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A Cyclist’s Guide to Bike Frame Materials: Titanium

Titanium road bike

The metal of the gods…

Welcome to the third post in my series looking at the materials used to build bike frames.

Here are the links to the previous articles:

A Cyclists Guide to Bike Frame Materials: Steel

A Cyclists Guide to Bike Frame Materials: Carbon

**UPDATE: The full list of ‘materials’ posts can be found on my new page dedicated to bike building: How To Build A Bike **

In this post we’re going to look at the metal that my superhero alter-ego would have his balls made out of: titanium.

And on that bombshell (egg-shell), we should probably move swiftly on….

What is titanium?

Holy cow. I’ve just found out that titanium was discovered in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century (thank you Wikipedia). And there was me thinking it was some sort of space age material.

It’s a metal (er, yes…), and despite my assumption that titanium bike frames were expensive due to scarcity of the metal itself, it is in fact the ninth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. In the metals-only league table (for I believe scientists do refer to such things with sporting analogies), it is the fourth most bountiful element (that’s according to Titanium.com – Wiki says seventh).

Titanium appears to have decided to play the role of sensible, straight-talking element, choosing the symbol ‘Ti’ within the periodic table (unlike those jokers, lead and silver).

Titanium obviously has something of an ego though, naming itself after the first pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses (known, appropriately, for their strength and stamina – much like the Grimpeur).

Where does it come from?

The largest producers of titanium are Australia and South Africa, with Canada not too far behind.

In nature, titanium is always bonded to other minerals. The two elements from which it’s worth trying to extract titanium, if you are a mining company (if you’re not, it’s probably not worth trying to extract titanium at all), are the minerals, rutile and ilmenite.

Nope, I hadn’t heard of them either.

How are titanium bikes constructed?

Titanium frames are made in much the same way as steel ones, using titanium tubes, cut to size and TIG-welded together (read about it in my article on steel bike frames here).

The tubes made to make bicycle frames are not made purely out of titanium (which either seems to be known as unrefined titanium or ‘commercially pure’ titanium). Instead they contain a small percentage of aluminium (3-6%) and vanadium (2.5-4%). These titanium alloys are stronger than the pure material.

Given the cost of titanium, production bikes tend to be at the higher end of the price and quality range. Although I don’t have any statistics to hand, you’d expect custom-made frames to form a higher proportion of all titanium bikes sold, versus those made out of steel..

Why do people choose titanium for their bike frame?

The traditional argument in favour of titanium over steel is weight: for equivalent frames, the titanium one will be lighter.

Proponents (such as those in this article from Bicycling magazine) talk about the different way that titanium flexes under stress. Apparently titanium has a ‘non-linear modulus’. In other words, it provides initial ‘give’, but then stiffens up as the force increases. The flex avoids a ride like a jackhammer; the firming up means you don’t lose out on responsiveness.

Titanium is corrosion-resistant – it doesn’t rust. Unpainted titanium frames look beautiful (in fact, there may be some sort of law that prevents them being painted.

Steel gets a lot of plaudits from its fans, but for some titanium aficionados, the belief in superior ride quality almost becomes an article of religious faith. For the alternative (or maybe, more measured) viewpoint, that it’s the skill of the builder, plus the choice of tire, seat and geometry, that determines how a bike rides, take a look at this article from Sheldon Brown.

What are the downsides of a titanium bike?

Cost, COST and, I’m afraid, C-O-S-T.

The basic cost of the titanium tubing required to form the frame can exceed that of a high-quality, finished carbon or steel frame.

You might also add that titanium is more difficult (read, costly) to repair than, say, steel, but there aren’t that many scenarios where this is relevant. It really is all about the cost at the time of purchase.

They do look very sexy though…. (if that’s your kettle of poisson).

What do you think?

So far in this series I’ve covered the three mainstream frame materials for most road cyclists (despite riding one myself, I’m sure most of you don’t have, or aspire to have, an aluminium-framed bike).

Do you have a preference for one material over another? Do we have more steel fans reading this blog, versus carbon lovers? Anyone own a titanium bike?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31495901@N07/

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • I’ve got a lovely ‘Raleigh special products’ titanium frame from 1999, I bought in a shop in Loughborough nearly 10 years ago. The horrible carbon monocoques from Taiwain were all the rage (still are) and the shop was having trouble shifting the old Raleigh so it was very cheap. The oversized down tube is both kind of ‘aero’ and stiffens up the bottom bracket. I had some great successes with it. It’s still here (and like new!) when I’ve gone through 4 carbon frames (that I can remember) and 1 aluminium frame… Without a doubt the best bike frame building material.

