TCI Friday works when you participate, like marriage counselling or the tango, or democracy.
By this time, I have written this Friday discussion column hundreds of times. Back in the Red Kite Prayer days, it was called the Friday Group Ride, which we conceived initially as a way to engage readers on their thoughts and experiences in a more purposeful way. I mean, we spend an awful lot of time writing AT you; we figured a regular feature like this would be a good way for you to write back at us.
So as I said, I’ve written hundreds of these, maybe 700 in total, and for sure some of the topics have repeated. For kicks I went back into the archive and looked at some of the very first ones. In fact, I was amused to see that this whole project started in December of 2009. The first editions were pretty weak. I hadn’t figured out a good format yet, and back then I would write a recap of everyone’s input the following week, as if we hadn’t all been there, participating.
The first one I came to that asked a solid, always relevant question was #13. It focused on bicycle frame materials, and what I found interesting in both my set up and in the feedback was how different the bike world looked then. I would have told you that wholesale takeover of carbon fiber as the material of choice happened around 2003, but actually, there were still a lot of steel frames in circulation in 2009. This kind of memory correction is helpful to me.
Back then I wrote: “Are you a “steel is real” rider? An aluminum stalwart? A titanium beast? A carbon-fiber, um, person? Or, maybe, just possibly, a bamboo bandit?”
As I recall I had two steel road bikes I was flogging at the time, a Moser 51.151 that didn’t fit me, and a Torelli Corsa Strada. In that Group Ride I said, “I ride steel. This is a function of some vague notion I have that steel was good enough for riders of my ilk (i.e. slow) twenty years ago, and it’s good enough now.”
Most of my attitudes have shifted since then. I got a job at a custom bike builder and acquired some hand-made titanium and Ti/carbon bikes there. I own a carbon fiber dual-suspension mountain bike now. I still think steel is real, but I only have one steel bike left, a fixed gear dream my friend Mike built for me.
Really, each of the popular frame materials has a case to be made for it. Steel, in the right hands, is elegant, forgiving under the rider, and relatively affordable. Aluminum is tough and budget-friendly. Titanium has steel’s benefits but it’s lighter at the same strength. It’s also costlier. And, I’m less carbon averse than I used to be, but I worry about the long-term waste problem from broken frames that can’t be recycled and won’t biodegrade. Carbon fiber can be so light, strong and adaptable for frame building purposes. With any of these materials, there are well-made examples and garbage.
So this week, we revisit an age-old topic. What do you ride? Why? What are your decision-making criteria vis a vis materials when buying a new bike? Finally, how have your own ideas about frame materials changed over time?
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Steel Mercier fixed gear c. 1994, aluminum Vitus disc road bike for commuting from 2017, Litespeed T1SL Disc titanium road bike. I’m a metal head and will probably stay that way, although I don’t really like that most bikes come with CF forks. Metal is not industructible; I’ve cracked a steel dropout and aluminum chainstay under normal riding. Still, I trust that metal will reveal its failures, CF maybe not.
I started off with steel in 1977 (well, 20″ ers in 1968) and ventured into Ti and Carbon briefly during the aughts but always returned to steel with every N+1. It’s all I own and ride now and truly I do not think about any other material, weight comparisons or whatnot. It is what a bicycle is, to me. But I am atypical and don’t represent most road cyclists in 2022 as I still ride DT shifters frequently and as for my more modern bike, 11 speed Campag Record mechanical is as futuristic as I want my bike to be. I’m good.
I have a pretty wide variety. My road bike and commuter are carbon, my gravel and fat tire bikes are aluminum, and my cargo bike is steel. Honestly I would love to get a titanium gravel bike, but I’m waiting for my current one to kick the bucket before I upgrade.
Started on a steel 70s BMX tanks. Played on aluminium, flirt with carbon as a component choices but metal is my frame of choice. My current go to is Ti CX bike from Twin Six. Carbon still freaks me out a bit. I still have flashbacks of a warehouse crit and some dudes Kestral head tub shearing off and taking out 3/4 of a bunch of middle age Cat 4’s. I know that Carbon has come a long way but I often end up upside down in the bushes at some point and I know metal is going to survive, maybe.
Let’s be clear. The frames are ti, but the forks and bars are carbon, the rims, hubs, seatpost, and stem are aluminum. BB bearings are ceramic.
J – This is a good point. All the materials seem to find their way into the bike as a whole.
I ride all the materials. Steel breakaway travel gravel bike, aluminum fat bike, titanium gravel bike, carbon fiber CX bike. Love ‘em all.
Given the tire widths and pressures I’m running, I’m not sure I’d detect a difference if someone swapped out a frame material without my noticing.
With the exception of an aluminum double boinger, my bikes are steel Interestingly (?) I have two steel bikes with carbon wheelsets, and I think that’s a baller combo. They are my two favorite bike, BTW, a Jones LWB Plus, and a Surly 1×1 singlespeed. Fe is the Bee’s knee!
I’m still riding the same bikes I was riding when you first posed this question — 2 steel frame/fork road bikes, an aluminum/aluminum cx bike, and 1 full suspension aluminum-framed mtb. They were all functional antiques then, and more so now. All of them remain capable of going way faster than I can ride.
I currently have 4.5 bikes. 3 steel (Swobo Accomplice, ’78 Laguna Cruiser, ’02 Surly Instigator frame), 1 carbon (Santa Cruz Nomad 6 on order), and 1 alloy (Banshee Paradox V3). I have no allegiance to any particular material, but rather I driven by their durability, performance and esthetics. The only carbon bikes I’ve owned have be two Evil Wreckonings V1 & V3 and my soon to be Nomad 6. I never gave AF about whether they were carbon and would have likely purchased them if they were alloy. As for my views on materials changing, I used to think that steel was the best choice for a hard tail due to it’s vibration damping abilities. However, the Banshee has with it’s engineered vertical flex points rides better than many steel bikes I’ve ridden. I firmly think you can make a great bike with any of the popular methods/materials just as well as you can make a terrible one. Additionally it is easy for the user to choose the wrong material for their own riding styles and endeavors. Knowing thyself will save you a great deal of time, heartbreak and money.
Titanium Serotta road – ’98
Recently purchased Trek Al frame full-sus MTB ’22
Blue Racing Al CX bike ’17 I think
Steel Breezer Radar ‘ ’19 or ’20
I love them all. I’d like them all to be lighter though.