Opinion: The Case For Titanium Bikes

Why modern hardtails, gravel bikes and bikepacking rigs have resurrected this legendary material

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The ability to invest in one bike to cover a broad range of uses is why more mountain bikers should consider titanium. Photo by Sean Burke

The ability to invest in one bike to cover a broad range of uses is why more mountain bikers should consider titanium. Photo by Sean Burke

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Sage Bicycles

Looking for a new bike is not getting any less complicated these days. Every year there’s a new portmanteau or category that promises to combine your favorite bikes into one “quiver killer”, or just do one thing slightly better than it has ever been done before. But what if we looked at bikes not so much for their ability to be on-trend as to defy trends. As a product tester, I get to ride dozens of mountain bikes each year. But when I actually pay for them, I tend to look at bikes a bit differently. If my wallet is coming out, I look for a bike that I am going to enjoy riding for a long time. I seek to build one machine that combines all the characteristics I like from the best bikes I’ve tested. One that won’t be reduced to a functionless heap if, or when, I lay it down a few (dozen) times on a trip to Moab. The ability to invest in one bike to cover a broad range of uses, that will last for years to come, is why I think more mountain bikers should consider titanium.

Gravel, bikepacking, and modern hardtails have pushed titanium back into the spotlight. Photo by Sean Burke

Gravel, bikepacking, and modern hardtails have pushed titanium back into the spotlight. Photo by Sean Burke

Up until recently, I wouldn’t have started a bike build with the question of “What material do I want?” Now, I absolutely do. In recent years, hardtails, gravel bikes, and bikepacking trips have been the things that have excited me most. There’s a strong case for titanium frames in each of these categories. The robustness, ride quality, and wide range of custom options from builders such as Sage, Moots, and Mosaic has spurred a renaissance in titanium construction as more riders invest in bikes that will stand the test of time and trends.

Related: Sage Bicycles Powerline Trail 29er Review

The most common argument I hear for titanium is durability and ride quality. Ti bikes can shrug off hits that would send a carbon frame to the warranty department or the dumpster. Even if you get a warranty replacement, the chances are you’re going to be bikeless for a few months and have to spend a lot of time or money on building up your replacement frame. I travel a lot for stories and for fun, and really value a bike I can throw in a box in fifteen minutes and rebuild outside an airport halfway around the world without having to inspect it with a magnifying glass.

As long, slack hardtails become more popular, more riders are embracing Ti for its lightweight and durability. Photo by Sean Burke

As long, slack hardtails become more popular, more riders are embracing Ti for its lightweight and durability. Photo by Sean Burke

Of course, you could go with steel or aluminum if you just wanted a durable bike, and both have had their moment as custom or mass-market frame materials. Steel allows for a classic look, but it tends to be a fair bit heavier than titanium and when you’re shelling out the big bucks for a frame that you’re going to keep for years, it’s nice to have one that doesn’t feel like a boat anchor uphill. Aluminum makes for a great value hardtail frame, but the nature of the material means that it’s hard for custom builders to get the best out of it and while aluminum might yield a light and stiff frame the ride can be jarring. Titanium offers a uniquely comfortable ride feel, the durability of steel, and if done right it can weigh only a little more than a carbon frame.

The raw, understated look of a quality titanium frame is hard to beat. Photo by Sean Burke

The raw, understated look of a quality titanium frame is hard to beat. Photo by Sean Burke

Unlike the (admittedly beautiful) custom-painted steel bikes we see at NAHBS every year, titanium bikes are mostly left without paint. This means that the more you ride your bike, the better it looks. Buy yourself a fancy carbon hardtail, and you’ll find exactly the opposite is true. Indeed, it is possible to refinish your titanium bike at home. Oregon based builder Sage Titanium even offers new decals so that riders can refinish their bike and refresh or rethink their colored accents if they wish. For just the cost of a new set of decals and grips, you have a new looking bike. Throw in a new fork or groupset, and you get that new bike day feeling but with the same predictable and bombproof frame you have loved for years.

Of course, Sage will refinish your bike for you if you would prefer not to do it yourself, that is just one of the many advantages of working with a small frame builder. Like bikepacking? They will put mounts on your frame so you can use a bolted bag and avoid knee-rubbing straps. Never want to lube or replace a chain again? They can build you a belt-drive bike, or one with polydrops if you want to go between single speed and geared set-ups. You can get a custom finish, or custom geometry if you like. You’ll also be able to develop a relationship with the person who builds your bike, and it really will be your bike. Nothing sucks more than spending a small fortune on a dream bike only to see two more just like it at the trailhead.

