Steel or aluminum bike frame?
August 13, 2007 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to purchase a new bike, but I don't know what frame to get. Steel or aluminum?

My current bike is a 1970s Gitane steel touring frame that I found in a trash heap two years ago. It's been a trooper, but it's also heavier than most mountain bikes sold today, and as I'm doing a lot of riding, I think I've earned an upgrade.

Over the past two years I put about 1500 miles on this frame, and while I plan to keep it around and use it for a repair/learning bike, I want a new bike.

Currently, I'm looking at buying a Trek 1500 with Shimano Ultegra components - the LBS has a fantastic price on it ($900), and I test rode it and loved it. It's an aluminum frame with a carbon fork and seat stay, rides like butter, and fits me really well. I have this bike on hold, but have to make a decision within 30 days about whether or not to buy it, though I will probably make a purchase in the next week, as I'm training for some pretty long rides in the near future.

A friend has advised me against buying this bike, and told me I can get a bike that's just as good off eBay, and for about 400 bucks less. While I believe him, he's a bit of a steel partisan, and I'm not sure steel is right for me. Or, I'm sure a lighter steel frame would be great, but I don't really have the time and energy to devote to watching eBay auctions and trying to snipe a frame that may or may not be as good a fit (which doesn't even begin to cover the possibility of eBay fraud or the fact that buying from my LBS would include free scheduled service and other perks for establishing a relationship). Obviously a new steel frame is going to be out of my price range (I've decided that the 900 bucks is as high as I'll go).

But at the same time, if I buy this aluminum frame and need to replace it in a couple of years, I'm going to be mighty pissed. I try to be careful about how I spend my money, and want to make sure I'm making a good investment. That said, I ride on pavement exclusively, don't jump curbs, avoid potholes, and generally just want to go fast. Since I'm not very hard on a bike, wouldn't aluminum be adequate?

Anyway, all this is a way of calling for a showdown between the different frame partisans. If you're going to convince me that steel is the way to go, you also have to convince me that it's definitely worth the extra effort I'm going to need to invest in buying a frame, outfitting it with the right components, having it assembled, etc.

Thanks for your help!
posted by rocketman to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Frame material makes this much difference:

Fit makes this much difference:

Seriously. Frame material just doesn't matter. If you like the way the Trek looks and feels, get it.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:22 AM on August 13, 2007

I've had my aluminum cannondale for about 15 years now. it's gone off-road though it's been stuck on the streets for years now. Apparently aluminum is impossible to repair, but my bike has been no less durable than steel frame would have been. (this should not be taken as statistical evidence).

Also, if you get it off of ebay, what about shipping? And I would fear shipping damage more than riding damage. The most dangerous thing my bike ever did was get put into a plane as cargo.
posted by GuyZero at 10:27 AM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Depending on your weight, how often you ride, the terrain you choose (lotta hills?) and your overall cycling priorities (long distance touring? fast group rides? commuting?), frame material can make a difference. Aluminum will generally be stiffer and climb better, but after a day in the saddle you might feel more beat up than you would on a steel frame. If you're not looking to do a lot of long distance rides and/or you don't have a thing about steel as your friend seems to, go for the Trek.

"Lighter steel" won't come cheap-- you'll get more bang for your component buck with an aluminum frame. Steel is wonderful on more varied surfaces, which it sounds like you're not likely to encounter.

$900 sounds like a good deal for an Ultegra-equipped bike! I have the same gruppo on my road bike and I can't speak highly enough of it.
posted by hollisimo at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2007

Fit is more important than frame material or components. It doesn't sound like you have enough experience to buy a bike from eBay, so I would buy the bike from the store and have them swap stems/bars until it fits you. The cost of a total bike fitting is probably much more than $400, including the time of the fitter, the additional parts, and the labor to switch those parts.

On the other hand, most bike shops don't know anything about bike fit, but will gladly take your money.

If you're not racing (and probably it only counts at the upper echelons), both frame material and components are meaningless. Spend your time and money riding more, not looking for fancy components or installing the latest gizmo. The only thing I would consider spending money on are wheels; a good pair of handbuilt wheels are much better than the stock wheels that come on most preassembled bikes.
posted by meowzilla at 10:59 AM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Aluminum will generally be stiffer and climb better, but after a day in the saddle you might feel more beat up than you would on a steel frame.