    • Would be nice to get a good deal on a titanium bike these days! I think steel is likely to be my material of choice for the next bike, but titanium will definitely remain on the list for the future!

  • Matt Bancroft says:

    I have an aluminum road bike purely as it was the only option in my price range. Having previously dreamt about going ‘carbon’ I would now almost certainly go down the steel route now I have greater knowledge. Steel looks awesome and handles great in my opinion and it’s tough. I have a steel framed hardtail mountain bike which is fantastic to ride and takes everything I throw at it. Also my sister has just bought a lovely Genesis steel road bike which she loves.

    Cheers for the link to Sheldon Brown’s article too – great reading and so much detail – love it!

    • Hi Matt. Think I’m with you on going for steel over carbon. Though it doesn’t suit my immediate needs (er, wants), I do like the look of the Genesis Croix de Fer – maybe for a bit of cycle touring in the future. Think I could even use it to ride the various disused railway trails round here..

      Sheldon Brown’s website is awesome. Very much focused on the information rather than website design…

  • Tim Jasper says:

    Well once upon a time I was in a position where I could afford a new frame and I chose titanium. It was a big investment, replaced a 853 frame and was partly paid for by lots of eBaying . The point of this post is that on my first ride out I was amazed by the difference over the high grade steel. (And I’d managed to talk myself into a state of thinking I was making a pointless indulgence, while waiting for the frame to arrive). The bike felt both airy and rock solid – as stiff as a gate. But – the normal “sizzle” and buzz coming up from the road surface seemed to have magically disappeared. Even riding over a bit of broken road I normally swerve round didn’t “hit” through the frame. I was converted. (Van Nicholas Yukon bought from Bicyles by Design). I’ve never owned crabon though…

    • Interesting. Thanks Tim. Another blog reader asked me about Van Nicholas bespoke titanium frames just this week. I don’t know a great deal about the company. It sounds like you’d recommend them.

  • Tony says:

    It always amuses me that people choose a bike based on the frame material. The best way to choose a bike is by size and then purpose (eg racing, commuting, leisure, touring etc). Let the manufacturer decide on what material best suits the job.

    If you are determined to choose by material alone then you need to look at all characteristics of that material, eg ultimate tensile strength (UTS), density, hardness, modulus of elasticity, elongation, fatigue tolerance, etc before deciding. For the average person who doesn’t understand these concepts I advise caution.

    Yes, titanium does have a high UTS for a given weight. But its modulus of elasticity is only slightly more than half that of steel. So make it stiffer (tube stiffness is approximately proportional to the cube of the diameter). This makes the weight saving a little less, say over steel..

    The reason titanium frames cost more is because titanium alloys are tough. Cutting has to be done at lower speeds, (more time = more labour charges). And welding has to be done meticulously to avoid contamination of the weld which will lead to failure.

    New developments in beam melting /technologies finally raises the exciting prospect of titanium parts, such as lugs being developed at relatively low cost (no traditional cutting). Along with new adhesives, some companies are creating custom lugs to suit any size rider and bonding the tubes together using a new breed of adhesives developed for the aerospace industry.

    This could ultimately result;t in cheaper custom titanium frames being available.

    But at then end of the day, choose a bike by size, function and how it rides. Not just by material.

    Cheers,

    Tony

  • Tom says:

    I bought a Van Nicholas from Leisure Lakes in Breaston and have loved it from the start. The frame broke due to a poor weld but it was replaced at no cost and I got an even more expensive carbon Trek Domane with Ultegra as a loan bike for a month. Although the Trek was great I was pleased when my own “New” bike was returned and I felt that the V.N. was every bit as comfortable and fast as the Trek. I have fitted some tough tyres (25mm Shwalbe Durano) so that I can ride road and track, in fact the roads around Derbyshire are often worse than the tracks so I would not go back to the 23mm skinny slicks.
    Yes the frame is expensive but it comes with a lifetime warranty and I don’t have to switch between a summer and winter bike.

