FRAME MATERIALS AND STYLE

Last Updated: 04/28/2010

UNDER CONSTRUCTION


OVERVIEW

Colin Fletcher advises to choose your first camp stove carefully, since it easier for a man to change religions than to change his loyalty to a stove. But the loyalty of backpackers whithers like a week old salad compared to velo-snobbery. Your bike (and by extension, you) will constantly be scrutinized by other riders. Countless perfectly good and capable bikes have been sold, or worse, have sat unused for no other reason than the owner no longer felt good about it.

Central to many of the holy wars regarding bikes is the choice of frame material. And closely related to this is the issue of the look of a frame. With all of the talk of the different technical aspects of a bike, it may seem surprising to focus on something as seemingly trite as the fashion of bikes. But, if your goal is to purchase a bike that you will use for years and possibly even decades, it is a very important consideration.

There are 3 major frame materials to consider: carbon fiber, aluminum alloy and steel. Titanium frames are still available and have their advocates but they're hard to find outside of mail order. Along with this, I think there are 4 major aesthetic styles to consider: The New Ultimate (currently carbon), Welded Metal (aluminum, steel and titanium), Classic Lugged (steel) and Beater Chic (steel and aluminum).

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THE NEW ULTIMATE STYLE

Over the years, the promise of the New Ultimate style has remained fairly constant: the best performance for the least weight.

The material however, has been constantly changing. Today it is carbon fiber. Prior to that it was titanium. Before that, aluminum. And before that, it was lugged steel. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow it will be nano-fiber. But whatever tomorrow's new ultimate is, one thing is certain. Today's new ultimate bike will be noticeably less than ultimate in a few short years. This leaves the devotee of the new ultimate with only 1 very expensive option. Upgrade their bike every few years.

I was pleasantly surprised to read some refreshingly honest add copy in a bike catalog recently that described its new carbon bike as being for the enthusiast who is devoted to replacing his equipment every few seasons. I would not read that as a indictment against the longevity of carbon. Rather, it recognizes that when you buy today's best, it will be yesterday's old news in a short period of time.

Advocates of carbon will claim that it is stiffer for the weight and that it absorbs road shock well and thus is more comfortable. Skeptics of carbon will argue that the material is subject to sudden catastrophic failure (it doesn't bend, it snaps) and that the comfort is either overstated or non-existent. My best suggestion is to ride and decide for yourself. Return to Top


WELDED METAL FRAMES

Welded (or sometimes, chemically bonded) metal is perhaps the most common style of bike and for good reason. Modern welding techniques and modern tubing mean that welding can deliver light frames for a very reasonable cost. Today, this style can be found on bike ranging from custom bikes costing several thousands of dollars all the way down to cheap department store bikes.

The varieties of metal that are used include steel, aluminum or titanium. Each material has its advocates and their virtues relative to comfort and handling are often hotly debated. However, these debates are often misguided in my opinion, since geometry, tire width, handlebar padding and saddle type all have much bigger impacts on comfort.

That said, 2 points should be made. First, aluminum alloys can still be found in the professional peleton. So, while aluminum frames are no longer the New Ultimate for racing, they remain quite relevant. If you really need the light weight and lateral stiffness of a full race frame but if you don't want to shell out for a carbon frame (currently, carbon is the New Ultimate and quite costly), then aluminum can be a very good option for you.

Second, the weight penalty for steel and titanium is small. More to the point, these small weight differences don't make any big difference unless you are racing in a sprint or in a mountainous climb. So, if you aren't a racer, you should feel free to select a frame material based on other factors such as aesthetics.

Advocates of aluminum will argue that it provides the best weight for the dollar and I think this is hard to argue against. Detractors will argue that aluminum bikes can be harsh riding and that aluminum eventually wears out. Advocates of titanium will argue that it gives a great ride while being light. Detractors will argue that titantium's ride and weight is comparable to good steel. Advocates of steel will argue that it is the most durable and offers a great ride. Detractors will say steel is heavy and old fashioned. You should read up on the claims for and against and ride as many bikes as you can to decide for your self. Return to Top


CLASSIC LUGGED STEEL

The 3rd style is classic lugged steel. This is the style that defined the best bikes for 1/2 a century until the 1980's. Today it is limited to custom or quasi-custom producers.

The lug is a fitting that the tubes go into. They are joined together by low temperature brazing, not welding. So when the frame is completed, the lugs are still visible on the outside of the joint.

There are a wide variety of lugs. Some are simple and sleek looking. Others are very ornate, complete with intricate curls and designs such as fleur d'lis. And still others have a more modern industrial look.

One of the appeals of lugged frames is their association with hand building. Most welded bikes are not hand built. They will be hand built if you purchase a custom bike but otherwise, you can generally assume that a welded bike was produced using robotics. But lugged frames are almost always the result of non-mechanized construction.

That said, just because a bike was hand built with lugs doesn't mean it is good quality. During the bike boom of the 1970s, plenty of lugged frames were produced that were of marginal quality as producers scrambled to keep up with demand. And going in the other direction, the mid 1980's saw a large number of lugged frames that were brazed by precision robotics and many of these production bike are of very high quality.

All of this is to say that lugs are generally associated with hand building and for some people, a hand built frame carries with it a certain appeal, which may or may not really be associated with the frame's quality.

Not only are there differences in the styles of the lugs and the brazing styles, but there is also a difference in how the frames get built up. Some classics aficionados strive for period correct preservation or restorations by using period correct or, better yet, original components. Other create interesting neo-classic "hot rods" by using modern components on lugged frames, which can either be vintage lugged frames or current frames built using classic lugged construction.

Advocates of lugged construction will argue that this is a time proven way of making a frame that is durable and repairable. They will also point out that lugs provide a venue for craftsmen to display their craft. Detractors will label it as old fashioned. My suggestion is that you should look at as many bikes as you can before deciding. If you tend to lean towards "classics" or traditional looks in other areas of taste, you may prefer lugged steel. If you tend to lean towards "modern" looks in other areas, you may not like lugs.

All things being equal, buying a bike with lugs based on looks is perfectly reasonable. A lugged steel frame is going to weigh the same as a welded steel frame of the same quality, or at least they're going to weigh within a few grams of each other. Nobody is going to be able to feel the difference in terms of how they ride. The choice between lugged steel and welded steel is really a matter of fashion and personal preference. Return to Top


THE BEATER CHIC STYLE

The last style to mention is Beater Chic. I'm sure we've all seen beater bikes. Beaters are those barely rolling derelict bikes with dull paint, scratches and dings. But not everything is what it seems.

Sometimes that spray painted bike that's festooned with hipster stickers and locked to a parking meter is, in fact, a classic Italian racing bike used by a bike messenger. Or that faded bike with black repair marks may be a vintage French touring bike that has been around the world.

This is beater chic: bikes that look horrible but that are actually well tuned quality bikes.

Beater chic is the anti-fashion. It not only makes a statement of function before fashion. It says, function only.

Bike messengers and bike racks with commuters' bikes are good places to look for beater chic bikes.

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