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

  1. mah-tain 22/10/2016 at 9:57 am #

    Have ridden for 35+ years and have found the biggest comfort factor besides wheel’tires is seatpost and h-bars. After bending 2 Ti seatposts, i found a carbon post is very comfy. Sometimes they are not as light as aluminum but I have found them to be extremely comfy and have not broken one yet (3 years 3 posts on 3 diff. bikes) My ti’s bent after 3 months of riding (at most)….and these were carver and another “high end” brand.

    cheers

  2. neil 11/03/2016 at 12:39 pm #

    Currently riding a CAAD 10 Black edition aluminum frame bike for the last 15 months. Done over 5k of road travel without any complaints. Its a really good bike but after going at it for two + hours I wonder if a carbon frame would be a little more forgiving with vibration or road feel. Even small changes from a 23-25mm tires help the ride quality. So just would like your thoughts.

    Neil

    • Over 40 Cyclist 18/04/2016 at 6:18 pm #

      I suppose the easy answer to that Neil is that I ride a CAAD 10 aluminium bike and love it. What’s not to like about them? Though if someone gave me an expensive carbon bike I’d be happy to ride it. But I’m quite happy with what I’ve got.

      I’ll also mention that the CAAD 10 is probably the most numerous bike in our cycling groups. That says something. Cheers and happy cycling

  3. Corey 01/02/2016 at 3:10 pm #

    Thanks for the great article. I was thinking of upgrading to Carbon fiber, but perhaps now I will keep what I have, and instead pick up something different, like a fat bike for off season riding!
    Cheers!

  4. Rio 08/08/2015 at 7:28 am #

    hi, i’m 16 years old and i’m going to purchase a new road bike. i currently have 2 options, the first option is a full carbon road bike with a regular drivetrain (shimano tiagra) and the second option is an alumunium frame bike which has a carbon fork and high-end drivetrain (shimano ultrega).At first, i was interested in the carbon bike, but then the bike dealer guy recommendef the alumunium bike to me. I really want to know why the bike dealer guy recommended to me the alumunium one instead of the carbon one. please reply, thank you

  5. Joe Hayes 05/08/2015 at 12:21 am #

    I have a pretty basic alu bike. It is possible to get faster without spending all that money on a carbon bike all at once.
    1. You are the engine, so lose weight yourself if you need to, get fitter, get more efficient. This will yield more than any bike upgrade.
    2. Get good wheels, The moving parts of the bike are more important to have right than the frame. Basic carbon bikes usually come with basic wheels. It might be better to stick to the Alu bike and get lighter wheels. Also look at the tyres and tubes. There can be a difference of 150g between a light tyre and a heavy one, and you have 2 of these and 3 or 4 tubes (with spares)
    3. Upgrade the groupset. This is not cheap, but again the moving parts are more important and by upgrading gradually you will spread the cost. Again cheaper carbon bikes generally have a basic groupset. so you can spend all that money and end up still with cheap wheels and a basic setup.
    4. Check where your current bike can be lightened. Weigh every part and see what alternatives are available. Maybe you have a heavy saddle, handlebars, stem, tyres etc. Check the cost of upgrading and the weight saving.
    5. Check what else you are carrying on board, your shoes, are you carrying too much water (I see lots of guys with 2 full bottles on a sportive that has a food stop where you can refill. A full waterbottle can weigh 800g, 10% of the bike weight.
    5. Dont compromise on comfort for a small weight saving.

  6. Alfred 20/06/2015 at 2:56 pm #

    Hi Everyone

    Just got a Carbon Bike I weigh 207 no problems. I plan to ride 30 miles a day. If it all goes south well I’ll get me a aluminum bike but for many years I rode a aluminum bike and it was good but I just needed to find out about the carbon.

    The Carbon bike rides really great and I go a lot faster then my aluminum bike but the tires are not meant for sand or wet. I found out that the bike racks are not for carbon only the Thule that sells for 399 dollars but I just put some small towels so the bike can rest on so no problems there.

    I’ve never man handled my bikes before I treated all my bikes as if they were made of glass so the carbon will be no different.

    I do 5 miles in 10 minutes also depending on the wind and road sometimes its just 4 miles. I’m one of those just a park bully just looking for someone to race.

