Touring Bike FAQ #3: Steel Or Aluminium Frames? (Or Something Else?)

Discussing the pros and cons of different metallic alloys is probably not something you ever thought you’d find yourself doing until you began researching touring bicycles.

But there is indeed an ongoing debate over whether steel or aluminium as a frame material is a better choice for touring bike.

Let’s cut to the chase: if you are planning to keep your touring relatively short term and confined for the time being, it categorically does not matter one bit what your bike is made of, any more than it matters what colour they’ve painted it. In the short term, a bike is a bike is a bike.

The thing about aluminium

You may have heard people say that aluminium is a big no-no for touring, and you are probably wondering why.

The truth is, the “don’t use aluminium” mantra is way too categorical to be helpful. It generally reflects the fact that many long-distance cycling gurus hear the phrase ‘cycle touring’ and immediately think of their own epic trans-continental journeys, when in reality there are a lot more people happily pootling about their home countries for a few days or weeks at a time.

New, decent, affordable touring bikes are available in both steel and aluminium frames. It’s worth mentioning that the best value basic touring bikes on the market today are invariably of the aluminium variety, simply because it’s cheaper to manufacture and thus cheaper for you to buy. (The Revolution Country Traveller from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Op springs to mind.)

revolution-country-traveller-2014

The thing about steel

The more expensive bikes on offer, however, particularly at the ‘expedition bike’ level, are almost universally made of steel.

Aluminium was originally introduced as a frame material because it enabled manufacturers to mass-produce frames more cheaply and in more specialised and cooler-looking forms, not because its physical properties were better suited to the construction of a standard diamond-shaped bicycle frame.

Stiff aluminium fatigues more quickly than pliable steel, and this is one of the arguments for steel over aluminium for ultra-long tours: in the really, really, really long term (we’re talking years, if not decades), steel will endure far more abuse before structurally failing than aluminium will.

This comes with a caveat: frame material won’t matter a jot if a frame is being subjected to stresses it was never designed to handle in the first place. And I might as well mention that I am yet to hear of a touring cyclist ever ‘wearing out’ an aluminium touring bicycle frame through fatigue.

The other main argument for steel as a frame material for long-term touring – which makes a little more sense – is that you’re more likely to find a machine shop or welder who can work with steel in the event of a breakage, whereas if you break an aluminium frame in the middle of nowhere, you’ll be hitching a ride to the nearest airport to find a welder who deals with aluminium.

This again needs a little qualification, however, because once again it is simplistic and assumptive. A rough-welded repair to a steel frame is never to be as strong as the original build, and a heavy-handed welder is as likely to blow a new hole in your steel frame as fix an existing one. In reality, a frame structurally compromised in an accident will either need replacing or attended to by a professional framebuilder, regardless of frame material. A local welder might well fix things up enough to get you to the next city, but they’re unlikely to restore your bike to its former glory.

The bottom line, of course, is that the scenarios in which frame material would have any bearing upon the outcome are also the scenarios in which your own flexibility and resourcefulness will play a far more important role. Breaking any type of frame will involve a major disruption to a long-term tour, whichever way you look at it, and a breakage is more likely to happen because of a crash or in transit than through sheer use – in which case frame material won’t make a difference either way.

surly-lht-2014

So which to choose?

If you want to know my personal take on the steel versus aluminium debate, it’s this: the main reason people buy steel-framed bikes for long-term touring is simply because most long-term touring bikes are made of steel.

They have traditionally been so, their designs rarely require complicated tubing assemblies, and the world of touring is too addicted to the tried-and-tested-ness of steel to accept a shift to anything else. And why would it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ostensibly it’s also due to the arguments above, but dig into the world of long-term touring and you’ll hear countless stories of broken frames which are material-agnostic and have been purely due to the inevitable spells of bad luck that characterise all tours when looked at in the long term.

You’ll also hear stories of how these breakages were dealt with and note that the outcomes have far more to do with the attitude of the riders in question than with the type of metal the bike was made from.

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Disc brakes or rim brakes?

Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions

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14 Responses to “Touring Bike FAQ #3: Steel Or Aluminium Frames? (Or Something Else?)”

  1. Mark

    The biggest difference is the character of the ride. Steel road frames generally offer a more pliant ride, almost like having suspension. Worth an extra kilo?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      This is true generally, but has as much (if not more) to do with the frame design and build as the material used. Worth the extra kilo? I think that’s a false dichotomy – for a touring bike there are more important concerns than frame weight.

