What's the best frame material for a gravel bike: aluminium or carbon?
Gravel bikes come in two frame options: aluminium and carbon. Which is the best material for your gravel bike?
If you're thinking of buying a gravel bike, one of the first decisions you'll need to make is about the frame material. Should you go for an aluminium or carbon gravel bike?
History of gravel bike frames
When bikes were first invented, they had steel frames. Technology improved and aluminium bikes rose to fame. They were heralded for their lightweight yet robust qualities. The latest advancement in frame materials has been carbon fibre. It's light, stiff and can be moulded into any tube shape.
Gravel bikes are a new phenomenon (some may even say gimmick). Their popularity is due in large part to their versatility. Want to ride road? Pump up the tyres and off you go. Want to ride that sneaky little trail across the moor? Go for it. Don't know what you might encounter along the route? A gravel bike will probably be fine.
Their recency to the market means consumers have had the luxury of a choice of frame materials since launch.
Should I get an aluminium or carbon gravel bike?
The frame material you choose for your gravel bike largely depends on your goals, budget and personal preference.
To help you decide whether to choose aluminium or carbon, let's take a look at the pros and cons of both.
Are aluminium gravel bikes worth it?
Aluminium gravel bikes are the workhorses of your bike garage. They're great for anything you're willing to throw at them.
Aluminium models are often more budget-friendly than their carbon counterparts. You can spend what's leftover on accessories like bikepacking bags or gravel cycling kit.
Long-distance cycle tours are great on a gravel bike with an aluminium frame. They're suited for pannier racks meaning you can take spare clothes, camera equipment, hiking gear and much more.
Pros of aluminium gravel bikes
1. Robust and durable, ready when you are. Great for use as a winter road bike due to wide tyre clearance
2. Budget-friendly leaving you spare cash for gear and accessories
3. Suitable for panniers to carry luggage on long-distance tours
Cons of aluminium gravel bikes
1. Slightly heavier than carbon
2. Often limited component options
Can I ride an aluminium gravel bike on the road?
Aluminium gravel bikes are great on all surfaces including roads. In fact, some riders prefer to use an aluminium gravel bike as a winter road bike due to its chunky tyres and durable frame.
We've also seen aluminium gravel bikes used as commuting bikes due to their increased comfort.
Is an aluminium bike better than carbon?
There's no yes or no answer to which frame material is "better". It depends on what you intend to use the bike for. If you want to load up some pannier bags and surround yourself in nature, an aluminium gravel bike is the perfect tool. If you're looking for a fast, lightweight gravel muncher, a carbon gravel bike is the better bike.
Are aluminium bikes stronger than carbon?
Tests have shown aluminium and carbon frames to have similar durability. If you dent your frame while riding, it is still possible to ride (depending on the severity), while this is less likely to be the case with carbon.
Since many of our carbon are made from low modulus carbon fibre (a more flexible fibre than its high modulus sibling), the frames are able to withstand a lot more. Since carbon fibre is an anisotropic material (meaning the stiffness of the material is direction dependent), our engineers can optimise the strength in vulnerable areas of the frame. This then enables superior ride dynamics and handling.
The penalty for using low modulus carbon fibre is a small weight gain but for most this will be negligible.
Is carbon good for a gravel bike?
Carbon fibre is a great material for gravel bike frames due to its lightweight, stiff and highly customisable qualities. A lighter bike means more efficient power transfer. Carbon gravel bikes are the gravel bike of choice for riders wanting a high performance bike for off-road riding.
It's no secret that carbon is a more expensive material to manufacture with. The carbon layup takes time and precision. The layup is what makes the bike more comfortable as the material can be stiffer in certain directions to better absorb shocks and vibrations.
A carbon frame can look vastly different to an aluminium frame. Just like you see on carbon road bikes, tube shapes can be honed for aerodynamics and aesthetics.
Advantages of carbon gravel bikes
1. Lightweight, strong and comfortable due to carbon
2. Often specced with superior components
3. Great for lightweight bikepacking trips and use with bikepacking bags
Disadvantages of carbon gravel bikes
1. More expensive than their aluminium counterparts
2. Hard to repair if crashed
How long will a carbon gravel bike last?
Carbon gravel bikes can last a very long time if you look after them. Make sure you clean your gravel bike regularly and check for cracks or blemishes.
The decision is yours
Think about where you will ride your gravel bike and what kind of adventures or races you want to do. From there, you can decide whether an aluminium or carbon gravel bike is best for you. Once your new bike arrives, check out how to set up your gravel bike, so that you can get riding as quickly as possible.