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The frame is the backbone of a bicycle’s design. It is the structure that holds all the moving pieces together, and sets the stage for a bike’s geometry, component compatibility, and primary riding discipline. Since it is the largest and usually the heaviest part of the bike many materials have been explored to make frames lighter and stronger. Today bike frames are fabricated using an array of metals and composites. The most common materials include carbon fiber, aluminum, steel and titanium. Each material has its benefits and trade-offs that make it suitable for your riding category, budget or goals. Before breaking down the properties of those materials lets look back to Marin County, California and see the origins and evolution of those materials into mountain bike frames today.
Steel was the golden child for early mountain bike frame design. It was strong, durable and had a desirable amount of natural flex. Joe Breeze, notably the fastest of the Marin County beach cruiser gang, was the first to design his own custom mountain bike in 1977. This franken-bike was built to withstand the steep and rough fire road terrain of their newfound sport. Breeze used 4130 chromoly steel tubing and called his creation “Breezer 1.”
In the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, chromoly steel was the most common material used in frame fabrication. Chromoly was the material of choice for the first mass-produced mountain bike, the Specialized Stumpjumer. Although chromoly was a great material, it was inherently heavy and thus bicycle industry raced to find lighter materials.
Around 1984, different manufactures started to produce the first aluminum frames. Aluminum was sought out because of its malleable and lightweight properties. Early aluminum frames were not popular due to their defects and visual aesthetics, but engineers saw potential in the cheap prices and lightweight qualities of the material. The cycling industries knowledge of aluminum has continually heightened since 1984. Today, aluminum is an industry leading mountain bike frame material.
While aluminum was going through its developmental paces in the 1980s, so was the exceptionally light and strong carbon fiber. Carbon fiber had its early stage durability flaws but the sheer lightness of the material has driven the weight conscious mountain bike industry to invest massively into its development. Since the early-2000s, carbon fiber has become a widely accepted and reliable material for mountain bike frames.
In the 1990’s, during the race for innovative frame materials, titanium was considered a feasible option, similar to aluminum and carbon fiber. Today it is still a progressive frame material but less common than the other metals.
The materials used in mountain bike frame manufacturing today are at their pinnacle of sophistication. Chromoly, aluminum, titanium and carbon are all going to be proficient materials for most cycling applications. They have specific distinctions that make them excel in the multitude of mountain biking applications. The following sections will breakdown the qualities of those materials so that you can make an informed selection when purchasing your next bike.
Now, you have a reference point in selecting the right frame material for the job. Each is uniquely different and offers a different ride quality to the next. If you choose super light carbon XC frame or an aluminum Trail frame built to get you deep in the backcountry, each material will preform as intended. After you narrow down the right frame material check out our Mountain Bike Suspension 101 article to get an understanding of another very important element when selecting a mountain bike. If you're still having trouble getting started and need an introduction to the different kind of mountain bikes, check out our How to Choose a Mountain Bike article. Ready to pull the trigger on a new frame?SHOP FRAMES
We want to make sure you can go from shopping to riding as soon as possible. Our expert Gear Advisors are available to help you cater your protection setup with just the right combination of protection and comfort. Contact a Gear Advisor: 888-880-3811, Mon-Fri: 7:30am to 7pm, Sat-Sun: 9am to 5pm (PST)