Any info relating to ride quality, durability and comfort of each would be greatly appreciated. Also, I am looking for recomendations regarding steel and aluminum hardtails for under $1,200. Thanks in advance.
I have limited experience with steel and Al, but I remember the rides between the day I sold my old steel HT and the day I rode my new Al HT. Night and day in ride experience. Steel is much more compliant and absorbs vibration better than Al. Al is generally stiffer and transfers power better.
I'd say that steel is more comfortable. It would make a better trail bike. Al is lighter and more rigid and would make a better race bike.
There are a lot of builders making frames of both materials, but Steel is harder to come by these days. Some mfrs might be Strong, Cove, Salsa, Canyon, Sycip, Surly, Kona and Jamis. Almost all other manufacturers make Al HT frames.
As far as value goes, you'll have more buying power with a complete bike than from a custom frame mfr but you also get a more "generic" bike.
Personally, I'd get a Cove...but that's just me. Steel is real!
Steel is awfully nice for an HT. From what I understand, alu. has a definite life cycle. Take the same drop x times and alu will crack, even if each drop delivers less than the froce requied to break the tubing. Steel will not fatigue in the same way. Also, when it gives, alu snaps, steel bends.
I love steel for hardtails, ive only tried a few bikes, 2 where steel 1 was alum and i have to say for costing twice as much in that case(which is generally rare) the ride was just awful even on pavement. but if steel is so much better then you would think you would see more bikes that use it.
i think in general, steel or Ti is preferable for reasons others have noted. Having said that, on a 29er frame, given the bigger tires adding compliancy, aluminum is not a bad choice. I have a Scandium 29er and absolutely love it and not to mention, the weight savings on that bigger frame are welcomed but my 26" hartdail...steel for sure.
Steel: smoother riding, heavier and more repairable if you buy a good one.
Alu: lighter, stiffer
I have a cannondale 1fg SS and it's a great bike but it's stiiiiiiifffff, has great tire clearence (2.5") and can easily be built light. Cannondales have a lifetime warranty. I also have a Kelly that rides nicer but it's a bit of a boat anchor. There are several custom builders making frames for under $1000 including Curtlo. For just over that price retrotec builds some buitiful steel.
I ride a hardtail Stumpjumper (full bike ~1200 new). After a 12 hour race, I ditched the stock seattube and replaced it with a Easton EC70 carbon seat tube. It is a road seat tube, so you'll probably need to shim it. I highly recommend this if you decided to go with aluminum. As far as parts go, you get a lot of bang for the buck. Personally I don't like the head tube angle as it is really slack for Florida riding, but I have grown into it. Good luck with the hunt.
I've ridden both steel and aluminum, but since I ride XC mainly, aluminum is my kind of thing. If you're riding anything other i'd stick with steel, simply because XC is not very abusive so the frames don't need to be amazingly strong, weight is more of a problem for XC.
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