  7. Rupert Barnes 13/04/2015 at 10:53 pm #

    I have a Bianchi Auminium road bike, about £600, with Kevlar/carbon forksI chose it after trying three or four in a shop one afternoon, it was fitted and is excellent. I cannot recommend enough having a proper fitting, I had mine tweaked after 6 months and any aches and pains went, and I got faster. I was looking to upgrade and was going on a number big rides. I bought the carbon equivalent, almost identical frame shape £2000. It goes like a rocket and is used on big occasions. Everyone says Aluminuim is stiffer but the carbon ride with the same frame shape is much harder on my body. So I do the majority of the training on the Auminium; also because training on the heavier bike is better for my fitness.

  8. Suzanna 10/04/2015 at 6:22 am #

    In comparing the results of a collision between myself and another rider I will never buy another carbon fiber bicycle. Yes the CF frame was lighter to place on the roof rack and comfortable to ride. The key for me is how the CF frame responded in the accident. My frame cracked in such a way that I had no steering or support and I hit the ground much harder than has ever happened in the past with a metal frame bicycle. I wound up in the hospital and the CF bike is totaled. CF as a frame material is just not worth it IMHO.

  9. Ian Jackson 07/04/2015 at 2:44 am #

    I am over 40, and I have moved to getting a full custom frame made now – it has really helped me. Recently I went back to my standard frame and almost immediately feel some back twinges, and also am less certain of the handling.

    I think carbon is great, but for those with the budget, Ti is the best for a long term purchase.

    I represent LEGEND by Bertoletti and the majority of our clients are over 40, who want to get everything just right on the frame design. There are other custom frame builders, but LEGEND is one of the few who offer all frame materials (carbon, Ti, steel and alu).

  10. Maximus 13/02/2015 at 9:58 am #

    I agree with Brian Mayeux, Carbon fibre bikes goes faster and more swiftly. I have been riding an aluminium bike for 5 years and just started group rides a month ago. I am a very fit person who runs a lot and rides a lot. Yet during the group ride the two fattest dude were always first. I kept cycling and cycling and could barely ever catch up to them. Mind you, they are twice my size. I could see them cruising in front of me and often didn’t have to pedal where I had to keep peddling all the way.

  11. Jack Kapela, Warsaw, Poland 11/06/2014 at 12:38 am #

    I started road biking around forty. My first attempt to road bike was an old cr-mo bike with frame shifters and very uncomfortable hoods. I gave up quickly. Second was some old, used, steel bike made into triathlon bike with grip shifts.

    I was two sizes bigger than what I needed (had no clue about correct fram size) so I gave up on this one quickly too, but road bike was still on my mind. Finally I spotted something nice on Decathlon end of season sellout. It was aluminium frame with carbon fork and carbon upper part of frame’s back triangle. Fitted with Campagnolo Mirage triple groupset and some basic wheels. That was it. A little bit less that 800 US dollars and a bit less that 10 kg weight. Comfortable hoods but a little bit uncomfortable handlebar. Handlebar was changed few times around to end up with Deda Anatomic and shorter, more comfortable stem. I rode this bike for 5 years and it proved to be quite comfortable. I climbed some very demanding Alps climbs on it too. I started to dream about some pro carbon bike. I spotted one slightly used. Full carbon frame and fork, aero Fast Forward carbon wheels with alu rims and Shimano Ultegra groupset. I bought it. It was fast, certainly faster than my alu bike. Unfortunately the comfort wasn’t there.

    The fork was certainly too stiff. The frame was also one size too big for me so I was overstretched. I changed stem to shortest possible one and more comfortable handlebar but it didn’t help much. Ultegra hoods were highly uncomfortable comparing to my old Mirage hoods. I decided that I need fast, but first of all, comfortable bike. I started to research what riders use for the most uncomfortable road surface – cobblestones of Paris – Roubaix race. That’s how I started to think of Specialized Roubaix bike. I convinced my cycling buddy who had identical Decathlon bike, and was also thinking of ultimate, fast, comfort bike, to contact Specialized LBS and borrow Roubaix with new Ultegra groupset for a ride.

