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Some people prefer a complete steel frame, whereas others like a complete carbon fiber frame. Carbon fiber in general is lighter and more comfortable to ride than steel.
It’s also possible for some parts of a bike to be steel and for others to be carbon. In this article, I will explain everything you need to know about carbon forks on a steel frame.
Carbon forks can be installed on a steel frame. In general, they are more comfortable and make the bike lighter. The main consideration is that the steerer tube of the forks fits the frame. Second-hand forks are often trimmed and can be too short for some frames.
Virtually everyone who tries a complete carbon bike compared to a steel frame reports that it’s more comfortable. The reason is it’s less rigid than steel and absorbs more vibrations and minor impacts.
But, the forks are only a minor component of a bike, so today I will cover if carbon forks make a difference, why road bikes have carbon forks, whether carbon forks are stronger, and if carbon forks are reliable.
Do Carbon Forks Make a Difference
There are a few potential fork/frame combinations on a bike. For example, you can have a carbon frame with steel forks, a steel frame with carbon forks, or a carbon frame and carbon forks.
So, here’s an explanation of whether carbon forks make a difference and if they’re worth it:
Overall, carbon forks do make a difference. In, general, they’re more comfortable than other types of frames. However, this does often depend on the build of the bike. Some bikes made from steel are more comfortable than carbon. Also, carbon is much stronger and so safer than other metals.
This makes them break far less easily. But, for some types of bicycles, it doesn’t make sense to get carbon fiber forks because of the nature of the type of riding.
The reason is that carbon forks in general are twice the price of aluminum forks. This can be a heavy price to pay for cycling that doesn’t involve terrain or a riding style where the difference would be noticeable.
Therefore, some people would argue that the extra price can’t be justified in some cases.
Here’s a table that shows which bikes are suited to carbon components, and which types of bikes are more suited to alloy:
|Type of Bike||Best fork material (carbon or aluminum)|
There are numerous other benefits that carbon forks have over steel forks. They are:
- Carbon forks are stronger
- Have superior handling
- They make the bike faster
- They are more comfortable
I did a full analysis of the reasons why carbon or alloy forks are better for each type of riding in this article on whether you should get carbon forks or aluminum forks.
For some types of riding these benefits aren’t as essential as others.
For example, with downhill riding, you mostly ride on dirt which is a lot softer. You also often don’t have contact with the ground as you make minor and major jumps because the ground is not perfectly flat.
This is very different from a road bike which is in constant contact with the ground.
Also, the surface of a road is extremely hard.
Therefore, the difference in comfort between alloy or steel forks and carbon forks is much more pronounced.
On the other hand, with mountain biking, you experience so many impacts from leaving the ground and doing jumps that you hardly notice the difference in comfort at all.
Also with downhill and mountain bike riding, the most comfortable suspension is both rear and front suspension. This really smooths out the ride compared to a road bike that doesn’t have any suspension at all:
Carbon in general has better power transfer = more responsive
Carbon components on a bike offer more power transfer. This means any move you make on the bike will cause a more immediate effect than steel. Whereas, many people report that steel is far more comfortable than carbon.
However, independent tests doing a side-by-side comparison of carbon versus steel found that road bikes with carbon components are slightly more comfortable.
Based on the tonnes of reports from cyclists it appears it very much depends on the build of the bike.
The build of the bike generally matters more than the material
There is a craft to making a bike. A carbon bike from one brand of equal quality can feel completely different from a carbon bike of another. Even though they are priced about the same, and built from the same material.
This accounts for the differences in how comfortable people think one material is over another. In my opinion, the differences are more down to the way the bike was built rather than the material that the bike is made from.
Therefore, to make a decision about whether carbon fiber forks are better on a steel frame it’s important to look at quantifiable metrics about carbon bike components.
These are that:
- Carbon is much stronger than steel or alloy
- Carbon is lighter than steel or alloy
- Carbon is more responsive than steel or alloy
Each of these metrics can be verified by independent tests regardless of the brand or the build of the bike. This is unlike the comfort of the bike which does depend on the build of the bike, and can vary from brand to brand.
Why Do Steel Frames Have Carbon Forks?
When shopping around for a new bike, you will notice that various types of components go with others. If you’ve noticed that steel frames have carbon forks instead of aluminum or steel, here are the reasons why:
Steel frames have carbon forks because carbon forks are stronger, lighter, and more responsive than other types of metal. Not all steel frames have carbon forks, and it varies by make and model. The forks can also be swapped out quite easily provided care is taken to get the same size stem.
