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Carbon Fiber Bikes vs Aluminum Bikes. Which Should You Buy?

Carbon VS Aluminum bikes. The big question for road bike buyers.

carbon fiber road bike
If you’re in the market for a new road bike you’ll be very familiar with the fact that you have some important decisions to make. And one of those decisions will be between buying an aluminum or carbon fiber road bike. Carbon fibre vs aluminum bikes is a debate that has gone on for years.

There is no doubt that carbon fiber is the bike of choice. If I look around at the bikes ridden by riders in my bunch carbon fiber road bikes outnumber aluminum road bikes by 10 to one or more. But is carbon fibre just a fashion, or is it worth all that extra money?

What are the differences between carbon fiber bikes vs aluminum bikes?

Firstly it’s worth saying that there is no real agreement about this. Much of it comes down to opinion. One person will swear that a carbon fiber bicycle is so much better to ride than an aluminum bike, but the next person will report no difference at all.

However the reported differences are:

1. Lightness.

It is generally accepted, though of course with exceptions, that carbon fibre road bikes are lighter than aluminum bikes. Aluminum is heavier than carbon, and it’s easier to fashion a frame to make it as light as possible from carbon than it is from aluminum.

But that’s not a given. It’s possible to buy quality aluminum bikes that are lighter than some carbon bikes. However it is generally true that the more expensive well-made carbon bikes are lighter than most aluminum bikes. Not necessarily by a lot however, and it is questionable whether the weight saving justifies the extra price.

2. Comfort.

As a general rule aluminum road bikes are stiffer and slightly less comfortable than their carbon counterparts. That’s because aluminum transfers such things as vibration directly through to the rider, whereas carbon road bikes can be manufactured so that they dampen any vibrations, making them slightly more comfortable to ride.

I ride an aluminum bike, and also have a carbon bike, and I know that on one particularly rough section of road on one of our regular rides the aluminum bike will be slightly bumpier. But only slightly.

3. Strength and resistance to impact.

It has been claimed in the past that carbon bikes are more susceptible to damage, and once damaged cannot be repaired. Currently there is no doubt that carbon bikes can be repaired, and very successfully. I have seen a number of carbon road bikes which have been very successfully repaired, and the repair is completely invisible. All are being ridden on the road now, and are still in one piece, though slightly heavier because of the repair.

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Susceptibility to damage is arguable. There’s so many ways of damaging a bike that it’s impossible to make a blanket statement that carbon is more susceptible to damage.

If you’re interested in seeing a very graphic test comparing the strength of an aluminum bike frame against the strength of a carbon fibre bike frame then watch this video. I don’t know what it proves, but it’s fascinating.

4. Price.

As a general rule aluminum bikes, with, for example, the same groupset and other components as a similar carbon bike, are cheaper. Over the last couple of years the prices of carbon bikes have dropped and narrowed the difference, but you will generally pay less for a good aluminum bike.

Will a carbon fibre bike make a difference for you?

That’s the big question. It’s not a question of whether aluminium or carbon bikes are better, it’s a question of which is better FOR YOU? Because it’s YOU that will be riding it.

There’s little doubt that everyone wants a carbon bike regardless of whether or not there is any significant difference. However is there any real benefit to you in actually buying one, other than the pose value?

There may well be if you’re a committed racer requiring the absolute lightest bike and can push it to its limits.

However the reality is that most of us Over 40 Cyclists, if not all of us, don’t fit into that category. We don’t need the latest, greatest and most expensive road bike on the market. We might want one, but we don’t need one.

It is unlikely that the tiny amount of weight saved by buying carbon will make much difference to us on our weekly group ride. The number of red wines we drank last night is more likely to make a difference. Or whether we carry one water bottle or 2.

As someone said when discussing this issue in a cycling forum, “buying a carbon fiber frame will not make you any faster. Training will.”

Comfort is another matter. A carbon bike might be more comfortable for you. However don’t buy the bike purely because it’s carbon. Buy the bike because you can afford it and because you’ve already ridden it, along with a number of others, and have found it to be the most comfortable road bike for you. And if that turns out to be an aluminum bike then that’s fine.

That’s the bottom line. Your comfort on the bike is the most important consideration. And cost. Buy a bike because it’s comfortable, and you can afford it. Don’t buy a bike because it’s the latest, greatest, best looking carbon bike on the planet. You might be disappointed.

You can’t choose a bike based on what it’s made from. You can only choose based on how good it feels when you ride it. And the only way to find that out is to try out a number of bikes before you buy. There is no substitute for trying first.

That’s what I did, and I now ride an aluminum bike that was significantly cheaper than the carbon alternatives, and I can put the money I’ve saved towards other things. I had (and still have) a carbon bike, but currently I ride an aluminum bike.

Comfort is supreme. It doesn’t matter how expensive a bike is, if it’s uncomfortable for you to ride you’ve wasted your money.

(And don’t forget, for many people a big part of comfort is a professional bike fit.)

Today’s quick tip: Whilst it’s certainly true that you can save money by buying your bike online it isn’t quite so easy trying it out first. Of course you can always try it from the bike shop then buy online, and you’ll be extremely unpopular at the bike shop. Not a good idea.

If you’re new to buying a road bike find a reputable bike shop that will allow you to try bikes out before you buy. Buy it from them. Save the online purchase of bikes for more experienced cyclist who know exactly what they want.

