By Kevin Kolodziejski
I don’t practice Santeria. I ain’t got no crystal ball. So don’t expect a definitive answer to the question posed in the title. Do expect, though, to keep finding references to mostly lame song lyrics designed to make you roll your eyes yet also smile. But that’s not because we at RBR are living on a prayer that this article will interest you, oh no. We know it will for sure for one simple reason: When it comes to choices in bike frame materials, there’s a new kid in town.
Magnesium Alloy Makes a Comeback
But magnesium alloy only seems like the new kid in town. Actually, he’s lived here before and been a neighbor of some note. In the 1980s, Kirk Precision in the United Kingdom produced magnesium frames, and a few were even used in the Tour de France.
About 20 years later, Pinarello’s experimentation with the metal led to the Dogma, the bike Oscar Pereiro rode to win the 2006 TdF. So why’d the Italian company move away from making magnesium alloy fames? Maybe one of their execs did indeed practice Santeria or possess a crystal ball. While the Dogma name remained, the frame became carbon fiber, the material that to this day reigns supreme in the pro peloton.
Could that reign be coming to an end? I don’t know. I’m just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit. What I do know, though, are many good reasons to make bike frames of magnesium alloy.
Magnesium Alloy Is Light
According to Keith Knapp, Direct to Customer liaison at VAAST Bikes, VAAST is the only company currently producing magnesium frames “at scale,” so we’ll use their info for comparison’s sake. The magnesium alloy frames they produce are 75 percent lighter than those typically made of steel, 50 percent lighter than those typically made of titanium, and 33 percent lighter than those typically made of aluminum. And, Meatloaf, that varsity tackle and a helluva block, thought two out of three ain’t bad. In addition, the weight of magnesium alloy frames rival those bat-out-of-hell ones made of carbon fiber.
Magnesium Alloy Is Strong
As we all know, a bike frame constructed of steel is strong. In fact, in an article for Off-road.cc, Benedict Pfender goes so far to call it “incredibly strong.” A magnesium alloy bike frame, however, is 17 percent stronger than standard steel, 21 percent stronger than conventional aluminum, and 56 percent stronger than typical titanium.
Magnesium Alloy Creates a ‘Smoother and More Compliant Ride’
“Smoother and more compliant” are the words VAAST Bikes General Manager Morten Kristiansen uses in an interview with Stan’s No Tubes to compare their bikes made with magnesium alloy frames to ones that aren’t. While any such observation is based on sensation, Kristiansen’s clearly is— as Boston’s most famous and most obnoxious song states — more than a feeling.
Damping capacity, the ability to decrease the loss of forward energy in the bike because of resistance from road friction, leads to a smoother and more compliant ride. Magnesium has the highest known damping capacity of any structural metal, including steel, titanium — and certainly aluminum. In other words and also paradoxically, magnesium alloy creates the sort of exuberance alluded to in Boston’s song by actually generating less feeling — less feeling of the bumps in the road.
If all this talk of damping capacity has you feeling like Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” I understand. Writing such stuff is just my job, five days a week. But something else Kristiansen shared in the Stan’s No Tubes interview helped me a bunch. The more complex an atom is shaped, the more energy it absorbs. The atomic shape of aluminum is square; the atomic shape of magnesium is hexagonical. So when it comes to atoms, Huey Lewis and the News is wrong, it’s not hip to be square. What else is wrong is when an aluminum bike suddenly buckles because of a minor mishap months ago.
Magnesium Alloy Eliminates Fatigue Failure
Whereas a carbon fiber frame is more likely to fracture when crashed, an aluminum frame tends to nick or dent. Over time, these nicks and dents can lead to fatigue failure in the form of buckles and cracks. If you’re following the current trend and doing more riding on gravel roads, you’re probably crashing less but punishing your bike more. Magnesium is “inherently durable.” VAAST’s bike frames are 91 percent magnesium, 8 percent aluminum, and 1 percent rare-earth metals. They also won’t corrode.
Magnesium Alloy No Longer Corrodes
While corrosion was a drawback in prior attempts to use magnesium alloy, that’s no longer the case. As VAAST Bikes explains in the FAQ section of their website, new magnesium surface treatment technologies “have completely resolved the issue,” so well that manufacturers of magnesium car wheels now offer warranties of “up to 10 years.” In fact, in the 2014-2015 model year, 60 percent of Porsche 918 Spyder buyers selected the forged magnesium wheels package.
Magnesium Alloy Is Environmentally Friendly
VAAST also explains the Earth holds “unlimited reserves” of magnesium, it’s the “most eco-friendly and sustainable metal in the world,” and that they use it in part because it “dissolves naturally leaving no trace” on the environment.
Unlike carbon fiber.
While carbon fiber now can be recycled, there’s a really good chance that a frame made of it and cracked beyond repair isn’t. To do so requires more energy than recycling steel and, according to the folks at RecycleNation, “it ain’t cheap.” So VAAST Bikes General Manager Morten Kristiansen is probably spot-on when he tells Stan’s No Tubes, “Most carbon fiber bikes today will end up in a landfill somewhere.”
