Aluminum frames--what's the deal??

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Anonymous's picture

After riding the same steel bike (Spectrum custom) for 15 years, I’m contemplating a new ride, and aluminum seems to offer the best value. I’m told that some aluminum bikes are harsh, but the more rarified brands like Pinarello and Merckx and Cannondale (CAAD 5 and up) have pretty refined rides.

I’m also told that although it’s more difficult to break or damage an aluminum frame, if you manage it the frame cannot be repaired. Has anyone managed to break their aluminum frame? Finally, I hear they have a life expectancy of around 25,000 miles. That would be about 4-5 years for me. Has this matched your experience?

Last fall, I sent my Spectrum to Tom Kellogg for repainting and refitting to accept 130mm rear wheels, a threadless headset, etc. It was nice to be able to upgrade an old bike so easily. I guess one this is one of steel's advantages...


PS: If anyone riding a 59-61cm aluminum framed bike wants to know what a premium steel bike feels like, I'd be willing to swap my 60cm Spectrum with you and do a lap or two in CP together.

Anonymous's picture
"Chainwheel" (not verified)
Aluminum frames are not all alike

"David Regen wrote:
""I’m also told that although it’s more difficult to break or damage an aluminum frame, if you manage it the frame cannot be repaired.""

Durability depends on many factors. ""Stupid light"" frames are more prone to failure than stouter models of similar geometry regardless of the material used (assuming similar weld quality). Rider weight and riding style are also factors.

Frame material has a minor effect on ride quality. Compare the early Alan frames (made of small diameter aluminum) to the early Cannondales. The Alan's flexed like wet noodles, while the stout Cannondales were the stiffest frames ever made. It's not the material that matters; it's what you do with it.

The larger question is: What do you think an aluminum bike will do for you that your custom Spectrum won't? It may be a bit lighter which will help slightly on hills. But the difference is based on the percent difference in weight of the bike AND rider. That usually amounts to about 1 percent. If you're a serious racer specializing in mountain events, that may be significant.

I find it interesting that brands like Pinarello, DeRosa, and others that built their reputations on beautifully made lugged steel frames have switched to aluminum. Aluminum frames can certainly be built faster and at lower cost to the manufacturer. But I don't see the savings being passed on to the consumer.

It sounds as though you're satisfied with buying a frame that you estimate will only last 4-5 years. I guess the age of the disposable bike has arrived.


Anonymous's picture
Anthony Poole (not verified)
You should get more than 25,000 miles

You should get more than 25,000 miles out of a good aluminium frame, even on the crater-strewn streets and avenues that pass for roads in New York City, unless you are in the habit of crashing heavily on it on a regular basis, or have it dropped, unprotected, by an airline baggage handler.

I know people who have put well in excess of 50,000 miles on an aluminium frame with no problem at all.

Bear in mind that aluminium, all be it not the same grade, is still widely used in aviation. If it was that prone to failure, one could reasonably expect planes to be falling out of the skies on a daily basis.

Aluminium as a material is considerably more expensive than steel. Ships' hulls are predominantly built of steel, which is prone to corrosion, especially in a salt water environment, and the simple reason for that is that it is considerably cheaper than aluminium, otherwise the latter material would be used. It is cheaper to drydock a ship and give it protective anti-foulings and coatings on a regular basis than to build using aluminium. The price of steel is also why the car manufacturing industry predominantly uses this metal as its main material.

Aircraft manufacturerers have used aluminium for several years, primarily because it does not corrode, although it is prone to metal fatigue. Aircraft undergo extensive testing after a set amount of hours in the sky for metal fatigue and parts are replaced as necessary. There was a time, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when metal fatigue figured regularly in aircraft accidents, but it has been extremely rare in the last 10 to 15 years.

If you have any doubt about the durability of aluminium, bear in mind that B52 bombers are still around, and first started appearing in the late 1940s. The B52 fleet is still the backbone of the US's airborne bombing capability. And Boeing 707s, dating from the 1960s are still flying, having clocked up considerably more airborne hours than the B52 fleet. In comparison, there are very few ocean-going ships of that age around. Only ships operating in fresh water only, such as those that ply the Great Lakes, date back to the 1940s.

