Steel, carbon, aluminium, titanium, we’ve even had metal matrix composite, wooden & magnesium frames (Kirk Precision), but what’s best for you & is one of the cheaper carbon frames actually a better bet than an aluminium frame?
It used to be Reynolds 531, that was what you bought if you were a UK cyclist over 30 years ago, we then started getting different steel tubesets from Columbus, Reynolds 753 (a thinner walled higher tensile steel), Reynolds 653 (which wasn’t a tubeset at all really, but a mix of 531 & 753). These frames were manufactured by a process called brazing, which used lugs & solder. The tubes were mitred (shaped at the end to meet the profile of the adjoining tube, keeping it very neat), set up on a jig & heated with oxy-acetylene torches, the solder melted & assuming you knew what you were doing, filed the small gap between the inside of the lug & the outside of the tube by ‘capillary action’. This was very much an acquired skill on the better tubesets, any old chopper could braze a plumbers tubed bike, but when you started getting down to tubesets of wall thickness 0.7mm, you had to be a skilled craftsman. Britain was awash with these skills, there were steel frame builders everywhere, you could visit the workshops & see the men in action, goggles & torches, a step into yesteryear.
There is a resurgence in the steel frame, but it’s very much a niche market, you’ll barely see anybody racing on a steel frame these days, where in the past it was the only option. There are exceptions though, the Madison Genesis team in the UK ride steel frames, there’s a profile on Dean Downings HERE. Another exceptional modern steel race bike I’ve seen close up is James McCallum’s Condor Acciaio, these bikes show that is still a place for steel amongst the carbon. You’ll see that these frames are not lugged, they are built in the non traditional method for steel of TIG welding, this wasn’t something that was possible with the older tubesets, but since Reynolds developed products like Reynolds 853 a number of tubesets have been developed.
Aluminium frames were the start of the downfall for steel, we saw some incredible looking frames appear in Scottish races, big tubes, filed welds on bikes like Klein & Cannondale from the US. That opened up the market to flood with mass-produced welded aluminium frames (wrongly called alloy, all the steel frames are a steel alloy too), they were cheaper & lighter than made to measure steel frames. The initial frames with tubes of steel diameter were not particularly resistant to fatigue, there were a large number of failures as manufacturers tried to get their aluminium bikes on the market with little R&D, the smart manufacturers had opted for oversized tubes with very thin wall thickness, resulting in a much more durable frame. The incredibly sloppy Vitus was one that used small diameter tubes, but even with these problems and the inbuilt flex, riders like Sean Kelly still managed to win lots of races on them. Some manufacturers were scared off & held off far too long, like the UK’s ailing Raleigh, who were never to regain their market share in top end race bikes (although they are making a resurgence at the moment as more of a distribution business than a bike manufacturer).
Aluminium was the key point in mass market frames being produced, welding had allowed the frames to be manufactured without the skilled craftsmen required for brazing operations, they could now robot weld en-masse & flood the market. We did have a large number of very heavy frames appear, where they were churned out into the market, but most riders would have been better off with a steel frame rather than these oversized tubes with very thick wall thicknesses, not able to soak up the bumps from Scottish roads, but they are probably still going, it’ll take them a while to corrode through.
Carbon frames started appearing about the same time as Aluminium frames hit the market, at this point in time they were just using standard tubes bonded into aluminium lugs. This wasn’t a method that brought out the best properties in the material, it was also prone to a few early failures & some unhappy riders. The same with carbon forks, you just have to ask coach Graeme Herd about that one, he had an unfortunate episode where he used his face as a brake when a carbon fork failed. The first ‘proper’ carbon frames I saw in races here were those similar to the ones that Kenny & Roddy Riddle were riding, the Trek, they looked incredible at the time, as most other frames in the bunch were lugged steel. These frames (correct me if I’m wrong on this) were again constructed using pre-formed carbon tubes, but joined in a very different manner, they were held in place by jigs, the joints over-wrapped in carbon fibre & resin, then baked to form fantastic looking & strong joints, resulting in a very similar looking frame to the eventual mass production monocoque carbon frames we see today.
