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I hear that a steel frame is more comfortable to ride for a long tour but that it is heavier and easier to rust than aluminum. Which material is better for a touring frame?

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Have to be nuts to use carbon for a touring frame - an accident or outright failure is a very big concern. Aluminum, steel or Titanium can fail but can still be ridden (depending). Titanium is less likely as a touring frame, but a possibility - a cross frame is more common and would serve perfectly well. On that note, disc brakes would be the only option - assuming you want to stop while packing gear... ;) –  OMG Ponies Sep 20 '12 at 4:14
    
Steel also carries weight better. Steel braze on is stronger. –  Blam Jul 10 at 13:25

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Steel is still very common for relatively expensive "touring" bikes (bikes intended for long distances carrying panniers). The slight additional weight of a steel frame over aluminum (well less than 10 pounds in most cases) is inconsequential when you have 40-100 pounds of gear on the bike, the bike is more durable, and the flexibility of a steel bike is preferred by many on a long ride.

Aluminum is more rigid because the tubes must be made fatter and thicker to achieve the same yield strength as steel. In some contexts this additional stiffness may be appreciated, but generally not when riding long distances.

Stainless is hardly ever (never?) used for bikes because it's too hard to work with and the metallurgy doesn't allow the characteristics of the material to be controlled nearly as well as steel or aluminum. And its heavy.

Carbon fiber is carbon fiber. Great for lightweight frames (saves another 2-5 pounds, maybe), great for bragging rights, but fragile and often excessively rigid.

One important consideration on a cross-country ride is that a steel frame is very unlikely to suffer fatigue failure, while the other materials are considerably more likely to do this. (And, in a pinch, a steel frame can be repaired by a welder at a local auto or tractor shop, while a broken aluminum or carbon frame is likely toast.) (Of course, any good quality frame that isn't overloaded should hold up to a 3000 mile journey, but sometimes things happen.)

The tendency of a steel bike to rust is of little consequence. A steel bike would need to be exposed to the weather constantly for 20 years before rust would cause a failure, and at that point all of the components would have already disintegrated. And I don't know about carbon, but aluminum and stainless steel tend to suffer crystallization of the metal at the welds as they corrode, and this can lead to sudden joint failure.

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I have seen and heard of not so few manufacturers who produce stainless steel framesets. I suppose these bikes are not very light, indeed. –  heltonbiker Apr 3 '12 at 14:56
    
+1 Great answer - Just to emphasize the major advantage of steel over Alloy. is the "flexibility" - which translates to it's more comfortable - the frame takes the harshness out of the small bumps and vibrations. Not an issue for a 1 or 2 hour ride or high end performance riders who care about seconds and hour. The trade is insignificant at the end of an 8 hour day. It's a miss-conception that "Steel is Heavy" Look at the Jamis range of bikes MTB - Steel is only 1/2 pound lighter than an equivalent priced Alloy. No points for guessing what I prefer for longer rides..... –  mattnz Sep 19 '12 at 23:30

In regards to your question of 'easier to rust', I have a Trek Elance 330 from the 80s which has a steel frame and not an inch of rust to be found anywhere. It has taken me many miles in full comfort, and I enjoy riding it.
Best of luck in your travels!

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The answer depends on a number factors.

  1. Do you plan to ride in US or developed countries?

    • If the answer is yes then Aluminium is a good choice. The bikes are lighter and cheaper.
    • If you plan to travel in countries like China or Chile then Steel is must because roads might not be in good condition so with a aluminium bike you are going to feel every small potholes. It is general myth that Steel bikes are easier to repair in under developed countries(I differ though) if your frame brakes.
  2. Do you plan to stick to Paved roads in US or developed countries or do you plan to take a little off orad touring .. say on a gravel or mud road? -- On paved roads ... then Aluminium is just fine. --- If you plan to do some off road touring (not the mountain bike trails) on gravel or mud roads then go for a steel bike. They can take a good beating and absorb all the shocks better.

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I have toured a bit, both on steel and aluminum. I have also read a lot about the classic pros and cons perfectly explained by DanielRHicks.

So, based on study and personal experience, I would tell the overal quality and specificity of the bike is much more important than the material itself, for these reasons:

  • Weight difference is irrelevant since you are loaded; rusting is a minor nuisance, and its greatest problem is freezing a seatpost inside the frame, not catastrophic failure; and except for extreme circumstances, requiring a welding service is very very rare (read ahead);
  • Elasticity is not that important on a loaded bike, because the luggage and the tires create a mass/spring system and absorb a lot of the road harshness. The actual flexing both in steel and aluminum is minimal compared to the flexing of tires, of saddle cushioning, and even from the rider's body. From my experience, aluminum bikes can be perfectly comfortable.
  • There are dedicated bike manufacturers who produce high end aluminum touring bikes. Most famous example, I think, would be Koga-Miyata

Elaborating over the problem of material failure, I can surely state that travelling, or "trekking" by bike puts a lot of stress on the frame, but mostly the problems you'll have are related to the points where luggage-carrying structures are attached, like the rear rack brazeons over the rear axle. I broke both of the eyelets on my touring bike, it is a steel one, but the frame is intended for mountainbike. The eyelets were brazed on with a tiny cross-section (I think more intended to mudguards or a light loaded rack).

Also, a touring frame could not be too flexy, because the bike could become difficult to handle at low speed (flexing on the fork), and dangerously unstable at high speed (phenomenon known as "shimmy").

My advice would be: either aluminum or steel, choose a frame that was intended for touring, with good design solutions developed with touring in mind, and whose manufactured is acknowledged for producing good touring bikes. Or at least bikes that are expected to be used as tourers or commuters (almost the same requirements). The Surly Long Haul Trucker is a good benchmark.

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2  
I disagree slightly about elasticity. While I've rarely ridden aluminum bikes, I've read many complaints about the "harsh" ride. But overall, yes -- buy a bike from a known good touring bike manufacturer and you'll have a safe bet, regardless of frame material. Pick the features and price point you want and largely ignore the frame material. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 3 '12 at 15:40

Aluminum tends to be stiffer, won't rust (forms an Aluminum Oxide coating), is much lighter (about 1/3 the weight, but has to be thicker for the same strength, so it usually works out to be 1/2 the weight of steel). It's extremely rigid, so it won't bend... until it breaks.

Steel is less rigid, heavier, and will rust. I would expect the 'suspension' effect of the frame to be rather minor, especially when compared with a true full-suspension bicycle, and the composition of hardtail frames to be not too relevant to your comfort. It may tend to be somewhat more durable, in certain cases - it will bend before it breaks. I find this undesirable for a frame, I'd rather it stay true until it cracks than wonder if it's bent.

Stainless Steel has the properties of steel with similar weight, but without the rusting issues.

Carbon Fiber is expensive, but very light and nearly as strong as steel and rigid as aluminum at about 2/3 the same strength piece of Aluminum.

For what it's worth, I'm going aluminum on my next mountain bike frame. I ride a steel GT Bravado now, and I'll be looking forward to the weight decrease.

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