Better and Cheaper

Need a Road Bike? Ride Aluminum

July 20, 2016 Sports and Outdoors By Photo by Henry Phillips
Best Aluminum Bikes Gear Patrol Lead 1440

Ignore what the shophands, old men straddling Dogma F8’s and those dastardly bike reviewers tell you — aluminum is not harsh, not weak, not heavy, not terrible. Not anymore, not for a long while. The use of aluminum, which first rose to cycling eminence in the ’80s and ’90s, has evolved in the past three decades with ginormous strides from major manufacturers and custom builders. Shaping by hydroforming (Cannondale calls this “Smartformed”; Specialized calls it “Smartweld”) now makes joints stronger, tube shapes more compliant, and bottom brackets even stiffer. So while those fancy-ass carbon bikes are extremely, fantastically good, aluminum gives riders all of the same perks at a quarter of the cost (for a quality treatise on the material, check out this article).

If you’re in the market for an aluminum bike, inevitably, people will point out that you should buy a carbon fiber bike, if you have the money. They’ll say: “carbon fiber is lighter, stiffer and more compliant,” implying that it is, therefore, better. But this argument is flawed. The best carbon fiber layups and designs can achieve better strength to weight and stiffness to weight ratios than aluminum, but that doesn’t mean a carbon fiber bike is inherently lighter, stiffer and more compliant than an aluminum bicycle. And, neither means that it’ll make a difference to most riders.

The draw of carbon is often, then, a peacocking affair. In many ways, it follows the same argument as buying a V12 engine over a V6. Do you really need 500 horsepower on your daily driver? No — and you’ll likely never tap into half of the car’s potential (especially with stock parts). But, it is the most expensive and best performing, and that ends up being the draw. Which is totally fine. I love top-of-the-line, even when I can’t use it to its full potential. But, thinking that way and therefore writing off aluminum is ridiculous. Each bike needs to be considered for its own merits, and the value to the rider. Don’t hamstring yourself by saying you want only an aluminum bike or only a carbon bike. Buy the bike that fits for you, your riding needs, your ego, and your wallet. Often, that is going to be an aluminum bike.

If you need more convincing, consider this: almost all of the Cannondale Supersix Evo 2016 line weighs in under the UCI bike weight minimum of 14.99 pounds (in size 56). That means the average rider is riding a machine that tips the scale lighter than Chris Froome’s bike. And, comparing a similarly spec’d CAAD12 and Supersix, the bikes have only about a pound difference in weight. No normal rider is feeling that (though they will feel the $1,000+ price difference). Also, with comparable stiffness and compliance, there’s a minimal ride-feel difference as well, likely more affected by wheels, seat post or even the rider’s chamois. In the end, buyers should buy the bike that works for them — don’t bring to the bike shop an unfounded bias that carbon is the holy grail.

Cannondale CAAD12 Disc Ultegra

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Cannondale started, evolved, and continues to perfect the aluminum bicycle. The predecessor to this bike, the CAAD10, ushered in the modern era of Cannondale’s aluminum development, and was nearly perfect as a road race bike. The CAAD12 builds on that platform with small tweaks, a bit of weight savings, and improved compliance. It also integrates disc brakes, meaning this bike is semi-future-proof. These small tweaks improved the riding experience (I rode a CAAD10 for many years, and know the feel well), showing the CAAD model has become further refined. While riding, I often found myself thinking, “Is this thing secretly carbon?” While the 105 version of the CAAD12 is likely the best deal in bikes right now, for those with a bit of extra change, upgrade to the Ultegra for better components to compliment an absolutely premium ride.

For the Rider Who: Races crits and fondos. This bike is ready for long rides, fast rides, steep climbs, long descents and everything in between. It’s the perfect all-rounder.

Specialized Allez Sprint X1

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In the 2010s, Specialized reinvigorated their aluminum R&D, and that investment is not without reward. The Allez Sprint brought home first place in the Redhook Crit this year, and it’s a promising ride for all those who want to go fast. Fear not the 1x setup; it’s plenty competent enough for long rides (though not ideal for grand elevation changes), and if you do the math, you’re only enduring small percentages of difficulty increase at the extremes. That said, this bike is designed for speed, flat and fast (Specialized readily admits this, citing a “crit-specific design”). Aero shaping in the seatpost and seat tube help to reduce wind drag, and the Smartweld tubing keeps the handling razor sharp. Get on, get in the drops and let it rip; the more watts, the more reward.

For the Rider Who: Crushes crits and circuit races, or just really likes to go fast.

Low MKI Road

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Andrew Low started making bikes in 2010 — right around the beginning of aluminum’s resurgence. His small shop in San Francisco puts out some of the finest frames on the market, and the MKI Road is Low’s all-arounder — perfect for long hauls and fast corners. In testing, this bike helped set a handful of personal KOMs, especially when zipping around local park circuits. The ride advantage comes from Low’s smooth-weld technique, a labor-intensive process (not typically done by the bigger manufacturers) that leads to premium joint stiffness and overall bike rigidity. Low’s also a pro at shaping tubes, which helps give the bike excellent compliance and extremely sharp handling.

For the Rider Who: Doesn’t accept second place. This bike is made for the aluminum aficionado who only wants the best.