When you’re in the market for a new bike, you’re faced with lots of choices, and that’s especially true when it comes to frame material. Most of us consider aluminum, steel, carbon and/or titanium, but have you ever thought about magnesium? One relatively new company, Vaast Bikes, is hoping you’ll do exactly that. Their small yet versatile product line-up currently consists entirely of bikes with frames made out of magnesium. We talked to Vaast Bikes General Manager Morten Kristiansen to learn more.
Stan’s NoTubes: Of all the possible frame materials out there, why did Vaast decide to build bikes out of magnesium?
Morten Kristiansen: At Vaast, we’re focused on making great products for tomorrow’s consumer in a sustainable way that respects the earth and its natural resources, so we considered four factors: weight, strength, environmental impact and ride quality. Let’s compare, for example, our magnesium alloy and the industry standard 6000-series aluminum alloy. First, our magnesium alloy is about 30% lighter by volume, and second, it’s 21% stronger than 6061 aluminum. For a material used in developing a bicycle frame, you have to look at the different stresses and forces that happen under load. Third, magnesium is the eighth most abundant element in the world. You can extract it from the earth itself or get it from sea brine. That means it’s an unlimited resource. When you manufacture with it, you only use 50% of the energy required to work aluminum, and there is a good ability to recycle magnesium: 100%. That means that manufacturing a frame with magnesium consumes relatively less energy and pollutes less. Our fourth parameter is energy absorption. The aluminum atom is a square, and the magnesium atom is a hexagon. Because magnesium’s shape is more complex, it can absorb more energy on an atomic level. That means you get a smoother and more compliant ride when you go off-road with magnesium. SNT: How do your magnesium frames compare to steel, titanium or carbon frames?
MK: Relative to steel and titanium, magnesium is 75% and 50% lighter, respectively. It’s 56% stronger than Grade 1 titanium and as strong or stronger than steel. Magnesium is similar to carbon for weight per volume, but we prefer not to use carbon due to its environmental impact. You can’t really recycle carbon, and very few places can repurpose carbon. Most carbon frames today will end up in a landfill somewhere. You’ll never see Vaast frames made out of carbon fiber unless we can document what happens to them at the end of their life, just like we do for any of the carbon parts we spec on our magnesium frames.
SNT: This isn’t the first time we’re seeing magnesium in the bike industry in general or in frames specifically. What’s different about what you’re doing now?
MK: Due to the materials science development that’s happened within the past 5-10 years, we’re using a whole new generation of magnesium alloys. They are super proprietary and haven’t been used in the bike industry before. But it’s not just the bike industry that’s doing magnesium; the new Porsche 911, for instance, has more magnesium parts than ever before.
SNT: Are your frames 100% magnesium, or are there other materials involved?
MK: Our frame material is ALLITE® SUPER MAG™. We use the AE81 alloy. “A” stands for aluminum, and “E” stands for rare earth. The “8” is 8% aluminum, and the “1” is 1% rare earth elements. That means are frames are 91% magnesium. There are 16 rare earth elements in the periodic table. They’re not really rare, but they are hard to distill into the right configuration and put into the alloys in the right mix. AE81 uses nine different rare earth elements and is specifically constructed for tube shapes and welding. SNT: Are there any cons to using magnesium in frames?
MK: Magnesium is highly reactive. In a powder form, which is what you may have used in a high school or college chemistry lab, you can get it to ignite and explode. So when we manufacture, we have to be careful. We don’t grind or sand the frames like you would with aluminum. We treat our magnesium via plasma electrolytic oxidation (PEO), giving it an environmentally-friendly, ceramic coating that keeps it from being reactive and wears well. This ceramic layer goes on top of the frame, and you can remove it simply with a solution if you want to strip it away. After we weld the frames, we submerge them into a tank to completely coat them. Then the frames gets painted. The ceramic coating is good for protection such as when you use the bike in varied climates or when you accidentally scratch the frame.
SNT: How did Vaast Bikes come to be?
MK: Vaast started in the autumn of 2018 and is part of a larger group, Huffy Holdings, which also owns Niner and Batch, another small startup. I joined our parent company about two years ago. To be frank, the last thing the industry needed was another bike brand. Our parent company didn’t need another bike brand, either, but we felt it was important to build something with a focus on sustainability that would also be what consumers want. Our initial conversations were driven by a global focus on the environment and our use of natural resources. SNT: What differentiates Vaast’s brand from other bike brands?
