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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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