      Reply
    • Shaun

      I don’t think the traditional use of steel is the reason it’s still around. There are good solid engineering reasons.

      The advantage of aluminium over steel is that it is less dense. It’s about a third of the density of steel. But it’s disadvantage is that most aluminium alloys have a low modulus of elasticity, about a third that of steel. If you think of springs, most are steel because they bounce back to their original shape. You don’t see many aluminium springs because they don’t spring back past an easily pushed limit. Or think of a steel ruler versus an aluminium one. You can twang a steel ruler on the desk for years and it won’t deform. An aluminium one would bend.

      Then again, aeroplane wings are aluminium so in some applications, it’s not an issue. There are even some aluminium alloys used in bike frames that rely on limited flex. I road an Ibis Ripley soft-tail a long time ago that use an aluminium leaf spring chainstay giving about an inch of suspension. The guy who designed it was an aerospace engineer. 😉

      So, to stop 6061 or 7005 aluminium tubes bending and therefore being damaged, you use large diameter tubing which stiffens up the frame – no bending, no damage. You don’t have to do that with steel tubes so a steel bike’s frame is more pliable and springy.

      On a touring bike, you also want the tubes to be more durable. If you think of a coke can versus a baked bean can, both are roughly the same diameter but the coke can is thinner and lighter. It’s much easier to dent and once dented folds up. The bean can is heavier but stronger, more durable, less dentable. I dropped a Giant team aluminium MTB against a door frame once. The dent in the coke can sized, thin gauge top tube was scary. You can solve this by using thicker gauge aluminium tubing but now to get the durability you’ve got thicker, larger diameter aluminium tubes. It now starts getting as heavy as a steel frame. So there’s a balance. You can use three times as much aluminium as steel but the frame has to be stiff to stop it bending and that affects the ride characteristics.

      Now, it might be argued that you do not want the pliable characteristics of a small diameter tubed steel frame on a laden touring bike. You want something more solid and less likely to shimmy at speed with all your pannier bags on. Which if that is the case pick chunky aluminium or chunky steel tubes. Don’t go for thin-wall aluminium OR posh 853 steel. There’s a reason Surly use plain old 4130 cromo and it’s not just because it’s cheaper.

      There are some top end aluminium tourers too – go look at Santos for example. They aren’t using tubes that are the same gauge as lightweight road or mountain bikes.

      You can generalise but if you’ve the choice, then picking a good frame builder rather than the material is the first choice to make.

      So, how about a carbon fibre touring bike then? Anyone? 😉

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        All of the above is undoubtedly true. Thank you for contributing it! Incidentally, the tourer we’ve just launched has a frameset built (mostly) from 525 tubing for the reasons you mention – reasons no framebuilder worth his salt would have disputed in the first place, of course…

