I had to include a section about why steel is great because there are many misconceptions about this material. With most major manufacturers pushing carbon fiber and aluminum; steel is out of sight, out of mind for many riders. Others have the idea that steel is old fashioned, out dated, and worst of all heavy (this is probably the most common thing I hear). The truth is steel bikes are strong, durable, and light, yes I said it, light.
I believe the reason so much confusion exists around steel is because some of the best and worst bikes in the world are made of steel. Steel is used on $10,000 road race bikes and $100 Wal-mart bikes (not to hate on Wal-mart bikes, all biking is good). However, you could hardly call these steels the same material. The steels I use have been designed to create bikes of amazing strength and weight.
How can steel bikes be light, steel weighs almost three times as much as aluminum? The important metric to consider when building a bike, or virtually any weight bearing structure, is strength-to-weight ratio. The simplest way to put it is that steel has three times the mass of aluminum, but it also has three times the strength. This means I can use a third of the amount of material and have a bike of equal strength.
Steel provides what many consider the best ride quality; it is the measuring post that other frame materials are judged against. It has a lively feel that aluminum lacks, and carbon fiber tries to emulate. Steel’s ductility (flexibility) helps smooth out the bumps of the trail or the vibration of the road.
Here’s a little more information on bike frame materials. You can do tons of research on the internet about these materials, but here are my short descriptions to get you started, or save you the time. I did my best to stay unbiased because all these materials can and do make great bikes.
- Carbon Fiber – This material has a great strength-to-weight ratio. One of the biggest advantages of carbon fiber is the ability for designers to manipulate fiber alignment and create specific ride characteristics. However, it has a limited fatigue life (the manufacturers even tell you to only ride it for so long) and when it fails, it fails. It also has lower durability, and limited repair-ability, so it’s not a great candidate for long-term use.
- Aluminum – A great material for making bikes that are extremely stiff and light. Aluminum offers a cost conscious option for riders seeking light frames. Where aluminum suffers is in the area of ride quality, most people describe it as a harsh, unforgiving ride. This can be masked with carbon components, and suspension, but the frame is still the heart of the bike.
- Titanium – Ti is timeless, it has a virtually unlimited fatigue life, and will never corrode. If you need one frame for the rest of your life, Ti is the way to go. That said, given the cost of Ti frames it might have to be your last frame. It has been extremely challenging to work with, and very expensive, leading to very high prices.
- Steel – I’ve already explained what makes steel great for the rider, so here are some points from the builders perspective. Relative to other materials it is very easy to work with, affordable, and readily accessible. Steel is the most popular material for custom builders, as such, it has the most options for tubing, dropouts, and other frame parts.