Skip to Content

Steel vs Carbon Bikes: Which Bike Forks Are Better?

Most bicycle manufacturers these days fit carbon forks to their bikes, whether or not the bike has an aluminum, steel, or carbon frame. The purchaser usually does not have a lot of say in the matter and, more often than not, will have to find a custom-built steel fork if he wants one.

And today, bikes rider is most likely to purchase a bike with carbon forks over one with steel forks. As a result of their lightweight and rigid nature, carbon forks are preferred over steel ones.

Carbon forks are better in certain conditions than steel forks, just as steel forks are better for some applications and riding styles. Carbon is lighter and more rigid than steel, but steel provides a more compliant ride. Thus the surface you are riding on has a bearing on your choice of material.

Steel was the original material used in the manufacture of bike frames and forks. Then aluminum came into prominence, and more recently, carbon has been the material of choice for most bike riders.

So why has carbon become the go-to material for forks? In this article, we will contemplate this question in a little more depth. We will also have a look at whether steel should regain its position of prominence in the cycling industry.

So are you planning to upgrade your bike and confuse between Steel vs Carbon bikes? No worries, we will help you throughout. It is well known that carbon forks are lighter, more durable, and more comfortable than their metal counterparts; however, does this really make a difference in the way you perform as a cyclist? In this article, you will learn everything in depth. Keep reading till the end.

Is Steel better than Carbon bikes?

A low-cost steel bike can also be very durable and affordable, but it is heavy. A steel bike is more expensive and lighter (but not lighter than a bike made from another material). For advanced riders and professionals, carbon bikes are the perfect choice. With their comfort, stiffness, and lightweight, they will provide a great riding experience. But for a broader comparison, refer to the below part.

What are bike forks?

A fork is a part of a bike that is not only familiar to avid bikers but to anyone with an interest in riding. Certainly, it is the two blades attached to the front wheel of the bicycle that are connected to the main frame of the bike. Typically made of iron, steel, or aluminum, a fork is one of the most important parts of a bike and holds all the weight. In addition, they can be made using carbon composite materials, which are much lighter than steel or aluminum forks, for instance. 

Comparison between Steel vs Carbon bikes fork

An extensive comparison is made between steel vs carbon bike forks in the below table

AspectsCarbon forkSteel Fork
ResilienceMore brittleUnder a majority of impact scenarios, strong and resilient
ComplianceAverage flexible and excellent brittleMore flexible
StiffnessQuite expensive and require proper maintenanceA lower stiffness results in a lower aerodynamic performance  
CostQuite expensive and require proper maintainenceCheaper

Steel: The Original Material of Choice For Bikes

Steel is durable, pliable, and easily repairable. Steel is also relatively heavy; it is subject to rust and corrosion and, like almost all metals, will fatigue over time. Steel was the only option available to prospective cyclists before the 1970s.

The two types of steel used in the manufacture of bicycle forks are High Tensile steel and Chromoly. As its name implies, Chromoly is an alloy form of steel and is much more durable than High Tensile steel – which is, however, cheaper to produce. Chromoly is obviously the better, albeit slightly more costly option.

Why Opt For a Steel Fork?

The pliability of steel forks extends not only to the ride comfort (we discuss this later) but also because steel is a resilient material that can take a good beating without overly compromising its integrity.

Steel can take a sudden, hard impact, it can be scratched, bent, and otherwise generally misused and it will probably still get you home, unlike a more brittle material like carbon fiber which can shatter or break with alacrity upon impact, leaving you with a pile of carbon dust and debris where your fork used to be.

Added to that, steel forks are easier for a decent welder to repair and definitely cheaper to repair than carbon fiber forks.

The main reason, however, to opt for a steel fork over that shiny carbon fiber option is compliance or pliability. Generally speaking, steel forks are more compliant or ”softer” than carbon forks.

Pliability refers to the vertical flex of the blades of the fork when they meet an obstacle on the road surface.

