Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for You

We break down the difference between these two materials and compare them in detail
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Last updatedLast updated: September 05, 2022
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When buying a bicycle, you face many questions. In addition to determining the basic model you want – BMX, MTB, or classic city bike – the frame size, the look, and much more also play a role. Above all, however, the material is important to be completely satisfied with the bike later on.

Many people are therefore faced with the question: steel or aluminum frame? To make your choice easier, in this steel vs. aluminum bike frame comparison article, we would like to explain the individual advantages and disadvantages of the two materials and give you practical tips and care instructions that increase the longevity of each material – whether steel frame or aluminum frame.

Choosing the Right Material – Steel or Aluminum Frame?

Bicycles have a tradition that now goes back more than 200 years. A wide variety of materials are tested again and again to create the perfect bicycle. Steel in particular has prevailed over the long term and was one of the favored materials in bicycle manufacture then as it is now.

However, new findings of the last few years have left many people faced with the question: steel or aluminum bike?

Since each material has its advantages and disadvantages, the decision can only be made if the exact purpose of the bicycle is determined in advance and the material is selected according to these requirements.

Quick Side-by-Side Comparison Table

  Steel (Hi-Ten or Cromoly) Aluminum
Strength and durability Longer useful life with great resistance to fatigue Not as strong and durable
Ease of repair Easier to weld in case of breakage Repairing is quite difficult
Weight Steel is heavier than aluminum Ultralight and aerodynamic material
Resistance to rust Sensitive to oxidation Resistant to rust and oxidation

Depending on which properties are particularly important to you, you should also choose the material accordingly. This is the only way to ensure that you are subsequently satisfied with the quality of the bike in everyday life.

Steel Frame vs. Aluminum Frame – Detailed Information on Each Material

Of course, the right material cannot be automatically selected using a short table. So that you can be sure that you will be able to enjoy your future bike for a long time, we have prepared a little material knowledge about steel frames and aluminum frames for you. Here, we intensively examine the advantages and disadvantages of the various materials. So you can easily decide whether you want a steel frame or an aluminum frame or whether you prefer higher-priced materials such as carbon or titanium.

Steel Bike Frames

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouThere are two types of steels used in the manufacture of bicycle frames, Hi-tensile (Hi-ten) steel Trusted Source www.livestrong.com used in inexpensive bicycles and Chromoly steel, also called 41xx steel Trusted Source 41xx steel - Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org , used in higher-end bikes.

Steel is famous for its durability, strength, and versatility. Steel bicycles tend to be priced less than models made from other materials. In addition, the steel will better resist any possible accident. If you prevent it from rusting, chances are your children, if not your grandchildren, can use your old steel bike.

Due to its particularly high weight and low stiffness, steel was rarely used in the manufacture of bicycles for many years. The comparatively cheap material only played a role for steel lovers with traditional ideas – in everyday life, however, primarily aluminum and carbon frames were used.

However, this changed abruptly when particularly stable and robust steel frames were developed, which are also considered to be completely rust-free. So, especially with regard to weight – the paint could be saved.

Nevertheless, steel is still a comparatively heavy material to this day. It can hardly keep up with its competitors which are made of carbon or aluminum in terms of lightness. Its above-average longevity and the modern corrosion protection in innovative steel variants make the steel frame a practical alternative.

So if you are looking for a cheap bike that has high durability and ride comfort, a steel frame is well advised.

Advantages

  • Has high strength
  • Has a high tensile strength with long durability
  • Good fatigue strength
  • It’s very tough
  • It is a relatively cheap material
  • Many manufacturers have a lot of experience producing steel
  • Recycling steel frames is easy

Drawbacks

  • Corrosion protection is necessary for steel
  • Often higher weight

Aluminum Bike Frames

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouAluminum is the most used material after steel, but it is the most abundant in mid-range bicycles. The handling of this metal has been made in such a way that it is possible to achieve specific properties in the frames by varying the sections and thicknesses of the pipe. Aluminum is lighter than steel, is more flexible, and it is much more resistant to corrosion.

