This post compares carbon and steel forks.
The Main Differences Between Carbon and Steel Forks
In general, steel forks are more compliant than carbon forks. In this case, the term compliance refers to the vertical flex that occurs in the fork’s blades upon meeting an obstacle.
Compliant forks kill the “road buzz” (soften the ride) and subsequently reduce the stress on the wrist, elbows, and shoulders.
Many retro steel forks are extra flexible because at the time road racers had to cycle on unpaved roads. Besides tire settings, “flexy” steel forks were the only way to make the ride more “plush”.
Note: The architecture of the fork matters too. For example, steel forks designed for disc brakes are known to be stiffer because disc brakes put extra stress on the blades. As a result, disc brake steel forks are overbuilt and subsequently stiffer.
One of carbon forks’ main advantages is that they’re significantly lighter than steel models.
The table below compares the weight of steel and carbon forks:
|Ritchey Comp Carbon Road Fork 1″||467g||Surly Cross-Check Cyclocross Fork||1000g|
|Ritchey Comp Carbon Road Fork 1 1/8″||540g||BLB Classic Fork Chrome||720g|
|Ritchey WCS Carbon Cross Fork – 1 1/8 Inch||478g||SPA CYCLES Steel Road Fork||1005g|
|Salsa Waxwing 700C/650B Gravel Carbon Fork||520g||TSUNAMI Steel Lugged Fork 700c||730g|
|Columbus Minimal Carbon Fork – 1||340g||SOMA Lugged 49 Road Fork||980g|
|Columbus Pista Leggera UD Carbon||560g||Surly Steamroller Fork||1000g|
|Simplon F-1010 Monocoque Carbon 28″/700C||540g||Salsa CroMoto Grande 29″||1108g|
|Simplon F-10.2 Monocoque||490g||Surly Disc Trucker 28″/700C||1200g|
Conclusion: On average, carbon forks are 50.81% lighter than steel forks. Therefore, if your ultimate goal is to have the lightest possible bike, then carbon is the way to go.
Steel is tougher than carbon when it comes to impact. A quality steel frame or fork can take a lot of abuse and develop a great number of scratches before getting close to failure.
Carbon components, on the other hand, aren’t as strong when it comes to impact and have to be inspected for damage routinely. A scratch may turn into a crack and eventually lead to a broken fork.
Both steel and carbon components can fail suddenly, but this outcome is a lot more common with carbon. Steel is more likely to bend before failing whereas carbon gives fewer or no signs before breaking spectacularly.
Currently, carbon components are manufactured with greater stiffness. The main benefits are increased responsiveness and greater efficiency.
The downside of high stiffness is the lack of compliance resulting in a harsh, less forgiving ride.
Additional Advantages of Steel Forks
1. More eyelets
A steel fork is more likely to come with eyelets for fenders and front racks. This technicality may seem trivial to some, but it’s a big deal if you intend to use your bicycle for commuting or touring.
There are ways to circumvent the absences of fender eyelets, but the options aren’t as aesthetic and as convenient as having dedicated mounting spots.
That said, the model of the fork is more important than the material. Some steel forks have no eyelets at all (e.g., the models found on race bikes) whereas some carbon forks come with multiple eyelets (e.g., gravel forks).
2. Less Anxiety
Carbon forks have to be inspected for damages regularly because even the slightest crack can cause disintegration of the fork. Steel, however, isn’t as “needy” and does not require as frequent exams.
Also, you’re more likely to find someone who can repair a damaged steel component than a carbon one. This is very important for touring cyclists who often visit destinations that lack the comfort and technological advancements of a developed city.
3. Elegant and Traditional Look
Steel bikes have a vintage appearance that modern aluminum and carbon models cannot match.
A steel road bike looks elegant thanks to the smaller diameter of the tubes and their flow. If the frame and fork are lugged, the style points are even higher.
Meanwhile, carbon and aluminum forks and frames have a futuristic, somewhat robotic appearance lacking warmth.
4. Easier to Modify
A welder can easily add additional mounts to a steel fork. It’s also possible to turn a basic steel fork into a cargo fork with a little planning and welding. Thus, if you like to tinker with your bikes, steel components are a good, accessible option.
5. Lively Spring Feel
Traditional steel bikes are known for their lively spring feel. The entire bike feels like a resonating spring, and the ride feels smooth.
