Monday, July 28, 2014

Carbon Bikes in the NYT

Saw this article about carbon fiber bikes in the New York Times this weekend:

Notice that the bike on the left sheared off at the fork. Yeah,
it was a crash, but that'll never make it into the ads.
I often take issue with what I read about bicycles, bicycling, and bicyclists when regular media covers the subject, but I couldn't help but agree with most of the points brought up about carbon bikes in the NYT. Okay, the article is not exactly hard-hitting journalism (can't spare the hard-hitters for bicycle stories, I guess). There's not a lot of supported data, and if anyone involved in the industry in any way spoke to Times, they aren't named. But it confirms what I've been saying for a while now, so I'll take what I can get.

The article starts out by mentioning Greg LeMond's use of carbon fiber back in his Tour de France victories -- something I mentioned in a recent post -- then talks about how the material has completely supplanted steel and aluminum in the pro peloton since then, not only for frames, but also rims and most other components.

And they're right when they point out the advantages, which are the whole reason the CF dominates racing bike construction today. Carbon fiber can be moulded and manipulated in all kinds of ways while still being considerably lighter than metals like steel or aluminum. But rather than act as the cheerleader like most bicycling publications do, hyping the benefits at though there were no downsides, the article quickly looks at the tradeoffs.

"But there has been a catch," the NYT says. "Unlike steel or aluminum, carbon fiber does not bend in crashes. Rather the bikes and wheels frequently shatter, often hurling riders to the road and, many fear, increasing the severity of injuries." Nothing new there to Retrogrouches, but I think many others are in denial.

I liked this quote:

"Anyone in a team who's being honest with you will tell you how frequently their bikes are breaking; everybody knows," said Mark Greve, a physician and assistant professor of sports medicine at Brown University who studied injuries to 3,500 competitive cyclists. "Few people in the public appreciate how many bikes a pro team will go through in a season, because they break for one reason or another. The bikes, they completely explode."

Something the article touches on that I've long believed but couldn't find much corroboration for, is the sense that there's almost a "code of silence" when it comes to the fragility of carbon bikes. "The teams and riders exist, in part, to act as powerful marketing tools for bike makers. . . When they spoke on the condition they not be identified, their stories emerged."

The thing is, racers will continue to use CF -- and why wouldn't they? In racing, every second counts (sometimes even fractions of a second), and racers at the top levels of the sport want any and every advantage they can get. They get paid to ride, and they ride what the sponsors give them. They have few, if any, concerns about durability, since anything that breaks will be replaced for them. As long as the bikes will make it through the season (or at least 'till the end of the next race) they're fine with it. And even though there is a bigger risk of something breaking, I'm sure they feel the odds are at least in their favor as long as they don't crash -- and who ever plans on crashing?

There was a telling quote in there from Robert Millar, a former teammate of LeMond's, and another early racer on carbon fiber frames. "Would I be happy to use a carbon bike if I was still racing? Yes, but that would be a custom product designed to be as light, fast and strong enough to withstand the demands of racing. The cost would be irrelevant."

But what about the rest of us? People who don't race? Or people who race on their own dime without the budget of a big pro team? Of course, anyone reading this knows what a Retrogrouch would say. The benefits don't outweigh the durability issues. And for most of us, the cost isn't, as Millar said, irrelevant. Mark Greve, from Brown University, said, "The performance gains from super light frames reached the point of diminishing returns long ago," and he "questions the wisdom of consumers' buying what are, in effect, very costly throwaway items if they crash." Agreed.

I've written before about the UCI and their weight limit rules (limiting bikes in the pro peloton to 6.8 kilograms, or about 15 pounds) and how they are now looking into changing the rules that were put in place back in 2000. The NYT article also mentions that restriction, and how it hasn't really had the intended effect. And that is demonstrably true. The point of the rule was to keep a measure of safety in racing bike construction for competition, adhering to the belief that a bike under the weight limit might have too many compromises in safety. But the manufacturers have continued to cut weight on frames and critical components, well below UCI restrictions -- then the racing teams just stick some extra weight back onto the bikes to bring them up the the limit. Obviously, throwing a little extra weight onto a bike might conform to the letter of the rule, but not the spirit or intent. Not only that, but it's a great marketing tool when the manufacturers can tell weight weenies about how they can buy bikes even lighter than what the pros use.

And when it comes to the fragility of carbon fiber -- well, that's taken care of with a wink and a nod. The stories are out there. The photos and videos are out there. But carbon pushers will always make excuses, or say things like "steel breaks, too." Sure -- steel breaks too. But steel at least gives some warnings before it fails. Steel usually wears its damage out in the open, and if it's not safe to ride, one will usually be able to tell. Carbon can hide flaws or damage until it's too late.

Another pro-carbon argument I've heard/read is how the manufacturers would never stay in business if carbon bikes failed as often as the stories and pictures would indicate. Warranty claims would bankrupt them. That could be true, except that the warranties have enough restrictions in them to pretty much leave anything but the most egregious breakage uncovered. It's right there in the owners manuals, like this one from Specialized. Here's a quote from the disclaimers for road bikes:

"You must understand that (1) these types of bikes are intended to give an aggressive racer or competitive cyclist a performance advantage over a relatively short product life, (2) a less aggressive rider will enjoy longer frame life, (3) you are choosing light weight (shorter frame life) over more frame weight and a longer frame life, (4) you are choosing light weight over more dent resistant or rugged frames that weigh more. All frames that are very light need frequent inspection. These frames are likely to be damaged or broken in a crash."

So, is that just a case of "cover your ass," or brutal honesty? And how many people who buy these things actually read the manufacturer's disclaimers?

Wrapping it up, even though the NYT article is a bit light on sources (named ones, anyhow) and more supportable data, it jives pretty well with what I've been saying for a while now. At the end of the article, they mention how steel is now "a niche element most commonly used by artisanal frame builders." Sadly, that's mostly true -- but for my money and my riding, it's an easy choice.


  1. Anybody that's ridden long enough has wrecked. Sometimes it's just being tired and you don't see some ridge that grabs your tire, and your pride is the only thing damaged. Sometimes it's a lot more serious. With steel, your odds of being able to get up and ride away are much better than with a CF bike. Even if your CF bike "seems" OK, it should forever be considered suspect afterwards, in my opinion. Steel bikes have to be beaten pretty savagely before they utterly fail.

    I've personally seen CF bikes crack and break. Sometimes with very little provocation. One particularly scary example was a group ride with some steep climbs. A strong young man was out of his saddle when his fork crumbled and he went over the handlebars. Aside from some roadrash, he was mostly OK. His (~$600, yikes!) fork was totaled. We couldn't figure out the cause, aside from wondering if maybe the combination of the rock hard/razor thin tires and him leaning hard on the bars put too much pressure on the forks. Weirdly, he replaced them with the same type of fork. Weight weenie.

    One of Grant Peterson's thoughts on CF bikes that makes me chuckle says something to the effect of: if you see an old steel bike, it is likely safe to ride, if you see an old CF bike (unlikely) take a pass on riding it. I cannot remember where I read it, wish I could find it to do the quote justice.


  2. CF is stronger than steel, but consumers willing to spend big bucks want to see that the frame is sub-900 grams. That used to be the weight of a steel fork! And have you noticed most "steel is real" boutique steel bike have... carbon forks??? They are a pound lighter and just as strong, so it's a no-brainer.

    My Cannondale SuperX cross bike is plenty light and seriously strong against impacts (ballistec in there just in case), manufacturers could make road bikes this way with only a 100 grams weight "penalty".