Cast back a couple of decades and lightweight aluminium – or more precisely, aluminium alloy – was the pinnacle of road bike frame technology, replacing steel as the material of choice for riders in the pro peloton.
However the advent of carbon fibre, with its improved stiffness to weight ratio and limitless design possibilities, largely pushed alloy aside in the top ranks of the sport, and it’s a long time since a WorldTour race was won on anything other than carbon.
Why should I choose an aluminium road bike, and which one is best for me?
- Vitus Razor Road Bike (Claris) 2020: Entry-level road bike that punches well above its weight.
- Fuji Sportif 2.3 Road Bike 2020: Relaxed and reliable partner for dawn to dusk adventure.
- Cube Attain Road Bike (2020): German frame expertise in a great value rim brake package.
- Vitus Razor VR Disc Road Bike (Sora) 2020: All-weather workhorse with the looks of a thoroughbred.
- Cube Attain Race Road Bike 2020: Another great option with the added benefit of disc brakes.
- Cube Attain SL Road Bike 2020: Pitch-perfect harmony of value and technology.
- Ridley Helium SLA Disc 105 Mix Road Bike: Metallic masterpiece from Belgium’s premium bike marque.
Nonetheless, despite aluminium’s swansong being played many times the material is far from obsolete. Whatever about the pro peloton, many would argue that at the enthusiast level (and especially a particular price point) a high-end aluminium frame is a better option than bog-standard carbon.
The properties that initially made aluminium a great material to work with for frame designers – low weight, ease of manipulation and relatively low cost – remain unchanged, and alloy’s reputation as offering a harsh ride feel compared to carbon has long been dispelled (and is largely moot anyway in these days of disc brakes and cushioning, high-volume tyres).
Indeed, many of the world’s biggest bike builders have quietly championed alloy, continuing to design and produce highly refined, great riding frames that challenge all but the very best carbon constructions. We say aluminium still has plenty of life left in it, despite the rise of cheaper, off-the-peg carbon. For entry-level and mid-range bikes, using an aluminium frame generally allows for the specification of better quality components (e.g. a higher-spec groupset and lightweight wheels) meaning that pound-for-pound, you’re getting more bike for your buck.
Meanwhile for those racing on a budget, the stiffness, power transfer and sharp handling offered by the best alloy frames give privateer racers a great way to be competitive in their local crit league, without breaking the bank.
The Razor is the entry-level model in Vitus’ range of road bikes, but punches well above its weight (and low price) in many crucial respects, not least of them aesthetics. Boasting a stealth black paintjob and smart tan-wall tyres, the Razor looks as sharp as it sounds.
Underneath that slick paint is a frameset made from 6061-T6 aluminium alloy, double-butted in all the right places. For those of us without a degree in materials engineering, 6061 is one of two types of aluminium alloy widely used in the manufacture of bike frames (the other being 7005) and consists of aluminium, magnesium and silicone; while T-6 refers to the degree to which it has been hardened (tempered).
Finally, ‘butting’ is a process where manufacturers employ different wall thicknesses along the length of a tube – a double-butted tube, as in the case of this Vitus Razor, will feature thicker tube walls close to the weld joints for maximum strength, and thinner in the middle to save weight.
In short, despite this being an entry-level bike, there is a lot of thought and technology gone into the frame, resulting in a lightweight and lively ride that’s more than up to any challenge you can throw its way. On drivetrain duty is Shimano’s entry level Claris groupset (with 2×8 gearing).
This is missing the closer-spaced gearing options of the Japanese company’s higher tier offerings but with a 34×28 low gear and 50×11 high gear provides a range wide enough to tackle steep hills and fast flats. Rounded out with Tektro caliper brakes, a lightweight carbon fork and high-volume 28mm tyres, the Vitus Razor is more than enough to get you started on your road cycling journey.
As the name suggests, the Fuji Sportif 2.3 is aimed less at the amateur racer than at the long-distance cruiser, this being a sister model to the brand’s long-running Gran Fondo range.
As might be expected from an endurance-optimised bike at this price point, the Fuji Sportif 2.3 is built around an A2-SL alloy frame with a relatively relaxed geometry (note the head tube length), making it particularly suitable for those of us who benefit from a more upright riding position, or for long days in the saddle where a racier ride might lead to lower back pain.
With a history dating back over 120 years, Fuji know a thing or two about making quality bikes, and the Sportif is no exception. We are particularly taken with the rich red colour of the frame, which features useful rack and mudguard mounts enabling dual use as a long-distance tourer or even light bikepacker.
Gearing is provided by Shimano’s 2×8 Claris groupset, with a low gear of 34×34 of particular note – faced with the steepest of gradients, this is one bike that will not falter. The Sportif’s suitability for long days, rough roads and even a little unpaved adventure is underpinned by the 30mm tyres specced as stock. Looking for a reliable partner for comfortable, dawn to dusk adventure? Look no further than the Fuji Sportif 2.3.
German bike giants Cube have built a reputation not only for cutting-edge technology honed in the heat of pro racing, but also for using their size and scale to deliver great value bikes to riders at the other end of the spectrum. Their entry-level Attain range – also available in a women’s-specific version under the model name Axial – is no exception, and continues Cube’s tradition of making high-spec, great performing bikes available to riders at a competitive price point.
