon Fiber, Other?

a big part missing in the debate is comparing a cheap bike with an expensive bike.  Cheap break and high quality do not.

There is a lot of debate and strong opinions in the bicycle world about "what is the best frame".  I believe that there are minimum acceptable quality standards for frame material and workmanship.  In addition, specific frame types are designed for specific applications.  These issues are fairly cut and dry with little disagreement.  After these minimum standards are met the "best" is abstract and involves unclear choices.  The different materials available for building bicycle frames is one of the most fiery topics of discussion anywhere touring cyclists gather.  Building bikes frames with aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, titanium, or other bicycle frame materials are all options.  Each bicycle frame material has its pros and cons but this is not completely agreed upon as well.  I believe that the most important variable usually left out of the debate is factoring in things like the riders size, weight, strength, and preferences.  The same frame will feel completely different to everyone who rides it.  A large, strong, heavy rider may think a frame has to much energy robbing flex and feels "dead".  A small, light rider may think the same frame is too stiff and has a harsh ride.  Even riders of the same size and weight can have different opinions about how the same bike feels when ridden.  There is no frame material or design that is right for everyone. 

Test rides are seldom possible with the majority of high end touring bikes sold in America/Canada because most touring bikes and frames are not stocked by local bike shops.  These choices have to be made by looking at catalogs and manufacture's internet web sites.  At first there may seem to be a huge variety of touring bikes and frame choices but once you boil it down to tubing, geometry, and construction techniques choices are limited.  The two main choices for touring bike frame material are aluminum or steel, with increasing interest in titanium.

I (Tim) have never built a touring bicycle frame or any other kind of bike.  I am not a metal engeneer or metaloligist but I have several decades of expierance, starting in the mid 1970's, and our current international bicycle tour.  This includes both steel touring bikes and alumin cycles. 

I grew up riding steel bikes before aluminan bikes were known of but bought an alumin road bike in 1986 that I liked very much. 

During our first two years of our around the world bicycle tour we both used expensive steel touring bikes.  After that we switched to top of the line alumin bikes.

I like both and each has its advantages and sisadvantages

Seperating fact from fiction

 

probably not


Here is what I think

To narrow this discussion greatly I am only going to discuss touring bicycles and leave road racing and mountain bikes out. 

To further narrow the debate I am going to only talk about steel and aluminan touring bicycles.  I have never ridden a touring bike made from titanium or carbon fiber.  To my knowledge none exist.  I would love to try out a titinam touring bike if it had a real touring geometry but I have never seen one. I am sure it is just a matter of time.


Tubing diameter, wall thickness, and reality

A bicycles ride quality is greatly determinend by its frame charisticics.  Tubing can have various diameters, lenghts, and wall thickness.  tube diameter and wall thickness) and frame geometry

In theory the same ride quality can be achieved from any frame material by changing the combination of tubing diameter, wall thickness ? 

to stiff vs noodle

I have heard of alumin bikes getting repared in poor country

In reality there are not that many choices in touring frame design so some generalizations must be considered.  Cro-Mo steel touring frames available are heavier, have more flex, and rust. 

 Alumin has to be built with larger diameter tubing

Conclusion = Even though any frame material can be made to have a given ride quality touring bike frames are not available in a wide spectrum of choices. 


The frame flex misconception
The Steel Repair Myth
Derailleur Hangers Bending


choices
cost
weight
dent
rust
paint
longevity


Pro and Con adavantages and disadvantages

choices
- more choices in steel in USA

cost
good steel cost more

weight
steel is heavy

dent
aluminen can dent due to thin walls and soft meatal

rust
 

paint
 

longevity
 

Need big guy


but a high price tag does no guarantee a good bicycle either.  Even an expensive frame can be heavy and have poor ride qualities if it is built poorly or substandard materials. 

I am speaking from experience because I have made huge mistakes in this area. 

