It's winter. I don't care if it's "officially" winter when this article comes out, it's cold, and Buffalo got 6 feet of snow. One of the hallmarks of winter is an entirely uninspired article from me about something boring. Enjoy.
Bicycle Frame Materials
Guess what--there are more than just carbon bike frames.
Steel is real. That is the classic adage of waxed mustache hipster bike shop employees and overweight retired engineers in full Rapha kits. However, despite my overwhelming desire to argue with those groups of people, they are right. The best riding bikes I have ever had the opportunity to ride have been steel.
There are many alloys of steel used for frames. For the sake of not doing an entire article on steel, here are a few of my personal favorites:
Columbus XCr: This is a high chromium seamless stainless steel and is stupidly expensive. Though it is the only seamless stainless tubeset, you can get. I like it more than Reynolds 953 (another stainless steel tubeset) because 953 is a seemed tubeset. I honestly believe you can feel a difference in ride quality. My XCr bike was probably the smoothest riding bike I have ever had.
Reynolds 853: This is a great heat-treated steel. The nice thing about heat-treated steel is that it is stronger when cooled to standard temperatures making it fairly resistant to damage. 853 is also meant to be joined together with lugs rather than welds, which I personally prefer aesthetically. A good 853 frame has a very neutral ride quality, not too springing and not too stiff. It is my preferred hardtail mountain bike material.
Columbus Life: This is a proprietary manganese, chrome, nickel, molybdenum, and niobium alloy. The unique aspect of this alloy is the small grain size of the material. Life is my favorite steel to race on and my favorite material for a road bike. Like has a certain lifelyness to the ride that makes it feel like an extension of your own body when you are laying down the watts.
There are really only 3 main alloys of aluminum tubing for frames, though there are a few more when it comes to components.
7005 - This alloy is the workhorse of aluminum alloys when it comes to bikes. If you had a reasonably priced aluminum bike, it was most likely 7005. In nerd terms, 7005 is 93% aluminum, 4.5% zinc, 1.4% m, 0.45% manganese, 0.13% chromium, 0.14% zirconium, and 0.04% titanium.
6061 - This is the "fancy" aluminum alloy. This was probably the alloy used if you had a high-end aluminum bike. I personally really like 6061. My favorite crit bike was this alloy. It is light and stiff but can be unforgiving on long rides. 6061 is 97.9% aluminum, .6% silicon, 1% magnesium, .25% copper, and .2% chromium.
Scandium - Scandium was used in aluminum frames in the 90s and early 00s to give 7005 and smaller and more uniform grain size (like in Life steel tubing), mainly to help with weld size on aluminum bikes. Scandium bikes are easy to spot due to their tubing and weld size. The tubes are fat, and the welds are smooth. A great example is any old KLEIN frame.
Good old titanium. I like titanium. It just has a very unique ride. It is kinda springy but kinda muted. My definite choice for gravel. There are only 2 alloys for frames, though 1 has fallen out of favor over the past 20 years. One of the more annoying aspects of Ti is that paint does not stick to it well.
3/2.5 - Also known as Grade 9. This is the main alloy for titanium. It is 3% aluminum and 2.5% vanadium.
6/4 - Also known as Grade 5. This alloy is 6% aluminum and 4% vanadium. Grade 5 is stiffer and more race-worthy than Grade 9 but more likely to crack and much more expensive.
Yes, there are magnesium bikes. Pinarello's resurgence in the mid-00s began with their magnesium-framed Prince. I raced on a magnesium frame for a season and would ride one again. Magnesium frames ride like a scandium frame because magnesium alloys have a smaller grain than aluminum, making for larger-diameter tubes and smaller welds.
I'm not going to discuss carbon that much. I only want to touch on one thing: the "T" numbers. The difference between carbons is the tensile strength. T300 has a tensile strength around 300 kpsi, T700 is around 700 kpsi, T800 is around 800 kpsi, etc. The T stands for Toray, kinda like how cotton swabs are called Q-Tips or facial tissue is Kleenex. Toray has been making carbon sheets for a long time and has become the colloquial standard.
Coach Adam Sczech is an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, USAT Level I Certified Coach, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, and VFS Master Bike Fitter based out of the Western Slope of Colorado. Adam has years of experience coaching beginners, juniors, elites, and clubs as well as a year focusing specifically on special needs athletes. Adam's expertise with bike fitting is extensive with over 15 years and 8,000 fits for athletes that include two world record holders, a national champion, several IRONMAN Pro/Age Groups winners, and an ITU winner. He has completed several full and half Ironman races, as well as numerous Olympic and Sprint races.