While maybe not the age-old question on everyone’s lips, if you’re a passionate rider or even someone who’s looking for an enjoyable and complete bicycle riding experience, you need to figure out the frame of your bike. Fortunately, there are only two leading contenders to look at -carbon and aluminum.
Of course, there are pros and cons to both when it comes to the materials, but since you could be spending hundreds of dollars on a bike, you’re going to want to make sure you’re investing in the right place. With that in mind, today, we’re going to explore the differences and detail everything you need to know.
The Weight Difference
The absolute first difference between carbon and aluminum bikes is, of course, the weight, and this is such a critical element to consider, depending on how you plan on using your bike and for what purpose. Sure, aluminum used to be really heavy, but it’s definitely come a long way over the last few years, meaning it’s a hot contender for those invested in looking into the grams.
Put it this way – since you’re looking at mountain bikes, the chances are you’re going to spend at least half your time going uphill, which means having a heavy bike is only going to make your job harder. If you’re going for a casual ride, then a semi-heavy aluminum bike could be ideal.
However, if you’re serious about your riding, or you want the very best experience, a carbon mountain bike is going to be the one for you since it’s the lightest material by far. Then again, if you want the extra weight, perhaps if you involve yourself with downhill racing, then the extra grams provided by an aluminum bike could be the best option.
Aluminum is a good choice in this example because you’ll have the extra weight helping you to speed down the hills, as well as more weight to keep you grounded while you’re traveling at high speeds.
How Stiff is Your Bike?
Perhaps not a question you ask often, but an essential question, nonetheless. If you have a stiffer bike, you have a bike that will react and respond very quickly to your actions. This includes braking, turning, accelerating—basically, all forms of control. Out of our two materials, the best and most responsive material is carbon.
If you’re going up mountains or across country trails, you’ll know they can have tight bends, hairpin corners, and paths that need you to act quickly to get through them safely, even more so while you’re traveling at high speeds. With a carbon bike, you’ll be able to achieve this far easier than if you were riding an aluminum bike.
However, in the higher levels of competitive and athletic bike riding, some competitors have publicly claimed that these bikes can be a bit too strict when it comes to riding, especially with ultra-strict bike models. Some riders like a little leeway with their bikes that’s a bit more forgiving, so in the end, it really comes down to personal preference.
How Does the Bike Feel?
Okay, this is going to be a long section since there’s so much to cover. But we’ll try to give it to you as easily as possible. Of course, the way your bike feels, much like the stiffness of your bike that we covered above, is the most important aspect of the bike. If it doesn’t feel right, you’re not going to have the riding experience you’re looking for.
If you’re looking at carbon bikes, there are two main benefits you’ll be able to enjoy over aluminum bikes. These are torsional stiffness and dampening.
The Dampening of Your Bike
When you ride a carbon fiber bike, the material has what is known as a ‘dampening effect,’ which refers to the lessening of the harshness of your ride. Let’s say you’re riding over a rocky terrain full of lumps and bumps on an aluminum bike. Since these bikes are much stiffer (as we spoke about above), you’re going to feel a lot more of the impact, even if you have great suspension.
On the other hand, if you’re riding a carbon bike, these bikes are much lighter, and you won’t feel so much of the impact of uneven terrain or surfaces, thus, dampening the harshness of your ride. Now, in reality, the difference between carbon and aluminum bikes with this consideration is fairly minimal.
There’s also a lot of variable factors to consider, such as the handlebars and seat you’re using, but the difference is definitely noticeable. What’s more, when you consider that you’re probably going to be riding your bikes for several hours, having a dampened bike is going to make an incredible amount of difference to how comfortable and happy you are.
Everything You Need to Know About Torsional Stiffness
While dampening is about making your ride a bit softer and more comfortable, that doesn’t mean you should miss out on any pushing pedal power. Absolutely not. Think about how you ride a bike. You push down on the pedal either side, and it makes the bike sway from left to right and back and forth. This is only amplified when you’re standing up and pushing your pedals.
This rocking motion contains a ton of kinetic energy that can be transferred into both power and speed. When you’re riding a carbon fiber frame that has been designed with this in mind, you can add a tremendous amount of power to your ride by transferring this energy to the back wheel.
While both aluminum and carbon bikes will offer a little bit of flex in this way, carbon bikes will offer a far greater amount of power. This means carbon bikes feel much faster while accelerating and will be much more responsive when setting off. This means more speed, more enjoyment, and more confidence while you’re riding.
How Durable is Your Bike?
Since you’re thinking of buying a mountain bike, you’re more likely to be taking to the slopes rather than a flat pavement or road, which means there’s a much higher chance that you’re going to hit the dirt and fall off. Don’t worry; it happens to everyone. The important thing you’re going to need is faith and trust that your bike is durable enough to withstand this general wear and tear.