Sitting at the bottom of their model hierarchy, this Attain is their rim brake version, which forgoes the disc brakes available at higher price points for more traditional caliper brakes. We say that’s not necessarily a bad thing – at the lower end of the market disc brakes tend to come with compromises (the key ones being added weight and lower-spec components in other areas), while their continued use by many pro bike racers indicate that rim brakes are far from obsolete.
We think that if you are looking for a great looking road bike built around a quality aluminium frame (again 6061-T6 alloy, in this instance described by Cube as ‘SuperLite’) and featuring a full carbon fork and Shimano groupset, the Attain deserves close examination.
With the same eye catching looks as its rim-brake brother (what is about the combination of black rims and tan wall tyres?) the Vitus Razor VR Disc steps things up a gear with key componentry upgrades and – as the name indicates – disc brakes.
While the 6061-T6 aluminium frame may look similar, the step up to discs requires some fundamental design amends (not least the addition of disc brake mounts and through) and in this instance the Razor VR’s design team have taken the opportunity to also route cables internally, making for a clean silhouette which adds to the bike’s premium feel.
Gearing comes courtesy of Shimano’s 2×9 Sora drivetrain, which has benefited greatly from trickle-down technology in recent years and now offers the looks and performance of a much more expensive drivetrain, if a little overall weight penalty.
But of course the standout component here is the addiction of disc brakes, in this instance cable-actuated models from Tektro. Removing the braking surface from the wheel rim results in more reliable wet-weather stopping, making the Vitus Razor VR perfect for year-round riding, long-distance sportives or even commuting duties (helped by comfy, high-volume 28mm tyres that tackle potholes without pause). A workhorse for all weathers, with the looks of a thoroughbred.
We’ve previously sung the praises of the Cube Attain/Axial range as a high-value option for budget-conscious riders, and the Attain Race continues the theme. This model features a similar 6061-T6 double-butted aluminium frame as its entry-level sibling, with a geometry that finely balances all-day comfort and heart-racing handling.
This bike has earned a wide fanbase among riders that don’t necessarily want to race, but at the same time like to push the envelope a little on sportive descents or high-tempo group rides – you’ll likely hit your own limits long before the Cube Attain Race holds you back.
The key upgrade in this model is to disk brakes, as well as the higher-volume tyres that removal of the brake bridge enables. In the case of the former we find TRP’s Spyre calipers – cable discs yes, but widely regarded as the best of their type.
Meanwhile Cube’s handsome RA 0.8 Aero Disc wheelset is wrapped by a quality pair of Continental Ultra Sport 2 28mm tyres, making for a fast-rolling package robust enough to cope with rough roads. The Attain Race also benefits from Shimano’s 2×10 Tiagra groupset, again the long-term beneficiary of a cascade of technological refinements and arguably the best bang-for-buck drivetrain in the sub-£1000 bike bracket.
The third in our trio of alloy Attains to make the shortlist, for our money the Cube Attain SL offers the most attractive package of all, blending high specifications and premium performance at a price point where carbon struggles to compete.
In this instance we are looking at a stunningly refined 6061-T6 frameset, optimised to shed weight in key areas (the SL designation referring to ‘superlight’) while still offering a high level of rider comfort through touches such as a tapered head tube and in the words of Cube, a ‘cross-ovalised down tube’. You might struggle to explain that one to your mates on the coffee stop but the long and the short of it is that the level of engineering expertise gone into the Attain SL’s aluminium frameset far outstrips that of a typical carbon frame found at this budget.
Of course, a frameset this quality needs a component choice that does it justice and it’s here that we think Cube have excelled, speccing an 11-speed Shimano 105 drivetrain complete with hydraulic disc brakes. While 105 isn’t Shimano’s top tier drivetrain it’s the level at which many enthusiast riders – and even some pros – begin to seriously question if they need any more, delivering performance and reliability at a ‘sweet spot’ price.
And speaking of sweet, hydraulic disc brakes are the icing on the cake for the Cube Attain Sl, ensuring reliable, no-questions-asked stopping power at your fingertips – whatever the weather. As a textbook example of harmony between technology and price, the Cube Attain SL is hard to better.
Belgium’s Ridley has a storied history as an independent bike maker and indeed today is one of the most venerated marques in the pro peloton, producing high-quality frames that regularly feature on podiums from the Spring Classics to the Grand Tours.
With such a strong racing pedigree, Ridley’s focus tends more toward the higher end of the market so the brand can sometimes seem a little out of reach for cycling newcomers. A notable exception is this beautiful Ridley Helium SLA Disc, which shares the geometry and climbing-focused character of its carbon cousins (Helium = light weight, get it?) but by featuring an aluminium frameset comes in at a fraction of the cost.
And if we may stop to admire it for a moment – what a frameset. This is what decades of refinement by the most obsessive framebuilders in the business culminates in, a triple-butted masterpiece that blends 6061 and 6066 aluminium to add material where it is most needed, and remove every gram where it doesn’t serve a purpose.
We’ve also long been fans of Ridley’s aesthetic approach and this simple silver and black colourway offers a subliminal message – nothing extra; nothing added; everything that is necessary and not a molecule more. Or maybe we’re reading too much into it…
Either way, this is a head-turner and race-winner at a price where most carbon framesets haven’t made it out of the mould, married to a Shimano 105 groupset (featuring hydro disc brakes) and fast-rolling Fulcrum hoops. What reason is there not to own one?