  • As a welder, I can testify to the difficulty of welding titanium, but the rewards are worth it . I have just repaired a Airborne Manhattan project race frame from 2003 and it rides as well as my pinarello Paris 2009.

    I have hand polished the frame so even fine dust won’t stick to it and would never paint it.

    My next frame restoration is an audax type frame in titanium with a longer wheelbase and higher head tube which I am looking forward to completing.

  • The grey one says:

    1st, kudos for the site, so informative and written with a dash of humour – nice.
    Re. frame materials, I’m of the generation where steel was pretty much the only (viable)option for some decades so that is what my 1st half decent bike was; 20years on and it’s still a good bike (Orbit Harrier), quite light and racy yet sòooooo comfortable to ride but no surprise it has rust and is looking for a new owner with the inclination to invest in paintwork.
    Trying to keep up with my younger cycling buddies dictated a more modern machine so for 18months I rode an Orbea aluminium, not a bad bike lighter than the steelie but the frame was harsh transferring every bump and jolt – did my first sportives on it but it had to go before my back did!
    So next was a mid-range carbon (Cube Agree), stiff, lighter again yet so much better to ride than the Orbea – only jarring when I zone out and don’t spot a pot hole in time.
    Then there came that moment when I looked for upgrade options – so unusual for a cyclist 😊 – and I discovered that wonder material titanium! It took a lot of soul (and bank balance) searching but went for the ‘life investment’ excuse – suitably encouraged by my wife, no really – I couldn’t get a demo ride so trusted in the reputation and reviews for Enigma, luckily one of their stock frames fit saving a few quid. It’s lighter than the Cube, fairly stiff yet compliant and if I get to a point where I cannot cycle, the naked metal of the frame is so gorgeous I vowed to hang it on the wall as a piece of art. In short, the best (road) cycling purchase I ever made to the extent that I suspect the Cube may also be looking for a new owner.

  • Tomás Metcalfe June 11, 2013, 12:35 pm

    I’ve got a lovely ‘Raleigh special products’ titanium frame from 1999, I bought in a shop in Loughborough nearly 10 years ago. The horrible carbon monocoques from Taiwain were all the rage (still are) and the shop was having trouble shifting the old Raleigh so it was very cheap. The oversized down tube is both kind of ‘aero’ and stiffens up the bottom bracket. I had some great successes with it. It’s still here (and like new!) when I’ve gone through 4 carbon frames (that I can remember) and 1 aluminium frame… Without a doubt the best bike frame building material.

    • Andrew Montgomery June 18, 2013, 11:33 am

      Would be nice to get a good deal on a titanium bike these days! I think steel is likely to be my material of choice for the next bike, but titanium will definitely remain on the list for the future!

  • Matt Bancroft June 14, 2013, 2:36 pm

    I have an aluminum road bike purely as it was the only option in my price range. Having previously dreamt about going ‘carbon’ I would now almost certainly go down the steel route now I have greater knowledge. Steel looks awesome and handles great in my opinion and it’s tough. I have a steel framed hardtail mountain bike which is fantastic to ride and takes everything I throw at it. Also my sister has just bought a lovely Genesis steel road bike which she loves.

    Cheers for the link to Sheldon Brown’s article too – great reading and so much detail – love it!

    • Andrew Montgomery June 18, 2013, 11:30 am

      Hi Matt. Think I’m with you on going for steel over carbon. Though it doesn’t suit my immediate needs (er, wants), I do like the look of the Genesis Croix de Fer – maybe for a bit of cycle touring in the future. Think I could even use it to ride the various disused railway trails round here..

      Sheldon Brown’s website is awesome. Very much focused on the information rather than website design…

  • Tim Jasper March 2, 2014, 9:57 am

    Well once upon a time I was in a position where I could afford a new frame and I chose titanium. It was a big investment, replaced a 853 frame and was partly paid for by lots of eBaying . The point of this post is that on my first ride out I was amazed by the difference over the high grade steel. (And I’d managed to talk myself into a state of thinking I was making a pointless indulgence, while waiting for the frame to arrive). The bike felt both airy and rock solid – as stiff as a gate. But – the normal “sizzle” and buzz coming up from the road surface seemed to have magically disappeared. Even riding over a bit of broken road I normally swerve round didn’t “hit” through the frame. I was converted. (Van Nicholas Yukon bought from Bicyles by Design). I’ve never owned crabon though…

    • Andrew Montgomery March 3, 2014, 12:01 pm

      Interesting. Thanks Tim. Another blog reader asked me about Van Nicholas bespoke titanium frames just this week. I don’t know a great deal about the company. It sounds like you’d recommend them.

