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A case for... aluminum bikes

By Bruce Lin

I’m not here to convince you that aluminum bikes are “better.” I don’t intend to start an argument about durability, or weight, or ride characteristics. No, instead, I want to tell you a story about how I kicked aluminum to the curb, then came crawling back years later like a regretful divorcee.

The other night I got teary-eyed looking at some old photos of my first love, a humble Cannondale CAAD10. I was still a fresh-faced cyclist then, so naive and happy. The bug had just bitten and I became a college cliche, surviving on ramen to buy budget alloy wheels and a used Thomson stem and seatpost. They weren’t the greatest parts, but I was supremely proud of my “build.”

Cannondale CAAD10 aluminum road bike

A simpler time. This was my first "gravel" ride. I didn't know any better and thought my bike handled it like a champ. 

I stuck with that bike for more than five years. I did my first road race, then my first century. I fit 28mm tires on it and experimented with gravel. If I think about it, the foundation of my whole cycling career was built on an aluminum bike. Then I graduated college, got money, and everything changed.

I started working in the cycling industry and it was hard to keep my eyes from wandering. I was constantly surrounded by carbon super-bikes. I got dropped by fast people who all rode carbon super-bikes. I sold carbon super-bikes to other riders by extolling the virtues of carbon super-bikes.

The Pro's Closet used carbon bike selection

Bikes awaiting service at The Pro's Closet. This is what temptation looks like.

Before I knew it, I unceremoniously dumped my CAAD10 on Craigslist and replaced it with a SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod that was younger, prettier, and more exciting. I had convinced myself that carbon was the cornerstone of performance while aluminum was for beginner bikes.

My appetite kept growing. I began dabbling in all sorts of riding. I built a huge and expensive quiver filled with carbon bikes. There was one for every discipline: road, cyclocross, XC, and enduro mountain biking.

I was happy for a few years, but then, disaster struck. I imploded on a large drop during an enduro race and watched in cinematic, slow-mo horror as my brand-new mountain bike tomahawked down the mountain. It pinballed off rocks and roots, cracking the downtube and rear triangle. In an instant, my carbon super-bike became an expensive piece of wall art.

Carbon bike frame crack

My bike's downtube after the accident. A crushing monument to my folly. 

I had a mild concussion and a severely sprained ankle that kept me off the bike for weeks. Laid up on the couch, I had time to reflect. It was my third serious crash of the year, and the second frame I had cracked. I was getting a reputation for breaking things, and not in a cool way, like a pro riding at the limit. I was just the guy who was constantly crashing.

I hated myself. I thought I was garbage at cycling. Why was I buying all these expensive carbon-fiber bikes when I couldn’t even cross the finish line in one piece? I decided that summer — I was going back to aluminum.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against carbon. In fact, I think carbon is amazing, and I still get excited when I see featherweight frames or shapely aero tubing. The stiffness, weight, and aero advantages can’t be beat and, in most cases, it’s extremely tough and reliable. Plenty of riders who go hard and abuse equipment do just fine on carbon. Plus, if you experience a worst-case crash like mine, it’s actually easily repaired.

No, the problem isn’t carbon bikes — it’s me.

Carbon vs. aluminum road bike

Me on a fancy new carbon road bike and Spencer on an ancient 7-speed steel bike. He still put me in the hurt locker. Clearly, the bike didn't matter. 

It’s too easy for me to be sucked in by hype. I’m a huge tech nerd who’s fixated on what the best riders are using. And I always end up copying them. Every year I bought a new bike because it was one gram lighter or .001% stiffer than my last bike. I was convinced it would help me win races, drop my friends, and steal Strava KOMs. I was never satisfied, always spending money on a newer, better bike. But no bike ever made me a better rider. I was starting to see that as a problem. I became too focused on the bike, and not the rider.

I needed to keep things simple. I wanted to rediscover that naive young man who was thrilled by the joys of cycling rather than constantly hunting for the next upgrade. I wanted to push my limits and watch my bike tomahawk down the mountain without an ounce of apprehension. I wanted to go on group rides and not constantly compare my bike to everyone else’s, wondering if mine is lighter or more aero, or blaming my bike for my shortcomings. I wanted to look at my bike and not feel guilt about the thousands of dollars that I could have put into my son’s empty college fund.

