Aluminium is back! And why you should consider buying it.
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.
TRIGGER WARNING: we use "alloy" to mean aluminium. We know Ti is also alloy but...¯\_(ツ)_/¯
ALLOY IS REALLY GOOD
I wouldn’t have bothered making this list if alloy wasn’t worth riding. My personal bike collection stars an alloy Specialized Allez Sprint DSW, and I’ve recently been hammering around on a Cannondale CAAD 12 that I got to review. 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 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 one 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. 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 the same as the SuperSix frame used by the pros. So it feels a lot like a race bike.
If they’re good enough for pros they’re good enough for everyone.
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 is the same price for the frame and fork.
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. Then there's makers like Bowman and English Cycles. Do some digging and you'll find a lot of alloy options.
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 alloy 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.
For editorial balance here’s all the arguments against alloy:
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.