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Cycle Monkey

Internal Gearing Specialists, Bicycle Distribution & Service Center

Tech Talk: Frame Materials

Titanium Jeff Jones Space frame
Aluminum Civia Hyland
Steel Vassago Jabberwocky frame
Carbon Specialized Tarmac frame

Bicycle frames have been made from a vast variety of materials over the years. From metal to wood to plastic, framebuilders have experimented widely. But a few select materials have emerged as the most popular and functional choices, each having its own ride characteristics and intended uses. From the strength and comfort of steel to the light weight and responsiveness of carbon fiber, many riders swear by a given frame material for their type of riding. Most materials are fairly versatile, but there are general guidelines to stick to when picking a frame to ensure a safe and comfortable ride. Read on to learn more about frame materials.

Steel Vassago Jabberwocky frame


Steel is historically the most popular and commonly-used material for bicycle frames. It is also the most versatile and arguably makes for the most comfortable ride. Steel is a metal that can flex slightly while still maintaining its form, making it ideal for riding rough roads and trails. While other materials can have a “chattery” feel over bumps, steel soaks up the small vibrations with ease. Well engineered steel, however, remains stiff in the areas of the frame that must resist flex in order to transfer all of a rider’s pedaling power to the road, such as the bottom bracket and headtube.

The material is extremely strong, often lasting a lifetime even with little to no maintenance. While steel is generally heavier than other materials, it varies in weight depending on the type of steel. The highest end steel - called OX Platinum - is specially heat treated to allow the tubing to be thinner and lighter. Chromoly is the most common type of steel, known as a “workhorse” material that offers a good blend of strength and weight. High Tensile – or “Hi Ten” steel – is the most affordable, but also the heaviest.

The material’s strength and versatility makes it a popular choice for touring bikes, commute bikes, fatbikes, cargo bikes, and certain hardtail mountain bikes, where day-in, day-out reliability is a top priority.

Aluminum Civia Hyland frame


Aluminum is another very common frame material, and has become much more widely used in the last few decades. Though not as strong as steel, aluminum is lightweight and versatile, making it a common choice for light road bikes and cross country mountain bikes. Aluminum is very stiff, which helps for transferring a rider’s pedaling power directly to the road, but also makes the material less capable of absorbing vibrations. Aluminum can make for a rough ride when ridden over bumpy roads.

There are a few types of aluminum used for bicycle frames, with 6061 and 7075 aluminum being the most popular. 6061 is a slightly softer metal, making it better at absorbing bumps. 7075 is stiffer and lighter, meaning it is more commonly used on high-end bikes. No matter the type of aluminum, the material has a short fatigue life and can break after repeated stress, meaning its lifespan is much shorter than steel.

Aluminum is mostly used for building lightweight road and mountain bikes. It is popular for road racing, recreational road riding, hardtail mountain bikes, and full suspension mountain bikes. Aluminum is the most popular material for mass-produced bikes because of its affordability, although more and more framebuilders are manipulating the metal in new ways to produce high-end aluminum bikes.

Titanium Jeff Jones Space frame


Titanium is a very durable and long lasting material, matching the resilience of steel in these respects. However it is much lighter, offering a weight similar to aluminum. Titanium is also known for being very supple - capable of flexing and returning to its original shape while still having a long fatigue life. In fact, some “soft tail” frames are engineered to use the frame tubes as a minimal form of suspension. Of course, this excellent combination of strength and light weight means titanium frames can be quite costly.

Titanium is a high end material, and is used in high end bikes of nearly every kind. Because it is light weight and resilient, it is used in adventure racing bikes that must be durable yet not fatigue the rider. It is also used in many racing road and mountain bike hardtails. There are also a handful of full suspension mountain bikes built using titanium. As a whole, it is not as often used on heavy duty bikes like touring bikes, cargo bikes, and commute bikes.

Carbon Specialized Tarmac frame


Carbon fiber is made up of interwoven fibers glued together to create a thin ply. A few of these plys pressed together makes a material strong enough to build a frame out of. Because it is made of plastic fibers and glue, carbon fiber is the lightest weight material available, yet it comes with a price tag. That price is coming down slightly, as carbon fiber has been mass produced recently and made available to more riders. 

Carbon is unique in that it is not welded together but rather molded, so it can be formed into shapes that metal cannot.  It can also be manipulated with different fiber layups or thicknesses, tuning certain areas of the frame for specific ride characteristics – for example, the seatstays can be made to flex for comfort while the bottom bracket can be stiff to resist side-to-side flex. Carbon construction is becoming more advanced, but part of the challenge is that carbon does not flex like steel or titanium. It is extremely stiff, which can be an advantage in areas of the frame that must not flex, like the bottom bracket and head tube. But that stiffness means carbon can also be “chattery” over rough roads and trails, and also means it will break before it bends.

Carbon is most often used on high-end road and mountain racing bikes, although more and more enthusiast or recreational riders are beginning to take to carbon. Although carbon can be a strong material, it is nearly never used on touring bikes, cargo bikes, commute bikes, or other bikes designed with durability as the number one priority.

Bamboo Calfee Design custom frame

Alternatives: Wood and Bamboo

Much less common materials are wood and bamboo. Both create a distinctive-looking bike with plenty of character, but can be unnecessarily heavy. Bamboo in particular is known for flexing slightly to offer a very smooth ride, yet is very stiff at the tube junctions. Wood also creates a comfortable ride, but is heavier. Although bamboo and wood are unconventional frame choices, they definitely make for a one-of-a-kind ride that many customers are looking for.

Each frame material has its own strengths and drawbacks, but the ultimate choice comes down to a rider's personal riding style. If you’re considering a new frame and are unsure of the right frame material, contact us to start a conversation about what is best for your riding style.