Alloy could be set for a road bike renaissance after being pushed out of the limelight by carbon-fibre

Cast an eye over a list of top-end road bikes and you may notice an oddity: Specialized’s S-Works Allez. This suave-looking silver machine comes equipped with a mouth-watering spec list that includes a full Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 groupset and Roval Rapide carbon wheels for £7,500. So far, so what? The frame is not made from carbon-fibre — the ubiquitous material of choice for high-end bikes — but aluminium alloy. Could this be the start of a return to the glory days for metal frames?

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You may have thought that there is simply no place for aluminium in the upper reaches of a brand’s range in the 21st century, but best-selling bike brand Specialized does. And given the attention that its Allez range has received, we’d say that there’s plenty of interest in alloy, with Canyon and Cannondale also having high-spec alloy bikes in their catalogues.

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Of course, aluminium as a frame material never actually went away. As carbon-fibre has become the material of choice for high-end bikes over the past decade, aluminium has continued to prosper on bikes costing below £1,000.

Condor-Italia-RC-road-bike

The Condor Italia RC with its great aluminium frame – but is it any match for carbon?

Carbon-fibre’s appeal as a frame material is obvious: it can be made into a lightweight frame and, if constructed with care, can be laterally stiff and vertically compliant: the bike designer’s Holy Grail. Conversely, aluminium frames have a reputation for giving a harsh ride as well as lacking in the aesthetically pleasing sculpted lines of carbon-fibre. When carbon-fibre arrived, designers rejoiced in no longer being stuck with a set of round pipes to weld together, and a visit to a bike shop will confirm the array of curvy, swoopy designs now on offer. And, if we’re honest, saying you have a bike made of carbon-fibre is a bit more sexy than having a bike made of the same stuff that you wrap around a potato to keep it warm.

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However, what has happened in the past decade is a leap forward in the way that aluminium can be shaped, formed and welded. Not only can manufacturers make an alloy frameset that is around the magic 1kg mark, but it can look every bit as glorious as a carbon-fibre equivalent, while being cheaper. Gone are the restrictions of using straight pipes and blobby welds; now you can have curves and smooth joints. More importantly, it doesn’t have to lose out in ride quality, either. As well as careful frame design, this is helped by the use of a carbon-fibre fork, thick bar tape, wider 25mm tyres and a carbon-fibre seatpost. All of these elements can take the edge off the ‘buzz’ of an alloy-framed bike without detracting from its performance qualities: especially stiffness.

Fuji alloy with internal cables

The Fuji Roubaix 1.1 alloy frame even comes with internal cable routing

Although you can now buy carbon-fibre bikes for under a grand, some suffer from a manufacturing and design process that is formulated to hit a price point rather than offer the best rider experience. They won’t necessarily be light, and sometimes frame flex is a major issue. Couple that with a lower-grade, heavier component package to keep a lid on the price and suddenly any possible advantage of having a carbon-fibre frame becomes a nonsense. We recently rode a selection of sub-£1,500 road bikes for a side-by-side test and the alloy-framed models were by far the best in terms of an all-round package.

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It is perhaps early days to talk about a renaissance of alloy frames, particularly those costing over £1,500. There are only a handful of such bikes currently on the market, but you can’t help feeling that this may be more to do with fashion and prejudice than quality and value.

Kinesis Racelight T2 1

Kinesis Racelight T2 – our testers found the alloy frame to be tough and durable

Our take

We can’t see aluminium pushing out carbon-fibre at mid to top end ranges any time soon. However, alloy frames make a whole lot of sense in the sub-£1,500 market. Cheaper manufacturing costs mean that for this price you can get a good quality alloy bike with full Shimano Ultegra groupset that’s better equipped and as light as anything made of carbon-fibre for the same money.

