2002 Trek Technical Manual
Is aluminum a new material?
It should be common knowledge that most modern
aircraft use aluminum exclusively for their primary
structures (internal frames and bulkheads) and 95% or
better of their exterior surfaces, including load bearing
skins. The aircraft industry has been using these alloys
for several decades. The aircraft companies have picked
aluminum because it offers the best combination of
material properties and processing capability in order to
create high performance, light weight, robust aircraft.
So aluminum alloys have certainly proved their long
term durability and high performance in the aircraft
industry. The occasional failure that has occurred has
typically been due to a design or manufacturing defect
or improper maintenance.
Doesn't steel resist fatigue better than aluminum?
Occasionally we hear fatigue failure erroneously
described as similar to the result of bending a coat
hanger back and forth. This example is not relevant to
the durability or reliability of a bicycle frame. When
you permanently deform the coat hanger you are yield-
ing it. This has no relation to fatigue strength. Some of
the highest fatigue strength materials (like carbon com-
posite) will not take a significant permanent set, break-
ing instead at a high force level. So these extremely
high fatigue strength fibers would rate near zero by the
coat hanger test.
A high strength steel alloy will exhibit a longer
fatigue life at a high, fully reversing load level. But
remember, these numbers always reflect performance
for a unit volume. Steel weighs 3 times as much as
aluminum for the same volume. In other words, if these
statistics were based on weight instead of volume, steel
would have to exhibit 3 times the fatigue strength of
aluminum to be considered stronger, and it doesn't.
Steel is only the better material if you don't care how
much your bike weighs.
What are the benefits of aluminum in bike frame construction?
Aluminum is a great material to work with. It's light
weight, or more accurately, low density. One cubic inch
weighs one tenth of a pound. Contrast that to steel,
where the same cubic inch weighs three times that
amount. You can use twice the volume of metal that
a good steel frame uses and the steel frame will still
weigh 50% more than an aluminum frame. And the
lighter weight positively affects the ride quality.
Aluminum provides a great ride, if you use it to its
optimum. Aluminum's low density and high formability
allows a designer to tailor the stiffness of each part of
the frame through tubing and joint design. Tube shap-
ing and butting can make more difference in the ride of
the bike than the material itself.
Aluminum is very strong. It is possible to achieve
significantly higher strength properties in the aluminum
structure per weight than in steel. Part of this comes
from the basic material properties. You can use more
material, and more easily form the material, so you can
put just the amount and shape needed into the bike.
But the largest contributor to high strength is engi-
neering and design. The low density and high form-
ability of aluminum allows tubing with increased wall
thickness, complex shapes and larger sections where we
want to achieve high strength properties in the overall
Are all aluminum alloys basically the same?
Some of the highest strength aluminum alloys, par-
ticularly in the 7000 series, have low elongation, or
toughness, or resistance to crack propagation. This is
important for overall strength and fatigue resistance.
With alloys exhibiting higher toughness less material
is needed to resist fatigue, and this can result in a
lighter bike. Like with any bike frame material, good
design and manufacturing is much more important
than a small difference in a single mechanical prop-
What do the numbers mean?
When we discuss aluminum alloys, we refer to a four-
digit number. This is the alloy name, based on the
alloying materials in the aluminum. A metallurgy refer-
ence would explain precisely what elements are added
to the aluminum in a specific percentage.
The second part of describing aluminum alloys is the
heat treatment or other strength enhancements which
have been applied to the alloy. With some alloys,
special heat treatments or work hardening are essential
to achieve their maximum strength. Other aluminum
alloys attain their maximum strength by simply cooling
at room temperature, also known as `normalizing'.
Since heat treatment adds extra steps to manufactur-
ing, it adds cost. An oven large enough to handle bike
frames also adds cost. 6061 aluminum requires heat
treatment. 7005 is usually normalized.
ALPHA NOMENCLATURE EXPLAINED-
Proprietary Trek aluminum tubing, using 7005 or
6061 T6 aluminum. These frames use special tubing
diameters, wall thicknesses, designed by our engineer-
ing staff. Alpha frames are built by outside vendors
to Trek specifications. They go through the full Trek
engineering process starting with design and includ-
ing a full testing protocol. Some Alpha frames are
built in Wisconsin, some are imported then painted
and assembled in Wisconsin. Alpha tubesets are on the
4000 series ATBs, 1000 series road bikes, Navigators,
and some hybrids.
Like the Alpha frames, Alpha ZX is Trek designed
aluminum tubing. However, Alpha ZX frames are built
with 6061 T6 aluminum. Trek's proprietary heat treat-
ing process enhances the Alpha ZX tensile strength,
yield strength, and elongation making for a superior
Alpha ZX frames are all built and painted in
Wisconsin. They are slightly lighter than the standard
Alpha frames, and with the same durability, making
them ideal for riders concerned with faster times.
Alpha ZX tubesets are on 4000 series ATBs, and some
Alpha SL and SLR frames are also Trek designed
tubes of 6061 T6. They are built and painted in
Wisconsin. In addition, SL frames are use butted tub-
ing to reduce weight and enhance the ride. Trek's pro-
prietary heat treating process enhances the Alpha SL
tensile strength, yield strength, and elongation making
for a superior frame.
Alpha SL and SLR tubesets are on 6000 series ATBs,
2000 series road bikes, XO-1, and Hilos.