Bike Frames – Explained!

You’re ready to buy a new or used bike and begin your urban cycling journey – amazing! 

However, as you search, you realize that bike frames can be made out of multiple different materials, and you might find yourself confused and not sure which to choose! This situation is all too familiar for a new biker, and probably has you looking crazed and confused.

As a beginner, this topic was VERY confusing for me to read & learn more about. I found myself falling into an abyss of technical information. Most of the conversations on the topic were full of jargon (butting, welding, custom bike manufacturing), that, as a casual bike commuter, I really didn’t need to know. 

I just wanted someone to explain things in layman’s terms, and tell me what I should look for according to my needs. 

If you’re feeling the same way, you’re in the right place! Read on to learn about the most common bike frame materials, their basic characteristics and what you should consider in order to choose the right bike for you!  


First Things First

Before we continue, let’s define two important terms.  

What is “alloy”?

I saw the word “alloy” all over bike descriptions, and I thought I knew what it meant…but i didn’t really know what it meant. And I definitely did not understand why one “alloy” bike was priced at $1350, while another was $350. 

An alloy is a metal made by combining two or more metallic elements to make the most of their given properties. 

Often bike frames are not made of pure aluminum, pure titanium or pure steel; other elements are added to improve upon the properties of the main material. For example, chromoly is steel mixed with a chemical element called molybendum, that makes the steel slightly lighter and more flexible. 

So, within the sea of jargon that is a bike sales description, be on the lookout for terms like aluminum, titanium, steel or carbon, and don’t be fazed by the word “alloy”! 

What is frame fatigue?

Normal wear and tear (the kind that comes with riding a bike) will slowly degrade a frame’s integrity over time. The bike frame will become more susceptible to dents and lose its inherent stability. All bicycle frames are susceptible to frame fatigue; however, some materials are more durable than others. The more frequently and farther you ride your bike, the more fatigue your frame will experience. 


Aluminum

Price ($100s)

Aluminum bikes are the cheapest you will find, coming in at a range of price points that can work for multiple budgets. 

Weight

Aluminum bikes are nice and light (one of the lightest in this lineup), making them easy to carry and great for going fast and covering ground quickly.

Smoothness of Ride

In comparison to the other materials, aluminum is relatively stiff and not a great shock absorber. This can translate to a harsher, more jarring ride that may not be comfortable for bumpy roads or longer rides. However, with advancements in construction techniques and new and improved aluminum alloys, this is quickly becoming a problem of the past! (look for bike descriptions that say “aluminum alloy”)

Longevity 

Aluminum bikes do not rust and hold up to the elements well. However, aluminum is not very strong, easily susceptible to fatigue and can be difficult to repair; so although it will last many years, it probably won’t last a lifetime. 


Steel

Price ($100s – $1000s)

Steel bikes run the gamut in price. They can be cheap because steel is ubiquitous and easy to find. In fact, before the 1980s all bikes were handmade out of steel. However, nowadays in the age of mass manufacturing, aluminum is king and steel is too expensive to use, limiting its use. Now, most steel bike frames are custom and/or handmade, driving up the price point. 

Weight

Steel bikes are the heaviest of the bunch. Even the steel alloy bike frames like carbon steel and chromoly. On average, a steel bike weighs 1-2 lbs more than an aluminum bike (so it’s not egregious, but still heavier). 

Smoothness of Ride

That heaviness and density of steel and its derivatives makes the ride beautifully smooth. Many riders will comment on how comfortable riding a steel bike feels. 

Longevity 

Steel bikes will rust. Definitely. So for those of you who live in warm, wet climates or need to leave your bike outside for prolonged periods, without extra care, your bike will corrode. However, steel is incredibly durable, very resistant to fatigue and can be easily repaired, making them bikes that will last for the long haul.


Carbon Fiber

Price (1000s+)

This is when bikes start getting very pricey. Carbon fiber will cost you at minimum $1000 new. You’ll find carbon fiber frames on virtually every high end professional racing bike. 

Weight

The LIGHTEST.  This is why they are so popular for racing. The aerodynamics of carbon fiber are unmatched. 

Smoothness of Ride

The physics of carbon fiber means it does an excellent job of absorbing (rather than transmitting) road vibration, making it a great bike for a very comfortable ride – even when you’re riding for miles and miles. 

Longevity

Like aluminum, carbon fiber frames are also susceptible to frame fatigue. Furthermore, it’s difficult to identify when a carbon frame is damaged. Unlike a metal frame, instead of a dent or obvious deformity, a carbon frame develops small cracks that are barely visible, making them very difficult to repair.


Titanium

Price ($1000s++)

Titanium is the most expensive bike material available right now, and will cost anywhere from $1500 to $2000 new . Titanium frames are so expensive because they combine many of the benefits of steel (smooth ride, durability) without the corrosion and weight. 

Weight

Titanium bikes are comparable in weight to aluminum bikes, and some can even be closer in weight to carbon fibre frames. 

Smoothness of Ride

Titanium is also renowned for its smooth ride quality that can be on par with carbon fiber bikes. 

Longevity 

Titanium bike frames are resistant to corrosion, do not fatigue easily and are easily repaired. Like steel they are bikes that will last a long time and often come with lifetime warranties against manufacturing defects. 


Which Bike Frame Is Right For You?

When it comes to choosing a bike frame, it all comes down to your priorities! 

For example, in my case, when I was just starting out about 6 years ago, this is how I prioritized:

  • Price: I had a limited budget and wanted to save as much money as possible
  • Weight: I lived in an apartment with no elevator and did not feel comfortable leaving my bike outside in front of my apartment, so I needed something I could easily carry up two flights of stairs
  • Smoothness of Ride: I would be riding almost everyday about 2 miles, but over (relatively) paved roads. 
  • Longevity: I did not need a bike that would last me forever, but I did want something that would carry me for a few years and was resistant to the elements (we get all the seasons in Philadelphia)!

Solution: Aluminum! I opted for a new aluminum alloy bike that cost me about $320. It fit within my budget, was a breeze to carry upstairs (even with an added basket and fenders), easy to maintain (no matter the humidity, rain or snow) and in my opinion has been a smooth ride despite Philadelphia construction and potholes. My bike has lasted me this long and is still going strong! 

The Smart Cyclist. A Black Woman with braids standing next to her bike. She is holding an orange helmet down by her side in her right hand with her right foot up against the wall.

Bike commuting is a staple in my life, and now that I have a little more money under my belt, an investment in steel (maybe even titanium) is looking like my next move! I don’t have to worry about carrying my bike as much, but my commute will be a bit longer in the coming years, so a very comfortable ride is key; and if this next bike will last me a lifetime, I’m more than happy with that!

Regardless of the reason, it all depends on what matters most to you, and I hope this post has given you some guidance that will help you make the right choice!


Check out all the articles in Getting Started 101 for all your intro to urban cycling needs!

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