Why I Would Never Buy a Hi-Ten Steel Frame (someone had to say the truth)

From Rookie’s keyboard,

Let’s get to the point.

Hi-Ten steel frames should be avoided at all cost. And that’s coming from me – a cyclist who’s big fan of steel.

The three main reasons are:

  • They’re heavy and weak.
  • They’re heavy and weak.
  • They’re heavy and weak.

Did I say that they’re heavy and weak?

The term Hi-Ten steel stands for high-tensile steel.

Tensile strength is a measurement of how much pulling a material can withstand before deforming, breaking, or tearing. Even though Hi-Ten steel is marketed as a strong material, its tensile strength is not as high as one might think.

  • The tensile strength of Hi-Ten 1020 Steel (the most common type used for bicycle frames and forks) is 420 MPa or 60900 PSI.
  • Meanwhile, the tensile strength of 4130 Steel Cr-Mo is 670 MPa/97200 PSI.

That’s 37.4% more than what Hi-Ten steel offers.

The discrepancy creates the following issue.

If a hi-ten steel frame has to match the strength of a Cr-Mo frame of the same size, the builder will have to use thicker and consequently heavier tubing.

I am not a weight weenie myself, but even I can’t close my eyes to the difference because it’s substantial.

When I was a kid, I had the pleasure of riding my sister’s MTB – a cheapo 26-er going under the name Cross Vendetta. The bike was as entry-level as it gets and had a Hi-Ten steel frame that felt heavier than a loaded barbell.

Sure, I was a weak teen, but the heaviness of that bike formed a core memory in my brain. Nonetheless, I used it to deliver newspapers in the local neighborhood when I was 16. I digress.

The point is that the low tensile strength of Hi-ten steel offers two lose-lose possibilities:

Option 1: Strong + Heavy
Option 2: Light + Weak

If you study the market and compare Hi-ten and Cr-Mo frames, you may be surprised how many Hi-ten steel frames weigh about as much as the Chromoly models.

Don’t get excited. The light weight comes at a price – they’re a lot weaker.

The reality is that it’s all about marketing at the expense of strength. As Cr-Mo frames gained popularity, Hi-ten frames started to get lighter and consequently weaker too.

The aftermath?

After a pile of broken/bent/totaled frames accumulated, new Hi-Ten frames were naturally labeled as “pot metal”.

For reference, the old-school Hi-Ten steel BMX bikes were strong but often reached weights around 35-38lbs/16-17kg.

At the same time, Chromoly frames weigh about 23-27lbs/10.5-12.2kg (a 30% difference).

In short, when a Hi-Ten steel frame is made 30% lighter to match the weight of a CR-Mo model, it immediately becomes at least 30% weaker than its “ancestors”.

Hi-Ten Steel Frames Are Stiffer Than Concrete

If you’ve ever ridden a Hi-Ten bike, you will immediately notice that the frame feels too stiff despite being made out of steel – an otherwise compliant/flexy/springy/comfortable material.

Why is that?

Once again, it comes down to the lack of strength.

Hi-Ten steel has a lower modus of elasticity than Cr-Mo. The term modus of elasticity indicates the effort needed to bend a material.

Logically, one can conclude that if Hi-Ten steel has a lower modus of elasticity, it should be more flexible.

Well, the equation is more complicated.

Since the Hi-Ten steel frames are weaker, they cannot be “butted” like Cr-Mo models.

Butting is a process during which manufacturers remove material from parts of the frame that aren’t extremely stressed and add material to the more critical points. The result is a stronger but also more compliant frame.

The strength of Cr-Mo frames makes it possible to use “aggressive” butting; the weakness of Hi-Ten frames prevents that process.

So, ultimately, Cr-Mo frames end up being more compliant than Hi-ten rivals despite having a higher modus of elasticity.

I’m sorry, but Hi-Ten loses another round.

Mixed Frames Suck Too (100% not sorry)

Some BMX frames contain both materials – Cr-Mo and Hi-Ten. The goal is to improve the frame’s strength via the Cr-Mo parts (e.g., the front triangle) but also keep the unit affordable by using Hi-Ten for the remaining sections.

In practice, that strategy sucks for 2 reasons:

  • Welding different alloys creates more opportunities for errors.
  • The frame is still not as strong as possible while being relatively expensive.

So, in the end, you get a pricey frame without the strength.

Another hard pill to swallow is this:

An event that would badly damage a full Hi-Ten frame will do about the same to a mixed one.

So, why bother, brother?

Cr-Mo Frames Could Be Very Cheap

If you’re planning to buy a vintage MTB or road bike, don’t even look at Hi-Ten frames. Seriously.

You can EASILY acquire a Cr-Mo frame for both types on the second-hand market. In some cases, you may even get an entire bike for a few bucks.

I got my retro road bike (Centurion Futura) with Cr-Mo tubing for 100 bucks. I’ve also bought a retro MTB with Cr-Mo tubing for 30 bucks.

At those prices, one would be a fool to even think of purchasing anything Hi-Ten.

As far as BMX bikes are concerned, things get more complicated because many of the Cr-Mo frames on the second-hand market (at least where I live) come in small quantities, cost a lot and are abused to no end.

Thus, it’s often better to buy new.

Yes, it will cost you a lot more than a Hi-Ten unit, but at least you have the peace of mind that your frame is less likely to disintegrate under you (nothing is 100% certain).

But I don’t have the money…

I get it.

If you don’t have the money, but you are serious about riding BMX, save.

Get another part-time job. Drive an Uber (if that’s an option). Save your lunch money…

Find a way.

I don’t want to sound like your math teacher, but that’s my advice, nonetheless.

Hi-Ten frames aren’t that cheap and suck on multiple levels. So, save, save.

I am not the richest person in the world either. In fact, I lost my job six months ago, my girlfriend left me a few days before this post, but I still wouldn’t buy a Hi-Ten frame as it has all the downsides of steel and none of the benefits.

There you have it, my friends.

Never forget that Steel is Reel…apart from Hi-Ten, of course.

Until next time

– rookie






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