        Reply
  2. Jason

    I’m an Aluminium fan, more through chance than choice and for me its been a good one, a really good one.
    My every day/winter training bike is a Cannondale Caadx. It was not purchased as a tourer but when I thought I would “have a go” at touring a few years ago I added a rear rack and panniers and that’s when the touring bug/drug set in.
    40,000k (about 55000k if you include ‘other’ cycling) of touring later, for sure some components have changed through wear, but the Frame is still going strong. (My USA built frame has a fabulous reputation for quality as my initial research showed) Cyclo Cross Geometry is perfect for a roadie who likes touring and the less aggressive position is comfortable and the Frame is engineered for strength as an off roader and tarmac machine.
    Cannondales life time warranty on the frame shows the manufacturers confidence in the quality of the product although too be fair I have yet too test the actual claim procedure.
    I think drops give a great variety of positions including ‘making yourself small’ when the almost inevitable headwind moments arrive. Maybe the benefits are more in my mind as the now four panniers and dry bag are less than aerodynamic and add considerable weight, but for me the power of the mind is more valuable than actual fitness, that comes with mileage.
    £900 was the original price for my bike and this is the main battleground for bike manufacturers which means the specs are likely too provide excellent value and the opportunity for a haggle with the big bike retailers is almost a given. If you are new too cycling the almost forgotten and not often mentioned costs of pedals, cycling gear, shoes, helmet and any accessories can add up pretty quickly, work hard and this stuff can be thrown in and every penny saved can be added too the important stuff such as actual touring funds…. Cycling is big business and big business wants your custom, desperately.
    Two changes as follows, a set of Surly Long Hall Trucker Forks (£40) to replace the original Carbon forks as I now have front panniers and the argument for the suitability of Carbon forks is very much that they ain’t up for the job of panniers and a handbuilt (parts at approx. £320)pair of Mavic A319 rims with a 105 rear hub and Son 28 hub (expensive hub yes, but its incredibly well engineered by Humans, my visit too the factory in Germany showed precision engineering at its finest and if you find touring is not for you, even as a second hand item the SON 28 resale value is high, very high and this company are super double helpful, although on the downside, servicing needs too be carried out by the manufacturer) Mine have been through hell and back and have outlived two standard 105 hubs, which themselves are tough and provide great value and show no sign of giving up) on the front laced with DT Swiss competition spokes has provided me with ultra reliable bullet proof riding. I ride with the original compact chainrings, that’s my riding style, I am a massive fan of the pain/pleasure principle.
    Make the time too learn at the very least too learn how to replace broken spokes although the benefits of hand built wheels really outweigh the original costs of machine built and its not as hard as you think (initially under supervision for me) too build a complete wheel and as yet I have not once ever replace a broken spoke, this is the real benefit of hand built wheels….
    If you still think the initial costs are prohibitive, pop your forks and original wheels on ebay or similar and you’ll have more money in the touring fund. For me they sit patiently in my garage at home awaiting my return. When I am not touring, the handbuilt wheels and forks get a well earned rest and the original components return too use. That’s a saving, this bike is now dual purpose and my ridiculously expensive Carbon road bike often gathers dust and my passion for (and very average) Triathalon, or road racing hobby is often carried out on the Black Flash….. Yes I love her, lots….
    Whilst you learn too build the wheel, its a great idea too pay for a complete rebuild (which you carry out under supervision as required depending on your confidence/knowledge levels)of your bike before you leave (maybe £100) and this will give you the confidence too deal with pretty much anything that happens on the road bar major disasters such as a broken frame… As Tom rightly mentions this is pretty much goodnight for your frame.
    You will be amazed quite what a simple machine you are riding.
    If the wheels and the rebuild sound expensive initially, think of the long term savings when you hunt for parts on the internet and fit yourself… add the satisfaction of doing it yourself and its win win win…..
    Its a sensible choice too add lock tight too all nuts and bolts especially if you are expecting unpaved roads, include all nuts on bolts on your panniers. Ortleib Classics are popular for a reason but as I have discovered a bit of the rough stuff plays havoc with anything that’s not secured.
    I ride with a compact groupset, that’s my choice but I am a massive fan of the pain/pleasure principle. A triple groupset is more popular but you will find the extra rings means duplication of most of the gears, why would you need this? Speak with your bike retailer about what you intend to do at point of purchase and its a very high possibility they will give you the chain rings and cassette too suit you need at little or very often no extra cost.
    And talking savings, look out for when the new seasons bikes are launched, search hard and you are likely too find some MAAAASIVE savings although your ability too negotiate for extra’s is pretty unlikely, but never say never.
