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I am going to buy my first proper road bike, and I have been comparing entry-level carbon frames with top-level aluminum frames in the same series (Giant Defy). What are the benefits of carbon vs. aluminum frames? Is it better to get an aluminum bike with higher-end components or a similarly priced carbon bike with lower-end components?

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What's wrong with a plain old steel frame? –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 21 '13 at 11:53
    
the defy doesn't come in steel –  Andrew Welch Apr 21 '13 at 12:02
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You may want to make your question less specific to the Giant Defy and more about the entry-level carbon vs. aluminum frame. Questions benefit from being relevant from year to year and across manufacturers. –  WTHarper Apr 21 '13 at 13:43
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I purchased a Defy3 last August when I returned to biking after a 35 year hiatus. I can't provide much insight regarding aluminum frames vs. composite, but I can tell you that I am very pleased with my choice. To date I have ridden the bike for almost 1500 miles with only a broken spoke spoiling an otherwise flawless experience. I must admit that I often lust for more exotic bikes and components, but my old engineer's head tells me that the best upgrade will come from improvement of the guy in the saddle; I'm making progress. –  Russell Zeckner Apr 21 '13 at 23:55
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@AndrewWelch I took a stab at focusing the question a bit more on the cost trade-off issues. If this isn't what you're going for, please feel free to revert. –  amcnabb Apr 22 '13 at 16:11
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8 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Essentially this is about Low end carbon vs high end alloy.... Carbon is typically lighter and less harsh (more vibration absorbsion) over alloy, but is not as robust. I doubt the alloy is much heavier, I think it will come down to difference in componet quality and budget.

Personally for a training bike I would probabbly go for the alloy- but that is driven by my financail situation. If the bikes are simialar price, and components the same quaility, I would consider the carbon, however I would not trade componet quailty for a carbon frame.

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The component quality he'll be trading is not the highest anyway as I doubt the components include much carbon bits, if any ;) It's easier to get carbon frame then upgrade to components with lots of carbon material than to start with alloy frame and components and upgrade them later with carbon ones. –  imel96 Apr 30 '13 at 3:07
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As stated in another comment - I do not believe in buying a bike with the intention of upgrading - its a waste of money as parts are insanely expensive. Buy the bike to want, not a bike you want to upgrade. –  mattnz Apr 30 '13 at 9:16
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I saw that comment and I think it's the main point. Comparing low end carbon with high end alu means he wants carbon but budget is limited. So, your suggestion is not really to buy the bike he wants but a bike that he's willing to settle with. Buying to upgrade is admitting that it's not the dream bike but at least you get some of the things that you really want and know that you can make it better. It's like comparing 50:50 and 80:20, they both total to 100. I'd rather be satisfied with 80% and accept the rest 20% sucks, than have 50% satisfaction for the whole package. –  imel96 May 1 '13 at 2:15
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If I were you I would satisfy myself as to the quality of the carbon frame of the bike you're considering, and provided it looks decent, to go down the carbon route.

The reason for this is just upgradeability. It is conceivable that as you become better and stronger on your first road bike, sooner or later you may find yourself asking the question "how can I make my bike faster?".

Now, for most of us the answer to this is to lose 10% in weight and 10% in body fat, but that's a different story ;-)

But when you start to think about upgrading parts, you've got your groupset, wheels etc. These things you can generally upgrade at your own pace, and as your budget allows. And they would apply to any bike, carbon or not.

I think if you have a non-carbon-framed bike, however, one of the big things to think about as regards an upgrade is the frame itself, i.e. basically buying yourself a new bike. And, of course, this will be pretty expensive and not really something you can do piecemeal.

In summary I would probably go for as good a frame as I could afford, and initially sacrifice things like groupset, just on the grounds that I can upgrade this kind of thing later as and when funds allow.

Incidentally I have a Giant TCR Advanced and think it is superb. I have no experience of the Defy but if the workmanship is like the TCR I doubt you'd be disappointed.

One last thing, since you say you're based in London and especially if cost is an issue....you could do a lot worse than looking at the Chris Boardman range out of Halfords. Just look at the awards these bikes win, you really do get a lot of bang for your buck.

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Just as a small addendum, reading about the Defy, I think the fact that Sep Vanmarke had a podium finish in this year's Paris-Roubaix (on a Defy) would allay any fears I had about build quality! The bike's not going to be crap. http://www.giant-bicycles.com/en-gb/news/article/vanmarcke.podiums.at.paris.rou‌​baix/16595/ –  PeteH Apr 22 '13 at 18:32
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I would never buy with the intention of upgrading - individual parts cost about 1000 times what the cost of the same part on the bike - to the extend is it cheaper to buy a donor bike than replace worn out parts on an otherwise good frame. Better defer purchase and save up the small difference than to buy a less than ideal bike and save up enough money for the substantial cost to upgrade it. –  mattnz Apr 23 '13 at 3:05
    
@mattnz - point taken, and without doubt parts cost less with a new bike, but it really depends on what you can afford right now and how long you're prepared to remain bikeless while you're saving –  PeteH Apr 23 '13 at 7:11
    