  • Tony April 23, 2014, 8:30 am

    It always amuses me that people choose a bike based on the frame material. The best way to choose a bike is by size and then purpose (eg racing, commuting, leisure, touring etc). Let the manufacturer decide on what material best suits the job.

    If you are determined to choose by material alone then you need to look at all characteristics of that material, eg ultimate tensile strength (UTS), density, hardness, modulus of elasticity, elongation, fatigue tolerance, etc before deciding. For the average person who doesn’t understand these concepts I advise caution.

    Yes, titanium does have a high UTS for a given weight. But its modulus of elasticity is only slightly more than half that of steel. So make it stiffer (tube stiffness is approximately proportional to the cube of the diameter). This makes the weight saving a little less, say over steel..

    The reason titanium frames cost more is because titanium alloys are tough. Cutting has to be done at lower speeds, (more time = more labour charges). And welding has to be done meticulously to avoid contamination of the weld which will lead to failure.

    New developments in beam melting /technologies finally raises the exciting prospect of titanium parts, such as lugs being developed at relatively low cost (no traditional cutting). Along with new adhesives, some companies are creating custom lugs to suit any size rider and bonding the tubes together using a new breed of adhesives developed for the aerospace industry.

    This could ultimately result;t in cheaper custom titanium frames being available.

    But at then end of the day, choose a bike by size, function and how it rides. Not just by material.

    Cheers,

    Tony

  • Tom October 17, 2014, 3:01 pm

    I bought a Van Nicholas from Leisure Lakes in Breaston and have loved it from the start. The frame broke due to a poor weld but it was replaced at no cost and I got an even more expensive carbon Trek Domane with Ultegra as a loan bike for a month. Although the Trek was great I was pleased when my own “New” bike was returned and I felt that the V.N. was every bit as comfortable and fast as the Trek. I have fitted some tough tyres (25mm Shwalbe Durano) so that I can ride road and track, in fact the roads around Derbyshire are often worse than the tracks so I would not go back to the 23mm skinny slicks.
    Yes the frame is expensive but it comes with a lifetime warranty and I don’t have to switch between a summer and winter bike.

  • roninsteelblog May 22, 2016, 9:06 am

    As a welder, I can testify to the difficulty of welding titanium, but the rewards are worth it . I have just repaired a Airborne Manhattan project race frame from 2003 and it rides as well as my pinarello Paris 2009.

    I have hand polished the frame so even fine dust won’t stick to it and would never paint it.

    My next frame restoration is an audax type frame in titanium with a longer wheelbase and higher head tube which I am looking forward to completing.

  • The grey one May 28, 2016, 3:41 pm

    1st, kudos for the site, so informative and written with a dash of humour – nice.
    Re. frame materials, I’m of the generation where steel was pretty much the only (viable)option for some decades so that is what my 1st half decent bike was; 20years on and it’s still a good bike (Orbit Harrier), quite light and racy yet sòooooo comfortable to ride but no surprise it has rust and is looking for a new owner with the inclination to invest in paintwork.
    Trying to keep up with my younger cycling buddies dictated a more modern machine so for 18months I rode an Orbea aluminium, not a bad bike lighter than the steelie but the frame was harsh transferring every bump and jolt – did my first sportives on it but it had to go before my back did!
    So next was a mid-range carbon (Cube Agree), stiff, lighter again yet so much better to ride than the Orbea – only jarring when I zone out and don’t spot a pot hole in time.
    Then there came that moment when I looked for upgrade options – so unusual for a cyclist 😊 – and I discovered that wonder material titanium! It took a lot of soul (and bank balance) searching but went for the ‘life investment’ excuse – suitably encouraged by my wife, no really – I couldn’t get a demo ride so trusted in the reputation and reviews for Enigma, luckily one of their stock frames fit saving a few quid. It’s lighter than the Cube, fairly stiff yet compliant and if I get to a point where I cannot cycle, the naked metal of the frame is so gorgeous I vowed to hang it on the wall as a piece of art. In short, the best (road) cycling purchase I ever made to the extent that I suspect the Cube may also be looking for a new owner.

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