You may be thinking, well, of course, aluminum is the most durable material. It’s thicker, more resistant, and weightier. Carbon fiber is brittle and easy to damage. Well, that might have been true several years ago, now that’s simply not the case. Carbon fiber bikes are becoming increasingly designed to be more resistant and reliable.
This was a common myth that was created throughout the 90s when carbon fiber bikes first hit the market. Where the carbon mountain bike manufacturers first set out to develop the ‘lightest carbon mountain bike frame possible,’ now manufacturers have adopted the mindset of developing the ‘best carbon mountain bike frame possible,’ and this has changed the game completely.
The truth is, it depends on how you plan to use your bike and what kind of mountainous activities you’re going to be engaging in.
For example, if you’re downhill racing and really go for good times, then a carbon fiber bike is probably the best way to go. However, if you’re on an endurance activity and simply need to cross the line, you’ll want more durability since you can still cross the finish on a crumpled bike that still works, rather than a destroyed mess.
It’s important to note that carbon fiber bikes are generally better in terms of the durability of the long run. Aluminum is usually used because it’s cheap and stuff, but it can also rust and cripples under multiple impacts over time. Obviously, this probably won’t happen in one go, but over time, it can become dented, broken, and unrideable.
The time span for this to happen with carbon fiber tends to be much lower.
How Much are You Willing to Spend?
Generally speaking, carbon fiber bikes are a fair bit more expensive than traditional bikes, so if you’re able to invest, then you can have the full choice of the market. On the other hand, if you’re shopping on a budget, you might want to look towards more affordable aluminum bikes.
The trick to remember here is whether or not the bike is actually worth the price tag, which means taking a look at the specs. You can, of course, mix and match some components of bikes so that you may have an expensive frame, but an inexpensive handlebar, gear system, or brakes. You may do this the other way around with a cheap frame and expensive components.
We can see some of you now shaking your heads. Why would you go for an expensive frame and not match the quality and performance with the other key components? Well, that depends on your budget. If you’re just starting out, you might not want a really expensive investment, and you might want to build your bike up over time, and that’s okay.
Building up your bike over time in this way can be one of the best approaches, especially when you’ll be able to trial and error your components and your unique riding style to see what works for you and what you’re looking for.
With this in mind, if you actually want to go all-out on all high-quality components and a frame in one go and you don’t plan on upgrading your bike in the future, you’re perhaps financially better off investing in a mid-range aluminum bike that has everything to at least a decent quality.
Check Your Brands & Social Proof (per Bike)
It’s important to remember that even if you have an expensive carbon fiber bike, it could have been cheaply made or designed poorly, even by one of the bigger and more popular brands in the mountain bicycle markets. Always consider the reputation of the bike you choose. If the brand is well-known and has lots of high-quality releases, the chances are your chosen bike will be top-notch quality.
However, even the best bike brands sometimes release some questionable bike lines, so always make sure you check product reviews as well. This is especially important if you’re buying new because if thousands of customers have given it a five-star rating, you know you’re onto a winner.
On the other hand, if there are lots of low reviews, you know you need to be wary of these mountain bikes. This obviously applies to both aluminum and carbon mountain bikes. Before buying a bike, make sure you check the pros and cons of each bike, then pair these up with your own personal requirements, and what you’re looking for to ensure you’re making the right purchase for you.
Which Bike has the Most Problems?
Regarding common bike problems, such as cable rubbing and issues like this, there’s really no difference between carbon and aluminum bikes. Whichever frame you buy, this only changes the factors we’ve spoken about above, so don’t get your hopes up thinking there’s a one-trick solution to all those little niggly issues you have to deal with as a rider.
Choosing the Right Bike
Just because there are plenty of people who will stand by carbon mountain bikes and say they are the better model, you need to make sure you’re taking the time to make the right decision for you. As we said above, both aluminum bikes and carbon bikes have come a long way over the last few years, and both are relatively good.
With some models, the bikes are almost the same with only slight differences, which is why you should always look for bikes and compare them side by side on a per-model basis, not just because one is made from carbon fiber and the other aluminum.
If you can, get out to your local bike shop, test drive some mountain bikes, and see the difference yourself. If you have yet to try one kind of bike, then it’s highly recommended that you try them both in one sitting so you can see and feel the differences and then have the opportunity to choose with one you like the most.
Most information you’ll find online about the differences between carbon and aluminum bikes has now been updated, especially on forums and old chatrooms, so be wary when carrying out your own research.
If you find a bike you like via a test ride or even a specific bike that you absolutely love, you don’t need us to remind you that you’re probably going to be spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. This means you should look around both in-store in your local bike shop and online to ensure you can find the bike you’re after for the best price.
The most important thing to remember when choosing between carbon and aluminum bikes is that both materials come with pros and cons. It all comes down to personal preference and what kind of activities you’re partaking in.
Ideally, if you can get a chance to ride both and see the difference for yourself, this is the preferred way to find out. If you don’t have this opportunity, then we hope our definitive guide has helped you to learn everything you need to know for the best mountain riding experience!