Disagree strongly with mattnz. I assembled my last bike from individual components and it would have been the same cost as buying it pre-built. In actuality I saved $1000 because I was able to score lightly used wheels and frame. There's always the upgrade cost of now having an "extra" part to get rid of, but that's part of the process. –  Brian Knoblauch Aug 27 '13 at 19:46
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One thing that I have found is you can usually get a lighter weight bike if you go with top-level aluminum over a low-level carbon. The low-level carbon frames tend to have a lot of fiberglass mixed in to keep the cost down and the components are much cheaper too which will weigh a lot more. I think it's kind of funny that everyone looks down on my aluminum bike and yet it weighs less than their carbon bikes that cost twice as much! I have owned carbon, steel and aluminum bikes

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I have guys look down at my Steel Hard-tail MTB, till they can't catch me...... –  mattnz Apr 28 '13 at 9:43
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Or, as I have done numerous times, buy a good used bike from a Local Bike Shop that has a good frame that you think you will enjoy long term, and reasonable components. Then you can ride, at a good price, with good stuff, and you can decide what to upgrade and when. Last time I bought a complete bike was 1999. I am riding 3 different bikes right now, a 1998 Merlin Ti, a 2004 Merlin Ti/Carbon and a 2008 Merlin Ti, none of which I paid more than $2300 for, and each are now worth a lot more due to upgrades over the years, on my schedule and budget.

All personal choice, but I've been pretty happy...

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Welcome to Bicycles SE. While this is certainly a viable alternative, it does not address the OP's question regarding the comparison of carbon and aluminum bikes. This probably would have been better placed as a comment. –  jimirings Aug 22 '13 at 21:17
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I was faced with a similar situation about two years ago. I decided to go 2nd hand aluminum. The reason was that I didn't want to spend too much before I really knew what I wanted. There are several different types of road bicycle set-ups. This is what I didn't know: Will I want to ride long distances (100+ miles) or sprint races (30-40 miles) or just regular rides with friends (a couple of hours here and there). Each of these bikes would have a different set-up, material and geometry. Will I ride a lot of hills? Would a compact crank or regular crank be better to my riding style? Buy a used, but decent condition al bike. After 2000km, you'll have a good idea of what type of bicycle you want to spend real money on, and you'll be able to sell the current one for very little loss. If you don't sell it, then you have a winter trainer for use inside. And in the all too familiar case that you buy the bike and rarely use it, you didn't spend 1500 to 2000 on something that just takes up room in your garage.

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Personally id rather have top quality aluminium than cheap entry level carbon.also,whatever you choose,dont go daft with the upgrades-save your money and get a really nice carbon number in a year or two. Entry level bikes are great when starting out.you can strip them,fit new parts etc by yourself,which obviously is a great thing to learn,but if you dive right in and buy an expensive bike you would be very hesitant to start working on it yourself.also,if you join a club and keep getting dropped then its only to be expected.turn up with an s-works with di2 dura ace however,then not only would you probably feel a bit of a plonker getting beat from old guys on old raleighs,but im sure theyd also take great pleasure from it!whatever you choose/chose,good luck and happy cycling!

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Much of this answer compares entry level bikes with expensive bikes--I'm not sure this really answers whether it's better to get a similarly priced aluminum or carbon bike. –  amcnabb Aug 12 '13 at 17:50
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Quality-wise bikes are a lot like chains. The total quality of a bike (where with quality I mean stuff like durability, smoothness, ease of use, ease of maintenance, etc.) is very dependent on the weakest link.

An expensive frame with cheap components makes for a worse bike than a mid-range frame with mid-range components. So given the choice I'd go for the (relatively) cheaper frame with the (relatively) more expensive components, all dependend on what I actually wanted to spend on the bike.

There are "ride quality" differences between carbon and aluminium and steel. Carbon is usually less stiff, so the ride is a bit more comfortable. Steel has the same properties as carbon and is more durable, aliminium is usually a lot stiffer and hence the ride is harsher. For that reason you get aluminium frames with carbon fork and stays. The main disadvantage of steel is of course weight, but you have to look at this critically. The 0.5-1 kg weight reduction you get by going from a really good and durable steel to a carbon frame disappears in the 15-20 kg of fat you are lugging around anyway, and unless you plan to go ride a lot of serious races you will never notcie the small gain of the lighter frame.

Where I'm going with this: In the standard bikes you buy the frame is often of higher quality (and price) compared to the other components. You can get a better bike for less money if you pay attention to this when buying your bike. Spending some time talking this over with you friendly LBS owner will help here.

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Budgetwise, I think frame is the last thing that upgrading it would give me good return. So, I'd get the most expensive frame I can get in a bike and potentially keep the frame virtually forever.

When you have more money, you can invest in nice wheels, something that will make you faster.

Other than that, aluminium is older tech than carbon. Just like in cars, cheap cars made from steel, expensive ones use aluminium. Formula one use carbon.

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-1 For the last line. –  mattnz Apr 28 '13 at 9:45
    
@mattnz Without going to specific kind of each material, that's just how tech has developed. Another example is newer airplane like boeing 787 has something like 50% composite, 20% alu and 10% steel. Probably would even use less steel if composite can stand heat. I think the reason to get older tech material when current tech is affordable is not very scientific. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_strength –  imel96 Apr 30 '13 at 2:55
    
If you want to look at the use of modern technology, and how it can affect commecial passenger aircraft, I suggest you study the history of the de Havilland DH 106 Comet. –  mattnz Apr 30 '13 at 4:13
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