Yes, we know; Carbon Fiber is the best when it comes to bike frames. Many avid cycling enthusiasts will tell you that. They’ll sing their praises for that wonder material until they become blue. And, to be sure, they aren’t wrong. Carbon Fiber is indeed very popular, and because we already know steel and aluminum will never be on par with Carbon Fiber, the question: what about titanium? Are there any—at least pragmatic—reasons to choose titanium over carbon fiber?
Well, as it turns out, there are!
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But first, let’s take a refresher on what titanium even is
Titanium is a metal that is strong, light, and resistant to corrosion. It can be alloyed—and often is alloyed—with other metals like iron or aluminum. There is this assumption that titanium, pound-for-pound, weighs less than aluminum, but this is wrong. In fact, titanium, as raw material, is heavier than aluminum. Both titanium and aluminum, however, are significantly lighter than steel. Titanium, however, is stronger than aluminum (approximately twice as strong) despite being about two-thirds heavier. Indeed, one would need less titanium to match the strength of aluminum. This is why titanium is often used in aircraft jet engines and many aerospace applications.
These properties of titanium that we mentioned necessarily make it a better metal to make a bike frame out of when compared to both aluminum and steel. Titanium is simply more resistant to impact and fatigue compared to both aluminum and steel.
Another big advantage of titanium is that it is significantly less corrosive compared to metal. This is why a titanium frame doesn’t need to be brush-painted like a steel frame does because it won’t corrode easily. Well, another reason why titanium frames aren’t typically brush-painted is because the distinctive grey luster of the metal is also quite nice to look at, and adds a great deal to the overall aesthetic.
How are Titanium Frames Made?
Of course, a bike frame won’t be completely made of titanium but will be made from an alloy that contains titanium. Typically, a frame that’s advertised as made from titanium will really be made from an alloy that contains part titanium and part aluminum or vanadium. And this is a good thing because depending on the grade, some titanium alloys are more durable than the pure form of the metal.
Titanium is difficult to weld because it reacts with oxygen in a way that steel does not. So welding titanium tube sets together takes significantly longer than welding steel. Some bike manufacturers who make titanium frames skip the welding part altogether and employ the use of carbon lugs, glued to each tube end, to keep the frame together.
How Does it Compare to Carbon Fiber?
For one, the flexibility of titanium frames makes them better at flexing and absorbing bumps than more rigid carbon fiber frames. Carbon fiber, after all, doesn’t deform linearly and will, therefore, provide a much harsher ride. Carbon frames are typically made from epoxied layers of carbon fiber which are supposed to diminish the vibrations that come with rougher trails, but many if not most still prefer the performance of titanium frames in this regard.
Ultimately, whether titanium or carbon fiber, one’s subjective experience of comfort with these frames will depend on the bike and how the material was used in the design. A good quality carbon fiber frame and its specific layout will ride better than a bike with subpar titanium tubing. On the other hand, a frame with excellent titanium tubing will ride better than a carbon fiber frame that is either of subpar quality or has a bad frame layout.
All in all, and as far as durability is concerned, a titanium frame will beat a carbon fiber frame in the long run, given that, pound for pound, titanium will better stand up to abuse. But one drawback for a titanium frame is that should it get damaged, it will be extremely difficult to repair. A carbon fiber frame, on the other hand, won’t be easy to repair but will be much easier to repair than a titanium one.
The answer to this question is that it depends. If one asked us this question a few years ago, we’d immediately be saying that carbon fiber frames will naturally be more expensive. But prices of carbon fiber frames have dropped dramatically in recent years that there is exists a great deal of overlap in the price between these two frames. To be sure, carbon fiber frames are generally more expensive than titanium frames, but the prices are close, and there are many titanium frames available on the market that will be orders of magnitude more expensive than some carbon fiber frames.
Not all carbon fiber frames are objects to rave about, however, because there exists a huge chasm of differences between cheap carbon fiber bikes and expensive ones, from the way they’re built down to the actual fibers used to create the frame.
What Should I Get?
Well, if you’re deciding between a titanium bike frame of a carbon fiber one, we’ll just give this piece of advice: Firstly, you can’t go wrong with either. But if you want a long-lasting bike and you value an ultra-smooth ride, then go for a titanium-framed bike. Conversely, if you want the lightest and fastest bike possible, then get a carbon fiber-framed bike.