Steel Fork Vs Carbon Fork – Differences + Pros and Cons


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Today, bike riders most commonly prefer carbon forks over steel forks when purchasing a bike. This is because carbon forks are not only lighter but also more rigid than steel forks.

However, steel forks are more resilient upon impact and much more pliable than carbon forks making them resistant to damage, especially when riding on rugged terrains.

I’ve been lucky enough to try out both, so if you’re looking to buy a new bike and aren’t sure whether you should invest in a steel or a carbon fork, I’m here to help you make your decision.

In this article, I discuss in detail the differences between carbon and steel forks and take a look at the pros and cons of each type of fork so that you can make a well-informed decision.

Steel fork vs carbon fork - pros and cons + differences

Steel Fork Vs Carbon Fork – History and Development

When it comes to producing bicycles, manufacturers can choose from a variety of different materials to construct their bikes’ frames and forks.

Most commonly, manufacturers choose to go with an aluminum frame combined with a carbon fork. However, this was not always the case.

For decades, steel was the original material of choice for bike forks for manufacturers. Known for its resilience, the pliability, and integrity of steel forks were unmatched in the early 1900s.

But by the 1970s, carbon fiber frames were first introduced into the market and by the 1980s, more high-end bike dealers began selling bikes with carbon fiber frames and other components.

However, these bikes lacked meticulous engineering and were just minuscule attempts at reducing the bikes’ weight.

Over the next few years, the market was introduced with an influx of new and innovative machines with carbon fiber forks and framesets that challenged steel forks in mainly two areas of performance – ride comfort and weight.

This posed an important question for cyclists – which forks are better, steel or carbon, and what are the differences between the two types of forks?

Steel Fork vs. Carbon Fork – What’s the Difference?

Here are the main differences between steel and carbon forks…

Compliance

Generally, steel forks are much more flexible than carbon forks, owing to their added compliance. Compliance is a measure of how much the carbon fork deforms when it collides with an obstacle.

It is basically the opposite of stiffness.

Since steel forks are more flexible, this means that they can absorb the vibrations picked up by your bike when traveling on rough roads; dampening the road bumps to offer you a smooth ride.

This subsequently reduces the stress placed on your wrist, elbows, and shoulders during your ride.

This is why most cyclists that are looking to travel long distances on their bikes on rocky mountainous terrains commonly opt for custom-made steel forks with their bikes.

Resilience

As a strong resilient metal that is much more pliable and robust than carbon, a steel fork is capable of withstanding hard impact. It can handle a hard beating after a day’s worth of cycling and although it may get scratched or bent, it will still be able to get you back home.

In comparison, carbon forks are more brittle and may thus shatter upon collision into a pile of carbon dust.

This is why carbon forks have to be regularly checked for damage. Even the slightest scratch may end up turning into a crack which can lead to a broken fork.

Cost

Despite the durability that they offer, steel forks are generally a much cheaper option than shiny carbon fiber forks.

Not only will you be saving up big bucks when buying a new steel fork but you’ll also be saving up tons of money when looking to get your steel fork repaired.

This is because steel forks are much easier for welders to repair than carbon forks. Steel is an easily repairable, durable, and long-lasting metal.

Stiffness

Carbon composite forks are composed of pre-impregnated carbon fiber sheets bonded together using epoxy resins.

These carbon fibers are aligned in such a way that the manufacturer can tune the amount of deflection of the carbon sheet to engineer different levels of stiffness to the carbon fork.

Carbon forks are thus manufactured with greater stiffness than steel forks which ultimately enhances your bike’s efficiency and responsiveness.

Carbon fiber forks can also be molded into different shapes, which is something that is not possible when using steel.

Weight

Generally speaking, carbon forks are much lighter than steel forks.

While fitting a carbon fork to your bike will have little to no direct effect on its performance, the reduced weight is sure to have a significant influence on your bike’s acceleration and overall performance. 

Remember how we talked about how steel forks are capable of softening your ride by dampening the road buzz picked up from the road surface to your handlebars.

Carbon fiber forks also have the same effect but the only difference is that they do not absorb the vibrations in the first place. The mass of a carbon fiber fork is so less in comparison to steel forks that it is incapable of effectively relaying the vibrations from the road surface to your handlebar.

The full differences between carbon and steel forks can be summarized in this table:

Steel ForkCarbon Fork
ComplianceMore flexibleLess flexible, and more brittle
ResilienceStrong and resilient under majority of impactsMore brittle and prone to fractures on impact
CostCheaper to buy and repairMore expensive to buy, and harder/more expensive to repair
StiffnessLess stiffness, so less aerodynamic qualitiesMore stiff, and so more aerodynamic and suited for high-performance riding
WeightHeavier than carbon forksLighter than steel forks
steel forks vs carbon forks
Steel forks are ideal for their resilience, price, and ability to be altered. Carbon forks are more lightweight and aerodynamic

Steel Fork vs Carbon Fork – Pros and Cons

While one type of fork may be the better fit for you, they each have their own pros and cons. Let’s discuss these in detail.

What Are The Pros Of A Steel Fork?

Pliability

As I mentioned previously, steel forks are more pliable than carbon forks. This is one of the main reasons why one would opt for a steel fork over a carbon fork.

Pliable forks such as steel forks are capable of killing the road buzz.

This reduces the stress placed on your hands, elbows, and wrists while riding; since your handlebars vibrate a lot less. In the event of a crash, your steel fork will protect your frame and can also be straightened in case it is damaged.