Keep in mind the Aluminum/Carbon combo is designed to counter that "beat up" feeling. Depending on how sensitive/experienced a rider you are, you will feel a difference between an all-alloy bike and one with carbon stays, with the carbon smoothing out the ride somewhat. In poking around some of the online forums, a few people have noted that if you're really big, it may be a bit more flex than you'd like.

My 2 cents: Faced with two new bikes of differing materials, I'd probably opt for steel - given that the alloy/carbon bike seems to have a good price, and will (one hopes) come with all the benefits of the LBS (support, fitting, etc.) I'd skip eBay and go for the Trek.

But at the same time, if I buy this aluminum frame and need to replace it in a couple of years, I'm going to be mighty pissed.

Carbon Fibre (and certainly aluminium) is a fairly mature technology at this point, and Trek especially has a fair amount of experience in working with it. I wouldn't have any particular concerns about durability, and I'd also note that Trek offers a lifetime warranty on at least some of their frames (My at the time 3-year-old Trek Fuel developed a seatpost crack and was replaced without hassle or question, just a slighty agonizing couple weeks' wait). Check out the warranty with the shop, it may vary for the road bikes.
posted by jalexei at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2007

I think your friend is full of malarky. $900 for a new bike w/ ultegra is a very good deal. $500 would be extremely unusual. And I second what GuyZero said about the shipping risk. Plus the fact that you've ridden this bike and know you like it vs the unknown has to be worth a lot. Plus you'll probably get a free tune-up from the shop for buying the bike from them.

Bike frames of any material are pretty darned hard to break. I've only met a couple of people who broke frames without getting them into catastrophic bike vs car wrecks. I would not choose a frame based on its repairability.

I like steel, but I have nothing against aluminum. A really good pair of tires will make more of a difference. Get the Trek and be happy.
posted by adamrice at 11:15 AM on August 13, 2007

In "let's argue about things on the internet," it's steel all the way, but in your case, I'd say go with the bike you've test ridden. There are so many things that go into whether or not a bike feels good to you and until you get your butt on that seat and the wheel on the ground, you'll never know if you're going to like it.
posted by advicepig at 11:17 AM on August 13, 2007

Buy the trek.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:22 AM on August 13, 2007

Buy the trek and make a singlespeed out of the Gitane. Then you have good reason to continue riding it.
posted by uandt at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2007

I had a similar dilemma just recently that I also turned to AskMe for help on. While that question wasn't material specific, that was one of my issues.

My every day bike was steel and my back-up aluminum. After breaking the frame on the steel bike, I felt I really wanted another steel frame. Hitting a bump on the two felt like the difference between hitting a baseball with an aluminum bat or a wooden bat, but through your taint. Then The Deej suggested an aluminum bike I had been considering and that I found at a local shop. I took it for a test ride and kind of liked it. I eventually went with the next step up in the same line and have been very happy with it.

Perhaps the problem had more to do with the seat of my old aluminum bike, I don't know. But I'm glad I wasn't pig headed about steel (or my prejudice against road bikes). A few folks noted that shopping online got you only so far and encouraged me to go try a bunch of bikes, which I did. I'm very glad I did. It wasn't just the feel of the frame, but shifters, handle bar, seat, brakes, crank, it's a package deal. A good fit is important.

BTW, If you haven't looked at the leader board for the MeFi Bike challenge, you might want to. If miles are any indication of wisdom on this matter, Wolfdog's advice might be the only worth heeding.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:07 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Steel is real.

However, I would take the Trek. It sounds like a good price and Ultegra components will last. I seriously doubt you can do better on eBay for $400, although it has been years since I bought a bike there. Based on my experience from years back, a well used bike in good shape fetches about 50% of its new value, with more lightly used bikes fetching more, and I wouldn't bother with the other direction. Also, as to the steel versus aluminum argument, the frame makers have for the most part been able to optimize the aluminum frames to not ride as harsh as the earlier ones, and they are lighter.

The single most important factor in getting a bike though is fit. Make sure that Trek fits perfectly, and is not just some overstock in a pretty close size. Once you start piling on the miles small fit issues turn into aches, pains and overused injuries.
posted by caddis at 12:35 PM on August 13, 2007

I had a bridgestone steel frame and I spent my years riding it wishing it were aluminum. It weighed a ton and I always felt it was too springy. Get a gel seat (and adjust your tire pressure) for the bumps and aluminum will be just fine.
900 is a good price for a bike you rode and loved. Like with guitars, I personally dont think buying bikes sight unseen on ebay is a good idea. Best to ride them and test them and get a feel for them first. Well worth it even if its more expensive.
posted by jak68 at 1:41 PM on August 13, 2007

A lot of the people who criticize Al seem to have ridden one Al bike years ago when they were rubbish. These days manufacturers can make an Al frame pretty much as stiff or compliant as they like while still having a design life way longer than anyone will use the frame for.

