Steel vs. Carbon Frame: Which is best for Your Next Bike?

When purchasing a new bicycle, one of the key considerations is the frame material. Two common choices are carbon and steel. The debate between these two materials is an ongoing battle as each has different strong points and different cons.

If you are picking a material for your next bike frame, you ought to understand the differences between these two materials, making your decision a whole lot easier as you will be making an educated and informed decision.

Steel Frame Specifications

For eons, steel has always been a viable option for bike frames, and before the 90’s, it was the only option. And it has come a long way, but steel is still preferred by some people for their bicycle frames for some factors, the most obvious ones being its strength and durability.

Steel is isotropic, meaning that it is equally strong in every direction. In a riding sense, this strength is much needed and does a lot to ensure the bicycle is durable.

Steel is durable regarding crashes and wear and tear. A steel frame will bend rather than snap or crack. This defect tolerance is a real plus regarding longevity. It is also able to survive crashes unlike bicycles with carbon frames. And if you do crash and cause damage to the bike, it is easy to repair for the bike to continue serving you. A steel bike can be the ride for life.

Steel frames are also easy to modify, with just about anything being replaceable or be able to be redone. You can replace head tubes, attach bidon points and et cetera. They are easy to modify however you like.

The most obvious complaint and downside of steel frames though is the weight, as steel frames are heavier than any other material.

However, this is not so much of a problem as there are very many other more crucial factors to consider when choosing a bike or the frame. Also, with the advancement of technology, there is steel that is comparatively light if the weight penalty is an issue for some.

Another obvious one is that steel is vulnerable to rust. However, this is a far-fetched reason for a bike to fail as the steel tubes that make the frame are relatively thick, and are usually coated with paint.

If you spend time in wetter climates, you can implement periodical anti-rust sprays into your maintenance routine to keep rust at bay. It is also recommended that you touch up the paint on your steel frame from time to time.

Pros

  • Durable
  • Strong
  • Steel frames are modifiable
  • Easy to repair and maintain
  • In case of a crash, steel will bend rather than crack or break which would otherwise render the bike useless

Cons

  • Vulnerable to rust
  • Steel is heavier than carbon

Best for What Type of Use Case

Steel frames are best for riders who are looking for a personal bike that will serve for the long haul. It is modifiable, versatile and an affordable option.

Carbon Frame Specifications

Carbon fiber is a material made from single carbon strands which are woven and glued together to form plies which can be heated and shaped to almost any shape. When used to make bicycle frames, carbon makes it possible for it to be modeled into the most aerodynamic shape.

Sandwiched together, the end frame for a bicycle is stiff and extremely lightweight. Apart from the weaving providing stiffness, it also dampens road vibrations and makes them withstand a significant amount of force, says from potholes to provide a comfortable ride.

As I had mentioned before, carbon frames are known to be incredibly light, but at the same time tough enough to be ridden in the toughest race. Their stiffness allows optimal transfer of human power to forward motion, making it a great choice for sprints, criteriums and time trials.

They are at top levels of cycling competitions all over the world because no other material matches up to carbon’s strength to weight ratio. Carbon has a strength to weight ratio that 14% higher than steel and 18% higher than aluminum.

They are difficult to manufacture compared to others, making them a lot more expensive, and isn’t used in beginner bikes. Aluminum is the least expensive. However, due to technology, carbon frames are becoming more and more affordable. You will need to decide the cost benefit between these two materials.

While carbon is strong to withstand the wattage put them in a race, it is brittle. As opposed to other kinds of metal that will dent when you crash or hit immovable objects such as lamp posts, carbon will crack, rendering your bike useless as it is irreparable.

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Stiff
  • Minimized vibration hence you get a comfortable ride
  • High strength to weight ratio
  • Optimal performance
  • Corrosion resistant
  • Can be formed into any desired shape

Cons

  • Irreparable after a crash as they crack
  • Low impact resistance

Best for What Type of Use Case

Carbon frame bikes are best for cyclists who are involved in races such as sprints, time trials, and criteriums. Carbon frames can be made faster regarding aerodynamics, and they are also light. Their performance is optimal and are resistant to vibrations and shock for a comfortable ride.

Which One to Choose and Why

My personal preference is the steel frame, as the pros outweigh the cons and it is relatively low in cost hence budget-friendly. It is durable, easy to modify and is defect tolerant which is a plus because of longevity.

The weight is not an issue since the speed of a bicycle relies more on other factors like aerodynamics. Rust can be kept at bay with anti-rust spray and applying new coats of paint now and then.

Bikes with carbon frames, much as they have their cons, their low defect tolerance are a real deal breaker as they cannot be repaired. At least not easily or cheaply or by just anybody.

About the Author Matthew R. Duncan

I am proud to be the go-to guy among my circle for bike advice. I take it personally when someone I know buys a new bike without consulting me first!

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