Many people report that a steel frame can be more comfortable to ride than a carbon frame, or a frame that is made of other types of metal such as aluminum.
However, on balance carbon is more comfortable than steel or aluminum and is slightly softer. This helps it to absorb the minor bumps in the road.
Carbon is slightly less rigid than other types of metal but is much more responsive. Meaning you can get better acceleration for the amount of force that you use, and also can turn with more precision.
Other types of metal are heavier than carbon forks. This means that on a flat you will use less energy when riding a bike that has components that are carbon.
Can you swap out the forks on a bicycle easily?
It’s a very simple process to loosen all the parts that you need to remove the forks on a bike. However, there are quite a few things that need to either be loosened or removed before you can pull out the stem that holds the forks and put in a new one.
Here’s a really good video that shows what’s involved in swapping out the forks.
This can be a good idea if you currently ride a bike with steel, aluminum, titanium, or forks made from an alloy and want to try carbon forks to see how they feel.
Why Do Road Bikes Have Carbon Forks?
There are a few different metals to choose from for the forks on a bike.
Road bikes have unique shapes and also tire sizes. Many of them also exclusively use carbon fiber forks instead of the other types of metals that are used for bike forks, this is why road bikes have carbon forks:
Carbon forks on road bikes are more responsive, which gives them better acceleration and steering precision. They are also lighter which means you need to exert less force to travel the same distance as a heavier bike. Expert riders say that carbon is more comfortable.
However, for inexperienced cyclists, or those that have only owned 2 to 5 bikes, the differences in comfort that carbon provide aren’t noticeable. For a person who has ridden many different bikes and has lots of riding experience, carbon is noticeably better.
The experience required to notice a difference may take around 10 years or more.
Another interesting fact is that carbon components and bicycles are made at all price points. This differs from some other metal bike components such as aluminum which are only made for low to mid-range priced bikes.
This means a lot of the comparisons that you’ll read online can be a bit biased. It’s hard to know whether they’re comparing two bikes of the same quality.
Or, whether they’re comparing a high-end carbon component and a low to mid-range steel/ aluminum/ alloy component.
With all of these points in mind, carbon is stronger, lighter, and more responsive, and the comfort is up for debate. All of these aspects are advantageous for road bikes and are why carbon forks are used.
Are Carbon Bike Forks Strong?
Carbon fiber is a relatively new material used in cycling components such as frames, and forks. Carbon is much lighter than other metals used to make bikes. However, it is of course up against steel, and steel is known to be one of the strongest metals.
So here’s a summary of whether carbon bike forks are strong, and how strong they are:
Carbon bike forks are strong. Carbon forks are 25% stronger than aluminum forks according to independent tests. Carbon forks are also stronger than steel and titanium forks. This means that carbon forks are actually the strongest out of any material used to make bike forks.
The strength of metals is measured in tensile strength, compressive strength, yield strength, and impact strength. Based on all of these metrics, steel is the second strongest metal after tungsten.
However, tungsten is relatively rare, unlike steel. Steel is made mostly of iron which is very abundant.
For these 2 reasons, 1) steel is incredibly strong and 2) is very abundant and easier to source, steel is one of the most common metals used in bike frames. Carbon fiber by comparison can be up to 10 times stronger than steel (source).
These properties of carbon fiber mean that a bike made of carbon fiber can also be up to 10 times stronger than a steel frame. This increased strength is rarely needed in cycling. Cycling accidents that generate enough force to bend a steel frame are rare.
Are Carbon Forks Reliable?
Forks are a major component of a bike, and if they fail it can result in a serious crash. Therefore, it’s important to know which forks are the most reliable and last the longest. Here’s an explanation about whether carbon forks are reliable:
Carbon forks are the most reliable fork material. They are the strongest material that can be used for a bike. In independent tests, it was found that carbon bike components are much stronger than other metals for both stress and impact.
As an added advantage they are also lighter and have better handling than other types of forks such as aluminum. This makes them better to transport or carry over difficult terrain. This can be necessary for mountain biking or downhill.
Due to the increased strength that carbon forks have they will suffer less wear and tear. In metals science there is what is called metal fatigue (source). This is where when metal bends it weakens and weakens until eventually, it can snap.
You may have tried this yourself with a paper clip or piece of metal wire.
Because carbon forks don’t bend as easily as other types of metals, they don’t suffer as much fatigue, and therefore, last longer, and are more reliable than other types of metal.