Is carbon for me?

If you’ve stopped into our shop within the last couple years, you’ve probably noticed the growth of the full carbon bikes, especially in our “tri room”.   The sales of carbon frames in the triathlon market have skyrocketed in the last several years, causing most of the triathlon bike manufacturers to make just 1 aluminum frame tri/tt bike, with the rest being full carbon.    Trying to find a full Ultegra or Dura Ace aluminum framed tri bike is next to impossible, as most manufactures are gearing their aluminum framed bike as the “entry level” tri bike with Shimano 105 or the like, and bike makers are assuming that the higher end market will want a full carbon frame.   As a result, the majority of bike manufacturers are putting the bulk of their research & development dollars into carbon frames.

With full carbon triathlon bikes like the B16 coming in under 2K, it's harder for people to justify spending more than that on an aluminum tri bike.

Outside of the question Road Bike or Tri Bike?, the next most asked question of us here at Gear West Bike and Tri is, “does a carbon frame really make a difference?”    If the sales of full carbon bikes over the past several years tell us anything, the answer is an overwhelming yes.   Not only has  the quality of full carbon frames risen dramatically, the price has come down just as dramatically.  This is due in part to efficiencies learned over the years and economy of scale with the increasing demand for full carbon.     Can there be poorly build carbon frames?  Yes, but the big boys in the industry (for us Trek, Felt, Quintana Roo, Cervelo) have the experience and technology to design carbon frames that will blow your mind.   And if my tour of the Trek factory in Waterloo, WI was any indication, bike makers are very careful to keep their technology secret.

Here are the main reasons that we’re seeing as why people are going carbon:

1.  Carbon Frames can be more vertically compliant. So what does that mean?  A unique quality of carbon is that depending on how the carbon layers are oriented it can be extremely stiff in one direction, but very compliant in another.   There are also different grades of carbon that have unique properties.  This means that, not unlike suspension on a bike, a well built carbon frame can ‘eat up’ those imperfections in the riding surface and smooth out your ride.   What this means for most people is that the ride quality will improve (think buttery smooth ride), and they will come off longer rides feeling less abuse on their bodies.  Obviously for people riding longer, this becomes more important.

Individual carbon fiber plies are hand placed inside a pre-build mold according to a layup schedule. How and where these pieces are layed up is proprietary by bike manufacturer and can make or break the ride experience.

2. Carbon Frames can be more laterally stiff. Again, the unique quality of carbon allows bike makers to orient and layer the carbon in such a way to make it extremely stiff laterally.  As manufacturers have honed their skills over the years, you’ll noticed that this aspect, particularly bottom bracket stiffness, has improved tenfold from the full carbon frames of 10 years ago.    The end result is riding the bike feeling that indescribable joy of knowing every once of your strength is propelling the bike forward.  This combined with the vertical compliance are factors that make up overall ride quality.  Many manufacturers claim to have the “best” ride quality, but as a consumer you need to look at things customer feedback and how many years has a specific company been making frames.

The 2011 Speed Concept is the result of countless wind tunnel hours.

3.  Carbon Frames can be more aerodynamic. In a lot of respects, the design and shape of a carbon bike is limited only by the minds of the maker.  They still have to comply with cycling rules and the laws of physics, but the mold-ability and strength of carbon allows for a lot more creativity in frame design.  Aluminum or titanium frames can never and will never match the aerodynamics of a carbon frame as it’s much harder to shape or modify.    As you would expect, aerodynamics plays a huge part in time trial/ triathlon frames, but not as much in road frames.

4.  Carbon Frames can be lighter. Alternatively, weight plays a much bigger factor in road frames vs. time trial/triathlon frames (where contrary to the opinion of many, does not really matter … especially in Minnesota!).   Depending on the skill of the maker, carbon frames can have a much better strength to weight ratio allowing bikes to get ridiculously light.  And anyone who has ever ridden an uber-lightweight bike knows it can make climbing and accelerating a relative breeze!

And here are a couple misconceptions about carbon frames that we hear:

Misconception 1. They aren’t as durable. We hear this one the most.  “I’m a big guy”, or “I travel a lot with my bike”.    As indicated by what we see for warranties, carbon frames are just as durable as aluminum or titanium (and we’re talking in the less than 1% range here).     Warranties for aluminum and titanium frames tend to come from fractures in the welds, while carbon frames do not have welds.    To bolster your confidence in carbon frames, nearly all manufacturers offer lifetime frame warranties, meaning that if anything happens to your frame during normal wear and tear, they will replace your bike at no charge.    Carbon frames are also no more or less prone to being damaged in a crash.   Aluminum or titanium will usually just bend, where carbon will break (both result in the loss of a bike).    In addition, most manufacturers will work with us on ‘crash replacements’ at a significantly cheaper price.   As with any nice bike, if you want to maintain the pristine look you’ll want to be careful not to scratch it in travel.  Just use packing materials when traveling with your bike.

Misconception 2. I’m not fast enough for carbon.     We hear this one a lot.   We don’t need a carbon bike either.  And nobody needs a carbon bike, but the reality is that you might as well take advantage of technology if it’s available.    Why should just the fast people get the fun of having the nicest stuff?

Misconception 3. Carbon frames will “go soft” after several years. We’ve heard this a few times… people thinking that the carbon will “give” more after a couple years of riding it, making it flexy over time.    Again, I’m going to go back to the fact that not all carbon frames are of the same quality.   There are some poor quality carbon frames on the market made by manufacturers who are “newer to the game”.   A well built carbon frame will last as long as you want it to last.

So there you have it.    Go bike shopping!

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