Way back in the original name brainstorming session, that ended with our fledgling bike company becoming “Naked Bicycles” we hoped for a material that had the weight of aluminum, the feel of steel and the toughness and naked nature of Titanium. Well, such a material did not exist at the time, so we made do with the wonderful materials that where available. All have great features that make them very desirable to build with and ride but each has its shortcomings too. When asked by customers which material is best, I would offer the following descriptions of Aluminum, Steel, Titanium and Carbon. As with most choices, there is a rarely a perfect solution, only the one best suited for the task at hand. After reading the attributes of the traditional material offerings, I would like to introduce you to the Material we feel most represents our original “naked” ideal. The material we are using for our Grand adventure to NAHBS this year. Not perfect either but getting closer…….
First the traditional pipes:
This is easily the most versatile of materials. It comes in many configurations, has the richest history and allows for the most variety of designs. There is a “feel-of-steel” that is undeniable. In its basic tig welded form it is very affordable but still allows for maximum customization. Many feel the true artisan-ship of hand made bikes can only be fully realized with a perfect shoreline on a hand carved lug. Most of my bikes are made from steel and with good reason. It makes sense. With a few considerations, a steel frame will last a lifetime and is very easy to repair should something happen along its journey. So what is wrong with steel? There is no getting around two huge issues. Weight. Even in its lightest form, it is heavier than the other options especially in its most elegant lugged or fillet brazed form. The other elephant in the room is rust. Steel needs a good coat (or ten) of protection inside and outside to keep it happy for years to come.
Contrary to popular belief, Aluminum is NOT stiff. It actually by far the flexiest of all the materials out there. Just try riding an old Vitus with traditional size tubes! So how did it get such a rep? Blame or credit Cannondale and Klien. Aluminum has avery low density so you can use a lot of it and still keep the weight low. Aluminum is great for stiffness to weight ratios. It is very easy to machine, form and weld. Aluminum is, in many ways a dream material to make bikes out of but there are some very big drawbacks. Aluminums longevity sucks. It doesn’t like to get old and lets you know about it by cracking after 2 or 5 or 15 years. The worst part is that it is a crap shoot as to when it will fail. The only certainty is that it WILL fail. Another downside is heat treatment. Aluminum gets very weak after welding and requires heat treatment. This makes one off builds and repairs expensive and cumbersome. I still make race bikes, especially track bikes from aluminum but they come with a warning that they are not intended as a lifetime machine.
Ti has some amazing qualities. It is very resilient, tough, light and has a very comfy magic carpet ride. It also has that timeless, pure-function quality that lends itself to a serious no-nonsense machine. It also looks oh-so good in its raw or brushed states with a perfect weld at every junction. Sounds perfect! Almost. Titanium is by far the most expensive option. Building with it also requires the utmost in care and attention. The material must be incredibly clean and needs to be welded in an inert bath of Argon Gas. A single mistake can ruin a whole frame. All of this costs money!
On Paper, Carbon is amazing, It is the strongest, the lightest and allows for an infinite number of shapes. This is all simply theory however. To get the most out of a carbon frame it really needs to be made in a specific one piece mold for every single size. Doesn’t sound very custom to me! There are some amazing custom carbon builders of course such as Calfee and Crumpton, but it makes for a complicated and expensive process. Carbon can be a delicate material that is very difficult to fix except by a few specialists.
All of these materials are wonderful in there way and can make wonderful bikes. We use Steel mostly followed by Titanium and occasionally Aluminum. That was until a couple years ago…….
There is a new kid on the block.
Actually, not that new as a material, but new to the bike world. I have been working and experimenting with the 3 main offerings of stainless steel from KVA, Reynolds and Columbus. All offer the great feel of a steel bike, corrosion resistance similar to Ti and light weight along with very high strength numbers. In the case of KVA and Reynolds and KVA, Easily 25% stronger than the next strongest metal offering. After working with all the materials and the companies attached to them, I found KVA’s MS2 tubing to be by far the best of the bunch. It is unbelievably strong. Often a strong material has the downside of being brittle. Not a quality you want in abicycle frame! Not only is it very difficult to bend KVA, When it finally does give way, it does it in a very smooth and controlled way and simply doesn’t fail suddenly. It comes in a wide variety of very common sense sizes. Price falls nicely between high end steel and titanium. Because it is still a steel it allows for the same huge array of options for style and construction. On top of this KVA is a great company based in the united States run by true bike enthusiasts eager to make the best possible bicycle material. I for one think they are well on the right track. KVA has made our list of favorite companies to partner with.
Our next post will be a small insight into this cool company that is KVA.