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Which material is best for different types of riding?
Frame Type

 Material

XC Race Hard Tail - long ride FS - long ride Dowhhill Jump
Steel
Aluminium
Carbon
Titanium
These are of course our opinions... if yours are different, e-mail me at

Key:   is not suitable   not really suitable   can be used

a good material   The best material for the job.

This is a subject fraught with strong opinions and more likely to upset mountain bikers than any amount of ranting on about politics and religion.... so I'll just dive right in then.

Aluminium is the best mountain bike frame material out there. See I've upset you already! Seriously, before full suspension came along Titanium was the best thing since sliced bread. It lasts forever (almost) is light, strong and has a natural springiness that takes some of the vibration out of riding a hardtail. Steel is a close second mainly because of it's relative cheapness. It has the spring of titanium (in it's more expensive forms) and can last a long time if cared for.

But once you introduce suspension the natural spring of Titanium and Steel are a down side. All those bushings and linkages need to operate with the minimum of side forces which would cause binding. So if you want your suspension to work properly the frame's tubes need to be very stiff. No problem, just add more metal. This is fine if you're using Aluminium, but if you're using Steel we're talking battleship heavy. Titanium is somewhere in-between. It's a lot of hard work to make it stiff and it still wouldn't be that light.

If you want a cross country race bike it could be made of any of the above metals. The race heads tend to want all their power to go to the chain however and this means a stiff frame. I don't have to say they also want it to be lighter than air, so Aluminium is the masochists metal of choice. Sure you get hammered on all but the smoothest courses, but if you can't take the pain of racing you won't be on the podium too often. Aluminium has a nasty habit of cracking when made up too light. It just doesn't like to be flexed. This means most Aluminium frames will eventually fail, some of the light ones sooner rather than later. This doesn't worry the hardened racer though, they only see what all the pro's are winning on. Anyway, who wants an old mountain bike?

 

For the 'all day hard rider' there are lots of choices. If you have loads of money and don't mind maintenance then an Aluminium full suspension super-scoot is the way to go. Carbon fibre gets a look in here as well because it can be made to be stiff and very light. Just don't stack too hard on it. For the low maintenance and more affordable option, Steel is definitely the hardtail choice. It's spring and longevity as well as value, mark it out as the best in the class. Aluminium can be used, but even with a suspension seat post it will still hurt more when you stand on the pedals.

The downhillers have the same problems with steel and Ti as the long hard riders. They do break a lot more frames however and if you're really only going down (many courses have hard pedaling sections) weight is less of an issue. So steel gets a look in because it can be built incredibly strong, with a weight penalty. Carbon fibre gets broken a lot but this is mostly because builders use it where they want to shave weight. Less weight equals less strength (DUH!). Carbon is also subject to build quality problems. Easton and Cannondale seem to have solved more of it's faults than most and in their hands it probably doesn't deserve it's fragile reputation.

Link to Cannondale site

For the jumpers out there strength is almost everything. Carbon fibre inspires no confidence, Ti is not worth the cash, as weight isn't a big factor, so Steel or Aluminium it is. Steel will take more hammer in the end and so I reckon it's the metal to go for. Steel is also present at the birth of any new frame type. Before the big companies get in to gear (3 years or more?) steel is the metal of choice for custom building, it's a lot easier to put together than the others.

Link to Spooky site

So what's the best frame material out there? obviously it depends on your riding preferences, wallet thickness and maintenance schedule. For the record I'm a full suspension convert so the order of the day is Aluminium and/or Carbon fibre. For the low maintenance types a hard tail should be made of Titanium if you can afford it, Steel if you can't.

Check out the table below for some of the main advantages and disadvantages of each material in each frame category.

Next Feature


Summary of materials advantages & disadvantages
Frame Type

Material

Main Uppers & Downers XC Race Hard Tail - long ride FS - long ride Downhill Jump
Steel Cheap
Strong
Cheap
Small bump smoother
Strong
Cheap Cheap
Strong
Easy build
Cheap
Strong
Easy build
Energy loss
Heavy
Rusts if not cared for Too flexible for FS Heavy
Too flexible for FS
Heavy?
Aluminium Good power transfer
Light
Stiff
Light
Stiff
Light
Stiff
Light
Strong
Light
Tiring
Cracks eventually
Tiring Can break if too light Can break if too light Can break if too light
Carbon Stiff &
Springy!
Light
Stiff &
Springy!
Light
Very light
Stiff
Light
Stiff
?
Not as stiff as aluminium Expensive Expensive
Can break
Expensive
Can Break
Breaks Expensive
Titanium Light Small bump smoother
Light
Longevity
? ? ?
Not as stiff as aluminium
Expensive
Expensive Too flexible for FS
Expensive
Too flexible for FS
Expensive
Expensive
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