Reeb Sqweeb 29er aluminum enduro mountain bike

My new raw aluminum mountain bike. It was built in a barn by guys who care more about durability than weight. For me, it represents a fresh start. It's simple, tough, and more than enough. And just look at those gorgeous welds!

Last year, I went to my friends at REEB Cycles and had them build me a beefy aluminum enduro bike that’s near-indestructible. I’ve already laid it down a few times and put a couple of dings and dents in it, but surprisingly, I don’t care. The bike takes the hits and keeps on going.

Also, I’m not alone in my rediscovery of aluminum. Read any recent bike reviews and you’ll see plenty of writers talk about the “aluminum resurgence” or the “aluminum renaissance.” More brands are releasing high-end aluminum bikes that can compete with carbon bikes.

Plenty of crit racers, including some top riders, still race on aluminum. One of our Customer Experience Representatives, Caroline Shaw, is an experienced racer and explained to me why she chooses aluminum too.

Aluminum Specialized Allez Sprint road bike crit racing

Caroline (in orange) isn't afraid to take control of the race on her aluminum Allez Sprint. Photo by Leman Northway.

“I love my aluminum! I love the responsiveness,” she says. “As a crit racer and a sprinter that's one of the most important things for me. When I got it, I was a collegiate cyclist with a low budget and a tendency to crash a lot. Following the mantra of ‘don't race what you can't replace,’ I went with the more affordable and durable bike option.”

That sort of thinking resonates with me and it helped convince me to build up my own aluminum Allez Sprint frame to replace my carbon road bike.

On the mountain bike side of things, a good chunk of enduro and downhill riders have always been aluminum faithful. The two best downhill racers in the world right now, Loic Bruni and Amaury Pierron, race aluminum bikes so I’m definitely in good company.

No matter what bike you ride, cycling should be fun. For some people, that means riding tricked-out carbon bikes that get you every marginal gain. If that brings you joy, then don’t let me stop you. I think that’s awesome.

But I want to remain loyal to my simple and rugged aluminum bikes for as long as I can. I don’t need anything more right now. Are they slower than carbon bikes? Maybe. Does it matter? Not at all. I smile when I ride them and that’s all I care about.

 

“A case for…” is a place for unpopular opinions, weird ideas, and unloved bikes and components. For every cyclist who rides to the beat of their own drum, there’s a case for you. Are you an aluminum aficionado? Or a carbon connoisseur? Let us know in the comments!


22 comments


  • Still riding and enjoying my ’88 Cannondale (SR600?) with a mix of Gripshift, 105 brakes & cranks, 600 rear, and Dura-Ace front. Replaced frame in ’92. Along the way have also replaced stem, bars, both derailleurs, and multiple wheels.

    Actually replaced the bike itself in 2001 with a Cannondale CAAD6 R2000SI with Ultegra and Ksyrium wheels. Old bike relinquished to trainer duty for years. Had to sell new bike in 2009 after 9 month layoff then back on old faithful again for a other 11 years.

    Two testaments to their strength.
    1. I was transporting the old bike in the back of a box truck one time and a pallet jack came loose from the side of the truck and slammed into my bike. The only damage was a scratch on the head tube. That would have surely demolished a carbon frame. It also survived 2 crashes.
    2. I tried to pull into the garage one time with the new bike on the back of my Ford Explorer. Heard a horrific noise and was sure the bike was snapped in half but it turned out. The bike rack took most of the damage and the shifters were a little out of whack. Frame had no damage. Again, carbon fiber would have been split in half.

    Now I’m in the market for a new bike and am trying to do it right with Carbon frame, electronic shifting and deep carbon wheels. Have looked at TPC, Canyon, Cannondale, Trek, and Specialized. The many different options and my indecision is making me crazy. Some days I just want to stay on my old bike and maybe get a killer set deep Carbon wheels.

