Wil ponders; what happened to all the high-end alloy bikes?
Carbon fibre is everywhere these days. Handlebars, cranks, rims, derailleur cages, saddle rails, brake levers, spokes — there are few components on the modern mountain bike that haven’t been touched by the magic carbon wand.
It’s not just components either. When it comes to mid-to-high-end mountain bikes, most brands on the market are choosing carbon fibre as the preferred material for manufacturing their frames. And there’s plenty of good reasons for that.
Carbon can be engineered to be both incredibly strong and incredibly light. It can also be molded into all sorts of elegant and curious shapes, which is useful when you’re building a complex full suspension frame, especially if it has a motor and battery attached to it.
Consumers also love carbon. It’s the reason why there are so many more carbon models than there used to be. Look at the full suspension lineup from a mainstream brand like Giant, Trek or Specialized, and you’ll see an increasing range of spec levels on carbon frames, and a decreasing number of options with alloy frames. These days an alloy frame rarely gets dressed up with high-end parts, and that kind of bothers me.
Now I’m not here to give you a detailed analysis of all the pros and cons of different frame materials. I simply want to acknowledge that I quite like alloy frames. I like the ride quality of modern alloy bikes, I appreciate the durability, and I prefer the lower price. It’s why I recently sought out a Specialized Chisel over a carbon equivalent. I’m also convinced that there are others out there who feel the same way.
With that mind, I’d like to pose two questions to the bike industry;
Can we have more XC bikes made from alloy please?
Nowhere has the adoption of carbon fibre been more pervasive than in the XC market. Weight is of course a key driver here, with carbon offering a distinct advantage in delivering the lightest possible frames and components. Indeed it’s facilitated the incredible sub-900g frame weights on hardtails like the Canyon Exceed CFR and Cannondale Scalpel HT.
As carbon has spread its wings through the market however, it hasn’t been without its victims.
You may have noticed that there are fewer XC bikes made from alloy these days. Newly released full suspension XC race bikes, including the latest Giant Anthem, Specialized Epic, Trek Supercaliber, Merida Ninety-Six and Canyon Lux, are all being made exclusively from carbon. In years gone past many of these would also be available in alloy. But no more.
There are some rare exceptions. The Scott Spark and Orbea Oiz can be had in alloy, but only in their burlier ‘trail’ variants, and only with heavier and lower-end build kits. It seems if you want a competitively light full suspension bike, you have very little choice but to go carbon.
The thing is though, modern alloy construction techniques have advanced significantly over the years. And these days they can be made quite light.
The Specialized Chisel is one of the best examples of this. With its premium hydroformed alloy tubes and smooth welds, the Chisel comes in as light as 1,400g for the bare frame. It’s not as feathery as the class-leading carbon frames, but it’s really not that far off. It also rides really well, and the durability of a metal frame adds a certain appeal, especially to anyone out there who’s cracked a carbon bike in the past.
Perhaps it’s this durability that has spurred a revival of alloy frames in the road world. Bikes like the Cannondale CAAD13, the Trek Emonda ALR and the Specialized Allez Sprint have earned a legion of loyal fans, particularly on the crit racing circuit. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re also more price-accessible than their composite counterparts.
Will we see a similar uptake in the mountain bike world? Given the improvements in weight and ride quality of modern alloy frames, I certainly hope so. I’d especially like to see some nice lightweight full suspension XC bikes being offered in alloy, and not just carbon. A metal Epic or Anthem? Yes please!
Do alloy bikes always have to be entry-level?
Of course we can have well-engineered alloy frames that are elegant, durable and lightweight, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot if brands continue to relegate those frames to being spec’d with entry-level components.
As it stands, most of the bigger mass-produced brands have a definitive ceiling when it comes to their alloy models. The aim is to keep the pricing lower through the use of budget-oriented parts, which means these alloy bikes are often heavier, less adjustable, and sometimes less durable too. If you want the high-end suspension dampers, the nice wheels and the electronic drivetrain, you’ll often have to plump up for the carbon models.
Again, there are exceptions to this. Commencal is a brand that is known for its commitment to building frames from alloy only, and as such it produces some very desirable bikes with high-end build kits – like the Meta TR 29.
Specialized also recently introduced an alloy version of the Stumpjumper EVO, which includes a model with Fox Factory Series suspension. It’s a curious move that has gone a little against the general tide, and has left us wondering whether Specialized is planning to offer more high-end alloy bikes down the line.
Speaking of, it’s worth noting that the likes of Loic Bruni and Finn Iles have been racing on alloy frames on the World Cup downhill circuit. That’s right – alloy, not carbon. And it seems to have worked out pretty well for them so far. The same goes for Trek, with its Session downhill bike currently offered in alloy only. Whether either brand will produce a carbon variant in the future is yet to be seen, but already it’s proof that alloy isn’t necessarily the inferior material.
Plenty of other brands have been flexing their metal muscles lately, including Orbea, which has just rolled out an alloy version of its popular Rise e-MTB. It’s not exactly obvious though, with its smooth welds and flowing tube shapes doing an impressive job of imitating the carbon model. It’s also pretty light and the alloy construction has helped to bring the entry price down by a considerable sum. Better yet it’s available with some tidy build options, and Orbea even lets you upgrade certain components.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are plenty of smaller boutique brands that continue to offer high-end alloy options. The likes of Nicolai, Liteville, Orange, Pole, Canfield, Banshee and LAST are all producing beautifully made and well-spec’d alloy bikes. But they’re still far outweighed by the likes of Santa Cruz, Pivot, Yeti and Intense – brands that have ditched alloy entirely and only produce carbon full suspension bikes.
Indeed the overall focus of the broader market remains overwhelmingly biased towards carbon. Well, for the foreseeable future at least. But is there room for a metal resurgence? Will we see any of the bigger brands expand and elevate their range of alloy models? Or is everyone just too hooked on carbon?
Personally I’d love to see more alloy bikes made available at the premium end of the market, rather than simply being destined to be carbon’s poorer cousin forever. Who else is with me?