The bicycle frame is what holds your bike together. If you took all the parts off your frame and built the same frame up with brand-new parts, most of your friends probably wouldn't notice. However, if you took all your parts off and swapped out your frame, everybody would notice. How a frame is made and what it is made of radically affects how the bike feels.
There are two common frame materials, Steel and Aluminum, but there are also more specialty materials like carbon fiber, titanium and bamboo among others. Which to choose? Well, that depends on your understanding of them, and your riding style. Lets explore both avenues.
Pros: Inexpensive, malleable, dampens road vibrations.
Cons: Heavy if made cheaply, rust from rain, flex in drive train.
Until the 1980's or so, the majority of bicycles form the cheapest mass-market bicycles to the high end tour de france competition bikes were made of steel. The most common alloy used in steel production today is hi-tensile steel, although there are bikes made with a lighter and stronger alloy of chromium and molybdenum called Chromoly. Hi-tensile is cheaper, while Chromoly frame bikes will cost a premium.
Steel makes a great frame for its built-in flexibility and malleability. This will help absorb road vibrations and make for a smoother ride. This pro also comes with a drawback of a heavier weight, thus it will be a little harder to get going and come to a stop.
Pros: Light and Cheap, Stiff drive train, doesn't rust in the rain.
Cons: Stiff frame results in feeling every bump on the road, minor damage can ruin the frame.
Aluminum bikes became popular in the 1980's and now dominates the market. You can tell an aluminum frame bike from a steel bike from the size of the tubing. The aluminum frame will always be made with a much larger bore to offset the amount of material needed to maintain strength.
Aluminum is a very stiff metal, with very little inherent flexibility. This offers some benefit in the drive train. There is no flex when you pedal, so all of your pedaling power goes directly from the pedals to the rear wheel. This makes it an excellent choice for a racing bike. The only drawback on the stiffness is the large amount of road vibration for the operator.
Carbon Fiber, Titanium and Bamboo
Pros: Lighter, Stronger, More Flex, Better Ride.
Cons: Much more expensive.
Carbon Fiber, Titanium and Bamboo bikes all offer the prestige of owning a bike made to go as fast as possible, with vibration-dampening qualities, and the look of a very expensive bicycle. Depending on your budget, you may opt to get one of these premium bicycle types, but be careful when leaving it out anywhere. You'll always want to make sure you lock up your bike properly, and avoid riding in dangerous areas or high-crime-rate areas as these bikes are a huge target for thieves.
Your Style - Your Choice!
The first thing to do is think about how you ride, where you ride, and when you ride. Your budget will be the first concern, this will dictate what you can and can't afford to purchase. Next, consider what types of accessories you will want to purchase with your bike like a lock, helmet, lights and a pump. Later on you may also want to purchase a rear rack or front basket, and a bag.
If you're just starting out just focus on the essentials. When considering where you are riding, think whether your route has a lot of bumps, which would be good for a steel bike, or if its very smooth you can go with a lighter stiffer aluminum frame. Also if your area has a higher-than-normal crime rate, you may consider getting a cheaper bike, in a flat black color, or something that won't stand out as being an expensive target for a bike thief. The next thing to think about is when you ride.
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