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Mountain Bike Frame Materials in Detail

With the plethora of bike styles and component options available to today’s mountain biker, it can be helpful to break the buying decision down to simpler terms. Setting aside travel range, geometry and components, a look at the materials used in constructing a mountain bike can help frame your choice most effectively.

Amanda Wilks of MountainBikeReviewed.com has researched and written such a guide- broken down simply to give you a perspective on what you stand to gain from each of the three major material choices.


By Amanda Wilks:

There are many components that go into the fabrication of a high-performance mountain bike, and they’re all vital parts of the entire riding experience. Seeing as how there are so many alternatives out there, picking your own can be a challenging process. Thus, you will want to be as informed as possible on a few technical aspects to properly back up your choice.

The Best Frames

Any MTB enthusiast will tell you that the bike you own can make or break a ride. And when picking the perfect one for you, one of the most important things to consider is the frame. It’s crucial to look not only at build but at frame material as well. The top ones are aluminum, steel, titanium, and carbon.

Naturally, each one of them has different properties, advantages, and drawbacks. You need to consider all these aspects before making a choice so that you can ensure you are making a positive investment in your future. Here is a small guide to help you choose the best structure for your mountain bike, complete with suggestions.

1.    Steel

When mountain bikes first started being mass-produced after their invention in Marin County in the 1970s, steel frames were all that was available. In fact, many MTBs nowadays still sport this classic material in their build.

This type of tubing is often butted, which means that it’s thinner in the center than at the ends for added durability on certain parts of the frame. According to LIVESTRONG, cro-moly steel has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and it absorbs shock like no other, but the extra weight of a steel frame can hamper mobility.

The Marin Pine Mountain 1 is the perfect choice if you’re looking for a classic hardtail steel frame MTB to push your limits. On top of that, it’s produced by a renowned company based in the very heart of California’s original MTB area, which will surely constitute a bonus for die-hard fans of the sport.

2.    Aluminum Alloy

The first ever alternative to steel for MTB frame material was aluminum because it’s durable and reliable while providing the rider with a lightweight and nimble experience. It’s also a lot less expensive than other mainstream framebuilding materials, though it should be noted that many low-end bikes are made of low-quality high-tensile steel.

In fact, aluminum as a building material tends to be more expensive than steel. When its use was first implemented in the industry, it was considered premium. However, when overseas production of frames switched to it, prices dropped. Still, it’s important to note that aluminum doesn’t dampen vibration as much as other materials, making the ride harsher.

Aluminum is more brittle than steel, but a high-quality structure can still last you for a decent amount of time. In fact, with the proper upkeep, its lifespan can extend to as much as 7 years.  Thus, if you’re looking for a mountain bike with a light frame that is reliable and adaptable, an aluminum one such as the Diamondback Response XE is the one for you.

3.    Titanium

By far the most impressive quality of titanium is the fact that it’s as strong as steel, but a lot lighter. This gives frames made from it an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Furthermore, it’s the perfect shock absorbent material due to its capacity to flex while still maintaining shape. However, it’s also the most expensive one on the list.

This is because the raw material is costly to extract and it’s also difficult to weld. But if you’ve got the budget for it, the Litespeed T2 mountain bike handmade in the United States of America is an excellent choice. Still, keep in mind that it’s more than double the price of a high-performing MTB from Marin, so you really need to consider your financial options.

Still, if this is something you’re considering, you’ll be happy to hear that titanium doesn’t get brittle with age and its flexibility stays the same. Due to this, a titanium frame that is 20 years old rides almost exactly the same as when it was made. But this might not be beneficial in the long run. After all, technological advance changes standards all the time in this field.

4.    Carbon Fiber

Made from carbon fiber mixed with resin and formed into sheets which are glued together, this type of bike frame is generally the lightest, while still being sturdy and stiff enough to take you through even the most challenging rides. Carbon is also quite versatile in its structure, which makes the entire construction a lot more resilient.

The main benefit to carbon as a bike frame material lies in its stiffness. Because carbon fibers are pliable in one direction and stiff in the other, sheets can be layered to make different parts of the frame react differently. It means that, unlike with metal, a frame tube can have different characteristics along its structure.

This allows frame designers to build bikes that are laterally and torsionally stiff and vertically compliant at the same time. This means they react to rider input faster, and the resulting feeling is one of a bike that can corner harder, climb faster, and uses the suspension more effectively.

The Norco Range C7.1 is a great carbon mountain bike for riders looking for a sturdy and agile experience in the sport. The price range of such a bike is more or less 1,000 dollars above that of its aluminum counterpart. But with many manufacturers steering towards carbon for more than half their models, prices are dropping.

Therefore, if you’ve got a mid-range budget, it’s something to consider over higher end aluminum components. Nevertheless, you also need to keep in mind that a drawback to carbon is that its production has a larger environmental impact than many other materials, as it isn’t recyclable.

While any bike manufacturing uses harsh chemicals, consumes a lot of resources, and produces some harmful byproducts, most metal frames can be recycled when they reach the end of their life. Carbon frames, unfortunately, tend to end up in the landfill.

Conclusion

Depending on your needs and budget, you can choose any one of these four options. While aluminum alloy frames are the least expensive, titanium ones will set you back a pretty penny. If you’re looking for a fashionably vintage option that takes you back to the golden days of MTB, then steel is your best bet.

Carbon fiber is the perfect common ground that doesn’t sacrifice on any front, and while it’s still an expensive choice, the price is dropping.  At the end of the day, you need to find the option which suits you best.