An Overview of Material Applications in Bicycle Frames

By Ian Buchanan

Much of the bicycle industry has done a good job of creating the impression that different materials offer different ride characteristics. Aluminum is supposed to be stiff and light, but is also known for diminished durability and harsh ride quality; Titanium is supposed to be light, durable, comfortable and compliant, but a little flexible; Carbon fiber is supposed to be light and comfortable while simultaneously enhancing drivetrain stiffness; Steel (Chromoly) is supposed to be “real” and provide a comfortable and snappy ride, but is known to be a bit heavier and more flexible than other options. Right?

Not necessarily.

All manufacturers are trying to build that perfect combination of ride characteristics where stiffness and responsiveness are maximized, while the ride is still kept silky smooth and comfortable. It is not too hard to find claims of a frame being stiff, yet compliant and comfortable, with fantastic vibration damping characteristics. However, the bicycle industry has never had a good baseline testing protocol to quantify how various materials and designs actually perform in regards to specifics like stiffness and comfort. Everything has pretty much been based on “feel”, which is not a very scientific or reliable way to test a piece of machinery. Automobiles provide a good model for how unreliable “feel” can be. A BMW 745i can cruise along the Interstate at 95 mph without feeling like it is going that fast, while a compact Ford Aspire will comparatively feel like it is going pretty fast at 95 mph. Likewise, a bicycle frame that is really stiff and transmits a lot of road shock, can feel fast while a frame that feels more comfortable and compliant can feel slower. However, as the car analogy demonstrates, such feelings can be misleading. I was involved in a test that was designed to find out a little more about what the reality behind the materials and designs is. We tested the stiffness of some common frame designs and material applications in both horizontal (power transfer) and vertical (comfort and compliance) plane. Some of the test results are below:

Torsional Stiffness of the Rear Triangle:

This test applied pressure to the frame’s rear triangle side-to-side and measured how far the frame deflected in inches (moved) under a set pressure. The lower the number, the stiffer the bike is side to side, the less flex it will have, and the more direct the rider’s power will be transmitted to the drivetrain.

Rear Triangle Torsional Stiffness

Cannondale CAAD 3 Oversized Aluminum .038”
Softride Rocket R1 Aluminum .039″
Serotta Legend Ti OS: Oversized Butted Titanium down tube and chain stays .045”
Marinoni Lugged Butted Reynolds Chromoly .045”
Trek OCLV 110 Carbon .052”
Klein Quantum Pro Oversized Aluminum .054”
Seven Axiom Butted Titanium .057”
Kestrel KM40 Carbon .060”
Generic Welded Butted Chromoly Frame .066”
Litespeed Tuscany Production Titanium Frame .074”

Vertical Frame Compliance:

This test was conducted in a similar fashion to the torsional stiffness test, but it measured vertical deflection in inches. The numbers directly relate to a frame’s comfort and ability to absorb vibration. In this case, the higher the number, the more flexible, compliant and comfortable a frame’s rear triangle will be up and down.

Vertical Frame Compliance

Softride Rocket R1 Aluminum 1.4”
Litespeed Tuscany Production Titanium Frame .064”
Generic Butted Chromoly Frame .061”
Kestrel KM40 Carbon .060”
Seven Axiom Butted Titanium .057”
Serotta Legend Ti OS – Oversized Butted Titanium down tube and chain stays .054”
Marinoni Lugged Butted Reynolds Chromoly .052”
Trek OCLV 110 Carbon .052”
Klein Quantum Pro Oversized Aluminum .052”
Cannondale CAAD 3 Oversized Aluminum .049”

The results of the tests demonstrated a correlation between vertical compliance and torsional stiffness. With little variance, and the notable exception of the one suspension frame we tested (Softride Rocket R1), the frames that were stiffer torsionally were also stiffer vertically and the frames that were more compliant vertically were softer torsionally. There was also a good deal of range within materials depending upon their application in design. For example, both the Kestrel KM40 and the Trek OCLV 110 are made of carbon fiber, however the seat tubeless KM40 was softer in both the vertical and horizontal plane than the seat tube equipped Trek OCLV 110. Likewise, the Titanium Serotta Legend Ti OS, which was specifically engineered for bigger riders, was one of the stiffer frames in the test while the Titanium Litespeed Tuscany was one of the most flexible.

Over a decade ago, Holland Cycles did a similar test on a wide variety of frames and our results supported what they found: the material itself matters little in regards to torsional stiffness and vertical compliance (responsiveness and comfort). What does matter is the size, shape and wall thickness of the tubing used and the manufacturing technique (carbon lay-up, lugged or welded…) and design of the frame.

There are no bad frame materials – there are only poor applications. Any material can be built to have characteristics that are on the other end of the spectrum of what is commonly thought. Aluminum can be soft and flexible (you may remember aluminum frames made by Vitus in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s) and Titanium and carbon can be made so stiff and harsh that they would be unrideable. So, why do materials each have their own reputations in regards to ride characteristics? Certain materials lend themselves to certain production designs and it is these initial designs that deserve the credit, or the rap, for a material’s general ride reputation, not the material itself.

When choosing a frame or new bike, do not spend time making judgments about ride quality based upon the materials used to build a frame. Instead, approach your frame decision as an individual. Only consider frame options that fit you well, and then look at the design details and tubing to find the ride characteristics that will best match your needs, body and riding style. Finally, don’t forget that a bicycle is a sum of its parts. The other components (especially the wheels and the fork) that you use effect the way it will ride as much as the frame does and should be chosen based upon how they relate to the other parts around them. If you remove yourself from the advertising claims and choose your bike through a process that considers the big picture, I can promise that you will be happy with the long-term results of your new ride.

Important Considerations for Bigger or Smaller than Average Riders (under 150lbs and over 170lbs):

Keep in mind that most production frame tubing is designed for the “average” rider – usually a male who fits on a 55cm frame and weighs around 160 lbs. As production frames become bigger or smaller than this, or a rider heavier or lighter, the ride quality of the frame is going to change too. For better or for worse, when compared to the spec size (usually about a 55cm) a smaller than average production frame is going to be stiffer and less compliant while a larger than average production frame is going to be softer and more compliant.

If you are a larger than average rider, you need to be cautious of many of the more vertically compliant (more flexible) rigid frame designs on the market. While frames like Kestrel’s KM40 or a Litespeed Tuscany might be a good option for a lighter rider, as a larger more powerful rider, you could over-flex it. This can not only prematurely fatigue the frame but can also lead to shifting and stability issues while sacrificing your power because of too much flex. Lighter riders want to be wary of stiffer frame options as they become even more stiff in smaller frame sizes and a lighter rider simply does not have the mass to flex a stiff frame the way a heavier rider does. A Cannondale with its oversized tubing might not be the best decision. Without flex, a frame will transmit a lot of road vibration and will not be very comfortable. This is one reason we often recommend custom builders like Serotta, who not only build custom geometry frames, but also custom tune the ride by offering a variety of tubing size and shape to match your specific needs and frame size.

When looking at designs, keep in mind that the ride quality a frame is known for is usually based upon the experience of an “average sized” rider. What can ride great under a 160 lbs rider, might be too mushy for a heavier rider or might be too stiff and uncomfortable for a smaller rider. If you are bigger or smaller than average cyclist, it is even more important to approach frame and component decisions based upon your individual needs so that you don’t end up with a bicycle that is too stiff or too soft for your size and power.

Copyright 2003 – Performance Specialties, Inc.

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