To many people carbon fiber is a space aged material, created by the aero space industry to send astronauts into space. And while that is true, we have come a long way in the understanding of carbon fiber and the manufacturing of carbon fiber things. For our purposes the manufacturing of bicycles.
Most of our industry’s carbon fiber bicycles are made in Asian countries. For a long time, and for many still, saying something was Chinese carbon was a dig at the quality of the part. But when you realize that most of our major brands are made by the same companies we would call Chinese carbon, it really makes you think! None of the majors in the USA make their own carbon frames in house anymore. Trek has their frames made by Giant, who is one of the largest manufacturers of carbon bike frames in the world!
The fear of many is that carbon fiber is just not as tough as other materials when it comes to making bikes. That just looking at a carbon bike wrong can break it. And in a way carbon bikes are less tough when compared to other materials like steel, aluminum, or titanium. But there is a reason for that. One of the reasons carbon fiber products can be made so light, is they can be made strong in the ways required for the task. A steel tube is going to be strong and multiple directions, so it can take heavy impacts from crashing as well as stand up to the rigors of riding a bike. But if you don’t plan on doing a cycling discipline where crashing is part of the sport, like street style BMX, then you don’t want that extra weight. So we make bicycles out of carbon fiber for a very small range of stress.
The types of carbon fiber used, as well as how much carbon is used can also determine the toughness of a bicycle. Often times you will hear brands talk about Hi Mod carbon fiber. Hi Mod or High Modulus carbon fiber is a higher grade of carbon fiber able to reach much higher stiffness when used in products. In bicycles we strive for stiffness in order to be able to transfer our power through the cranks and into our back wheel as efficiently as possible. The less flex in a bike frame the more power is transferred. Higher stiffness is also higher in brittleness. This is where carbon fiber starts to show issues when a force is applied outside of the bike’s intended use. A top tube is only meant to take the forces from the road, up through the wheels and fork and into the frame. As well as the weight of the rider pressing down on the bike. But if the rider crashes and their handlebar swings around at high speed and hits the top tube, this is a force that is generally not taken into account when designing the bike. Why? Because that would require more material in a different orientation and would add weight. A lot of weight? No, but for us cyclists obsessed with weight, and bike companies who have banked on weight for years, it matters. Could we design carbon bikes to be more robust and handle accidents better? Sure, but they would be heavier and negate the purpose of using such and high cost light weight material.
So if we are using a material that in some cases can easily be damaged, what’s the point right? Are you just throwing your money away buying these pricey bike frames? Luckily no. For many years people thought carbon fiber was un-fixable, but really that was just industry manufacturers trying to make you buy new instead of repairing. A policy that has put a lot of carbon fiber frames into landfills when they had plenty of life left. Over the last 9 years we have been doing our best to help people realize that carbon fiber is a wonder material because it is so repairable. There are a few parts of a bike that we wont fix mostly out of an over abundance of caution, but other than fork, handlebars, stems, and wheels, we can and have fixed everything on a bicycle. We have even replaced half of a bike frame multiple times. Having your bike repaired isn’t cheap, but it is almost always less expensive than getting a new frame.
So if you have a carbon fiber frame, feel a little better than even if the worst does happen and your beautiful frame is damaged. There is always a repair. Don’t just throw that frame away and add to the trash heaps of the world. There is plenty of life left in that frame. Shoot you might even get a new paint job while you are at it.