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.)
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.
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?