During our first two years of our trip I had a custom Cro-Mo steel frame made by a well known manufacture in the USA.  It cost a fortune and fit me well.  I did not learn until it was too late that although it was expensive it was made out of cheap straight gauge steel tubing with no rust protection.  This made it unnecessarily heavy, rust quickly, and have a lot of flex.  When I stood on steep climbs (the Andes has many) my frame would flex to the point that the gears would shift on their own.  This flexing combined with the heaviness also gave the frame a "dead" feel which was far from the lively responsive feel that I was hoping for.  I could actually feel and see my effort being absorbed by the rhythmic flexing of the frame with every pedal stroke.  I recommend that whatever brand of aluminum or steel bicycle frame you buy each and every tube and weld is understood upon before buying. 


All this being said the debate will no doubt continue

During our first two years of our around the world bicycle tour we both used expensive steel touring bikes.  After that we switched to top of the line alumin bikes.  Once the switch was made public I recieved several emails from stonch supporters of the steel frame camp that essentially called me a trader and promised to never look at our site again.  I believe that this is crazy.  Something as nuatral as a touring bike should not be turned into hardliner politics.  I have repeated this many tiimes on this web site "What is important in bicycle touring is not the touring bikes.  What is important is traveling and meeting the people and cultures of the world."

I do not want readers to think that I am pushing alumum but rather want to put the 2 material on equil ground.  What you decide is best for you is a personal decision.  The recent trend among American touring cyclist is to prefer steel while Europeans tend to prefer alumined. 




The Frame Flex Vs. Stiffness Misconception

Have you ever heard "an aluminan frame will beat you up because it is too stiff" or "steel frames have a silky smooth ride because the frame flexes and absorbs road shock?  These statements get repeated often in trendy bike magazines and web sites but does this make it true?  NO, just because we hear statements repeated regularly in popular media does not made it scientific fact.  It is best to look beyond the hype with independent thinking.  I have always have believed that trueth is sometimes different than what is widely believed.  Alimun frames not being confortable or to harsh for touring is a misconception.  Sometimes I think that we consumers only know what the marketers tell us.

We meet touring cyclist from all over the world on all kinds of bikes.  About half are riding aluminen framed touring bikes and the are riding steel.  Every now and then we also meet touring cyclist on a titianem frame as well.  They all seem happy with their frame material choice.  Each bike serves its rider well.

The misconception that some frame materials are more confortable than others has been arounf for as long as alternative (to steel) frames have been on the market.  I have heard it from cyclist who have never owned an alumin bike as well as people who ride both.  Here is the basis for this belief.

It is widely accepted that allumin frames are stiffer than steel frames.

The logic applied here is

I do not know of any scientific test or reasearch so I have to rely on Cindie and my personal expierances.  We both have decades of riding both steel and aluminum frame materials and, more recently, extensive expierance touring on both steel and aluminan frames.  Neither of us understand what all the fuss is about.  There is a difference in the way the different bikes feel when riden but both are comfortable for long tours.

A stiffer frame has more pedaling efficiency

To make a steel frame as stiff as an alumin frame would require it to be very heavey.

Standard Aluminum frames do tend to be stiffer.  This is their advantage because they are more efficient.  Road vibration can be absorbed in non pedaling robbing areas such as suspension saddles, fat tires stems, and seat post.  These road vibration accessories will make you float over the road or trail without robbing energy.

After touring and traveling internationally for several years I have determined that ihis misconception is a North American idea.  The numerous Europeans I have met traveling on bicycles have a much different opionen on the subject of touring bicycles. 

Eoropeans believe that the frame should be as stiff and light as possible.  The road vibration can be absorbed through tires and suspention saddles grips seatpost.

They have told me that the big issue in Europe tends to be about 26 vs 700c or streight bars vs drop bars. 

 

It is a common argument that the flex that a steel frame gives you is like a spring the redelivers your effort every pedal stroke.  This may be true to an extent but no spring will redeliver all of your effort.  If a spring could kids could bounce on a pogo stick forever.  Certainly some of the energy from your legs is lost forever every time the pedals go around.  This energy loss can easily be felt.

