What’s the best bike frame material?

Mat Brett explains how what the bike frame is made from - whether it is steel, aluminium, titanium or carbon fibre - affects your performance and what you should consider before you make your choice


There are all sorts of half-truths and downright myths bandied around about frames: aluminium ones are harsh; steel and titanium bikes are springy; carbon-fibre frames outrank any other… 


The truth is, you can make an excellent bike from any of these frame materials, and the ride characteristics have more to do with how the bike is designed and built than the frame material used. Sure, some aluminium bikes do transfer bumps in the road straight through to you in the saddle, but not all aluminium bikes are like that. Plus plenty of carbon bikes, for example, are equally harsh. The point is that it’s dangerous to make too many assumptions based on a bike’s frame material.

Titanium has never made up a massive section of the market, but brands like Van Nicholas and Enigma produce many tri models. Lots of people talk about the springy ride quality, although the fact that titanium can be made into light, strong frames that are highly resistant to corrosion is a very important benefit. The downside of titanium is that it’s relatively expensive.

Steel used to rule the roost and there are still performance bikes out there made of various types of steel tubing, from the likes of Reynolds and Columbus. Steel is strong, stiff and potentially durable, but aluminium is a much lighter metal with a higher strength-to-weight ratio, which is why it took over as the frame material that most manufacturers used for their performance bikes.

Aluminium comes in different grades with different properties, but things like tube diameter and butting (where manufacturers vary the wall thickness to save weight while retaining strength) are important, too. Although
6061 aluminium is generally considered to be superior to 7005, you can’t assume that a frame made from it will necessarily be better.

Carbon fibre is the number one choice for performance bikes right now. Nearly all of the mainstream manufacturers make their cheaper performance bikes from aluminium but their high-end models from carbon fibre. A carbon-fibre bike won’t always deliver a higher performance than an aluminium bike, but manufacturers can use it to produce frames that are very lightweight, stiff in certain areas to maximise power transfer and more flexible in other areas for comfort. Carbon fibre can also be shaped relatively easily for aerodynamic efficiency.