Magnesium Alloy Is More Than Affordable
If you care more about greenbacks than Greenpeace, there’s an equally compelling reason to consider buying a magnesium alloy bike frame. VAAST Bikes sells the model that would most interest roadies, the A/1 Allroad, available with options like Shimano GRX or SRAM Apex and Rival and both 650b and 700c options, starting out as low as $2,199. Some frame sizes are currently sold out if you try to buy direct, an indication that VAAST’s future’s so bright they gotta wear shades. If you have an authorized dealer of Nine and Batch Bikes in your area, though, you might find one in another size — those dealers have the ability to also carry VAAST bikes.
One Final Thought
I did not know any company was mass-producing magnesium alloy frames until the publisher of this publication told me about VAAST Bikes, having seen their booth at an Interbike show a few years back. So the original intent was to inform you there was another viable bike frame material and provide information about it.
But something happened in the midst of all the research.
While I wasn’t shaking at the knees or caterwauling like AC/DC’s lead singer, I was — as the ear-piercing song goes — thunderstruck, and I couldn’t get one thought from my head.
Magnesium alloy bike frames may very well be bicycling’s next big thing.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
Say YES to Magnesium.! My decade-long quest to find a Pinarello Dogma AK61 in my size (57) finally ended last year when one turned up in the used market and I snapped it up. All reports about this magesium beauty had me lusting for one of my own, but could never get my hands on one. The ride is unmistakeably unique: of course I expected ‘refined and balanced’ as any high-end bike ought to be, but this puppy sprints and corners like a Formula 1 car, and is an all-day rider in great comfort like almost no other (equal to Pegoretti Responsorium, stainless steel, which rolls like velvet ). I won’t go on and on, but suffice to say that my expectations were exceeded. In short, I love this bike, and it will be a keeper in my little ‘harem’ for a long time.. (I should add that I have over 30 fabulous bikes..)
I suspect that Pinarello stopped production of these because they are somewhat labor intensive, and at the time, their crystal ball people told them that carbon will rule the bike world, and it seems they were right, sadly. I have some wonderful ‘plastic’ bikes, (Colnago, Parlee, etc) but they are collecting cobwebs in favor of their metal cousins. Each has a ‘particular ride signature’, and when a builder has individually poured his sweat, blood, and years of experience into my one frame, it also adds a certain magic to the riding expereince. Of course that would be nothing if it weren’t a great perfoming machine, and I just find the carbon bikes to be rather boring.. Titanium, steel, and aluminum each have their unique qualities, and when carefully and lovingly made by a first-rate builder, the bike can be perfection, like a Stradivarius violin to a musician.
I too had come across VAAST a few years back and am very intersted in their product which I will certainly explore someday very soon. It is wonderful to see so many top-rank custom frame makers in the world primarily working in steel or titanium, creating metal magic with these 8 tubes (as Pegoeretti called it) that form a bicycle. The likes of Baum, Crisp, Eriksen, White, Barchek, No.22, Strong, ..gee the list will be very long.! I truly hope that more fame builders will explore magnesium as a tubing material. Based on my Dogma Mag, they wil be rewarded with a wonderfully responsive and unique bicycle.
Frederick Yu says
You might look into what happened at Paketa Bicycles, a magnesium frame mfr that, I believe, is now out of business. I have had a couple of friends who bought their magnesium frames bikes about ten years ago, and found that the frames cracked, and then were not repairable,
Ya, Frederick – that was not likely a case of the tubing material so much as a manufacturing issue. Consider how many aluminum frames have cracked due to thin-walled tubing, weld fatigue, etc .. I wouldn’t discount a material based on one maker’s QC lapses. Remember when all those bottom brackets failed on the early Cervelo R series bikes? Not the carbon’s fault there either, but how it was executed.
David Champlin says
“Magnesium alloy eliminates fatigue failure” False.
A lot of things (alloy, processing, surface finish, etc) affect fatigue properties but, generally, magnesium has significantly lower fatigue life than, say, steel at comparable stress levels. Of course, design can address that to some extent (and magnesium’s lower density allows use of more material to reduce stress while keeping weight under control). It is far too simplistic to suggest a material by itself eliminates fatigue. Even carbon fiber can experience fatigue (at relatively very high stress levels)
John Marsh says
I don’t profess to know much about magnesium— other than the fact that my first bat playing Cub Scout baseball ca. 1972 was made of magnesium. Soon thereafter, aluminum became the metal of choice in bats, and remains so to this day.
There is often a fairly profound set of reasons one material or design wins out over the long term. Jim Langley can recite how many times throughout history a belt drive system has been introduced to compete against a metal linked chain, etc., etc.
There is a reason why chains have remained much the same for well over 100 years. They work very well, they are durable, strong, work well with other components, are (generally) reasonably priced, and so on. My guess is there’s a reason my old magnesium bat became a relic by the time I turned 10! (My batting prowess had nothing to do with it!) And that same reason is likely behind why most of us never heard of a magnesium frame until today.
Don McKee says
I have been riding a VAAST for about 2 months now, and I find it an incredibly comfortable gravel bike with a unique ride that is an amazing value for the $2K I spent on it. The frame warranty is 5 years and if it lasts that long it waas money well spent. I know bikes well and own several that sell for $5 – $7K. The VAAST ride is as good and it is way cheaper. Best value for a gravel bike around $2K hands down.