The modern ‘monocoque’ frames use no pre-formed carbon tubes, they are the best use of carbon fibre’s properties, manipulating specific shapes at certain areas of the frame which require strength in specific directions. ‘Mono’ is perhaps not the true story, as these frames are formed in at least two parts, but often the rear triangle is often made from the older bonded method. For example, what would be considered the main frame diamond (top tube, down tube, seat tube & head tube) is constructed as one part, then the rear bonded triangle is attached, wrapped & baked. The ‘monocoque construction’ sticker is always on the main triangle for this reason.
What you get for your money
As with everything, you get what you pay for. The mass market aluminium frames flooded the market after the first frames appeared, the same has happened with carbon frames. The lower price ones do look fantastic, but if you check the weight you’ll see that although they’re strong, many will be overly wrapped in carbon. The reason that many top end carbon frames cost a lot more is down to R&D, if it was just material price we’d be buying them for pennies (well, you know what I mean).
R&D plays a vital role is carbon technology, without good reasearch & development, backed up by high quality manufacturing, you’re not going to get the ideal carbon product. Computer modelling allows carbon to be placed in the correct areas, in the correct direction, in the correct quantity, this isn’t just for strength, it’s for the ride too. Carbon frames can be constructed incredibly stiff, but good frames need ‘a bit of give’, some compliance so that you’re not bouncing all over the road on anything but the smoothest surface. This is a trade-off & is very hard to get right, you want stiffness to avoid the frame twisting when you pedal & sprint, but you want compliance to soak up road bikes. Steel & titanium do this very well, aluminium had to have the correct mix of frame tubes, carbon does it well on a frame built with this in mind. The result is that some very stiff carbon frames that pro riders use in many races (not the ones they ride in the cobbled classics obviously) are potentially too stiff for our rubbish roads, the same goes for the overly engineered cheaper carbon frames, where too much carbon has been used (excessively skipping back-end under a sprint is sure sign). So unfortunately for most of us, a higher end carbon frame is really the one that’s going to do the job to the best of its abilities, but potentially not the one used in le Tour, but do your research and ask the questions, make sure you’re paying for R&D and manufacturing quality, not branding or product endorsements. Lighter riders often suffer more on carbon frames too, they are generally built for an average 75 to 80kg mass market rider, not a whippet, so if you’re light you are going to find even less ‘give’ in a carbon frame without the larger gentleman’s ‘pre-load’.
I’m not going to tell you what to buy, but just bear in mind the plusses & minuses stated above. Most decent aluminium frames are of good construction & technology these days, I’d say that a good aluminium frame is going to be a better bet than a cheaper carbon frame, in my opinion it’s only when you go up-market a bit with carbon that you get the benefits. Apparently Phillipe Gilbert rode an aluminium frame tarted up to look like a carbon one for one of his very successful seasons, so sometimes the pro’s won’t choose the most expensive option either. There’s always the custom steel & titanium options, the type of top end steel frames highlighted above are good enough for UK domestic pro’s, they’re likely more than sufficient enough for you & steel is on yet another revival making it a viable choice yet again. They can also be built made to measure, in the UK, if that’s your thing. Titanium is a very good overall frame material, bomb-proof & will last you a lifetime, but expensive & if you get sick of it, you’ll be stuck with it forever! Carbon won’t last forever, the good ones come in at the price point of titanium, but they look great, which I think is the point so many riders buy them for, it also holds bragging rights to your non cycling friends, a carbon fibre frame holds more clout to petrol heads than any other material.
What do I have? I’ve got all of them, so I can’t even make up my own mind, it’s really down to personal choice, style, engineering, performance, but the old saying from Keith Bontrager always comes into play, especially for bike frames, “Light, Strong, Cheap: Pick two”. You get what you pay for, but don’t get framed.
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