Custom Bike - 6~8 weeks
Bike Repair - 1 week
What's the perfect material for a bicycle frame? Recently we've been inundated with emails asking about titanium versus steel. So much so, that I thought it was time for an article comparing the two. If you feel like reading a definitive series of articles that I wrote in 2009 for The Bicycle Paper on frame materials including aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and steel, that's here. If, on the other hand, you'd like to read a smaller comparison between titanium and steel bicycle frames in the modern era, this is it.
Let's first start with perceptions and mis-conceptions that people seem to have about the materials. I'll pick five that seem to follow these materials around and then dispel or confirm them using real experience from our years of experience building frames from both materials. Unlike almost every other manufacturer, we work directly with 100% of our customers, and not through dealers. This gives us immediate and accurate feedback. You can benefit from that knowledge as well. So let's look at these things and see how they stack up.
|Titanium Bicycles frames are:|
|1.) Stronger than steel: The perception that titanium is going to be more reliable than steel because it's 'stronger than steel' is...||FALSE|
|2.) Lighter: A lightweight titanium bike frame is lighter than a lightweight steel frame...right?||FALSE|
|3.) More resistant to rust: Titanium, like stainless steel, will not rust or corrode in weather...||TRUE|
|4.) Confortable to ride: Titanium rides smooth and comfortable like a steel frame...||TRUE|
|5.) Expensive: A high quality titanium frame is very expensive.||TRUE|
|Steel Bicycle frames are:|
|1.) Strong: Strong as steel! Steel has a well-deserved reputation as 'strong'||TRUE|
|2.) Heavier than titanium: The perception that a steel frame cannot be built lighter than a titanium frame is...||FALSE|
|3.) Prone to rust: The perception that steel frames are often ruined by rust and corrosion is...||FALSE|
|4.) Comfortable to ride: Steel frames are the standard for the best riding characteristics||TRUE|
|5.) Inexpensive: High quality steel is much less expensive than high quality titanium||TRUE|
OK, let's break them down one by one and make some comparisons based on our very real experience working with both materials.
1.) Reliability: The Winner is Steel
While both materials are very strong when used for bicycle frames, reliability is not the same. Surprisingly, modern titanium bicycle frames are much more likely to break than steel frames. Not because of strength, but just plain defective materials. There are applications where titanium may be stronger, or more reliable, but bicycle fame building is not it. In the early days of the titanium bicycle (1970's and 80's), the only titanium that was available to us was engineered and built for the aviation/aerospace industry. This had to pass very stringent standards, and as a result was extremely high quality and reliable. Inexpensive, poor quality titanium was not even available. I would say, back then, that titanium frames were at least as reliable as a steel frame was, and possibly more so. It's hard to judge because there were so few built as they were extremely expensive.
In modern times however, the titanium available for building bicycles is not engineered or built to these standards. The aerospace industry has moved on from titanium, and it's very difficult, if not impossible to find really high quality titanium to build bicycles from. This results in a much higher failure rate than anyone (including me) would expect. For instance, when we started offering titanium again in 2008, we were flooded with requests to repair broken titanium frames of all makes. While some were from no-name manufacturers, most were very high-end frames that cost well over $3,000 new. It seems that it's difficult to find someone who will repair titanium bicycle frames, but there's a lot of broken ones out there. For the first year or so back in the ti frame world, mostly what we did were repairs.
Soon we began to sell custom ti frames again. As we began to build them, we discovered quite rapidly that the materials that we could acquire were not nearly as reliable as the titanium materials we used in the 1980's. Defects in modern titanium tubing run at a MUCH higher rate than defects in steel tubing. For this reason, steel wins the reliability category hands down. It's not even a close competition.
If you are choosing a modern material for reliability, titanium is not it....at least when it comes to bicycle frames.
People have the idea that a steel bicycle frame has to be heavy....ususally because they owned a heavy bicycle 30 years ago that happened to be made of steel. This is something that I hear everyday. Steel has evolved in a very positive way. High-end steels have gotten much stronger and as a result, can be built much lighter. If you go back to the 1990's, a light steel frame was about 3.75 ~ 4.25 lbs. At that same time, a light titanium frame was about 3.25 ~ 3.75 lbs. In modern steel, we can easily build a steel frame in a medium size at 2.6 ~ 3.2 lbs. Titanium has not evolved in this way, so we still are looking at a medium sized ti frame at around 3.2 pounds. Sure, ti can be built lighter this, but the ride quality suffers when we drop it down below this weight. To build a ti frame that isn't too flexible (or rides like a noodle), we end up with thicker, heavier tubing....there's no way around it.
If light weight is your most important factor, and you want the lightest frame, then steel is the better option. We even build steel bicycles that are lighter than the lightest carbon bikes available!
There are some bicycle salespeople out there that may have you believe that if you buy a steel frame it's going to rust away in a few years. My recommendation is to visit any bicycle repair shop. Look at the bikes in the racks that people ride everyday as their 'rain or shine' commuter. You will see a lot of 20, 30, and even 40 year old steel bikes.
Albeit slight, there is a 'no-rust' advantage for titanium over steel. That is, unless we are talking about stainless steel (which is also available). Given the reliability advantage of steel, maybe we should call this a tie?
Given the reliability advantage of steel, maybe we should call this a tie?
When it comes to ride quality: Yes, titanium rides like steel. But, so does steel;-)
You can compare it like this: Compare a $1,700 THERMLX steel custom frame to a $3,500 custom ti frame. Let's say we built them both as 'race' frames. The weight and ride quality would be equal. The chance of a defective tube would be much greater on the ti frame.
Now, let's say you weigh 190lbs and want a sub-3 pound S3 race frame. With steel we could do that for about $3,200 and it would ride great (I know because I ride one). With ti, we can't really do it in a way that won't ride like a squishy noodle. We're limited to about 3.25 pounds for that 'steel feel' ride.
Thanks for reading. -Dan