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