    David B on

  • I still ride my beautiful Vitus 979 which I bought in 1985. The glue still holds.

    Rob Gerin on

  • I bought my first mountain bike in 1989, a rigid Trek 970 in steel because I wanted the strength. I outfitted it with the first Rockshox fork and then the yellow Judy and full XT components including V-Brakes, the bike was a blast and I never worried about the weight because nothing broke.I just purchased my second mountain bike, a Specialized Stumpjumper fsr comp this past July. They showed me a carbon fiber model, it was really nice. I chose the aluminum frame because of strength, I realize either material can be damaged but I’ll take the strength of the aluminum.

    Ed Cenatiempo on

  • 2019 Specialized Allen Sagan , Dura Ace with Vision KOM wheelset. Amazing bike. Unbelievable Price. Been racing and riding since the late 80’s. Have bought just about everything out there (material). By far the most fun and performance in years! All under 5k.

    Alfred Moreno on

  • Great article! I am 69 and have ridden almost steadily since I was 33. Early on you could get a Cannondale road frame for less than $300, which I did and built it up with a used DA AX groupset with the Dyna Drive pedals. My first ride I rode it a 100 miles. The paint started chipping and Cannondale gave me a new frame. Then came a custom steel road bike, then a Litespeed Ti Ultimate and now I have a carbon Parlee road bike and A carbon Pivot mountain bike. Yeah, the carbon is nice but the most fun I think I ever had was with those Cannondales and the steel bike. It’s always the motor.

    RICK IVES on

  • Still riding my Klein Quantum from ‘92. Components upgrade a bit, and a huge spacer, but the frame just keeps on going. If I ever get another road bike (easier geometry), I’ll put a straight-bar on the Klein and use it as my around-town bike, pushing aside my 1983 Ross Mt Bike.

    David in SAMO on

  • I bought my first mountain bike in 1989, a rigid Trek 970 in steel because I wanted the strength. I outfitted it with the first Rockshox fork and then the yellow Judy and full XT components including V-Brakes, the bike was a blast and I never worried about the weight because nothing broke.I just purchased my second mountain bike, a Specialized Stumpjumper fsr comp this past July. They showed me a carbon fiber model, it was really nice. I chose the aluminum frame because of strength, I realize either material can be damaged but I’ll take the strength of the aluminum.

    Ed Cenatiempo on

  • I recently built up an aluminum Banshee Phantom mountain bike, the frame courtesy of The Pro’s Closet. It rocks! It’s lively on the straights, goes downhill calmer and faster than my now-defunct 2012 Tallboy LT, and rockets up steep hills despite it’s hefty 31.7 pounds, pedals included. Absolutely nothing wrong with aluminum.

    Edward Yoon on

  • Agreed! With fanatical passion, one might say. I’m nearing two decades as a cycling enthusiast and have bought, rode, loved and … ultimately gotten rid of an embarrassing number of carbon fiber bikes. The one bike I just can’t seem to stop loving is my (long discontinued) 2014 Specialized Secteur Expert.

    100% ah-loo-mi-num bliss.

    Bryce on

  • I am probably not in the same class as you all above me but I must admit my most enjoyable ride is a 30 yo Specialized Epic butted(?) CF frame. So comfortable and smooth. I always come in mid pack (okay, occasionally at the end) but I love this bike. A year ago I bought a new Scott Addict and, although it’s a light and pretty bike compared to my Epic, it’s extraordinarily stiff (and a totally different class of bike – got it). I find myself choosing the Epic more often than not for nice weekend rides.

    Mick on

  • As a trail/ enduro rider, the only reason I uprgrade to carbon is for the swat downturn storage on specialized bikes, and trek is doing something similar now. It is so helpful to have that storage space for snacks and spare parts, it gives me more room in my small hip pack or freedom to leave it at home entirely. Other than that, I would be getting aluminum. Great article

    Ben K on

  • I found an aluminum hybrid frame on eBay that was already customized with my university colors and decals. I converted it to a gravel bike by adding a rigid disc fork and using an AZ disc brake adapter (which has worked flawlessly by the way) in the rear. I took the old 10 speed gruppo off my road bike and added a 46/30 crankset to go with 11-34 in the back. I’m doing more and more gravel riding and have thought about upgrading to carbon, but I like the complements I get on the frame and like others have said already I’ll never land on the podium. I think I’ll just keep upgrading components and wheels, but keep enjoying the old aluminum frame with my Cardinal and Gold colors.

