My 10-year old aluminum frame is getting on in age and wear, so naturally I spend all my free time looking at shiny new frames. Lately I've been thinking Scandium is the way to go (Kona Major Jake or Salsa's Chili Con Crosso) since I'm looking for a light and durable frame. But then seeing recent Indy Fab bike posts has me wondering if custom steel is worth the extra upkeep and weight. Alas, I have no idea what sort of frame I'll ever buy, though I don't like the idea of carbon cross bikes as I like to know my bike will the survive all the crashing I'll do (it just happens a lot).
i'm sure all opinions you'll get have merit, but i'll share some of my own...the first would be to look for fit. Do any stock bikes fit you well? If not, custom anything could be a great way to go. If you can find a stock bike that fits you, then also check the geometry and find something that matches your riding style. then assuming you've got some nice rubber and the right pressure, frame materials start to matter.
but you asked about materials, and so if you've got the above figured out, any of of the main materials can be quite light, even steel. Scandium and aluminum can be light and affordable but can dent easily with your crashing, and carbon's quite durable to impacts that would dent a thin-wall alumn frame but obviously needs to be checked for cracks, esp. when t-boning something.
I've ridden all materials and like all for certain reasons but do think in cx, more than any other type riding, I notice a bike's weight with all the carrying and the accelerations. I also have an old carbon hardtail mtb that's been more durable than I could have ever expected.
good luck and let us know what you end up with. maybe try both a stainless IF and their new carbon frame? one can dream right?
the interesting thing is the most popular dream material of our readers in a past poll was titanium by one vote over carbon.
Andrew is right. I haven't raced on a carbon bike but I have been on steel, aluminum and titanium. The fit makes the biggest difference so look at that first. When I first started, there were only a few mfr's who made cross frames so I had go through a number of frames to learn what fit me best and what didn't. This was expensive so I don't recommend this route. So, contact some builders and talk to them...treat it like if you were interviewing someone for a job.
I love my Salsa Chili Con Crosso- super light, responsive and stiff as well. But as another poster said, dents easy. Like my Dad did back in the 70's, I wrapped a small section of the top tube with an innertube to protect it from a "bar ding." My pit bike is an Alan Ultral and the Salsa blows doors on it. I was a skeptic if the flattened seat stays but it does make the rear triangle really stiff. If you look around on Ebay or Craigslist you can find a nice frame way below retail. Have a great CX season!
If your 10 year old frame fits you, and handles the way you like, and isn't damaged beyond scratches and minor dings, a new powdercoat or paint job can work wonders for your perspective on "old and worn". It's a new economy after all... But if you're jonesing for a new frame, I can't blame you, I've been through a lot of cross frames over a few years including light Al (Empella Bonfire) and "custom" steel (stock Waterford X-22, Reynolds 853 mix). Fit is by far the most important issue, then for me at least geometry and handling. I've developed some definite preferences in front end geometry, front-center, BB height etc. There's no right or wrong, and most people tend to adjust to what they ride including me, but there are some common geometry elements to the bikes I've felt good on. Then weight, but anything less than 22 lbs or so is fine by me- I like to ride aggressively, and with mediocre skills that means crashing and frequent biffs. So I don't mount expensive lightweight components, or carbon anything- cross season is too short and I don't want to be missing races because of broken equipment. To me a cross bike for racing is a tool to be used hard, no crying about dings and damage- go hard or go home and all that. So as much as I would love a beautiful custom Zanc, or IF, or Rock Lobster or whatever, cross racing is abusive to equipment and I'd rather not worry about it. So the material choice is about last on my list- steel can be surprisingly stiff (the Waterford is actually a fairly stiff frame) and Al frames can be surprisingly compliant- it's all in the overall design choices, not the material. For me, for CX racing, a mid-priced Al frame with Geometry I like would be the ticket for cost and weight. I think scandium would be a little delicate for me, pricey and dent-prone, the weight savings over regular Al not worth the cost or risk for me. For everything else, I love steel. Last year's A bike is a mid-90s Columbus EL OS tigged steel frame I got on Ebay. Rides great, very light, but I suspect I will break it eventually, as it's not as strong as modern heat-treated steels. I have a stout Al frame on order for this year, I'll race both. But really, if you like what you have why not spruce it up with a powder coat and continue to ride it? These guys do a decent one color job for $100 powdercoatstudio.com
As others have said, fit makes the biggest difference. Also pay careful attention to bottom bracket drop (CXM did a great article on this critical dimension a while back). I have a steel frame with one of the lowest BB drops out there, and a Ti frame with a middle of the road BB drop. For most CX I have to confess I prefer the ride of the former, because of the increased stability.
Also bear in mind there's a lot of variety within each frame material -- a 4130 steel frame will feel very different from a custom frame built with modern lightweight steel tubing.