DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK - ALUMINIUM FRAMES JUST KEEP GETTING BETTER
Words and Images - James Raison
Alloy was the gawky middle child wedged between two giants of bike frame materials: steel and carbon fibre. We didn’t realise how talented it could be while it was overshadowed by the other two. Aluminium is basically the George Harrison of bike frame materials.
Well alloy has been busy for the last decade. It’s been getting refined, production processes are improving, and the industry has changed around it.
Alloy is back! Except it didn’t really leave. It’s been quietly getting better and it’s now a great time to consider alloy. So, in the spirit of our Pragmatic reasons to buy titanium, here’s our pragmatic reasons to buy aluminium bike frames. Now updated to 2019 spec!
LEARN YOUR ALUMINIUM NUMBERS
Let’s start with some geekery and bring you up to speed on aluminium. The bike frames and parts we ride on are mixtures of aluminium and other metals; copper, magnesium, silicon, zinc or manganese. Different blends give different results depending on what the application is for the alloy.
One of the most common aluminium blends for componenets and frames is good ‘ole AL 6061-T6. It’s a decent workhorse material you’ll see boatloads of bars, posts, and low-to-mid level frames made of trusty 6061-T6.
The newer crop of quality aluminium frames are setting their sights on a better, fancier blend: AL 6069-T6. That’s what common benchmark aluminium frames - the Cannondale CAAD12s, CAAD13s of the world - are using. 6069-T6 has greater tensile and fatigue strength which allows for thinner tubing, thus improving the ride quality through compliance. Even gravel bikes are catching on with the Australian-designed Grove RAD (cover photo and pictured below) are using it. Having ridden 6069-T6 on multiple I can confirm it’s a fantastic material.
Not all makers are sticking to digestible aluminium number conventions but the big players are, nonetheless, pushing materials and processes forwards. From Trek with their “Ultralight 300 Series Alpha Aluminium” to Specialized with their “E5 Premium Aluminium”. The material is maturing, and that’s a major reason why it’s getting more popular.
ALUMINIUM BIKES HAVE GOTTEN DAMN GOOD
So now we’ve been geeks, let’s be blunt about it; modern aluminium frames above the lowest tiers of the market are damn good to ride. Not just because of refinements to the material, but because it’s now being used on well-designed frames. My main bike for the last couple of year is an aluminium Specialized Allez Sprint DSW. I was lucky enough to spend a few months hammering around on a Cannondale CAAD 12 that I got to review as well. They’re both fabulous, particularly the CAAD 12 which had a superb ride quality. Multiple people I know have recently traded in their carbon whips for an alloy foray. They’re all very happy with their decisions.
Many cyclists enter the sport at the cheap end of the bike market (which is totally fine, we all did it too) where alloy frames are made of cheap grade alu, with dull ride characteristics, and coated in uninspiring components. Cheap wheels, tyres, and contact points aren’t easily distinguishable from the frame to inexperienced cyclists. Their old alloy rig feels like a real clunker by the time they’ve moved on to a better, usually carbon, rig with superior components.
You’ll never know how good alloy can be until you’ve ridden a quality frame with good kit on it. They’re stiff, smooth, and fast. You should try it. They’re boss.
PROS RIDE ALLOY NOW
What if I told you that pro level frames can be bought for $1500 AUD? Believe it folks!
Hagens Berman Axeon Cycling team are smashing about on the Specialized’s Allez Sprint frameset - have a look at our review of that very frame - for the 2018 season, and our Lord Peter Sagan was spotted aboard an Allez Sprint disc at the 2019 Tour Down Under. That’s right, pro-racing cred has made it to aluminium. Elite level racing sells bikes. That’s why so many brands throw fistfuls of dollarydoos to have their wares in the peloton.
It’s a fascinating decision for that team to make. Inevitably there’ll be some grumpy “they just ride it because they’re paid to” comments but they must genuinely believe they’re race winning frames to compete on them at all.
The CAAD12 has pro cred too... sort of... Its geometry is almost the same as the SuperSix frame used by the pros. Make no mistake, it’s a bona fide race bike.
If they’re good enough for pros they’re good enough for everyone.
The exploding gravel bike market segment is perfect for quality aluminium frames to show their virtues. Gravel bikes need to be resilient, have fat and often tubeless tyres, and are generally accpepted at 9 kg or heavier. Aluminium is not only suitable for that brief, but helps to keep costs down. Slight comfort and weight penalties compared to carbon fibre count for much less in context of the full build.
The choice of aluminium gravel bikes is staggering. From Grove and Liteville ( both of whom only sell aluminium gravel bikes) to Niner, Bombtrack, Specialized, Canyon, Trek, Cannondale, and Merrida, there’s (almost…) as many options as gravel roads. The choices are many, and the quality of them is high. It’s an excellent and accessible entry point intothe gravel market.
Alloy is great for the penny-pinchers of the peloton. My Allez Sprint framest was $1500 for the frame, fork, seatpost, bottom bracket, and headset. Now I know it can get cheaper for alloy but, as above, a flippin’ pro level frame can be bought for $1500. The CAAD12 and Trek Emonda ALR can be found for similar prices too. Errr, given the 2019 updates to this article we’ll have to ignore the hefty price of the CAAD13.
There’s alloy frame brands popping up around the world pushing high-performance-low-cost frames into the market. Take a look at Canyon or Trek’s ranges. They offer alloy versions to their carbon frames at a much cheaper price. Do some digging and you'll find a lot of alloy options. Those wanting very premium and even custom aluminium can go with something like English Cycles.
Does any other material squeeze so much performance per dollar? Nope.
THE ROLLING STOCK REVOLUTION
The bike industry’s move towards disc brakes, wide rims and tubeless is a golden opportunity for alu to re-enter the market by addressing its major drawback: inferior comfort to carbon fibre.
Disc brakes have allowed wheels and all the tyres to eat all the pies and get proper phat. External widths are growing and tyres are ballooning. That means wide tyres, lower pressures, and thus greater comfort. The advent of road tubeless lets pressures drop even further. It’s all offsetting the harshness that can creep in with alloy.
EASY TO LIVE WITH
Like all of the metals, alloy tends to be more robust than carbon fibre. It doesn’t have the directional weaknesses of its fibrous friend on the road. Packing a metal bike into a bag for travel triggers far less anxiety. I know that I will be pulling out a complete frame at my destination. With carbon fibre there’s a higher chance I pull out a serve of Eton Mess.
EDITORIAL BALANCE SECTION
For editorial balance here’s all the arguments against alloy:
It’s heavier. No denying that.
It can be uncomfortable when specced with low-end parts, which a lot of alloy bikes are.
People will think you’re poor.
You’ll have to argue with Americans about pronunciation.
Do you have a love affair with your aluminium frame? Tell us all about it below!