Conversely, carbon and aluminum components are a bit dead and stiff (in a bad way) because they don’t flex as much. Of course, a carbon fork can be made very compliant but even in that case, it feels a bit “artificial” and robotic/plasticky.
Note: Not all steel bikes have this lively feel. Some are built for stiffness and come with oversized tubes.
Additional Advantages of Carbon Forks
1. Modern look
Some people find carbon highly aesthetic and appreciate its modern appearance. If you want your bike to look “up-to-date”, carbon will help you achieve that goal.
2. Aerodynamic shape
Steel forks are made of round tubing whereas carbon allows the production of more aerodynamic blades that cut through the wind better.
Having said that, the decreased drag is so slim that one can even label it as inconsequential, especially when it comes to recreational riding.
Not All Carbon Forks Are Stiff
It would be incorrect to conclude that all carbon forks are stiff. Some models are, some aren’t.
However, since a lot of professional gear is made extra stiff for efficiency (no pedaling effort lost due to vibrations) and maximum responsiveness (no delay upon rider input), carbon forks are often stiffer than a recreational rider may like.
Tire Suppleness > Fork Flex
Regardless of the material, rigid forks cannot match the comfort that a set of supple tires can provide.
А combination of a stiff fork and wide tires running at low PSI will smoothen the ride more than a flexy steel fork coupled with skinny tires operating at high air pressure.
Thus, if comfort is the highest goal, it’s often wiser to look for a fork that can give you enough clearance to run wide tires. Only then the material comes into play.
For the smoothest possible ride (with a rigid fork), it’s best to look for a compliant steel fork supporting wide tires and operating with V-brakes or cantilever brakes.
V-brakes and cantis are preferred because caliper brakes greatly limit tire width whereas disc brakes require the fork to be extra stiff due to the greater stress on the blades.
FAQ: I like steel forks, but the extra weight bothers me. Is it detrimental?
The weight of a bicycle matters the most during acceleration. Once the bike is up to speed, the extra grams become harder to feel.
The weight difference between steel and carbon forks is substantial, but it matters only in a racing situation.
If you’re a recreational rider, your performance will not be hindered to a perceivable degree.
It’s also worth noting that those extra grams reach greater importance only when the cyclist is in top condition himself.
Someone who’s 35% body fat will be hindered a lot more by the extra layers of fat that they’re carrying than the extra 500 grams that come with a steel fork.
As the old saying goes: “You’re the heaviest ‘component on your bicycle.”
FAQ: Steel or carbon fork for gravel riding?
The aforementioned principles apply to gravel too. (Steel forks = compliance; Carbon forks = stiffness, lightweight).
A professional gravel bike is built for speed and weighs as little as possible (within the regulations). For that reason, carbon is very common on pro machines.
However, if you aren’t trying to split seconds, then comfort becomes a higher priority. Some people may find a carbon fork incredibly stiff for long, gravel riders.
In short, carbon forks can increase performance on the highest level thanks to their low weight while steel forks provide more comfort and are a suitable option for amateur and recreational riding.
FAQ: Can you put a carbon fork on an old road bike?
It’s possible to install a carbon fork on an old road bike if it’s compatible with the headset and the frame.
You can read a dedicated article on the topic here.
FAQ: Why do so many steel bikes come with carbon forks?
Two main reasons:
- To save weight
The 400-500 grams weight savings that a carbon fork brings to the table are hard to ignore.
At the moment, carbon dominates the high-end bicycle market. You will find it on top of the line road, mountain and gravel bikes.
Thus, by adding a carbon component to a bike and combining it with a classic steel frame, the industry is creating a hybrid bike that offers the best of the old and new.
That said, many enthusiasts consider the combo unsightly because carbon has a spaceship look that doesn’t compliment the elegance of a steel frame.
Summary: What You Need To Know
1. Steel forks offer more flex and reduce the vibrations reaching the rider. This quality, however, does not apply to every steel fork.
It’s worth noting that steel forks designed for disc brakes are notably stiffer because the blades are subject to greater stress and thus have to be overbuilt.
2. Steel forks are more robust and can take greater abuse thanks to the resilience of the material.
3. Carbon forks can be compliant but are usually built stiffer for extra responsiveness and efficiency.
4. Carbon forks weigh significantly less than the widely available steel models. Their low weight and stiffness make them a logical choice for racers looking to maximize their time. However, the gains are not as important to recreational riders.