Whether you're a beginner or an experienced rider, if you're considering purchasing a bicycle or upgrading from your current one then you’ve likely come up against the question of what kind of frame to purchase – Aluminium or Carbon Fibre.
Generally speaking, bikes with aluminium frames do tend to be a more on the cheaper side, but does this mean that carbon fibre frames are somehow superior? And if this is the case, is the additional cost worthwhile to you?
In this article we’re going to answer these and other questions so that you can make a more informed decision about what kind of frame will be right for you.
First, lets start with the fundamentals. Don’t worry, I promise we will get to the more interesting stuff soon!
Aluminium is a metal material that contains properties that make for very nice bicycle frames. It is lightweight, strong, non-corrosive and has low density. Its biggest benefit when compared to carbon of course is that it is cheap to produce, easy to handle and cheap to manufacture, in this case, bike frames from.
Carbon Fibre on the other hand is comprised of two main materials. The first being the weaves of carbon fibre, which are produced from a variety of different base materials, and the resin which holds them together. Carbon has similar properties to Aluminium, however it is stronger, lighter and more comfortable. Whilst this is great for the rider, the downside to it is it is harder to handle and manufacture, which makes the material more expensive. As you look at entry level carbon bikes and move to high end carbon road bikes, the carbon fibre weaves are higher quality, meaning they need less resin injected into them to hold them together, which makes them lighter.
When comparing carbon and aluminium frames within the same price range you’ll more than likely find that the carbon option is lighter.
Of course this will also depend largely on the overall quality of the frame you are opting for, so an entry-level carbon fibre frame may end up actually being heavier than its slightly higher-end aluminum counterpart.
Having said this – and you’ll find that this applies to each of the criteria we will be discussing – it is well worth shopping around because you might be surprised by what you can find. Carbon fibre itself tends to be a touch stronger than aluminum which makes it easier to make lightweight frames from, but this isn’t always the case!
Carbon is also a highly customizable material in the area of comfort, and manufacturers are able to design carbon fibre frames which are more effective at absorbing impacts and vibrations to make for a more comfortable ride.
The difference between the two isn’t likely to be particularly significant, but there is some noticeable bumpiness when comparing aluminum to carbon frames.
It is also worth noting at this point that the stiffer nature of aluminum frames may actually make them more suitable for racing as they offer an arguably superior amount of energy transfer. Quality is the big determining factor here so please understand that there will be a great deal of variance as you move up from one price point to the next.
Carbon fibre frames will typically last far longer than aluminum, with the latter typically coming with a lifespan of around 5 – 10 years depending on how aggressively you ride your bike.
A carbon frame could theoretically last you a lifetime if well maintained.
This is difficult to determine because it depends on the context you intend to ride your bike in and the types of damage that you may risk exposing it to. Even so, it is absolutely possible to repair a damaged carbon frame without hampering the quality of the ride significantly.
Carbon frames are more durable to both forceful impacts and torque but it is unlikely that you will have to worry about exposing your ride to such high forces.
Both carbon frames and carbon components have been gradually coming down in price over the years as production methods and technologies improve. This has helped to narrow the gap somewhat.
Even so, aluminum frames and components within the same groupset are almost always going to work out cheaper.
If you buy a low-cost carbon frame bike then you may find that the components used are of a lower groupset, meaning that the overall weight and quality of the ride will be compromised in other ways besides the frame itself.
Either way, it is important to ask yourself the question of whether you need to be concerning yourself with the arguably subtle differences between aluminium and carbon frames; this is what we are going to discuss now.
Does it Really Matter to You?
As with many elements of cycling gear and components, the higher you go in terms of price point and groupset, the more subtle or minor the differences become.
Although this may not make sense at first, it is important to consider why this might be.
A high-level racer or trail rider will often be more than willing to pay the additional cost to upgrade their frame and components, even if means gaining, say, an extra 2% in speed, comfort, handling, durability, or whatever they are looking for.
This simply isn’t the case for most of us, so in looking at the various frames on the market and the materials they are made for, make sure you are making your decision from an informed place rather than simply going with something like a carbon frame because they are currently en vogue.
Arguably the most important factor for many of us is going to be comfort, and for that we would definitely recommend opting for a carbon frame, but again it depends on your budget.
Opting for a cheaper carbon frame bike may cause you to be worse off in the long run if the lower price is achieved by the manufacturer skimping on quality components.
Choosing your frame doesn’t have to be very complicated, so remember the old adage of “buy cheap, buy twice” and you won’t go too far astray.
If a deal on a carbon frame bike seems too good to be true then it probably is.
To summarise, decide both your budget and what it is you’re looking for in your bike purchase and then use that to form your decision.
What has your experience been with both Aluminium and Carbon Frames? Leave a comment below and let me know!