Greater Eyelets

Steel forks are generally equipped with eyelets to facilitate the mounting of front racks and fenders to secure your bags and belongings.

These forks are designed to allow you to mount bottle holders, mudguards, pannier racks, and so much more at these mounting points as per your desire.

If you are someone who intends on using their bike for daily commuting or is into adventure bike-packing, then this may be one of the major reasons why you should choose a steel fork over a carbon fork.

Easily Modifiable

One of the best advantages of getting a steel fork is that a welder can easily add additional mounts to it.

With just a little bit of welding, you can even modify your simple steel fork into a cargo fork. So if you’re someone who likes to modify their bikes regularly, steel forks are a good option since they can be easily made alterations to.

With a steel fork, you can also weld brackets, mount fenders, or fit clamps onto your bike that can hold your belongings on your journey.

So if you’re looking to take your bike out on a long adventure, then a steel fork might be the best option for you.

Cheaper

Steel forks are considerably cheaper than carbon forks.

They’re also easier to maintain and will help you save up lots of money that you’d otherwise end up spending on repairs.

If you’re on a tight budget, you should perhaps consider getting a bike with a steel fork to reduce the overall cost of your vehicle.

Easy to Repair

Regardless of the material it’s made up of, your bike frame along with its fork is destined to fail eventually.

If your bike has a steel fork, it is very likely that it could be repaired.

This is because pretty much any welder has the ability to repair a steel frame and fork. However, finding someone who can repair a carbon fork will definitely be a difficult task, to say the least.

What Are The Cons Of A Steel Fork?

Heavier

Steel forks weigh almost twice as much as carbon forks because steel is much denser than carbon.

If you’re someone who measures every gram that they put on their bike, a steel fork may not be the right fit for your bike.

Susceptible to Rust and Corrosion

Apart from being heavy, steel forks are also susceptible to rust and corrosion.

In fact, if a steel fork rusts enough, it can weaken the entire foundation of your bike. To prevent the rusting of your steel fork, you should apply a rust inhibitor to your bike and store it in a place with little to no moisture.

You may want to avoid steel forks if you live near the ocean or sea, or in a city where the roads are salted during the winters.

Less Efficient

Steel forks aren’t as rigid as carbon forks. This means that the steel tends to flex when you pedal.

Since the steel flexes, energy is wasted in flexing the frame rather than moving you forward. This reduces the efficiency steel forks have to offer.

Additionally, steel forks are also heavier and less aerodynamic.

This means that you will ride much slower with a steel fork than with a carbon fork subsequently covering lesser ground at the expense of a greater amount of energy.

What Are The Pros Of A Carbon Fork?

Light Weight And Strength

Carbon was initially used in the aerospace industry to construct parts that are as light yet strong as possible. Over time, the use of carbon fibers expanded and extended into the bicycle industry as well. 

Carbon has a crystalline structure where the carbon atoms are held together in an ordered three-dimensional arrangement.

This crystalline structure is what contributes to its low density and consequently light weight.

It is therefore no surprise why carbon forks are the go-to material of choice for professional cyclists that want to accelerate their bike as much as possible.

However, times have changed and carbon forks are no longer just for big-budget professional racers anymore. From commuting to traveling short distances, carbon forks have become a cyclist’s choice for every type of ride due to their lightweight and high tensile strength.

Replacing a steel fork with a carbon fork can reduce the weight of your bike to up to 50% of the weight of the fork.

For example, if you replace a light Chromoly mountain bike fork such as a Salsa CroMoto Grande with a carbon fork like a Ritchey WCS Carbon, you can shed around 39% of the fork’s weight from your bike.

If you’re looking for a lightweight option or want to enhance your bike’s acceleration, then a carbon fork is the way to go.

Aerodynamic Shape

Steel forks are made from simple round steel tubes that are welded to each other.

Carbon forks, on the other hand, are made using much more advanced manufacturing techniques. These carbon forks can be molded to produce more aerodynamic blades that can cut through the air much more easily, increasing your speed against the wind.

Long Shelf Life

When given proper care, carbon forks can last for a very long time. This is because these forks are not susceptible to rust and don’t generally degrade over time as steel does.

Consequently, they have a very long shelf life when treated with care.

What Are The Cons Of A Carbon Fork?

Low Resilience

While carbon forks have greater tensile strength than steel forks, they lack density and robustness and can thus easily shatter upon impact.

This is why brittle carbon forks have to be constantly inspected to ensure that there are no cracks that can jeopardize the structural integrity of your bike.

Expensive

Since the carbon fork production process is extremely meticulous and requires professional manual labor, their costs reflect that as well.

The price of a decent carbon fork can easily be twice that of a steel fork.

Of course, you can always choose to buy cheaper carbon forks but the subpar quality of the fork and the performance it delivers will reflect that low cost.

Which Fork is better for Your Bike – Steel or Carbon?

To answer this question, you must first ask yourself what you’re looking for from your bike.

Are you looking to ride professionally on the racecourse or are you looking for a bike for you to commute to work every day? At the end of the day, the answer depends upon you.

Carbon forks are best equipped for riding on smooth terrains where they offer a higher speed and a greater tensile strength.

On the other hand, steel forks are best suited for riding on rocky roads where there is a greater need for flexibility and compliance rather than lightness.

At the end of the day, decide which of these two situations suits you better, and that is the fork to go for.

Martin Williams

Martin has been tearing up all sorts of trails on a range of bikes ever since he was young. He once cycled across France, and once fell into a canal on a hybrid. He writes about everything to do with cycling on our site. You can find out more about him at bicycle2work.com/about-martin-williams/

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