MK: There are so many bike brands in the industry with phenomenal product, so we were looking at the technology that we’ve developed with our new materials. We wanted to give a new generation of consumers a brand and product that speaks more to adventure and exploration than racing. Plenty of bike brands out there have a long pedigree of racing. We wanted our brand to focus on adventure - things like the exploration of yourself, nature and the environment. We want it to be about the journey you’re taking. We said our brand is for “sports performance” because we’re not about elite level racing, and we’re not about entry level novices. We’re somewhere in between. At Vaast, we focus on transparency, endurance and longevity. We care about how our products are made, how long they last and what you do with it afterward. We make products that not only let people transport themselves in an environmentally friendly way, but are also sustainable throughout their life cycle. We’ve also looked at our packaging and our shipping, and we’ve chosen the components on our bikes based on what the vendors do to be sustainable.
SNT: So, it sounds like you’re targeting enthusiasts who care about the environment and about value?
MK: Yes, our product line is simple and relatable for the sports performance-oriented enthusiast. They’re not spending thousands of dollars on a bike, but they’re not spending only a couple of hundred dollars either. We build our bikes to be durable, and they feature sustainable componentry so you get a performance-oriented machine that’s the best value for the money. Our customers want a good bike that they can take anywhere and use for more than one type of riding. That’s why all of our bikes can use two different wheel sizes, and they have rack and fender mounts and other mounts for accessories, too. They’re all focused on multi-purpose, multi-surface riding. SNT: Is that why you spec Stan’s wheels on your bikes?
MK: A frame made out of magnesium costs half as much as one made out of carbon, which means we can invest more money in the wheels and drivetrain for a bike at a given price point. We focused our attention on being pragmatic and looked at what what impacts a bike’s ride feel and performance the most. We think wheels are important because 1) they are rotating mass; 2) they take the most impact; and 3) they interface with the ground. So we wanted the best wheel vendor with the best performing wheels. We looked for the leader in the industry and a credible brand with development over time, proven innovation and the trust of the consumer. We audited potential partners and picked the ones with a commitment to what we call a “Vibrant Cycling Ecology.” Personally, I’ve used Stan’s products for a long time in many different applications. I appreciate how easily Stan’s rims interact with different tires, their overall quality and their longevity.
SNT: Tell us more about your bikes.
MK: When we built the brand, we wanted a simple line-up with two bikes in each category: Allroad, Mountain, Urban and Youth. The geometries are designed to be super capable in many terrains, and all can accommodate multiple wheel sizes. We sell complete bikes or frames only, and there’s a lifetime warranty on all of our frames. We offer two spec levels for each model’s complete bikes, and every one has a 1x drivetrain. We keep our product line small, so our Allroad model, for example, has just two specs: one Shimano and one SRAM. We know that we’re a small startup brand, and bigger brands usually take up most of the floor space in shops. Many people who have ridden our bikes say that they feel like they are riding a carbon frame. They say our bikes are more compliant ride-wise than they were expecting.
SNT: Where are your frames made and your bikes built?
MK: We make our frames at the ALLITE® factory where they make our proprietary alloy. There is just one factory in the world that does this, and it’s outside Shanghai in China. The frames are then brought to Taiwan for surface treatment, paint and assembly. Vaast is based in Dayton, Ohio.
SNT: If I wanted to get one, how would I do so?
MK: Today, we’re working with a growing group of retailers in North American. With a product like ours, it’s important to be able to touch and feel and test ride it. We work with retailers who offer that opportunity. You can get our bikes from those retailers in person or buy on our website, and we’ll ship to you via one of our retailers. We’re in production right now and are delivering the first bikes to the dealers.
SNT: You’ve worked in the cycling industry for a long time in many different capacities. What trends have you been seeing?
MK: In the past, many people had three to four bikes, but now I see more people slimming that number down. It’s not bad that people want multi-purpose bikes; it’s great to see more riders able to ride outside by doing things like taking a road bike off road onto gravel or other surfaces. The beauty of the allroad trend is that it enables people to get out and see more places they haven’t seen yet and to be more safe from cars as they do so on lesser traveled roads. It also means that people are investing more money into their one allroad bike, which takes the place of a traditional road bike. I’m also seeing involvement in e-bikes grow in the past 10-12 years. It enables more people to go out and ride and have more fun and ride further and faster than ever before. Hopefully, it will also trigger the creation of more and better infrastructure around the world for all cyclists. All photos courtesy of Vaast Bikes.