VN Archives: Aluminum gains momentum as a frame material in 1988
The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love.
It’s an iconic image from an iconic race: Andy Hampsten pedaling through the first week of the 1988 Giro d’Italia, the race that transformed him into a star. The May, 27 issue of VeloNews actually hit subscribers only a few days into the race. That’s why, for this VN Archives edition, we’ve chosen a completely different story from this issue. In fact, it’s not a racing story at all. The question posed by the headline speaks volumes about how far bicycle technology has come.
“Should you buy an aluminum frame?”
Back in 1988, many cyclists were still unconvinced that aluminum was a worthy material for bike frames—steel frames still dominated the global bike market. Sure, aluminum had been used for years in aeronautics, due to its stiff and lightweight nature. But as Jim Langley points out in this tech story, consumers still had plenty of fears about aluminum bikes.
Cyclists have raised questions about the frames. Is aluminum really a good substitute for traditional steel tubing? What happens if you bend or break an aluminum frame? Does the additional flex negate the benefit of lightness? If aluminum is such a good material for bicycle frames, why do many aluminum bicycle builders equip their bikes with steel forks? What is the difference between large and small diameter aluminum frames?
Langley tried his best to answer some of these vexing questions, and explain his own experiences riding an Alan aluminum bicycle for four seasons, and test riding other aluminum bikes made by Trek, Cannondale, Klein, and even Vitus, the French brand that helped bring aluminum into the cycling market in the late 1970’s. He concluded that aluminum was, indeed, a worthy frame material, however there were some pieces of advice he had. Larger riders should stay away from diameter frames, due to the flexible nature of the material. Smaller riders, conversely, should not rider lager-diameter frames, as they were too stiff.
Langley said his own aluminum bicycle broke during his testing. He was unsure why the bicycle’s steerer broke, despite a potentially obvious reason.
I’ll never be sure what caused my Alan aluminum steerer to break unexpectedly 20 miles into a double century. The bike had been crashed twice but the accidents occurred long before the fracture. Fortunately the broken steerer did not cause me to crash. I continued riding until I could get a spare bike. I sent the fork to Italy and to my delight received a new one three weeks later for free.
Langley also had a warning for owners of steel frames. Aluminum was, unfortunately, not as forgiving as steel after crashes.
When you crash and bend a steel frame you can straighten it or have a frame builder replace a tube. Repairing an aluminum frame is a different matter. Broken and bent large diameter aluminum frames must be returned to the manufacturer and are usually replaced. This is because these frames have welded or bonded tubes that cannot be dismantled and reassembled by the average mechanic. Even simple things like a broken gear hanger requires that you return the frame to the manufacturer for repair. With a steel frame you could simply braze on a new one.
On some small-diameter aluminum frames, mechanically joined frame parts can be replaced if the piece can be obtained. An Alan frame is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that are screwed and glued together. A mechanic can dismantle the section of frame that needs repair, remove the broken piece, and glue and screw a new one in place. The worst part of the job is breathing the glue fumes.
It can be tricky to figure out the sequence for threading the tubes together again. In one instance I had to have a double-threaded pin made to complete the assembly of a dismantled Alan because the seat stay would not screw onto the seat lug with the stock threads. It was a matter of having left-hand threads on the top and right-hand threads on the bottom. Vitus frames are cemented and pressed together. I recently worked on a Vitus with a broken dropout which had been tom off when the derailleur was over shifted into the spokes. In this case I called Vitus and they asked me to ship the frame to them. Vitus returned the frame in about a week with a new dropout. I was told it was a simple procedure. They said to wait six days for the cement to cure before putting the bike back into service.
So, what has changed with aluminum bicycles, 31 years after Langley’s story? As we all know, aluminum rapidly became the material of choice for racing bicycles in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, only to be replaced by carbon fiber, due to the new material’s light weight and ability to be shaped into aerodynamic tubes. Yet, aluminum is showing signs of a big comeback. In our recent March/April issue of VeloNews, Dan Cavallari explains that aluminum may be making a big comeback. Why? The metal’s cheaper cost and durability make it a logical choice for entry-level racing bikes, and even gravel bikes made to be raced in dusty and muddy conditions. Plus, manufacturing an aluminum frame that is compatible with disc brakes saves you big bucks when compared to a carbon one. Perhaps that’s why Specialized and Trek both have aluminum race bikes being used in the peloton, and smaller brands like State Bicycles, have stuck with the material.
In truth, aluminum never really went away.
So, should you buy an aluminum frame?