Is Aluminum the New Carbon? The Cannondale CAAD10

Cannondale CAAD10 in Black / Raw Aluminum
Cannondale CAAD10 in Black / Raw Aluminum

The cycling world seems to have gone in two very distinct directions regarding frame material. On the one hand you have the steel frame crowd. These folks are attracted to the durability and feel of a steel bike. Others favoring steel target vintage bikes. And of course we can’t forget our fixed-gear hipster friends. On the other hand you have the carbon fiber crowd. For these folks, weight and frame compliance are often the biggest concerns. Carbon fiber frame manufacturers employ many different techniques to strike a balance between smoothing out the bumps, and providing rigidity to allow for maximum power transfer to the rear wheels.

But what happened to aluminum?

Once the golden child of frame materials for road bikes, aluminum has seen a steady decline as the price of carbon fiber bikes got pushed down into the mid-market levels ($2000-$4000 USD.) This price drop has been driven by a number of factors. Some manufacturers have outsourced some of their lower-end carbon fiber frames to China and other countries with lower production costs. Others have paired low-end component groups with higher end carbon fiber frames to reach that sweet spot in the price range.

However, a number of manufactures have again began investing research and development dollars into aluminum frame offerings. Of the major manufactures, Cannondale currently seems to be the leader in bringing high-end aluminum bikes to market. Cannondale is no stranger to aluminum, having launched the company’s bike line with the TIG welded GT-500 Touring in 1983. The didn’t introduce a full carbon bike until 2006 with the Synapse.

I, like many others, had gravitated towards carbon fiber. I followed the common wisdom that only carbon fiber frames could provide smooth rides without excessive road vibrations while still being stiff enough to sprint and light enough to climb. An unplanned test ride of the latest CAAD 10 completely changed my mind.

My partner and I were out shopping for new bikes. She was unclear what she wanted, while I walked into the shop with my mind made up. I was after a Look 566 – a bike I had owned before and found to be an extremely comfortable and competent all-arounder. Since my partner wasn’t sure what she wanted she had picked out 3 different bikes to test ride. The sales person asked if I wanted to take some bikes out along with her – which I did. On our first test ride I took out a Cannondale SuperSix EVO (SRAM Red if I recall correctly.) For the second test ride, I noticed a Cannondale with Ultegra. It had been a couple of years since I road with Shimano and I selected that bike for a test ride simply for the components. This bike was a CAAD 10.

As soon as I picked it up I was surprised. This bike is light – much lighter than I would have expected an all aluminum frame to be. Cannondale claims this frame at 1150 grams. I did some research afterwards to find out how Cannondale was getting a frame that light. According to their own marketing the frame is made with “SmartForm 6069 Alloy Construction”:

With a frame that weights just 1150 grams, SmartFormed construction used in the CAAD10 relies on the most advanced aluminum manufacturing in the world. A complex mix of hydroforming, mechanical shaping, taper-butting, double-pass smooth welding and heat treating produce a frame that is both lighter and stronger.

DSC00111There are a lot of industry buzz words in there, but the key part is hydroforming. What this means in layman’s terms is that they use hydraulic pressure to form aluminum tubes into complex shapes. This allows them to make aluminum frames that are varied thickness and shapes – just like a carbon fiber frame. Picture the chain stays for example. You take a straight aluminum tube and place it inside a mold with the contoured shape you desire. Then seal it all up and pump hydraulic fluid into the inside of the tube, stretching the material out to match the shape of the mold.

But still I held on to my old thinking. Sure, this frame was light. But it is aluminum after all. I better make sure my dental coverage is in place – never know when I might knock out a filling.

Again I was stunned. Right off the bat I was surprised about how little vibration I felt through the bars. This bike does have carbon fiber forks which help a lot. But the vibrations coming through the pedals and saddle were amazingly minimal. Well, amazing for my expectations at least. In fact, I can recall thinking to myself “If I were blindfolded I’d swear I was riding a carbon fiber bike.” I even found a messed up section of road full of potholes and broken pavement. I attacked that stretch of road. And I attacked it again. There is no question that there is a small amount of the impact from that road that would have been absorbed by a carbon fiber frame designed for comfort – like the Look 566. But as far as ride comfort goes it was a world apart from my early 90’s aluminum Cannondale I use for my beater / daily commuter.

DSC00105That left only one question in my mind – bottom end stiffness. I’ve felt frame flex in the Look 566 when I get up out of the saddle to sprint. So I shifted into a higher gear, stood up on the pedals and gave the CAAD10 everything I had. The bike surged forward with every pedal stroke. I didn’t notice an ounce of flex.

For the last test ride I tried out my old friend the Look 566 again. But something about that CAAD10 stuck with me. At the end of the day I had one on order with a SRAM Force group on it.

Now that I’ve had some time with this bike I still think I made the right choice. This bike is an extremely versatile bike. It strikes an excellent balance between stiffness and compliance. Comfortable enough for an all day ride, nimble enough to take on the group ride when things get frisky. This is not a bike that I would be ashamed to have at my local crit either.

 

Functionality 5 of 5 stars If I had to choose only one bike to own, this one would definitely be on my short list. A great all around bike that will fit nearly any riding situation you may find yourself in.
Price 5 of 5 stars Ranging from about $1500 to $3000 USD depending on component selection, it is hard to argue against the value you get for your money.
Style 3 of 5 stars While not a bad looking bike, let’s be honest: it isn’t carbon. And carbon is still the sexy material in many people’s minds. While the tubes are sculpted, you won’t find the asymmetrical curves and bends of mid to upper level carbon frames. After riding this bike, you might ask why you need them though.
Quality 5 of 5 stars No complaints about the quality here. The welds are clean and the paint is flawless.
  • Brian Potter

    Aluminum–it will break eventually. And by eventually, I mean “when, not if,” and “sooner rather than later.” If you’re the kind of rider who rarely crashes and needs a new bike every few years, then aluminum is a great choice.

    • SDSteve

      Really stoopid comment!! I had one AL frame for 10 years (CAAD8) and it never broke! Unless you did not notice, carbon breaks!

    • Altimis Nuel

      You may heard “if Carbon got damaged/break by something, that force, will destroy Aluminum as well”.

      This . . . . not whole story, its tell the only half truth and marketing hype about Carbon. I didn’t hate Carbon but Carbon is not my bike material of choice

      You think you could ride a bike without ever crashing in the life? don’t dare think like that because you surely will crash it, its when, not if. Sooner or later. Just “When”.

      And Carbon is prone to break easier than Aluminum from crashing

      Carbon is very strong, of course, but not necessary “structurally” strong, its could be break easily from abuse or mishap, even lightly crash can put a crack.

      After all, I don’t want to cause stress and nerve to Carbon biker, just happy ride with it, be careful about it.

      Point is Carbon is not necessary better than Aluminum.

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  • Eric Royero

    I have the Caad10 5. And I have no regret or doubt when it comes if I bought a good product.