On a ride yesterday I came to the realization that everyone I was riding with was astride a mountain bike with a carbon fiber frame. Then I realized that that has been the case for some time. Most of the riders I ride with are currently running carbon frames. However, lately, I’ve been thinking I may choose an aluminum frame for my next build-up project.
I know what you’re thinking – why go back to alloy? And the answer to that question is simple; it comes down to the cost. If you’ve been looking at a new bike you may be thinking that mountain bikes are more expensive than ever. Or are they? Somewhere along the line, the bike industry convinced mountain bikers that you needed a $3,000+ carbon fiber frame to go mountain biking, and apparently anything else is now “entry-level”. A high-performance mountain bike runs somewhere in the $5k-6k range for “decent” components with sticker prices nearing the $10,000 price points for flagship models. But do you really need to spend that much to have fun on the trails?
I don’t think so.
I know what you’re thinking — $10,000 is a hell of a lot of money for a bicycle. Especially considering that after a year of riding that bike, if you want to sell it you’d be lucky to get $6,000 back out of it, as mountain bikes depreciate in value faster than an opened box of Rice-a-Roni. I’d never spend ten grand on a bicycle personally. But then I look at the bike I’m currently riding and well, after you add it all up with the upgrades, things are ticking up there. Of course, I didn’t spend that much on it.
That said, if you were to review the comment section of any MTB website, they’re filled with frequent price comparisons of mountain bikes to motorcycles. The most frequently posted comment being along the lines of “I could buy a motorcycle with that much cash!”
This is totally true — I recently bought a used 2009 Kawasaki Versys motorcycle for $3,000. This happens to be quite close to the retail price of the carbon fiber 2018 Transition Sentinel frame — and just the frame — I’m currently riding. A bike that is now two years old, with a street value that depreciates every month I continue to hold onto it. Looking at my bikes and my past records of ownership, I tend to sell them after 2-3 years of use, which can end up becoming a painful cycle of spending when you have other expenses in life to contend with. I’m only able to justify these costs due to the fact that 1. I don’t pay full retail for bicycles due to the fact I run this website, and 2. No one wants to read about my three-year-old mountain bikes.
The fact is, mountain biking can be an expensive game, especially if you’re trying to keep up with your buddies atop the latest and greatest gear. Especially if you have multiple bikes in the quiver. As much as I’d like a one bike quiver, after a season of testing and riding bikes with both 27.5″ and 29″ wheels, I’ve decided I really would be want, no — need — to own one of each.
However, given the price of carbon, (with the exception of the GT Force frameset, but you can’t actually buy one anywhere) I’m simply overspending that 30% carbon tax just to save a freaking pound of weight — especially for a second bike.
Which has me thinking it is time to revisit alloy frames. While I’m still happy with the performance of my carbon 29″ trail bike, I miss having a dedicated “play” bike with smaller, 27.5″ wheels. With carbon costing as much as it does, choosing an alloy option for a secondary trail bike is an appealing option.
Not only does a typical aluminum frame cost a third less than its carbon counterpart, but there’s also the factor of sustainability. Aluminum frames can be recycled, and carbon – unless you’re extremely creative – frames generally end up as landfill at the end of their useful life. It could be argued that the fatigue life of carbon is significantly longer than alloy, but unless you plan to ride a carbon bike for upwards of a decade, an aluminum option is a significantly greener option.
The problem is that in the US, premium full-suspension alloy MTB frames have become much less common. Most brands now focus on carbon as the be-all, end-all material, and if you’re lucky, a lower-priced budget alloy version might come along a season later.
With brands approaching alloy models as a price-point budget version of their flagship model, they’re now more like an afterthought. Not to mention most of the time you’re stuck buying a complete bike that is spec’d and assembled to hit a price point to satisfy demands of IBDs.
Which makes trying to find an affordable “new-school” progressive frame (in the US) a challenge. Here are a few of the options we’re keeping a close eye on these days.
