People often ask does weight really make a difference? Or is just the rider? Well that’s an interesting question and depends on a lot of things but I know for a fact that Lance Armstrong could really shame me if I was on his sub 15 lb carbon bicycle and he was on a 50 pounder from a super store, but weight as well as frame technology does make a difference for riders at the pro level. But as far as your average, every day rider, maybe not as much. I always say instead of saving grams on your bike with various expensive component upgrades, maybe shed those few unwanted pounds and take it from there.
For the next few articles I will explain the most popular frame materials used today and one new style frame material that may surprise you. First I will start with the most basic and oldest frame material; Steel, also known as Cromoly. Then onto the most popular used today, aluminum.
Steel frames are known to be stiff but dense (heavy), a lot of riders love steel frames cause you can feel that you are really riding the bike without a lot of stiffness, hence the old term “steel is real”. Steel tubing in traditional standard diameters is often less rigid than oversized tubing in other materials (due more to diameter than material); this flex allows for some shock absorption giving the rider a slightly less jarring ride compared to other more rigid tubings such as oversized aluminum.
Mild (inexpensive) steel frames need thick walls to be strong enough, and they’re heavy and a lot of times have really bad frame welds, these you will likely find in super stores. Recent developments in higher end steel frames include “air-hardened” steels of very high strength, such as Reynolds 853. (Unlike most other types, air-hardened steels gain rather than lose strength as they cool from welding.) Reynolds and Columbus are two of the most famous manufacturers of bicycle tubing today as well as an American company called True Temper; yes the same company that makes golf shafts and wheel barrows.
– The best steels are very strong and can be fairly light
– Best stiffness overall by ride
– Long-lasting if treated and maintained
– Air-hardened alloys make ultra-high strength affordable
– Easily repairable and safe because steel will only bend not snap like other materials
– Can be heavy
– Rust-prone, but many high quality frame treatments are available
I have actually built a few steel frame bicycles that are lighter weight than aluminum frame bicycles, with most things it depends on the builder and the quality of the steel they use. Steel frames also come lugged where the tubing is welded into, well lugs, the lugs can be cut and designed in a way to make a very beautiful hand built frame.
A few of the top steel frame builders in the U.S today are Waterford (a descendant of Ignaz Schwinn), Independent Fabrication and Jamis Bicycles.
Aluminum frames can be very stiff and light because the density is so low, but as I mentioned earlier the tubes have to be much larger in diameter to compensate. Still, these “fatter tubed” frames are the most widely used design for quality bikes today. Within the last few years’ frame builders started adding Scandium, an element that increases strength. The complete frame tends to be very stiff, which gives the bicycle a lively feel on the road, but also it can make for a rough ride when the road surface is less than perfect, that’s why a lot of companies use suspension or even carbon seatposts, to help soften the ride.
To make aluminum stiff and strong enough to be used to produce a bicycle frame, the tubing diameter, and walls must be made thicker. This increases the weight, but it would still be lighter than a steel frame, because aluminum is about 60% lighter than steel. These frames are not really a big deal for rides up to 2 or 3 hours long, but if century rides(100 miles) are common for you, the stiffness of aluminum might be a problem. With that a lot of companies may use carbon seat stays or carbon forks to help soften the ride even more.
Just be cautioned that not all aluminum is created equal! Nowadays aluminum frames exist at every price level from the high end pro-level race bike right down to the low end, super store bicycle, this is mainly because there are many different grades of aluminum, different production methods and treatment processes used to build frames, so beware.. Most manufacturers of bicycle frames that you find at your local independant bicycle dealer are very experienced with aluminum, so durability tends to be a non-issue and more than likely they come with some sort of lifetime guarentee and if the bike gets routine maintenance and is being used within its intended purposes it should last a lifetime. Some companies today that build, design and produce high quality aluminum bikes are Jamis and Fuji Bicycles , as well as Sun and Electra bicycles.
– One-third the density (weight) of steel
– Easily formed tubing
– Makes a light frame
– Doesn’t rust!
– One-third to one-half the strength of quality steels
– One-third the stiffness of any quality steel
– Modest fatigue strength
– Cannot be easily repaired or straightened
– Bigger and thinner tubes means easy crash damage
So there are the first two basic frame materials. Watch out for the next issue where I will discuss frame material number three, titanium and the mystery frame material.
Matthew Walthour has been coming to Marco Island ever since he can remember, upon graduating high school in Boston in 1985 he and his family moved here permanently. He is a graduate from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and is the owner of Island Bike Shop and Scootertown on Marco Island and Naples. He is also a member of the Marco Island bike path ad-hoc committee.