    We went for a ride and made 50 km each on it and another 50 km on alu bike. There certainly was a difference in comfort. Roubaix was definitely less bumpy. I still wasn’t convinced to Shimano hoods. My friend bought a whole bike equipped with Shimano 105 groupset. I used some online fit calculators and decided to go with slighly smaller frame then I had on an alu bike. I bought the frameset and fitted it with Campagnolo Centaur triple groupset. I changed 175 mm crank arms, I used in the past, to 172,5 mm and feel thay are easier on my knees. I also went for a comfy but heavy Specialized Rival MTB saddle and Specialized Shallow Drop alu handlebar with Specialized Roubaix gel tape.

    I changed training tires from size 23 to size 25 quite heavy but puncture proof Specialized Armadillo All Condition (please be aware that many road bike frames won’t have enough clearance to do that) and dropped pressure to 80 PSI front and 90 PSI at the back. I use DT Swiss R1700 standard alu clincher wheels. I use a bit heavy carbon wrapped alu seatpost. I’m a heavy rider, 90 kg (around 200 pounds) and I don’t want to use Carbon Super Light, very thin seatpost with that much weight. With this frame and setup this is by far the most comfortable bike I ever had. Yet it is still quite fast. It weights a bit over 8 kg but weight wasn’t my concern. For intensive group rides I swap wheels and use Fast Forward aero wheels then. What’s most important no matter how far I go I feel almost like on my trekking bike. It dampens road vibration in excellent way.

    Specialized has a marketing slogan: smoother is faster. It certainly is. But comfort is not only a matter of frame. It is also about fit and good choice of other components. It takes some trial and error and some resistance to marketing hype.

    • Over 40 Cyclist 11/06/2014 at 9:45 am #

      Good points Jack. You’ve got quite a cycling history there. Cheers

    • stinova 10/09/2014 at 6:24 pm #

      This is so near my story that I could have written it apart from using stock gears etc. I am 83kgs and have a 2009 Roubaix Comp full carbon never had any issues with breakages etc have fallen twice

    • John Burke 02/03/2016 at 2:23 am #

      Thank you for taking the time to go into such detail! I’m fairly new at this and I really appreciate it. Some info that experienced riders take for granted is can be very valuable to those of us just getting started.

  12. Dimitris Savva 09/06/2014 at 6:18 pm #

    I have a preference to carbon fibre over aluminium frames. I have both, and I really feal the difference in the carbon fibre bike I have tried.

  13. simon 21/05/2014 at 2:58 am #

    My last two carbon frames have both cracked (road bikes), the most recent after only four months use and it took four and half months to get the replacement (from a top brand). Whilst angrily waiting for the new frame I bought a CAAD 10 frame. I know aluminium isn’t immune to failure but I no longer trust carbon frames.

    • Steve 24/05/2015 at 9:29 am #

      Hi Simon,

      i’m in the market for a used road bike after having MTB’s most of my adult life… i’m 38. how have u found the CAAD10? I too was asked if I want alloy or carbon… I have seen a CAAD10 for sale in my price range

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

          • Mark Harris 13/04/2015 at 1:55 pm #

            In your post you say carbon bikes outnumber aluminium in your bunch by 10 to 1, but now you say there are more aluminium CAAD 10s than any other bike. So is it carbon or aluminium that is most popular in your club?

          • Romeo Fowler 12/02/2016 at 9:37 am #

            thats because the CAAD 10 is and excellent bike, i had a 2012 super six and read all the great review on the CAAD 10 and went to my local pounds and pick one up. my first ride 50miles i could not believe the smoothness and handling of this bike. When i got home from my ride i was looking at my Super Six and shaking my head, because i could not believe how much better riding the CAAD 10 was being that its aluminum.

            the CAAD10 by far is one of the best riding bikes that i have ever own, it will put a lot of carbon bikes to shame. and its even lighter than most carbon bikes out there, and the best thing is that it doesn’t break the bank either.

      • Bryan Dover 27/08/2016 at 12:56 pm #

        Ditto to the dust collector in the garage. I had a Trek Madone 5.2 and it just hung in the garage for a cheap Specialized Secteur Elite equipped with Tiagra 10 speed. I’ve learned that more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. Comfort and shifting smoothness are what I look for.

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