Most bicycle manufacturers these days fit carbon forks to their bikes, whether or not the bike has an aluminum, a steel, or a 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.
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?
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 the prospective cyclist 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.
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.
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 at 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.
Which Fork is Best For Your Bike: Steel or Carbon?
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.