Specialized Stumpjumper EVO Alloy 27.5″ (also available in 29″) — $1,700
Available in both 27.5″ and 29″ wheels, the Stumpjumper EVO features 150mm of rear-wheel travel. What’s impressive to me though is that they’re still offering it as an alloy alternative to the “premium” carbon iteration. More importantly, at $1,700 it’s almost half the price of the flagship carbon frame.
- Frame travel: 150mm
- Head Angle: 63.5º
- Seat Angle: 76º/75.6º
- Wheelbase: 1228mm (S2), 1258mm (S3)
Within the Stumpjumper line up, the Evo is considered the high-speed “Enduro-ized” edition for charging. It also happens to be in line with the current trends in geometry we’ve been loving for technical trails in the PNW. Compared to the all-around trail model it has slacker angles, a longer chainstay, and a flip-chip that allows some customization of the head angle and bottom bracket height. If you want a complete, at $3,620 it’s only $620 more than the carbon frame and they don’t change or skimp on the rear shock spec.
Transition Patrol 2019 (Alloy) $1,999/ on sale $1,599
You can still get 2019 model year Transition Bikes in alloy, with the alloy frame sharing the same geo and suspension as the “premium” carbon version.
For the recently introduced 2020 models it’s going to be a bit of a wait. The updated Scout has recently been released and for the time being will only be available in carbon. With an updated (carbon) Patrol coming down the pipeline, it’ll probably 2021 before you see a more affordable Transition available with the latest iteration of SBG with the updated suspension kinematics.
- Frame travel: 160mm
- Head Angle: 64º
- Seat Angle: 77.1/76.6º
- Wheelbase: 1209mm (Medium), 1238mm (Large)
Knolly Warden V2 (Alloy) — $2270
The new Knolly Warden presents another alloy option featuring contemporary, progressive geometry, though they don’t take it quite as far as the options from Transition and Norco. Knollys aren’t very common on our local trails but we hear good things about the way the bikes ride.
- Head Angle: 64.75-65.5º
- Seat Angle: 76.75º
- Wheelbase: 1225mm (medium), 1251mm (large)
- Superboost 157 x 12mm rear wheel required
Aren’t there other options?
I’m really hung up on the new trend of low and low bikes for the riding we do in the pacific northwest, and I don’t think I want to go back. Thing is, there aren’t as many options yet for progressive frames with new school long and low geo available in the USA. Other bikes like the new Norco Sight, Transition Scout, and Guerilla Gravity will all set you back significantly more, as they’re currently only available in carbon options. The other challenge is that with the pandemic, availability has become even more limited…
Norco Sight — sold out??
When it was just released, the Norco Sight alloy frame was near the top of our list, but now only gets a mention as the 2020 release of the bike has proved so popular that the reasonably priced alloy frame sold out almost immediately. From all reports, it won’t even be available (frame only at least) until the 2021 models arrive. Having spent time on both the medium and large carbon models, the progressive geo is spot on for hauling butt down trails and smashing sweet jumps.
- Frame travel: 150mm
- Head Angle: 63.5º
- Seat Angle:77.3º
- Wheelbase: 1220mm (Med), 1259mm (Large)
Play > Speed: Additional options
Not everyone wants a trail bike with DH angles. If your trails feature a lot more all-around riding or you’re looking for something more nimble over a DH-like headtube angle, you have some great options that are still available in aluminum that you can buy as a frame. While we’re fond of the new bikes with slack, go-fast geo, for riders in areas like the Southwest or Bay Area, this geometry may not be as well suited. And while these models could be dated in a year as brand adopt more progressive angles, the whole exercise of buying a less expensive alloy frame means you could feasibly ride one for a season then upgrade to the next year’s model without draining your bank account.