 

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14 Responses to Carbon Fiber Bikes vs Aluminum Bikes. Which Should You Buy?

  1. Gary 14/02/2014 at 8:58 am #

    I read that riders over 170 lbs should not get an carbon bike. I weigh 195 lbs. Because of my weight, should I also avoid an aluminum frame and concentrate only on chromoly or titanium frames?

    • Over 40 Cyclist 18/02/2014 at 8:15 am #

      Hi Gary, As I’m not an expert on the strength of frames I shouldn’t try and give any guidance. One comment I can make though is that Titanium frames in particular are very expensive. I know as a friend of mine is getting one.

      Not sure if that comment applies to all of them, but it certainly does to the one he’s getting.

      Happy riding

  2. António Castro 01/01/2014 at 8:07 am #

    Hi, i have recently an experience that is very good to tell on this post.

    I´m a amatuer cyclist with 26 years old, and over the past 5 years i have road an aluminum trek 1500 with ultegra group that i really love, as i´m a student and i´m leaving in 2 towns, i had to buy another bike to ride. I have bought a super light carbon bike, very race style, wich was great to ride fast and everything else. The fact is that the bike was too stiff for me, so i had to buy another one. I start to suffer a lot from my back, and i really had to choose another bike. It was a really bad thing because i really loved the bike too much. I have now bought another top of the line aluminum BMC bike, very light, and i´m amazed with it. I think that the aluminum bikes are not worst than carbon bikes. If you have to buy an aluminum bike that is a top of line from any brand, you will have for sure a great bike to ride! I can´t say the same about a carbon bike. I´m not saying that carbon bikes are bad, no. If you have 5ks to pay for a great carbon bike, you will probably have greater bike than a 2ks aluminum bike whith the same gear specs etc… But in my case, if we are talking about weight, i can put my aluminum bike with 6.9 kgs and i´m in the limits of UCI standards. So, what to say??? Just buy a bike that fells great for you, and ride, ride, because the important is to ride!

    In therms of fast, just compare the numbers of pro`s climbing the big moutains, i can see that the fastest times are made in aluminum bikes, so i don´t know how carbon improve your fastest times, in my case they dont improve…

    Cheers.

    • Over 40 Cyclist 18/02/2014 at 8:17 am #

      Hi Antonio, there’s no doubt in my mind that aluminium makes a fine bike, still. I’m still riding my CAAD 10 and I think it’s the most popular bike in my club. But as with all these things most of it just comes down to opinion. Some love aluminium and some love carbon. Each to his own.

  3. Randy West 22/07/2013 at 7:57 am #

    Hello,

    I enjoyed this article. I purchased a very cheap Schwinn Prelude to see if I wanted to get into biking (I am more of a runner). I completed a half Ironman on a Trek 2100 that a friend let me ride and have since returned it. This puts me back on the Schwinn. There is a huge difference in the speed and how hard I work in the same distance. I want to purchase a new bike, or at least new to me, and I too want a carbon bike. I am 47 years old and feel pretty good that I will ever ride in the Tour de France but I do think I will continue to ride. I am trying out a Trek 1000 that I can buy for $400. I have also went to bike shops and ridden some carbon bikes. Of course the carbon bikes are sweet and make me THINK I would be faster but the truth is I do not know that it is worth the extra $1000-$1500 just to get in on the low end of a carbon bike. Should I just buy this Trek 1000 and maybe update the tires or something and try to get some of the road vibration out of it? They look to be a bit worn anyway. I would appreciate your thoughts because I am not very knowledgable when it comes to road bikes.

    Thanks,
    Randy West

    • Over 40 Cyclist 31/07/2013 at 1:51 pm #

      Hey Randy, good work doing the half ironmans. I take my hat off to you, tough.

      I ride an aluminium bike and that works fine for me, but at the end of the day the only way to buy a bike is to ride it and see what is comfortable. Even a $10,000 bike is useless to you if it isnt’ comfortable. So it’s a personal thing.

      But personally I’m happy with aluminium. I have a carbon bike in the garage “a Pinarello” and still ride the aluminium bike. The carbon bike gathers dust.

      • jero 07/11/2013 at 12:11 am #

        Hi. Thank you for all the good advise in your interesting blog.
        I am very curious about you carbon bike:
        Why is it gathering dust?
        What is it exactly, what feels so wrong about it?

        • Over 40 Cyclist 18/11/2013 at 2:17 pm #

          Hi Jero, there’s nothing wrong with it. It had a mechanical issue, and I was told it wasn’t all that easy to fix, and as my son was thinking of taking up cycling I thought I’d get another bike and, if I could fix the carbon bike then we’d have 2, 1 for him too.

          The mechanical was a broken steerer tube. Pinarello so they have special forks, you can’t just use any fork. And although it wasn’t all that old they weren’t interested in doing anything for me other than selling me a new fork, which was expensive. I was pretty disappointed in Pinarello actually.

          We did eventually get another fork to work but it took a while.

      • Brian Mayeux 08/11/2013 at 3:40 am #

        I disagree.. My carbon bike increased my average speed by 2 mph overnight… Sorry but this statement does not apply to everyone.

        • Over 40 Cyclist 18/11/2013 at 2:19 pm #

          Hi Brian, glad your carbon bike increased your speed, wish I could increase mine. I’m not saying they are no good, just that for an average rider like me an aluminium bike does fine. Actually in our club there are more CAAD 10s (aluminium) than any other bike I think.

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