I say this as someone who rides a very nice, hand-made steel road bike which I love to bits. Unless you are really sure you want a steel frame, get Al.
posted by markr at 2:29 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Fit is important, but you know, you can get a bike that fits in any material. I don't see the point of haranguing the poster to get a bike that fits - he's obviously aware of that.

A good friend told me that all other things being equal, if I turned into a cyclist I'd regret getting an aluminum bike. I did get the aluminum bike, and she was right, but I didn't come to realize it immediately. For me I think the threshold was the 40 mile ride. On shorter rides, like the ones I do nowadays, the aluminum's jarring stiffness has never bothered me. But I know that coming to the end of the 120 mile rides I used to do, I could feel every little bump and crack in the road - in my kidneys - and I wished for a more forgiving, flexier frame.

(I have a 2002 Bianchi Axis, if anyone cares, and I think the extra-jumbo carbon fork mitigates a lot of the badness, especially on the wrists; but not all of it. If I were going back to make that buying decision again today I'd buy the Lemond Zurich instead. But what did I know? I couldn't even properly test-ride the Zurich because I'd never used a clipless pedal.)

The Ultegras, on the other hand, I endorse entirely. I really like riding with good shifters and brakes.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:51 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buy the Trek.

A bike in the hand is worth two on the 'bay.

Whilst you may, after waiting for a while and being a bit lucky, be able to get a cheaper bike on ebay you may also get done or get a bike that just isn't right, is slightly broken or gets broken when being shipped. There is some risk with buying a bike on Ebay.

Buying from a shop should also give you someone to tune it and some kind of warranty.
posted by sien at 5:10 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: I'd get the Zurich too, what a damn sweet ride. I test rode one, fell in love, but ultimately went to eBay to save a few $. For less $ than the Zurich I snatched a Pinarello with full Dura-Ace. Other than replacing a rear wheel, the tires, and putting my favorite pedals on it, the bike was in great shape. I still wish I had bought the Zurich though. It weighs more, but I live in the flat where weight matters not, and the geometry of the LeMonds really fits me and my riding style. The Pinarello geometry rocks for sprinting though. When that dog comes screaming across the lawn at me, I am twenty yards ahead before he knows what happened. Don't have a heart attack Fido. As for fit, I know the op said it fit, but there is fit, and then there is FIT. Get FIT, it matters. If the Trek really fits you, great. However, I have had dealers push an old bike that didn't fit. Your LBS is probably much better than those, but just remember caveat emptor.
posted by caddis at 5:56 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buy the Trek. I've got one and can't fault it. You won't regret it. The good thing is you've tried it and like it. If you bought something off eBay, you don't know what you're getting...
posted by DZ-015 at 4:22 AM on August 14, 2007

Best answer: Anyway, all this is a way of calling for a showdown between the different frame partisans.

Yet you've gotten an anti-Ebay screed instead :)

Personally, I'd be likely to choose a secondary market (Ebay, craigslist, whatever..). On the other hand, if "LBS would include free scheduled service" is of any value to you at all, you may not be the right person for a secondary market.
Free tune ups normally include adjusting the cables, as far as I can tell. If you go to the shop for that, you are not mechanically inclined :)
posted by Chuckles at 7:40 AM on August 15, 2007

Response by poster: So, here's the end of this story - I bought a bike, but not the Trek. My friend clued me in on an eBay auction and urged me to bid on it - he told me to bid $450 max, and if I won and I did not like what I got, he'd pay me my cost to take the bike off my hands.

So I went against the grain of the advice here and got a Serotta Nova Special X (1988) with full Dura-Ace components off eBay for $460.

It's a truly amazing ride. Thanks everyone for your advice, and happy riding!
posted by rocketman at 7:18 PM on August 27, 2007

Holy crap. I'm jealous.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2007

But what about this: aluminum with carbon fiber seat stays (like a Trek) or titanium? Both bikes fit and (test) ride like a dream. I am just wondering how they would feel after my 4th day of 70-80 miles on a road.
posted by Caty77 at 6:42 PM on November 25, 2007

Response by poster: Well, it's a moot point, since I bought a used, steel frame.
posted by rocketman at 2:40 PM on January 3, 2008

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