    And as for old stock versus new stock, very often the only change is the paint Job!!!!
    And LOVE your bike, lots, in fact lots and lots. A bicycle without a rider is a useful as rider without a Bicycle. Without each other you ain’t gonna be seeing nothing, zip, nada!
    Love her beauty and uncomplaining nature, I have ridden miles with no rear mech (ie one gear), paper thin brake pads and cables that have seized and bottom brackets all destroyed by weeks of constant rain, yep it happens. I have a few more continents too cover yet, but genuine shimano or copy gear is pretty readily available on the road so far in my experience.
    Whilst you love and gaze in awe at your trusty steed, yes its legal too do this and highly acceptable and very much encouraged by the majority of cyclists (and I hang out with lots of all disciplines) learn too caress her gently, by this I mean practice prevention rather than cure.
    Now you know how too deal with all the parts of your bicycle, pop a large tube of general purpose grease in your panniers and keep your bottom bracket, headset and any other part that likes a bit of grease happy, clean your chain and cassette regularly and feed them oil, you will reap the benefits and its all very easy! (carry a set of cassette and bottom bracket tools, mine are tiny and very often specific too your choice of equipment, add your spare spokes, multi tool, spare bottom bracket a pair of headset bearings and chain and cassette, a good puncture repair kit and pump and the road is yours.
    I ride with 700c wheels (what! is the man a fool, some sort of idiot?) my theory is this, now you can build and true your wheels they will last a long long time and do not forget too regularly wipe the rims and brake pads too remove any dirt or grit… This stuff is a Rim killer, but very very easy too prevent or reduce damage and increase lifespan.
    For sure if you ride long enough they will wear, they work hard, but too debunk the myth that 700c are very hard too find outside of Europe or the USA, know this, most have wear marks, small grooves that when they begin too disappear are telling you its time too get some more Rims. Mavic A319 or Ryde Sputniks are bullet proof Rims but almost impossible too find in much of the world. I just had a set flown in from the UK (its easy too plan ahead and reduce the need for hanging around if this is not your thing)and rebuilt the wheels (which had 32000k of use) and although the £40 shipping costs sound high, the benefits of quality will outweigh these costs as cheap rims are generally a case of you get what you pay for, buy well but once, if you know what I mean, sort of…..
    When you buy your bike, try a few for size, the big retailers and many of the smaller high street retailers will assemble bikes and let you give them a try before you buy, but like your choice of saddle, ultimately time will be the real tester of suitability.
    Love your Bike, love her more than you should, AND this is VITAL and possibly the most important thing you do when you make your choice, GET A BIKE FIT, most will come with your purchase and involves your bike store sitting you on your bike and adjusting the position of the saddle the handlebars or even changing the stem length and the position of your cleats if you choose too use them. Take advice on Frame size and with a bike fit you will find that your bike gives you miles and miles of comfort. Even if your saddle is an inch out of position your are likely too feels pain in either your knees or back. The fanciest bike that doesn’t fit is TOTALLY pointless.
    Lastly, ride exactly as long, hard or as gently as you want, view as many churches as possible if that’s your thing, ride hard, if that’s your thing.
    No one and I mean NO-ONE has yet provided me with an equation for the ultimate way too Tour, why? COS IT DONT EXIST AND DONT LET ANYONE TELL YOU OTHERWISE…..
    A true cyclist knows that our chosen choice of transport brings pleasure and sometimes pain however you ride and whatever you ride.
    Wave to the Fella on his electric Bike, Say “Hey how’s it going?” to the Lady who shoots by you sweating crunched tight and sweating hard on her Time Trial Bars, stop for a coffee with the tourers you meet on the road and swap stories of happiness, hardship and battles won and remember this, if you get over the toughest choice of actually making your dream of life on the road happen, you will receive the Ultimate Gift….. Local Children who smile or gaze open mouthed on there battered, wobbly and probably ill fitting bicycle and ride with you or race with you for a short distance, because there hello and smile in whatever language is highly highly likely too be the very very VERY best thing of your trip……And like us adults who think we know best, the fact is this, they know the truth and whatever you ride or how you ride in lycra or sorta walking gear, we are living a dream that its highly highly likely they will never ever have the choice too experience.
    Long Live, two wheeled travel…… Its a gift………
    I LOOOOOOOOOVE you Black Flash, yep I said it again!!!!
    Its time for me too go, Beer Lao, sampled by the Mekong River is my gift at maybe a 3rd of my aaaaaamazing trip which currently stands at 240000 KM and a cold one has just arrived (which is why my spelling and grammar is a little less than perfect).
    Keep up the Great Work Tom, its inspiring stuff, but when you have time for reflection at some point soon, remember the wonderful Journeys that you and your past and present rides have given each other and remember NO-ONE owns the right too define adventure, its what we want it too be! TAILWINDS!
    http://www.jasperstour.com

