Steel vs Carbon 01

Ben Reviews: Steel vs. Carbon Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Steel, aluminium, carbon, titanium and beyond, bike frames are being made from all sorts nowadays, everything from the common metals like alloy, all the way to the more bizarre materials, like bamboo. But what are the pros and cons of these materials when it comes to comfort and performance? Ben’s been finding out exactly that by riding and comparing his steel hardtail and his carbon one.

So what are the two bikes in question? Ben’s own Orange P7 steel hardtail with RaceFace Arc 30 alloy rims, retailing for around £3,000, and his carbon Santa Cruz Chameleon with Santa Cruz Reserve carbon rims, retailing for around £5,500.

In the shop, we’re always asked what the key differences are between carbon, steel and alloy when it comes to mountain bikes, aside from the price, of course. With access to bikes and trails on his doorstep, Ben’s been out to assess exactly what those differences are.

The Pros of Steel Hardtails

Orange p7
Orange P7

“I’ve had my P7 for a while now, and I’ve ridden a vast majority of Afan on it over the years. What I’ve come to find is that steel hardtails still hold their own in mountain biking, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

When going downhill, steel is far more forgiving as it flexes under tension which offers a little more cushioning so you don’t feel as much of a rattle in your bones. However, the P7 wasn’t as comfortable when climbing; this could be due to its geometry rather than it’s steel construction and the additional weight of steel over carbon.

Unlike carbon, which is stiff and more brittle, steel is a hardier material, and it can take a lot of battering before it does any real damage to the frame which means you can afford to be less careful with it. Of course, you will be careful, but it’ll take more effort and force to make a steel bike frame un-rideable.”

The Pros of Carbon Hardtails

Santa Cruz Chameleon
Santa Cruz Chameleon

“Before my Santa Cruz Chaneleonwas taken from the shop, I had a blast riding it on the trails, and having been so used to my steel P7; there were some stark differences in how they rode and felt.

First of all, the Chameleon’s geometry had a much slacker head angle, and I was running 140mm travel whereas the P7 has 130mm of travel. The lightweight build and stiffness of the carbon Chameleon transformed this bike into a rocket ship on the climbs and was very responsive to power.

Much of the same can be said for descending as well. The responsiveness was most noticeable in cornering and manoeuvring through technical sections. However, there’s practically no give in the wheels or the frame which made downhill sections slightly more uncomfortable.”

Conclusion

scale
Left: P7 weighs in at 14.73kg – Right: Chameleon weighs in at 13.14kg

“The Santa Cruz Chameleon can be built as a 650b+ or 29er, but I found the dropouts worked themselves loose a few times from flex and rocky descents. As amazing as a bike it is, the Chameleon is extremely expensive, coming in at £5,500.

I would say that if you want to ride for fun, don’t underestimate steel hardtails. However, if you’re looking for performance gains, then carbon is the way forward. When you’re looking to buy a new bike, always consider what kind of riding you want to do and what you want to get out of it.”

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