Many often claim that the most important aspect to consider before purchasing a bike is its frame material. I stand by their claims as frame material is crucial in determining the total weight, ride quality, handling, and lifespan of your two-wheeled companion.
Now, there are four primary options you can choose from in terms of frame construction: titanium, carbon fiber, steel, and aluminum bike frames.
From the lot, the latter two options are the standout choices in terms of rider demands largely on account of their accessibility, cheaper pricing, and pragmatic designs. Thus, they’re usually favored by riders for club rides and daily city commutes.
But, the question arises—how do you choose between the two materials? Also, which one is the best choice?
I don’t have a strong allegiance towards either as they both come with their fair share of advantages and disadvantages. So, there’s no need for you to involve yourself in a steel vs aluminum battle.
Truth be told, what you, as a rider, should eventually go for must depend on your riding style, purpose, requirement, and budget.
Today, we’ll discuss the various ways a steel bike differs from an aluminum bike.
You’ll come across instances where steel has a clear advantage over aluminum. In other sectors, a steel bike may not even be fit to tie the laces of an aluminum bike.
Have a look and identify the pros and cons of each bike material to determine the bike frame that works best for you.
Steel vs Aluminum Bike: 7 Key Differences
1. Ride Quality
One common observation is that aluminum bicycle frames are much stiffer than steel and are, as a result, rigid. This leads to harsh rides in the city as the rigid frame can do little to absorb the bumps, vibrations, and shock.
Of course, having suspension on the bike paired with a set of good tires, seat post, and comfortable cushioned saddle will be a welcome relief, but the truth remains—aluminum frames give off a much harsher ride.
Now some, especially track racers, may prefer the rigidity of the aluminum raw material but regular cyclists will be better off with a steel bike frame.
In terms of riding speed, steel bicycles are much slower than aluminum bicycles because of their lower efficiency and higher weight.
Additionally, unlike steel bike frames, aluminum bike frames need not be constructed of round frame tubes; there exists more room for aerodynamic improvements as builders can easily mold the aluminum tubes, fork, and frame to maximize speed.
If you’re shopping on a strict budget, it may be in your best interest to opt for aluminum bike frames as they’re far cheaper than steel bike frames.
The cost production of steel bicycles usually skyrockets because of one simple fact—they’re time-consuming to manufacture. On the other hand, aluminum bicycles can be mass-produced thanks to their easy construction process, which is why they’re priced lower too.
Irrespective of how strong and durable your bike frame material is, it will eventually lose its battle with time.
However, steel frames are much easier to repair than aluminum ones. Any welder will be able to fix steel material issues (weld steel) with minimum fuss.
Granted that the steel material welding job may not be the prettiest or the smoothest, but you will still be able to ride your bike, especially when you are stranded in the middle of nowhere.
On the other hand, only experts well-versed in the craft of welding aluminum material will be able to fix an aluminum bicycle frame. Also, these aluminum experts aren’t easy to come by, even in the most developed countries.
You’ll be in a desperate situation if your aluminum frame material fails you during your cycling session.
No frame material performs as well as steel in terms of durability and strength. The steel frame material can handle the most extreme cases of stress or abuse without breaking a sweat.
Dings, scratches, bends, and dents can do little to ruin the structural integrity of the steel frame material. Plus, if cared for properly and diligently, a steel frame bike will outlast your interest in cycling.
Regrettably, the same can’t be said of aluminum frame materials.
Aluminum frames are brittle, have less strength, and are prone to damage and fatigue life. Even a small dent in a vulnerable area can end the life cycle of an aluminum frame material.
What I prefer about steel frames is also the fact that they give off a strong indicator that they’re about to fail.
A steel frame tube just doesn’t bend or crack randomly in a jiffy like aluminium. It takes time for a steel frame to be rendered dangerous for riding.
Therefore, you’ll have more than enough time to address the failing issues and fix them up for safe riding.
On the other hand, aluminum doesn’t even bend; it just ends up splitting in two. Just think of aluminium soda cans and visualize how easily they snap.
In theory, an aluminium bike with its head tube could break suddenly as you speed down a dangerous slope.
As a result, a steel bike is a much safer option.
However, I must add that steel bicycles, unlike aluminum bikes, are prone to rust. Aluminium bicycles are naturally rust-resistant due to the presence of aluminum oxide.
5. Aesthetic Appeal
Aluminum bikes have one up on steel bicycles when it comes to aesthetic appeal.
Aluminum frames look modern as the aluminum frame tubes on them are flexible enough to be molded into various aerodynamic shapes. That, and the fact that aluminum is light, is also why the material heavily used in the aerospace industry.
There’s truly something romantic about a well-made, complex, modern machine.
Steel bicycles sport traditional designs and aren’t designed to excel in performance. They don’t feature the most advanced gear, nor do they have the most dynamic shapes.
Hence, they aren’t the best choice for a trendy cyclist.
Some may say that aluminum bikes are the more portable option because of their light weight, but I would like to look at “portability” from a different angle.
Consider this situation—you want to bring your road bike along with you on your vacation.
Now, an aluminum bike that doesn’t have a foldable feature will take up a lot of flight baggage space. This will ultimately lead to expensive over-sized bag fees.
Or, let’s say you’d like to secure your road bikes onto your vehicle as you head to scenic trails for a ride. Road bikes that don’t have a folding feature will be difficult to store.
Now, during such occasions, steel bikes, unlike aluminum bikes, can have S&S couplers installed onto them. The S&S couplers enable you to break your frame tubes down into a couple of pieces for easier transportation.
7. Strength to Weight Ratio
Almost everyone is aware that most aluminum bikes are lighter than steel bikes. But, many are unaware of the fact that the weight difference can often only be very little. In some cases, aluminum bikes can weigh even more.
The fact remains that aluminum is lighter by volume as it has close to a third of the density of steel. However, in a bid to make aluminum frames as durable as possible, road bike manufacturers commonly make the tubes bigger and thicker than steel tubes.
The increase in the tubes’ size and extra material add weight too and often get an aluminum bike terribly close to a steel bike in terms of weight. In hindsight, the weight difference between a steel frame and an aluminum frame can be less than you suspected because of the extra material on an aluminium bicycle.
If you’re on the hunt for a bike that can handle extreme cases of stress, abuse and can tackle any rugged terrain, then it’s a good choice for you to opt for a steel bike. Mountain bikes and all-around bikes are often constructed of steel for their strength, durable feats, and ride characteristics.
However, steel bikes, owing to their heavier weight, have a sluggish pace and are difficult to propel forward and go the distance, especially on hilly terrain.
Aluminum bikes, on the other hand, are specifically designed to provide excellent riding performance. They’re lightweight, easier to use, and are thus, ideal choices for kids, older people, or the physically unfit.
Regrettably, aluminum bikes are not nearly as sturdy as steel bikes and can succumb even to the slightest of pressure. However, if you’re one whose cycling sessions will only be limited to riding on paved roads, aluminum bikes are the way to go.
Riding on any other rough terrain with an aluminium bicycle is a big no-no.
In essence, weigh the pros and cons of each bike frame material carefully from the materials market, whether it is steel and titanium or aluminium and bamboo, and go for one that suits your budget, requirement, and riding style.
In addition to looking at the frame material of a bike you intend to purchase, I would also recommend you to focus on the bike size, handlebar placement, suspension, tires, and gear ratios.