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I recently had my bike destroyed by a car. I love cycling, and since I'm no longer a research fellow, I'm considering replacing it with a bike with great longevity (N.B. I know that until a process is perfected for constructing self-healing, Adamantium bike frames, no bike is guaranteed to survive a collision with a car). I've owned several aluminum- and steel-framed bikes in the past, and liked them all (although aluminum Canondale and GT frames had fairly thin, oversized tubes and once or twice got dinged on university bike racks, and the steel bikes slowly succumbed to rust in the rain/snow/salt of winter).

For these reasons, I've long held titanium frames in high regard, because I've heard anecdotally that a good titanium bike can last the longest with minimal care (i.e. it is strong and resists corrosion); however, I recently read about stainless steel frames (e.g. KVA and Reynolds 953), which are very strong and corrosion resistant (although I've heard conflicting accounts as to whether stainless is as corrosion resistant as titanium).

Which is the frame material with greatest longevity-- stainless steel or titanium? I've learned that in addition, there are other stainless steel frame types such as the nascent Reynolds 921 (Also, do you know the manufacturer with greatest longevity? I've read that the longevity of the frame not only depends on the material, but depends even more so on the quality of construction, and it's almost certainly better to have a good aluminum bike than a titanium bike held together by gum.) And if stainless is the best, is there a recommendation between KVA and Reynolds options? I found a couple of nice tables comparing physical properties online, but wanted to ask because such tables does not quantify corrosion resistance or the average tube thickness used for that material or the difficulty working with the material (which can manifest itself in greater likelihood of imperfections and later cracks), or any other je ne sais quoi that a bike expert like you can recommend.

Thanks for any help you can offer, and hope all is well with you and your bike.

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Taking proper care of your bike will make it last way longer than just getting one with a specific frame material. –  birthofearth Apr 9 at 16:07
    
Argh, since this is StackExchange, I knew this would be an answer/comment, but this is not the question I'm asking. –  user10859 Apr 9 at 16:10
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Touring frames are often built out of steel as this offers the ability to have the frame welded back together or tubes replaced when on the road. Often finding a bike shop when on the road and then having to wait for a bike to be ordered will impact a tour, similarly finding someone with aluminium or titanium welding skills would have the same impact. Every town or village should have someone who can do basic mechanical repairs and weld two steel tubes together. –  DWGKNZ Apr 9 at 19:37
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The correct question is which material is easiest to reliably join, as (short of a MVA) the joints are the downfall of most frames. Aluminum, eg, is tricky to weld and subject to metal fatigue. Stainless likewise. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 9 at 22:09
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Unless you live by the ocean, rust is a red herring. Very few bikes, even when left outside all the time, fail from rust to the frame. Other components (eg, bottom bracket bearings) will succumb to rust far sooner. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 9 at 22:14

4 Answers 4

Its not just the material that affects frame longevity, but the design of frames - different tubing thicknesses and geometries will last longer than others given the same materials.

That being said, a lot of touring bikes (often made of steel such as Reynolds 521 or the Tange equivalent or something, since in a pinch, you can repair steel in pretty much any country and its "ride quality") are essentially bomb-proof if you take care of them [the material is a neglectable factor relative to this, especially since you won't build identical bikes with different materials due to different material strengths and properties]. Some people have hundreds of thousands of miles on them with little degradation. Examples of touring bikes are things like Surly Long Haul Trucker, Trek 520, etc.

That being said, a lot of 70s Schwinns and 80s road bikes and what not are still running perfectly fine after replacing consumable parts (chainrings, chains cassettes, hub repackings, bottom brackets, etc.) when they were maintained reasonably.

Part of the reason why titanium lasts so long is that the people who buy titanium bikes are already extremely invested in their bicycles and take extremely good care of them. They aren't left outside, they get the top level of care, they don't abuse it, etc. so they see a very nice environment.

Also, very few if any decent bikes are going to survive taking a significant hit from a car.

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When I used to repair donated bikes for Christmas Anonymous I ran into several bikes where the (cheap one-piece) bottom bracket bearings had completely rusted out from being left in the rain. But the frames were still sound, and we were able to "rescue" about half the bikes in this condition. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 10 at 0:13

Honestly, I would find it difficult to compete with a properly-treated steel bike with regard to cost, durability and repairability.

Several manufacturers are moving to ED coating, which is essentially a plating process applied to the bare metal of the frame. Because its composition is typically metallic, you can powder coat or paint over it.

I own two ED-coated bikes: an All-City Space Horse I believe is wet-painted and a Surly Ogre that is powder coated. The Ogre's finish seems to chip a little more easily than either the Space Horse's or many of the powder-coated steel frames I've owned. Time will tell whether the corrosion resistance will be better—I applied Framesaver to both ED-coated frames because I assume the internal coating is not perfect—but I fully expect both bikes will outlive me.

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Some modern steel frames are ED coated, which inhibit rust on the inside and out. All-City does this with most of their frames, and Surly has started to do this with some new models as well (such as the ECR and straggler).

Though in my experience the paint can chip a bit easier, but the ED coating below tends to remain intact. This may be an option if you want a durable steel bike at a cheaper price.

You can always buy a can of FrameSaver and spray that inside the frame to protect it from rust as well.

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Is ED coating compatible with powder coats, or only paint? –  dsalo Apr 9 at 21:10
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@dsalo - only paint. Powder coating is a different process. You can paint over a powder coat, but I don't believe you can powder coat over paint. –  JohnP Apr 10 at 21:20

Are you prioritizing longevity above all else? Because nothing's likely to beat a cheap bike of thickwalled straight-gauge chro-moly steel (which isn't particularly vulnerable to corrosion, especially if you sand and repaint, or apply rust converter to, any nicks in the paint). Lightweight, high-end tubing is more vulnerable to picking up dings, buckling in a bike accident, or, in the case of Ti, just being rubbed right through by a tire. I have a stainless steel fork that I broke an eyelet off of previously, and just irreparably bent in a minor accident.

On the other hand, Sheldon Brown rode an 80-plus year old steel bike that by all appearances was pretty neglected before his purchase. 1970s Schwinn road bikes were built so that their lifetime warranty would never need to be used, and you see a ton of them soldiering on through neglected maintenance and harsh urban riding.

I'd bet a simply-designed straight-gauge chromoly bike would be your best bet for something similar new. Or you can look for a vintage frame of Columbus Aelle or equivalent, or perhaps a late-80s Miyata, which were also ED-coated, and have shown their mettle by lasting 25 years already. Today's cheap aluminum bikes also likely have thickwalled tubing, and are thus probably less vulnerable to dings, and are even less vulnerable to corrosion than steel.

High-end money in the bike market generally buys lighter weight or more refined aesthetics, as opposed to ultimate durability.

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