Cars and motorcycles have evolved to this idea decades ago.  You will never hear of a motor cycle that advertised a comfortable ride because the frame flexes.  Of course when you have a gas engine it is relatively easy to build a frame that is beefy enough to have little or no flex while the suspension system creates a silky ride.

The best way I have found to soften the road vibration of any bike is to use wider or larger volumn tires

After larger tires I personnally like a brooks sping suspention saddle.

stiff tracks better

Bike Frame Buying,
Building, Metallurgy and Tubing




Frame Builders | Best frame material | Steel vs Aluminum | Check for wear | Tubing manufacturers

Here are a couple sources of information and commentaries on bicycle frame building and metallurgy related to bicycle frame tubing.

(1) Bibiliography: Bicycle: Repair, Maintenance and Building. Several books pertaining to designing and building bikes are included. Unfortunately most are not easy to find.

(2) Frame builders list serve and archives http://www.phred.org/mailman/listinfo/framebuilders

(3) What is the best material for a bike frame?

There is no absolute answer. It boils done to the engineering of the fame and the personal preference of the user. By choosing different tubing (tube diameter and wall thickness) and frame geometry, a skilled frame builder can make a soft or stiff frame out of steel, aluminum or alloy. It is not so much a matter of the material, but how it is used that determines the ride characteristics of a bicycle. It is a mystery what determines every individual riders personal preference. For articles on choosing a material search for "metallurgy" and "buying bikes" in the archives of the Adventure Cycling magazine on their web site: http://www.adv-cycling.org/ . Many of these articles were written by John Schubert, Technical Editor, Adventure Cyclist Magazine. Here is a sample of his insight, specifically touring bike frames:

Out of steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber frames, my favorites are steel and aluminum, but intellectual honesty demands that I point out that other well-informed people will have different preferences. My reasoning: A good steel bike offers a great ride. Aluminum can be (and these days it customarily is) designed to be lighter and stiffer than steel.

However, these properties (strength and stiffness) depend on the entire bike design. The material selection is only the beginning.

Metal matrix allows some improvements in the bulk properties of aluminum that mere alloying cannot achieve. It's on the order of magnitude of 10 percent improvement in stiffness and/or strength.

Some manufacturers have embraced metal matrix. Others haven't bothered, saying it's not worth the bother to get that fairly small improvement over aluminum (which basically has terrific bulk properties for bicycle frame design).

Since I at least try to speak with scientific rigor, and not throw out slapshot opinions: Whether metal matrix in general, or "X" design in particular, translates into an improved bike frame, and how that would compare with other good bike frames of other materials, would be a good topic for a master's thesis. However, no one who is interested has the combination of time, money and skills to do the complex research required to really answer the question.

You won't find any meaningful published test data to compare different frames. The commercial magazines have all descended into the "like wow dude" level of un-sophistication in road tests, and aren't about to get serious. Adventure Cyclist has neither the money nor the inclination to try. Manufacturers' literature is usually skimpy and occasionally inaccurate, because their goal is to sell, not to write a thesis."

I'm not as enthralled with titanium because it's an expensive way to get a bike slightly lighter and not as stiff as an aluminum bike. And frankly, I haven't kept up with the latest carbon fiber designs enough to have a well informed opinion.

Getting back to various steel bikes, if all the frame dimensions were the same, the metallurgical differences would be invisible to you as a rider. Every kind of steel "feels" the same to the rider with two caveats:

Better steels are stronger (more crashworthy), and hence they allow the bike designer to use thinner-wall tubing to save weight. This also makes the bike less stiff. So yes, the most expensive steel bike will not be as rigid as a lesser-priced steel bike. However, the differences are minor.

A saying among people who write road test articles is "My favorite bike is the one I just finished riding." Whatever the differences are, they're small enough that one can fall in love with any of them.

Comfort differences among road frames are tiny, because every road frame is a rigid truss structure that has very little "give" in the vertical plane.