Titanium shrugs off wear and tear as no other material can. Photo by Sean Burke

Titanium shrugs off wear and tear as no other material can. Photo by Sean Burke

It is possible to buy titanium frames cheaply online, but you’ll miss out on all those custom touches and you won’t have a chance to inspect the quality of the welds before you lay down your cash. Not only that, but working with a local frame builder means buying one bike that will last longer, be shipped a shorter distance, and not end up in a landfill in a few years. It’s a considerably more sustainable option with a much shorter supply-chain than carbon or imported frames.

Buying a forever bike means sticking with a forever geometry. This is where an experienced frame builder can help, by talking through where you ride, your riding style, size, and goals, they can help you pick out a frame geometry that is perfectly suited to you and that you’ll enjoy riding so much you won’t want to try the latest trend every other year. Titanium builders are not constrained by the massive sunk costs of making molds that constrain carbon frames to one geometry for several product years. This means that brands like Sage—who offers three different hardtails—have a perfect bike for almost anyone even though they are by no means a mass production outfit. If they don’t have one in their line, give them a call and they’ll make you one that suits your tastes.

In an age of disposable bikes, titanium stands out for its ability to go the distance. Photo by Sean Burke

In an age of disposable bikes, titanium stands out for its ability to go the distance. Photo by Sean Burke

I rode titanium bikes across Mexico, around Rwanda, and all over my local trail network last year. At nearly every trailhead, people asked me questions about my bike, and they kept doing so all year. That doesn’t happen on even the latest carbon hardtail, the buzz goes away once something new from another brand drops a month after your bike is released. I’m not alone in this assumption either, indeed I think the majority of my bike industry friends own titanium bikes. When you get to ride a lot of bikes, you get to know what you like, and when you know what you like you want to have it forever, and that’s when a titanium bike is for you.

Want to learn more about the versatility of titanium? Check out Sagetitanium.com for more information. 


About the author: Mtbr

Mtbr.com is a site by mountain bikers for mountain bikers. We are the best online resource for information for mountain bikers of all abilities, ages and interests.


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Comments:

  • Tim says:

    There was a case for titanium twenty or more years ago. Now, a good carbon frame beats titanium in impact resistance, repairability, weight, ease of shaping tubes into desired forms- all while being cheaper than titanium. If it weren’t for the absence of custom carbon frames, the only reasons to buy titanium would be looks and nostalgia.

    • Arn Saknussen says:

      You must never have owned and ridden a high quality Ti frame, otherwise you would KNOW, from EXPERIENCE, that high quality / well designed Ti frame bikes ride like nothing else in terms of compliance. For a hardtail, nothing can match this unique characteristic, and for long distance rides, you are noticeably less fatigued after the ride. Carbon hardtails are awful in terms of comfort, and aluminum is even worse. Ti frames are ‘thee’ best choice for anyone who likes to ride hardtails and whose average ride is no less than 5 hours long. The only bike frame material which I will never see myself buying ever again would be Aluminum. But I currently own two Evils, a steel city bike, and a fully custom made Ti hardtail made by Black Sheep Cycles. Any time I plan to do an all day ride [ 6 to 10 hours of long distance riding], I don’t even consider using anything but the Ti hardtail. ..Maybe try one for yourself and then see if you still have such a staunch opinion on Ti. And mind you, I am not referring to low end Ti frames…which usually don’t ride any different than aluminum. The high end Ti frames built by people who KNOW how to take full advantage of the metal, build frames that are phenomenally comfortable to ride over long distance.

      • Tim says:

        I owned a Litespeed Obed ti frame in the early 2000s, and have ridden my brother’s Clark-Kent F14. Both were comfortable, with the Clark-Kent being the better of the two, but it was not a mind-bending experience compared to the steel hardtails I owned before and after the Litespeed.

      • froze says:

        Arn Saknussen, your comments were really good till you said: “And mind you, I am not referring to low end Ti frames…which usually don’t ride any different than aluminum.” That comment was pure BS! Having owned a aluminum bike, and having rode a friends bike who had the cheapest Titanium bike on the market from Motobecane, there is a day and night difference; that “cheap” ti bike so impressed me I bought a Lynskey Peloton, the cheapest TI bike they made at the time, after I got a better price that made it cheaper then the cheapest Litespeed, which I also rode, again no comparison to an aluminum frame. Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean anything beneath what you would buy is junk.

