The Frame Debate: Steel vs. Carbon Fiber

I am just getting into cycling and riding my old ancient Peugeot mountain bike. I have money down on a Specialized Roubaix Triple Elite, which I test rode on a very short ride. The bike shop manager is building a Torelli Corsa Strada for me to try as a comparison for around the same price as the Specialized.

The Torelli frame is on order, so it will be a while until I can try it out, but I was wondering what you thought about the two bikes by comparison in general. I'm 53 years young and in pretty good shape. I did like the feel of carbon on the Specialized. What should I expect to feel on the Torelli?

I know all things are subjective, but I'm sure there are obvious differences and would like your opinion.
— Mike

The difference in the ride between a lugged steel frame and a carbon fiber—assuming, as in your case, that the two are top quality—is dramatically different. Steel tends to flex in a linear fashion—that means that adding another 25 pounds of leg and upper body pressure will deflect it exactly the same increment as the previous 20 pounds did.

Metal has a very consistent, omni-directional grain structure. A good steel frame is remarkably wonderful on a long ride, and encourages a good climbing rhythm.

Carbon fiber composites flex according to the direction and number of fibers in the lay-ups, and react slightly differently according to the molding pressure, temperature and other mold-related inconsistencies. Carbon fiber frames tend to flex easily for a slight distance and then tighten up in a more progressive manner. Aggressive climbers and sprinters like this feel.

Personally, I like the feel of a carbon fiber frame, but the ones I ride are among the most expensive made and no, I could not afford one on an editor's salary.

The steel frame will probably be at least a pound heavier, but ride both and make your decision based on the ride, not the material. Remember that style is superficial and that a pound is not a deal breaker.

A perfect riding bike is like a musical instrument: the best ones are comfortable to play and respond easily to the musician's touch. "Performance" is the interplay between man and bicycle.

Contact Richard Cunningham for questions or comments, or just to talk bikes at:

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