The best way for you to ensure your comfort is to get a bike that accepts larger tires. The air volume of good-size tires absorbs far, far more road shock than the tiny differences among frame materials. To get this kind of bike, insist on a touring bike that will accept tires at least as large as 700x32C, or preferably 700x35C. If you get such a bike, you can always put skinny tires on it -- in which case it will handle just about identically to a racing bike (which couldn't accept the more comfortable touring tires).

Not all bike shops stock touring bikes, and some would be unwilling to order them for you, but such bikes are made by Trek, Cannondale, Jamis, Raleigh, Bianchi and numerous smaller companies. Don't let someone sell you a "racing bike with three chainwheels," though -- such bikes, which are more common in the bike business, can't accept the larger-diameter tires and therefore won't have the comfort for touring."

(4) Steel vs. Aluminum for chopper bikes / art bikes: Chalo, a long time custom bike builder and friend of IBF, gives the following advice:

For amateur chopper construction, steel is a much better material than aluminum for several reasons.

Steel can be welded without significant loss of strength. Aluminum requires expensive heat treatment to restore its strength after welding.

The equipment and inert gases required to weld aluminum are much more expensive and elaborate than necessary for steel.

Steel can be brazed with brass, silver, nickel-copper, or other filler alloys. Aluminum cannot be brazed in the conventional sense. There are aluminum solders, but they are too weak to be useful for bicycles.

Steel can be drilled and bolted without unusual risk of cracks propagating from the drilled holes. Aluminum will often generate cracks starting at holes drilled in stress areas.

Steel can be formed (bent) to a greater degree before significant strength is lost, compared to aluminum which only forms well in its annealed (soft and weak) state.

When a chopper's design is insufficient to cope with the loads imposed upon it, steel is more likely to bend rather than break off completely when it fails.

Add to all these reasons the much lower cost of steel bike frames and raw materials of any given quality, and it's pretty easy to see that steel is a better material for chopper building than aluminum in most circumstances. A few exceptions to this general principle are as follows:

Parts machined from solid blocks are better made from aluminum, because it is lighter and easier to cut.

When a commercial bike frame is to be used without modification, and when the parts attached to it do not add unusual stresses above those expected from normal use, then an aluminum frame may be used.

When very fat tubes and parts are desired which would be too heavy if made from steel, aluminum may be used. The rule of thumb is that you should use at least the same weight of aluminum that you would steel, about 3 times more volume than a comparable steel part.

(5) Do frames fatigue, wear out and fail?

As you might imagine, frames vary tremendously. So many millions of frames have been built, in so many thousands of designs, that some are going to be more failure-prone than others.

To generalize, aluminum is fussier than steel. Aluminum has a finite fatigue life; steel doesn't. That's what the textbooks say. But some steel frames manage to crack too.

Similarly, titanium is supposed to be just about crack-proof, but there are exceptions to that too. And carbon fiber's structural integrity depends heavily on the quality of the design and workmanship.

An aluminum frame subject to repeated heavy loading (being bashed in hard mountain bike use) may last a few years. At the other extreme, an aluminum frame that is not stressed (ridden gently on the smooth road) may last for decades.

At appropriate intervals all frames should be inspected from nose to toes for small cracks. Small cracks grow; they never shrink. So when you see one, take it to your dealer, who will probably tell you the frame is toast.

Cannondale Bicycle Corporation has posted a discussion of this topic in their online Owner's Manuel, http://www.cannondale.com/Asset/iu_files/116376.pdf. Go to section D, "Inspection for Safety" and take particular note of "Fatigue 101," in Part II.

Gary Klein discusses some quality issues of aluminum frames starting on page 5 of the PDF document at http://www.kleinjapan.com/at_klein/garys_speech.pdf

"Aluminum Time Bomb" in the May 1995 issue of Mountain Bike Action magazine also address this issue.

(6) Bicycle tubing manufactures:

Columbus bicycle tubing
Dedacciai bicycle tubing
Reynolds bicycle tubing
See also the page on Bicycle Science, Engineering and Technology

 


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