I'm sure people will shoot me down (pardon the pun) and say it is pointless comparing a bike frame with an aircraft, but I'm not convinced. I think aluminium frames, provided they are good to start with and are not abused, should give many years of satisfactory performance.

But we should have a better idea in 20 years time. If there are a lot of aluminium bikes around that date to the 1990s and early 2000s, then we will be on much firmer ground in saying that aluminium bike frames are truly durable.

Anonymous's picture
Steely Man (not verified)
... In a perfect world, yes.

A 200 lb man can stand on an upright beer can, and it will support his weight. However, a child can squeeze the same can by it's sides and easily crush it with two fingers.

Therein lies the rub: The AL frame is plenty strong for it's designed purpose, just riding along, but it won't survive even minor crashes well.

As for cost, I think Mr. Chainwheel was referring to the fact that TIG welded aluminum frames can be constructed quickly and cheaply as opposed to lugged steel frames, which require many man-hours of labor. But the price tag on that 30 minute AL frame is about the same as the 20+ hour lugged steel frame. Nice racket, eh?

Anonymous's picture
"Chainwheel" (not verified)
Your mileage may vary

"Anthony Poole wrote:
""I know people who have put well in excess of 50,000 miles on an aluminium frame with no problem at all.""


""If you have any doubt about the durability of aluminium, bear in mind that B52 bombers are still around, and first started appearing in the late 1940s.""

Anthony, there's no doubt that durable bikes (and airplanes) can be built from aluminum. The original Cannondales were among the most durable bikes ever built.

But in recent years, some manufacturers have been pushing the ""bleeding edge"" in light weight frames. As tubing gets thinner and thinner, there comes a point where durability suffers. A frame that is suitable for a 135 pound Pantani (who will probably use several frames in the course of a season) may not be appropriate for a 200 pounds recreational rider.

To generalize about the durability of ""aluminum frames"" makes no sense. We need to know the specifics of a particular frame. The same goes for steel, titanium, or anything else.

Each material has unique properties, and good frame design is all about taking those properties into account to produce a bike that will meet a specific requirements (racing, touring, lightweight rider, heavy rider, etc).

As I said, it's not the material that matters, it's what you do with it.


Anonymous's picture
Anthony Poole (not verified)
I guess we should compare apples with apples....

.... as opposed to comparing chalk and cheese. And, while I'm at it, I'll see if I can carry on writing cliches until the cows come home.

With my sweeping generalisation about good quality frames, I was referring to some of the more robust makes that are around, such as the various incarnations of Cannondale you mention. Incidentally, the people I know who have 50,000 plus miles on their aluminium frames ride Cannondales and are around about the 180-190 pounds mark.

I confess ignorance about the economics of the various welding techniques involved between aluminium and steel frames, but I wondered whether a lot of the savings made on the type of welding on aluminium frames might be wiped out by the higher cost of the aluminium, as opposed to the steel. Without proper investigation, I am tempted to say that the frame manufacturers may not be perpetrating such a great scam, as there maybe no real saving to pass onto the consumer, but I am not speaking from a position of knowledge.

Just for the record, I ride a steel framed touring bike, which I love and an aluminium road frame, which I also love. And I have an unused, three-year old Lemond Alpe d'Huez steel road frame in England, which I plan to bring over on my next trip home and build it as a second road bike, so I can enjoy both. It was a real bargain. I bought it early last year for £50 (about $80), just for the frame, no fork etc. I was lucky enough to be in the right shop at the right time. The store simply wanted to get shot of it. It was one of two, and a friend of mine bought the other one.

Anonymous's picture
Peter Storey (not verified)

I don't disagree with any of Anthony's conclusions about bicycles.

I do have some doubts about ships.

IIRC, steel continues to be used for ships for three reasons: 1) yes, it's cheaper (and stronger), 2) weight is less of an issue (the ship doesn't have to go uphill, get off the ground or even accelerate especially well) but also 3) aluminum has an even worse corrosion problem when left sitting in salt water for long periods of time.

As for the age of the ocean-going fleet, the tankers from that period (the 1940s) would be inefficiently small by today's standards, and most freighters of that period would all have been obsolesced by the container revolution. So no, you wouldn't expect to see many ships from that era.

Peter Storey

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