What your bike is made from is one of the most important considerations when buying a mountain bike. In this post, we will compare carbon vs aluminum bike frame materials to help you decide which is best for you.
Most mountain bike frames are constructed from carbon or aluminum. Both of these have their pros and cons. But the most prominent factor when deciding is your budget. Carbon frames are more expensive, but is it worth paying the extra money?
These days, both carbon and aluminum frames materials are very robust.
If you crash hard enough to damage your frame, an aluminum frame will probably dent or bend. Even though this is not ideal, you should still be able to ride home after you have stopped crying.
If you were to have a severe enough crash to damage a carbon frame, it would suffer a crack. A cracked carbon frame is too dangerous to ride, and you should not trust its integrity.
There are occasions when a carbon frame can be fixed, but this depends on where the damage is and how severe it is. Aluminum frames cannot be properly repaired, so you will want to replace it.
There are some mountain bike manufacturers that use both carbon and aluminum frame options. A great example of this is the Nuekproof Mega. Even with the different materials, they use the same geometry. Whereas Evil Bikes only builds bikes with carbon frames, with one exception, their dirt jump bike.
How Do They Ride?
A back-to-back test of a carbon Nukeproof bike and an aluminum framed one will reveal the differences quite easily.
You will find that the carbon-framed bike is a little lighter and has a smoother ride. The smoother ride comes from carbon’s increased vibration dampening.
However, an aluminum framed mountain bike is still pretty smooth, especially modern ones with higher quality alloys and improved manufacturing processes.
Aluminum frames are made using the hydro-forming process. The process forms the bike’s tubing in a way that improves ride quality. They can make specific areas of the frame strong where needed and lightweight where it isn’t.
However, if comfort is important to you, the frame material should not be your first consideration. The suspension components should be more of a priority.
Carbon mountain bikes handle slightly differently from aluminum bikes. This is because carbon is much stiffer, making the bike more responsive to your inputs. Carbon’s stiffness also helps you to maximise the power you put into the pedals.
The lightweight nature, stiffness and efficiency of carbon make it an excellent choice for cross country mountain bikers.
However, you may prefer the flex and forgiveness you get from aluminum, which could better suit your riding style.
If weight saving is at the top of your list, don’t automatically think that because a frame is carbon, it is lighter than aluminum.
Not all carbon fiber is the same; when you look into it in more detail, there are different grades of carbon. Therefore, some carbon frames weigh the same as some aluminum frames. Lower-grade carbon is cheaper to make, so you might not get any weight savings by going carbon in some cases.
Difference In Price
Carbon frames are becoming cheaper over time, but they are still more expensive than aluminum bikes. The reason for the price difference is due to how they are made.
Carbon frame manufacture is more labour intensive, while aluminum frames are faster to build with a more straightforward process.
Carbon mountain bikes are higher-end products than aluminum bikes. Manufacturers fit them with fancy and expensive components, as there is no point in building a super light bike frame and fitting it with cheaper, heavy and low-quality components.
If you have lots of money and are desperate for a carbon mountain bike, go for it. But, if you are struggling to justify going carbon, you should be realistic about what you will use your bike for and if carbon will make that much of a difference to you.
If you are going to use your bike for racing, or if you are an advanced rider, a carbon mountain bike could benefit you. If shaving off a few grams isn’t going to make any difference to you, an aluminum frame would be acceptable for your needs.
For example, if you rode an expensive carbon-framed bike, you would find it super smooth, responsive and comfortable. However, if you jumped on a high-end aluminum mountain bike straight afterwards, you may still love it. Even though the carbon bike was excellent, would you really benefit by spending an extra few thousand for the luxury? Or would you benefit more by spending the money on mountain bike coaching to improve your riding?
You will come across compromises with deciding to buy a bike when it comes to the frame material. You can save money and still have an exceptional mountain bike with an aluminum frame.
Many of them have excellent components fitted from big-name brands. Some of these aluminum framed bikes have even better components than their carbon counterparts.
Alternatively, with the money you have saved going aluminum, you could upgrade your components to make an even better bike.
Looking After Your Bike
When it comes to looking after your bike, all the moving parts require the same level of TLC with either frame material. However, there are differences when it comes to taking care of your frame.
Clamping your bike into a bike stand is the easiest way to work on it. But you need to be careful when clamping a carbon frame, as you can easily crush the tube in the jaws of your bike stand.
You need to use a torque wrench on both types of bikes, but it is more critical with a carbon frame. You should never over-tighten the bolts; they should be as tight as the manufacturer states, and no more. If you’re in Scotland, I can personally recommend Bike and Spanner Bike service and repair in Edinburgh if you need expert assistance.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question, as your choice is down to your personal preferences and circumstances. The thing about mountain biking is that it is supposed to make us happy. Will you regret buying your dream carbon bike, or would you be happy on a fantastic aluminum bike?