For: Joel Natale – product and buying director, Evans Cycles

“One could argue aluminium never really went away. The difference today is the pressure to produce the cheapest carbon bikes appears to have gone for the most part. There’s a middle ground occupied by ‘high-end aluminium’ and ‘low-end carbon’ where consumers are able to make wise choices based on weight, upgrade potential and ride characteristics. At the high end, carbon still reigns.”

Against: Grant Young – Managing director, Condor Cycles

“When aluminium was introduced it was significantly lighter than steel so immediately there were advantages. We still use a high-end alloy, which offers a good balance of smooth ride and good value. However, the application of aluminium has been given a poor name. In the last 10 years we’ve invested in creating superior steel materials at a more accessible price. In addition, aerodynamic carbon can be proven to save watts.”

This article first appeared in the April 9 issue of Cycling Weekly 

  • G3K762

    I have an older Specialized Festina M4. It may be a bit gaudy, with the color scheme, but it still rides like a dream. It’s got nice aerodynamics and still offers a great ride. With upgraded components, it is the equal of most road bikes out there. It’s a better bike than my legs deserve. I won’t be replacing it anytime soon…. so long as I continue to keep the rubber side down.

  • Tuaca Tom

    The new aluminum (past few years) has made a big difference. My ‘new’ mountain bike from last summer (Giant XTC 27.5) has been tremendous fun. I saved $ vs. carbon and happy for it. I don’t have to keep checking for cracks in the frame.

  • Tuaca Tom

    I agree on the “loose some weight from your body”.
    As a middle aged lover of bikes, beer and babes, I just need to eat a little less, ride a little more and I’ll be 10 pounds less. For my stable of 3 bikes, that would cost me $9,000 if I went to purchase/upgrade route.
    I’m keeping what I have and improving the motor instead …

  • Charlie

    I had a Vitus 979 circa 1985 I inherited from my grandad. Smooth ride but more than a bit whippy at the bottom bracket. Un-nervingly so in some cases I found. It was nice to ride as a first proper bike until the seat tube came away at the BB after a ride in the wet. Shame I managed to break it after all that time!

  • Richard David Lloyd

    I had a vitus back in the 80s. I loved that bike

  • David Chadderton

    I feel proud to be ahead of the fashion game by keeping on using my 1982 Vitus 979 Dural glued frame, bought from new for time trailing. I have nothing made of fibre reinforced autoclaved resin on my aluminium bikes thanks. Ok, I am still slow relative to younger riders, but, always was.

  • riderforlife44

    I have a Canyon Ultimate AL SLX bought in 2014, it weighs 1200 grams for the frame, and compared to the carbon version is stiffer and more durable … and its half the price
    loose some weight from your body bot your bike the alloy frames are going to last 10 years or maybe more and don’t crack like carbon
    no brainer IMO

  • Jumeirah Jane

    He certainly won the 2007 TdF Green Jersey on a steel Marcelo painted up as a Spesh…..carbon superlight frames are for fat golf type blokes with loads of money rather than people who actually want to ride

  • Giant Bikes Break

    Didn’t Tom Boonen dominate the 2007 Tour of Qatar on an aluminium Specialized while they adjusted the geometry to take account of his bad back? Given a lot of the top teams are adding weights to take their bikes above the 6.8kg limit it would be interesting to see how an aluminium frame would fair in the world tour under a top rider.

  • http://www.cyclechiangmai.com/ ian franklin

    Too many carbon frames are being made as light as possible and thus breaking: I’ve personally seen 3 expensive high-end Pinarellos broken in the past couple of weeks. My Condor carbon has lasted 9 years and just beginning to show some wear. There must be a difference between artisan-built carbon (thicker walls) and the current rage for ever decreasing weight. My Condor was superb and so is my Dimar and my cheap Planet X track bike – all carbon and all seem very strong and made to last. Aluminium must be a great alternative or some of the new alloy materials. As far as I can see the ‘high end’ makers are simply chasing brand awareness at the expense of value and durability.

  • SeanMcCuen

    a well made aluminum frame is superior to a mediocre carbon frame. it’s the application, not the material.