The main negative aspect of aluminum is that it has a lower resistance to shocks and weight compared to steel. So too much baggage or an accidental blow could deform the metal and weaken the bike.

With the beginning of the production of aluminum frames at the end of the 80s, steel was replaced as the main material for bicycles by most brands. With the classic aluminum frame, the main focus is on thin-walled tubes with a large volume, which has an excellent ratio between weight and rigidity.

Aluminum stands for above-average durability and low weight, which is almost entirely at the expense of comfort. The cushioning that every frame material offers while riding is by far the worst on aluminum bicycles.

You should also note that every aluminum bicycle is protected against corrosion, which significantly increases the maintenance effort. In everyday life, make sure that you always handle the aluminum bike with care, as the risk of dents in the aluminum frame due to the thin tubes is particularly high. Nevertheless, aluminum is an excellent material for bicycles, especially with regard to everyday suitability in terms of price-performance ratio.

Advantages

  • Aluminum frames are lighter and can be more aerodynamic
  • Aluminum frame bikes are faster
  • They tend to look more modern
  • Cheaper
  • More efficient
  • No rust

Possible Drawbacks

  • More difficult to repair
  • Don’t usually last as long
  • Less comfortable

Side-by-Side Comparison

Below is a side-by-side evaluation of both materials based on material properties.

Ride Quality

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouSteel is more comfortable to use and resistant to traction. Another indisputable advantage of steel, which makes it very attractive when traveling on a bicycle is that it can withstand quite a considerable additional weight.

It better absorbs vibrations transmitted by the terrain, which makes it more comfortable, especially on dirt tracks. It may seem silly or somewhat imperceptible, but in certain conditions, the comfort of steel is defended by many cyclists

However, aluminum is more flexible than steel. But to achieve the same strength of the frame, aluminum requires larger tube sections, resulting in stiffer frames.

For this reason, a steel frame will have a better behavior against vibrations, which makes them, a priori, more comfortable bicycles, although the difference in comfort is not as noticeable as is usually claimed and depends more on other factors.

Durability, Type, and Purpose

Are you going to buy a bicycle that will last you a lifetime or do you plan to change it in a year? Do not forget that all materials suffer wear and tear with the passage of time and the intensity of use. But some wear out before others. Steel, for example, rusts more easily than aluminum, but its durability is also greater.

In terms of durability, steel wins. It is much more resistant to breakage than aluminum, both due to stress and fatigue of the material. However, in aluminum bicycles of a certain quality, it is difficult to break the frame.

Being the most used material in the construction of bicycles, alloys and welds have been greatly improved, making these frames practically unbreakable. The best proof of this is that most prestigious brands guarantee the frame for life.

It is true that when a frame breaks in some remote locality, it is much easier to find someone capable of welding steel than aluminum. But that already depends on the type of trips you are going to do.

If your trips will be through Africa, Asia, or you are going to be very heavily loaded, steel is better. Although it must be emphasized that frame breakage is one of the less common breakdowns that you can have. Also, the material will be determined by the specific type you want. Everyday road bikes and gravel bikes are mostly made with aluminum. Rugged, rough-terrain bikes are usually best produced with steel. These include mountain bikes and fat-tire bikes. A typical example of the latter type is the Mongoose Malus Adult Fat Tire Mountain Bike. It has a rugged steel frame, mechanical disc brakes, and is an under $500 bike.

Weight

In this aspect, aluminum wins by a landslide. Steel weighs about three times more than aluminum and is up to 250% denser than aluminum.

This difference is mitigated a bit because the steel bikes allow you to mount thinner tubes and by using less material, they reduce the weight a bit. Even so, for a frame with the same resistance, the steel one will always be heavier.

However, as we go to higher quality steel alloys (such as the famous Cromoly) the difference in weight is reduced a lot but can increase the price. In any case, weight in cycling is not a factor of vital importance, and comfort or resistance prevails.

Maintenance and Corrosion

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouSteel, especially if it is not a quality alloy, tends to rust, whereas aluminum resists environmental corrosion much better. Aluminum, of course, behaves worse in terms of corrosion when it comes into contact with other metals. It usually appears in contact with other components of the bicycle that are not made of aluminum, such as screws or other parts.