    Vinnie on

  • I just retired my 2004 Specialized S-Works E-5 aluminum. It was a team deal for my club, and I trained for a senior mtn biking race career. I road the local training ride with state and national champions on the bike, and was pleased when I did not get dropped. I rode a dozen+ centuries with up to 12,000 ft of climb on that frame. Recently the frame was damaged (crinkled) on the top tube because of the thin aluminum, and I replaced with my first carbon frame from TPC, currently in build mode. Loved my aluminum frame and it served me well for 16 years and at least 75K miles.

    Mike M on

  • Love this article! As a 50 something preferring durability as much as anything I recently re-envisioned my gravel bike (and now only bike with a second road wheel build) with a solid Niner RLT aluminum frame at the core. There’s a lot of bells and whistles everywhere else, but the aluminum core is perfect for an old guy who just loves to ride lots of different terrain.

    Gary Fleener on

  • The bike I tend to ride the most is still my Eddy Merckx Team SC. It was the last year of the “Century” geometry. Comfy, durable, and able to ride on almost anything.

    Teddy S on

  • My old Van Dessel Rivet carbon frame is giving up the ghost after many years. Part of me was “Yay, new bike.” Instead, going to ride out the winter by building back up my Klein Q Pro Carbon which is still going strong. Born in 2002.

    Casey on

  • I just bought a giant TCR dance pro and I already miss my caad10

    eyad abochale on

  • I only ride aluminum for my enduro and DH bikes and based on a quick scan of any bike park, it’s only growing back in popularity. Probably 40/60 or even 50/50 al to carbon. Cannot speak to road bikes or XC mountain, but aluminum isn’t going anywhere when it comes to durability and not gram counting. Plus, some of the welds that are happening today are a work of art.

    Andy on

  • Bruce’s case for aluminum bikes is right on target. I had lusted for carbon and in 2013 bought a Trek Domane 5.9. It was wonderful until a crack in the carbon happened last year. While trying to decide what to replace it with, and gasping at the prices of comparable carbon bikes, I looked at the bike in the basement that had been my main ride before…a Lemond titanium Arrivee. I said “why not”. I actually was able to upgrade it from a 9 speed ultegra with 53-39 cranks to 10 speed ultegra with a compact crank, better wheels, and more comfortable handlebars using the components that were on the Domane. It’s a bit heavier than the Domane was (I feel the effects mainly on uphills), but I don’t worry about what happens if I fall. Like an old Timex…“it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” (If you’re under 60 you may have never seen those commercials!) And so I’m a bit slower but I’m not a racer (I’m a 70-year old endurance cyclist). It’s not aluminum, it’s titanium, but the concept is the same as what Bruce says in his article. There is life after carbon, and it’s not a bad life. And in my case the ride on titanium rivals the smoothness of the carbon. And by turning back to my older bike, I keep more money in my pocket. Long live aluminum, titanium and the other old reliable bikes. What’s old is new!

    Bruce Goldberg on

  • The industry needs more articles like this this that focus on the experience of riding rather than that of the podium.

    Dave on

  • I recently bought a GT Grade alloy frame from you guys and it’s been great. The alloy frame is what, maybe 500 grams heavier than the CF equivalent? Saves a bunch of money, great color, and rides nice. Carbon fiber is really attractive, and I can’t say I’ve not been tempted, but I would need to be a lot better rider to see a difference. Add to that some of the QA issues with CF frames even with big brands, I specifically looked for aluminum frames for this build. No regrets whatsoever.

    Wenke Li on

  • Been in the industry since 1990. I’m having Chris Herting at 3D racing build me a new aluminum 29+ hardtail. Also got an Underground from John Parker. Coming full circle.

    JImbo Fairley on


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