        For the rest of you reading this, don’t get scared by thinking you can’t afford a ti bike because you have to spend $5,000 or more to get something good, that’s pure nonsense, find a low cost Lynskey or Litespeed; I didn’t buy a Motobecane because just in case I want to sell it the Motobecane does not have brand recognition.

        The Lynskey that I have even beats all my steel bikes in comfort! and aluminum can’t touch steel not alone titanium.

  • Sevo says:

    Titanium’s ride qualities just simply can’t be touched and the durability is beyond carbon despite the claim in the comment above.

    Every time I thought titanium was done, I’d ride a ti frame again and remember why it’s so beautiful. Nothing better for a forever bike if you’re gonna spend the money.

    • Tim says:

      Have you seen the video on Pinkbike of people taking hammers and dropping heavy steel weights onto carbon without it breaking? I know, that’s impact resistance, but fatigue is just a series of impacts. As for ride quality, there’s a lot of variation in frames of any material. A lot of modern ti frames use chainstay yokes, which reduce the flex of the frame- and are heavier. Carbon can be more easily shaped and manipulated, allowing you to get better ride quality.

      • Nero1k says:

        Have you seen what a carbon frame looks like after you’ve dropped the chain between the smallest cog on your cassette and and the dropout whilst pedaling your ass off? Or when a rock strikes the molded edge of the carbon where the threaded aluminum insert was molded in to the bottom bracket shell? Or noticing that your paint is cracked because the carbon resin begins to distort and lift after years of sun and UV exposure? All 3 of these oddity issues occurred on the same carbon frame, and it’s only 4 years old, and made by a premium boutique brand. My eeWings cranks have taken numerous pedal strikes with rocks over the past couple years, and all I have to do to erase the evidence is rub the arms with a red scotch bite pad for a minute and they look good as new. It’s not even a contest between the two materials as far as durability is concerned, just a factor of cost and personal preference.

      • Brad says:

        Tim, Tim Tim, litte Timmy, you’re making an arese of yourself. You don’t like Titanium bikes far enough. However stop trying to convince the rest who own Titanium bikes that the choice is invalid because little Timmy loves cheap Chinese moulded carbon crap pooped from a mould and filled with voids and body filler. Really we’re not interested in your view because we’ve all owned or on carbon bikes as well and know why we’ve bought and love to ride our Titanium bike. I’ll take my Ti hartail over a stell or carbon version every day, hence sold them. The Litespeed Vortex hanging in the garage is still raced after 18years of ownership and probably 3 decals changes. Yes its not as lightning snappy as my Look 795 but its a great stage race bike and when I zipp down to the coffee shop it gets more looks, strokes and pick up (you know to feel the weight) than the Giants and Specializeds parked next to it. So little Timmy my boy, put your carbon frame in your pipe and smoke it because I’m ordering myself a new custom made Ti frame with hydro-formed 3AL2.5V and 6AL4V tubes, BB386evo, space for 30mm tyres and disc brakes and no chain-stay yokes. Why? because it doesn’t need chain-stay yokes. Your knowledge of the Ti frame builders knowledge and expertise tells me you’re a recent joiner to this wonderful sport of ours. Better to listen and learn rather than speak a lot of nonsense.

        • Tim says:

          @Brad. Several things.
          -I’ve been riding on and off road since 1994.
          -I don’t own a carbon bike, and am not an apostle of carbon.
          -I have four years of experience riding a Litespeed ti hardtail. I didn’t find it particularly compelling in terms of ride quality, weight or certainly price compared to the bikes that came before or after it, which were both steel.
          -I agree that ti rides smoothly, but at this point so do a lot of carbon frames, which also offer lower weight, lower price and better impact resistance (although, as someone pointed out, carbon has the disadvantage that it can fail catastrophically without any external cracks appearing).
          -I’m glad you’re happy with your ti frame. I agree they look amazing and last a long time, the last thing being their main benefit.

      • Major Glory says:

        I worked with materials science in aerospace with carbon, steel, and titanium for a few years, studied in college as well, and I don’t think you understand strength of materials concepts and the science behind it. Generally speaking, titanium has proven significantly stronger than carbon over time. Again, you have some valid points and are entitled to your preferences on ride quality and flexibility of design with carbon fiber, but you can’t credibly say it is stronger because you saw a video on Pinkbike.