In the case of steel, for humid or coastal climates, you must pay special attention to this maintenance and especially to the place and conditions where the bicycle “sleeps”, since this can greatly shorten the useful life of the frame.

Aesthetics

One of the reasons why many people opt for a steel frame is because they produce slimmer bikes and with more classic lines, allowing for smaller and straighter tube sections that would not be feasible on aluminum. It can be a compelling reason for some people that is why we mention it.

Price

The price in the production of a painting is partly associated with the cost of the material, which in turn depends on its quality. That is why we can find cheaper steel frames than other aluminum frames and vice versa. Most expensive gravel bikes come in aluminum materials but this material is versatile. It can be found in all price ranges, from cheap gravel and road bikes to mountain bikes.

For example, the Schwinn Bonafide Mens Mountain Bike is made of aluminum. It features a 17-inch aluminum frame and costs just a bit over $500.

However, if we match the qualities, the steel frame will normally be more expensive than the aluminum frame and this difference is given by the cost of production.

Aluminum frames, being predominant in the market, have lower costs, which are unfeasible for steel.

Available Models

Finally, it should be mentioned that at the level of bicycle models, aluminum wins by a landslide in all categories. Aluminum is more common as it is more flexible to all types of users. You can find aluminum in cheap bikes as well as in high-quality and more premium models.

Other Bike Frame Materials

There are still other types of frame materials found in bicycles. These include:

Carbon Frame

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouCarbon frames, as you can see in the availability chart provided in the last session, have been accessible to a wider audience and (reasonably) affordable since around the turn of the millennium. Carbon is an artificial material. It consists of carbon fibers that are connected in a special resin.

In terms of weight, carbon sets superlatives. No other material can be used to build bicycle frames as light as carbon. The appropriate alignment of the carbon fibers is crucial for the rigidity and comfort of a frame. For this reason, appropriate experience first had to be gained with this relatively new material. In the meantime, carbon processing has advanced so that frames that combine high stiffness in the area of the bottom bracket and the steering head with a high level of comfort can be built.

The durability of carbon is in principle unlimited. It is not subject to any aging process. Therefore, a carbon frame theoretically has an unlimited lifespan. However, this only applies as long as there are no external influences. The material is relatively sensitive to falling over or getting knocked, so it is not suitable for use on everyday bikes. Although there are now so-called carbon doctors who specialize in repairing broken or damaged carbon frames, the repair is time-consuming and correspondingly expensive.

Almost any shape can be created optically with carbon. For example, the current aero racing bikes and time trial machines would be inconceivable without the use of this artificial material.

Carbon frames are primarily used on high-quality (and unfortunately also correspondingly high-priced) racing bikes and mountain bikes, where weight plays a central role.

Titanium Frame

Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames: Choose the Right One for YouAs with the other three metals, the titanium used to build the frame is an alloy. With its properties, titanium has, so to speak, the best of the four worlds presented. It’s light like aluminum, flexible, and resistant like steel. When it comes to rigidity, it’s somewhere between steel and aluminum. That sounds like the optimal material for most purposes.

However, the raw titanium material is significantly more expensive than the three other materials and the processing is also quite complex. Therefore, titanium frames are extremely expensive.

Titanic frames for racing bikes and mountain bike hardtails are available. In some cases, these are also made to measure and then fit perfectly, like a made-to-measure suit. However, you should be ready to invest several thousands of dollars in such a framework.

Final Thoughts

As you have seen in our steel vs. aluminum bikes comparison, no material is especially better than the other. While aluminum is the most widely used today, bicycles are still being made out of steel materials.

Beyond the material, the important thing is that it is a recognized manufacturer and a design that adapts to the use that you are going to give your bicycle, and above all that it is of your size and with the appropriate geometry.

Now is the time to open the debate: Steel or aluminum? We, except for some very specific cases, prefer aluminum. Which do you prefer?

References

2.
41xx steel - Wikipedia
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