    Reply
    • AlexD

      There’s a ton of quotable stuff in here but the best one is your last statement that holds true for anything anyone endeavors to undertake and that is “NO-ONE owns the right too define adventure, its what we want it too be! “. Thank you for this I’ll use it often!

      Reply
  3. Michal K.

    Hi, can you tell if is better for long therm touring (expedition) 26 o 29er bike? Thanks M.

    Reply
  4. Mark Peter Chaple

    Having owed 10 diffrent bikes from sport bickes to vintage dawes and adding diffrent parts to them as well as wheels tyers i will say that the steel frame holds some kind of magic to the ride that aluminium some how dosent .it seams to adsorb all the bumps and pot holes better and doset creek when pushing up steep hills and the overall ride quailty seams better .

    Reply
  5. Grant Jacobs

    Some of the (earlier) expedition bikes to have aluminium frames had steel forks. My understanding is that the argument was that the steel forks had a little bit of flex for a better ride on uneven surfaces. (By contrast, the aluminium might offer a stiffer triangle.)

    My impression is that Santos and Koga, to name just two, now have bikes that are all-aluminium.

    I have to admit I look at the straight lines of aluminium forks and wonder what the ride would be like.

    Comments would be welcome. (I realise your earlier discussion with Mark and Shaun covers related ground, but it doesn’t explicitly address the mixed frameset.)

    Reply
  6. Donald Rintoule

    Last Saturday a friend and I met a young man from Hamburg on the Manly Ferry. He had just completed a 34,100 km trip from Capetown to Sydney via Asia. He was riding a vsf expedition bike that demonstrated two home truths. Firstly the front hydraulic rim brake had been replaced with a simple v-brake after it failed in the back blocks. Secondly the junction of the seat tube and top tube had been gussetted and welded after it was overloaded with three people on the bike. By the way, the Chinese welder had down a beautiful job including smoothing the welds and perfectly matching the simple black gloss paint. His experience demonstrates the KISS principle of keeping things simple including repairable.

    Reply
  7. jon

    All the above comments hold very good information, and expand a topic widely discussed.
    The bike (material) “one” currently rides is the best…to start with !
    Forget the sales pitch about frame materials, if it breaks in any way while on”tour”, you deal with it as you can; it never kills the adventure believe me !NOTHING is full proof and “the best”.
    A person can safely get a feel of what they want after a few “mini adventures”, whether they base it on emotion,desire or comfort. Adding join a local bicycle club or association to try or understand advice to their needs, but everyone has their own opinion as I do.
    Duct tape, a small length of wood, cable ties, fixes any problems(temporary) and puts a smile back on any stranded cyclists on tour !
    Its an individuals learning journey as much as the ride.

    Reply
  8. the Puck

    I don’t know if it has been mentioned already in those longer comments but there’s something I like to add:

    For me the biggest argument for choosing steel over aluminum is the exact moment of failure. Steel usually gives plenty of hints about it’s incoming demise. One can react.

    Aluminum can go hard and fast with no advance notice, while turning into sharp and pointy stuff that is very useful for all impalement related activities.

    Reply
  9. Tom in MN

    “Stiff aluminium fatigues more quickly than pliable steel,”

    This has several problems. Aluminum has a modulus of elasticity (stiffness of the material) that is 1/3 that of steel. Now aluminum frame tubes are often stiffer (combination of area and material modulus) than steel tubes because AL is also less dense than steel and thus you can make tube with larger diameter and wall thickness to give a stiffer frame for less weight.

    Fatigue is not a stiffness property, but rather depends on the stress (force per area) level the material repeatedly experiences. Steel does have a fatigue limit (a stress) below which it does not fatigue at all, while aluminum does not. But the fatigue life depends on the overall design and not just the metal. If you want light weight (ala aircraft) you use aluminum even though it does not have a fatigue limit.

    The fact that aluminum is often welded (which involves getting the material hot and possibly affecting the heat treatment of the alloy) while steel is lower temperature brazed also has an affect on failures. Then again, steel can rust while aluminum will not.

    It is not possible to generalize like this about materials because the bike design (tube sizes, etc) is also always involved.

    I would also note the aluminum frames are generally not repairable due to the difficulty of welding them, while brazing steel is done the world over and thus makes steel better for long distance touring from a repair standpoint.

    Reply
  10. kevin callaby

    I now have an aluminium frame tandem having owned several vintage steel tandems. The major bonus for me is in the weight of the frame. I can personally raise and load the Al bike onto the roof of my car with relative ease. It can be manoeuvred through styles and up and down footpath / stair bridges without risking a back injury. I would only go back to a steel frame if I was considering a long distance ride with heavy bags and steep hills. Me and the Mrs are ‘day trip’ tourers with the occasional weekend jaunt. The bike needs to be suited to the ride/riders. Or the ride needs to be suited the bike. Happy touring x

    Reply

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