Steel forks, being more flexible than carbon fiber, will dampen the road buzz (the tiny, constant vibrations transferred from the road surface to your handlebars) and soften the ride, significantly reducing the stress on your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. This is a major factor to bear in mind when choosing a steel or carbon fork setup for the rider who is looking to do long-distance rides.

Generally speaking then, the terrain you will mostly be traversing will dictate, to some extent at least, the type of fork you should be looking at. If you are a dirt or gravel bike rider, then it may be worth your while investing in a custom-made steel fork setup for your bike.

TIP: If you are into adventure bike-packing, then a steel fork might be the better option for you too. Steel forks allow you to braze or weld brackets onto (or even fit clamps onto) for you to secure your bags and packages. Here is a helpful guide I wrote on how to secure your belongings on a bike rack.

Carbon Fiber: The New Wonder Material For Bikes

Actually not so new since it has been commercially viable to make bicycle frames, forks, headsets, seat posts, bottle cages, and just about every other component or accessory you can think of since the early 1990s.

Carbon fiber is essentially a composite of carbon sheet material that has been bonded together in a mold using a special resin. Manufacturers can, by varying the alignment of the carbon fiber sheets, engineer different levels of stiffness on different parts of the bike, depending on where it is necessary. Carbon forks, for example, should be as pliant but also as strong as possible. Carbon fiber makes this possible.

The first Tour de France team to use carbon fiber frames was Greg LeMond’s AD Renting –Bottecchia team in 1989. Greg went on to win that race and carbon fiber has not looked back since then.

Greg LeMond at the Tour de France in 1989

There is scarcely any metal on a modern Tour de France bicycle apart from the cassette, the chainrings, and the chain, and they’re probably hard at work looking to replace those components with carbon fiber at some point in the very near future!

Why Choose a Carbon Fiber Fork For Your Bike?

It’s simple really; carbon fiber is immensely strong and extremely light and, as we all know, bike riders are weight weenies who would sell their grannies if it would guarantee a reduction of 10 grams from their bikes! At a given stiffness, carbon fiber is significantly lighter than a steel (or indeed aluminum) fork would need to be.

Lower weight usually translates to lower density. While steel forks do a great job of dampening vibrations and harshness from the road surface to your hands and wrists, carbon fiber accomplishes this effect by not actually absorbing the road buzz in the first place because there is insufficient material mass to effectively transmit the vibrations from the road surface.

Carbon fiber, because it is a molded material, can be formed into shapes that are just not possible when using other materials and certainly not when using steel which is usually tubular in construction.

FAQs about Steel vs Carbon Bikes

Are carbon bikes easily damaged?

Ans – There is no doubt that carbon fibre is an incredibly durable material, but it can still be damaged by heavy impacts such as crashes, falling over a bike or even being crushed by a roof rack. This is another reason why carbon fibre is not an ideal material for performance bikes.

Can carbon bikes last long?

Ans – When cared for well, and if they don’t get knocks that could break the structure or leave them vulnerable, Carbon Fiber frames should last a lifetime. You can extend the life of a carbon fiber frame by not dropping it, keeping it clean, and not overtightening bolts.

Is carbon fiber stronger than steel?

The strength and stiffness of carbon fiber are five times greater than those of steel. In addition to being stronger and stiffer than steel, carbon fiber is also lighter than steel, making it an ideal material for manufacturing many parts. These are just a few prime reasons why engineers and designers prefer carbon fiber to manufacture products.

Which Fork is Best For Your Bike: Steel or Carbon Bike?

Choosing the right material for your bike fork really depends on what your needs are.

Carbon fiber forks are fitted to most road bikes these days because the riders of these types of bikes are going to spend the majority of their time riding on smooth tarmac. There is a need for stiffness and lightness and less of a requirement for flexibility and compliance.

On the other hand, it may be worth investing in a good set of custom-made steel forks if you are an adventure bike packer or a gravel bike rider.

Your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders can thank me later.

Share me if you found me helpful!