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Steel or Aluminium Frame?


Steel versus aluminium is a never-ending debate in the bike touring world, and the question is largely one of personal preference. We’ve tried touring bikes made of both materials, and see pros and cons to each option.

Our classic steel touring bike.
A classic steel touring bike.

Steel – It’s the traditional choice, tends to be the favoured material of high-end custom bike builders and is renowned for giving a lively, almost springy ride. Compared to aluminium, steel is also a relatively straight forward material to weld and this is a key part of the pro-steel argument.

The logic goes that you’re more likely to find someone who can fix damage to your frame en route if it’s made of steel, rather than aluminium. That’s true to some degree but a lot depends on the skill of the welder and the severity of the problem.

In Cambodia, we were able to find a welder who could fix small cracks in our steel frames. The cracks were then repaired a second time in Australia. At the same time, we had some of the drop-outs and mounting points for luggage racks repaired as well. They had corroded away.

It was nice to be able to repair our much-loved bicycles. It’s also possible to argue that we might not have faced these problems in the first place, if we had chosen an aluminium frame. The cause of the cracks was a small welding error when the bikes were initially built, while the corrosion was caused by paint rubbing off our steel frames, allowing rust to set in.

If you find yourself with a more seriously damaged steel bicycle, it might not be possible to find someone with the appropriate welding skills and understanding of bicycles to make the repair. For seriously warped and damaged frames (after a crash, for example), it’s almost certainly better to look into buying a new frame or having one shipped to you, rather than trying to bend it back into shape.

Aluminium bike
Andrew on his aluminium touring bike.

Aluminium - Aluminium touring frames are generally a little bit cheaper, a touch lighter and give a firmer ride than steel.

They’re also immune from rust, which means you don’t need to be as vigilant about covering up small chips and nicks to the paint as you do with a steel bike.

Sometimes people say that aluminium frames are inherently weaker than steel frames but unless the bicycle in question is particularly old (in which case an aluminium frame can be more vulnerable to fatigue cracks), its strength comes much more from the design and overall build quality than the base material.

The Bottom Line

Either a steel or an aluminium frame can be good for touring. What is certain is that you should choose an all-metal frame. Don’t get a bike made of carbon fibre or titanium. They are expensive and not easily repaired.

More than the material, you should focus on getting a bike that feels comfortable to ride and a bike that is backed by a company with good customer service in case something does go wrong. Ask yourself:

  • Will this company send me replacement parts if necessary?
  • Are the bikes that they make solid, well designed and well tested, so that cracks from use are unlikely?

The answer to both questions – whether you choose steel or aluminium – should be yes.

 

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6 Responses to “Steel or Aluminium Frame?”

  1. John says:

    Nobody I’m aware of is making a carbon fiber frame that would be suitable for touring. If they did, or do someday, carbon might NOT be such a bad choice though. True, it could never be repaired by any village welders or the like– and in most cases can’t really be repaired by ANYONE if there’s significant frame damage. But the strength of these frames is incredible, well beyond a normal aluminum or steel frame– anyone doubting that should check out this page detailing frame failure testing by Santa Cruz bike company: http://www.pinkbike.com/news/santa-cruz-bicycles-test-lab.html
    The other comment I wanted to make is that if you can find one and can afford it (as mentioned above, it’s true they’re pricey), I would consider titanium to possibly be the best touring frame material overall. They can be made lighter and stiffer than even a very good steel frame, while at the same time being far more durable in terms of dent resistance than any aluminum frame and also than most steel frames (unless you’re consider the old plumbing-pipe style Schwinn frames from the 1960′s or something). And of course, titanium not only doesn’t rust, but it is basically immune to ANY sort of normal corrosion including the oxidation that you can see on aluminum in extreme circumstances. I bike commute in Minnesota on a titanium cyclocross frame, in widely varying weather conditions including snow with salt on the roads, and on some pretty bad road surfaces, and it has proven to be “bullet-proof”. And no nicks, dents or scratches when I do things like accidentally bump into the top tube with my steel shoe cleat when dismounting from the bike.

    • friedel says:

      Titanium is so much more expensive. There are probably advantages but I imagine the vast majority of people could better spend the extra cash on improved racks, panniers, etc… and for all but the most avid lifetime-tourers, a decent steel or aluminium bike should last a good 10+ years anyway, if not far longer

      To each his own though!

  2. Simon says:

    I have switched from a steel framed tourer to Aluminium and to be perfectly honest i think size is more important than frame material .. if the bike fits you well then it will be comfortable over long distances regardless of what the frame is made from … Santos are a very well respected bicycle manufaturer and they sell more aluminium bikes than steel

    Simon

  3. Hugo says:

    Just read an entry on the Surly web site (http://surlybikes.com/info_hole/spew/kickstands_on_long_haul_truckers) about people who have “crushed their chainstays” by overtightening a bolt while fitting a bike stand. That didn’t say much for the frame’s robustness to me, but more alarmingly, it then said they had thereby “destroyed their frame”. What does that say about the ability to repair a steel frame, even on such a died-in-the-wool tourer as a LHT?

  4. Hughonabike says:

    You’d be very unfortunate indeed to damage a frame while touring. Finding anyone who can repair a frame, any frame would just be sheer luck. I reckon , best to go with a frame you feel most comfortable with and if it breaks, bin it and buy a new one. Just make sure you break it near a bike shop on a week day.

    • Michae says:

      I’ve red so much about the necessity of using a heavy and sturdy bike for long touring trips. Few years back with some heart trepidation I decided to use my regular carbon frame road bike with sporty mavic wheels to travel across Europe and guess what – nothing bad happened! Since then I made all my touring on this bicycle including 7 thousand km long trek across USA this spring. Not a single problem and no puntures on my bonetrager hard cased slick tires. Now I am planning to go from Lisbon to Beijing and yes – I am thinking about using the same bike. I admit though I always stay on smooth asphalt roads and my luggage is reduced to absolute minimum.

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