Carbon Vs Aluminium - Santa Cruz Nomad Bike Test

The Enduro market has grown significantly in the last years  with a definite movement by manufacturers towards carbon framed bikes in their ranges. They are normally placed at the top of the bike range as carbon is considered an exotic material, and comes often with a special price tag 20-30 prevent above that of aluminium.

The thought in many people’s minds though is often that carbon is more delicate than aluminium, which is not true. In fact proven by Santa Cruz in a recent video and mentioned repeatedly by the head designers at Specialized in the release of their carbon Demo 8, carbon if done right is much stronger including with trail debris impacts.

Video - Demonstration of Strength of Carbon Vs Aluminium.

Now that has been established the main question is, “Is a carbon frame better and worth spending more over an aluminium from a riding point of view?”

To answer this question is quite difficult unless it is possible to try the different materials back to back. Luckily we have managed to do just that. We have been using a aluminium Santa Cruz Nomad for the last 9 months and now have had the opportunity to use long term a carbon version of the same frame.

So looking at the comparison from a normal point of view how do the two frames differ? Although geometry and sizing is the same, the layouts are slightly different with tube sizing and joints being marginally different but following the same look and style.

Aluminium Santa Cruz 2012 Nomad.

Carbon Santa Cruz Nomad 2013.

So cutting to the point, how do they compare when being ridden?

Jumping on the carbon straight after the aluminium it is clear that they have a different feeling. Although the suspension system and how it performs feels the same, the carbon version immediately feels stiffer. Movement and inputs into the bike feel direct and the bike responds to what you do more directly. When pushing into corners the bike feels more responsive and lighter, but if the rider makes any errors the bike is less forgiving and instantly makes you realise you have made an error. Essentially it is more nervous and twitchy for the in experienced rider.

The positive side to this is once you adapt to the new frame material,  when you get it right the bike rewards you with better speed and a precise feeling through the turns and down the trail, essentially it feels like less energy is being wasted and more energy is being transferred to the trail.

Pedalling the bikes is also where the differences become more apparent. The carbon frame apart from being marginally lighter, it is possible to feel that with the newer CTD shock FOX from the energy that you put in comes out and propels you forward more. The drive feels more direct and gives a satisfying impression that energy in = speed out.

Flex within the carbon frame on the trail and in corners is much less and this equals in our opinion more speed for less effort. The back end of the bike feels more directly attached to the front. Picking the back end up as well is easier as the bike responds more easily and is more manoeuvrable in corners and technical sections.

Braking feels more direct with the rider having the sensation of being able to feel what is happening on the rear wheel more as the brakes are modulated down the trail. Again connection to and feedback with the environment is greater.


Jumping, pushing the bike around on different lines and riding hard, is a lot of fun and measurably more so than with the aluminium frame. We were surprised with how much flex there is in an aluminium frame and how carbon rewards good riding skill, yet is less forgiving at the same time to errors in rider input. In our opinion carbon is great for more experienced riders and does move the trail riding experience onwards compared to aluminium. This though is not to say aluminium is worse, in fact for most riders starting out and developing into better riders aluminium gives a softer ride and forgives rider input errors a lot more. Once a riders skill has moved on, jumping on a carbon frame will then help the rider understand where it is possible to improve technical skill and develop more speed on the trails going up and downhill.

Is it worth the extra money to get a carbon frame? This is a difficult question to answer, however if as a rider going faster and harder is your aim then yes it probably is worth it although in our opinion it is hard to feel any improvements in weight alone on the frame, the rigidity and energy transfer is what counts. If as a rider all you want to do is just have fun and ride, then aluminium is not going to leave you behind and at the end of the day it is rider not bike that makes the biggest difference, saying that though, who wouldn’t want a sleek carbon bike sat there just asking to be ridden?

I-MTB is an online MTB magazine and trail areas operator based in Tuscany, Italy

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