  • Rusty says:

    I have ti water bottle cages they work great and have not become obsolete. I don’t see many ti frames from 10 years ago on the trails. Seems like the geometry, hub sizes, and steer tubes from bikes a couple years ago won’t work today all obsolete. Ti durability is great but do you need it to go ride Ashland dh, Moab, or Santa Cruz?

  • Rob says:

    I have owned 6 Ti bikes over the years, and currently have a Ti soft tail 29er and a Ti custom gravel bike. I love both, and will always own a Ti bike. The gravel bike rides like a dream as a normal frame without all the accoutrements of say a Diverge or Crockett.
    I recently thought maybe I should go carbon, and a couple friends who own shops commented, “why would you ever change from custom Ti to carbon”.

    I recently purchased a Trek Domane SLR instead of a custom Ti bike. Saved about a 1/3 to a half in frame price, but after a year I am thinking I should have bit the bullet and gone Ti.

    To each his/her own, but if your looking at a relatively high end hard tail, road or gravel bike Ti should certainly be in the mix.

    • David says:

      I have been looking at buying Lynskey Ridgeline 29er. I am curious what 29eer you have. My wife and I rode 11,000 kilometers down the Andes last year and there were 4 riders on Ti bikes. They loved them. Our carbon hard tails did the job more than adequately, but mine is looking a bit tired after now reaching 17,000 kilometers.

  • B rad says:

    Man it is so annoying when people talk about “investing” in a bicycle. No one does that, you buy it, use it and it depreciates. That’s just a word you tell yourself to make you feel like less of a prick for spending too much on a bike.

    And yes, there are a shitton of things worse than seeing your same frame at the trailhead. Buy what makes you happy.

  • Gunner says:

    My preference is titanium for ride quality and durability primarily. Carbon ages quickly and looks bad like plastic. It feels like riding on plastic; because it is plastic.

  • Lamar says:

    Carbon can appear to take an impact without damage. The truth is that a carbon frame can be severely damaged and appear undamaged. An impact to the outside of a tube can cause delamination on the inside. You are now setup for a failure without warning.

    Metal frames show signs of stress which provides a warning of impending failure without the need of an expensive examination.

    I had a carbon road bike and I had knee pain on rides longer than about 40 miles. I purchased a Ti bike and I’ve gone on rides over 80 miles without knee pain. I attribute the positive to the improved vibration damping of the Ti frame.

  • JtotheC says:

    “Have you seen the videos of carbon not being broken?” Really? That’s the pitch?

    Welds > molds all day long. I was not really a titanium fan until my good friend started getting custom titanium frames made. And what made the difference? He had them coated, and they look amazing.

  • David says:

    @Rob I have been looking at buying Lynskey Ridgeline 29er. I am curious what 29eer you have. My wife and I rode 11,000 kilometers down the Andes last year and there were 4 riders on Ti bikes. They loved them. Our carbon hard tails did the job more than adequately, but mine is looking a bit tired after now reaching 17,000 kilometers.

  • Jason West says:

    But they are expensive. That fact seems to be glossed over. A custom TI frame, fugettabouit…

  • Bill Wildenberg says:

    In my opinion, carbon needs a “grading system”. Right now, if you bought a steel or Ti bike, you would know the type or grade of metal used to produce the bike. When you buy a carbon bike, there is no mention if you bought the cheapest grade carbon or something with unique properties. I will be interested in a carbon bike once I know what I would be paying for…

  • Chris says:

    You can make a carbon frame as compliant as you want, just look at the new Scalpel. I get the ride quality of Ti, but carbon can have excellent ride quality as well, and has much more opportunity to be tuned.

    And I don’t find the longevity of ti to be anything desirable. With all the changing standards, improvements, and geometry. It’s just not a selling point. And this is across all large disciplines of cycling. A 10 year old bike in (road, mtb, cross, gravel??, tri) is extremely dated.

    I’m not saying Ti is bad at all, but if we factor in all the different aspects of all the materials, with impact resistance, cost, weight, etc. Ti is not heads above the others. It’s likely not even the top material.

  • James kavalec says:

    Never owned Ti bike.
    Have and currently own steel.
    1920 iver johnson/Indy fab/Merckx/Gunnar
    Still have and ride the iver johnson and gunner.
    Wanted to try carbon-bought new stigmata.
    After spending the money and riding the bike would have rather bought custom steel or ti.
    Stigmata rides nice-doesn’t feel the same
    Looking into buying steel/ti to replace the stigmata

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