Trek Remedy Alloy — $1999
I have particularly fond memories of the 2010 Trek Remedy and Session 88 I owned. While it’s been a while since I’ve swung a leg over a Trek, the Remedy is still running strong in the lineup. The 2020 Remedy C frameset will run you $3300, but it’s refreshing to see Trek also offering a far more affordable model in an alloy option. Not only is the geo adjustable but Trek makes their alloy models with a competitive weight that’s minimal in comparison to some of the other alloy options. We’d love to see a slightly longer reach or at least a steeper seat angle, but you could always push that seat forward. It’s also worth pointing out that for $3,299 for the Remedy 7 you get a complete bike (and that teal is sure a looker) that only weighs in at a listed 32.36lbs with tubes!
- Frame Travel: 150mm
- Head Angle: 65.5º
- Seat Angle: 74º
- Wheelbase: 1206mm (size large)
- Listed frame weight: 7.28lbs
Kona Process 134 DL Alloy — $1699
It was cool to see Kona still offers a few alloy options in framesets. The Process 134DL looks like a ton of pow for the dollar, and you can get into the entry-level complete model for $2400.
- Frame travel: 134mm
- Head Angle: 66º
- Seat Angle: 76.5º
- Wheelbase: 1190mm (medium), 1219mm (large)
Santa Cruz Bronson Alloy — $1999
Santa Cruz’s Bronson used to be their best selling model before everyone decided that big wheels were better. It’s nice to see an alloy frame only option is still an option, costing significantly less than the Carbon C frame.
- Frame travel: 150mm
- Head Angle: 65.4º
- Seat Angle: 75.3º
- Wheelbase: 1191mm (medium), 1215mm (large)
Banshee Prime V3 (Alloy) — $2199
- Head Angle: 65.5 – 66º
- Seat Angle: 76.7 – 77.5º
- Wheelbase: 1220mm (medium), 1245mm (large)
- Listed weight 8.2lbs
Pivot Mach 6 Aluminum — $2300
- Head Angle: 65.8º
- Seat Angle: 74º
- Wheelbase: 1204mm (large)
Foes Ridgeback — $1999
An option that’s easy to forget outside of SoCal (we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen one on the trails locally).
The Ridgeback has most current geo and the steepest seat tube angle of the Foes line up, which makes it our top pick.
- Head Angle: 65º
- Seat Angle: 75º
- Wheelbase: 1200.15mm (medium)
Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt Alloy 10 — $2,099 (complete)
While you can’t get a Thunderbolt frame-only, for $2,099 you get a complete bike on an alloy frame for the same cost as other frame options. You’ll probably want to upgrade the rear shock (providing 140mm of travel in the rear) but at 31.9lbs listed for a complete bike, the weight isn’t too bad, and the price for the complete bike is inline with what a lot of brands are charging for just the frame. Swap out your parts and save the take-offs for when you sell it, long fork this thing, get a nicer rear shock and it looks like it could be a good time.
Most importantly it comes in all black.
Canyon Spectral Al 5.0 — $2700 (complete build)
Although you can’t buy just the alloy frame, the Spectral AL 5.0 is worth a closer look simply because the complete bike not only comes in for less than the Spectral CFR carbon frame and rear shock, but includes Rockshox Super Deluxe Select rear shock that looks to be halfway decent.
The Spectral’s geometry isn’t as progressive as a lot of brands, but having ridden one, I found it to be a good time, super poppy and playful. Though, as I’m used to much more slack headangles, found myself on the edge of disaster when charging into turns at high speeds.
Marin Hawk Hill 3 — $2650
Another option of a complete bike that comes in close to the price of a frame only option, the Marin Hawkhill 3 is a short travel 27.5″ platform equipped with a Fox Float DPS Performance rear shock. Up front, it comes with a Marzocchi Bomber Z2, which is good enough you would simply run it. A Shimano SLX 12-speed group is another killer value for the money, especially at this price. Swap in your favorite wheels and upgrade the brakes and you are good to go.
- Head Angle: 66.5º
- Seat Angle: 74.3º
- Wheelbase: 1192.3mm (large)