In the rarefied realm of elite cycling, almost nothing is as divisive as the arguments over which frame material is best.
That's demonstrated amply in the August issue of Bicycling magazine, in which four editors with different preferences each review a bike made from their favorite material: steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium.
Once the dust settles, it's hard to call a clear winner. Each has its strong points and drawbacks, and each appears able to attract a loyal following. Some of it is purely subjective, as riders try to put into words why they like the "feel" of a certain bike.
As the frame debate trickles down to riders of mid-range bikes, different factors are at play. For the consumer on a budget, it's a matter of choices: to spend extra on a non-steel frame and save a pound, or use that money to get a steel bike with better components?
For all but the wealthiest of cyclists, titanium is the first frame material to be eliminated from consideration, for one simple reason: expense. Not only is the metal expensive, but it is very difficult (and costly) to work properly.
"If you didn't care about expense, titanium bikes are the best you can get," says Mike Olson, manager of the Supergo bicycle shop in Fountain Valley. Titanium is stronger and more durable than steel at considerably less weight.
However, a titanium bike typically costs $1,700 for the frame alone, so most complete bikes are close to $3,000. Bikes made from metal mined in the former Soviet Union and China are just debuting, one priced at $1,600 for the complete bike, but some observers are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the quality of the material.
Carbon fiber (or "composite") materials start around $750 for both road and mountain bikes. In upper-end road bikes, the frames are one molded piece, in a style pioneered by the company Kestrel. This makes for some of the wilder designs available today.
In lower-priced carbon fiber bikes, straight tubing is used in much the way a steel frame would be assembled. Carbon fiber is touted as having the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio of any frame material. Some say it is vulnerable to abrasion, however, making it less than ideal for rough-and-tumble mountain bike use, although that perception is disputed.
For mountain bike riders in the middle of the price range, the choice often comes down to aluminum and steel. To get low weight while maintaining frame strength, aluminum tubing is typically fatter than steel tubing, an aesthetic point that discourages some road riders but actually attracts mountain cyclists.
"It works out real well for mountain bikes," Olson says. Generally, an aluminum frame will weigh about one pound less than a steel frame of the same size and type, and cost about $200 more.
How much of a difference is that pound? "It kind of depends on the person," Olson says. "The more serious you are, the more you ride on hills, the bigger difference that pound is going to make." (Note: Early aluminum models had a reputation for a rough ride, but those problems have been smoothed out, apparently).
On the other hand, "it probably makes sense to be open to steel," Olson says. "Someone on a budget . . . can get a better deal with a steel frame."
The Specialized Stump Jumper is a longtime favorite mountain bike model. The steel-frame version retails for about $700; the M2 version is about $900 and roughly a pound lighter (M2 is Specialized's brand name for a "metal matrix" aluminum strengthened with composite fibers).
For that $200, a customer could opt to upgrade the wheels and components on the steel frame, and come up with a bike that actually weighs less than the $900 aluminum model. Or, they could spend $200 on front suspension.
The point is that any purchase should be a matter of carefully weighed options. Many customers come in determined to buy an aluminum bike, when they might be better served by a steel-frame bike.
Steel-frame (or "chrome-moly") bikes carry some stigma for being heavy, but advances in metallurgy are bringing down the weight while maintaining the traditional strength and durability. "Some of the new steel bikes are just as light as the aluminum bikes," says Olson. "Steel doesn't necessarily mean it's heavy."
Finally, there's one factor in choosing a frame that is far more important than even the material: the fit. Choosing a bike shop with a knowledgeable sales staff, and spending time on the purchase, are the keys to actually enjoying the bike.
"It would be better to have a $300 bike that fits you right than a $3,000 bike that doesn't," Olson says. "If you're not comfortable on the bike, then you're not going to ride it."