Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Elusive Promise Of Carbon Fiber

I've been around this bicycle stuff for a while now and because I am blessed with something of a decent memory, sometimes things float to the top of consciousness that make me ponder whay the things are the way they are now. One of those times was yesterday, when I was out speeding around on a carbon hard tail wonderbike.

Yesterday at Ingawanis Woods
I recall that back in the early 90's, the bicycle companies were touting carbon fiber as the material that could be "tuned". Up until that point, frame materials were some sort of metal, for the most part, and of those, most had a "reputation" for a certain ride trait.

Steel was the "springy, lively" material, but heavy, aluminum was the "dead, harsh riding" material, but had lighter weight, and titanium was the "magic carpet ride", but was very expensive and had a reputation for being flexy.

Carbon fiber, it was being said, was a material that could be all of those things, because it is man made and controllable as far as how one would want it to feel in terms of a bicycle's ride qualities. It had a "promise" of being light, like titanium and aluminum, but ride like steel, and still be stiff where you wanted it to be, but maybe not as stiff where you wanted rider comfort.

This didn't happen right away. This didn't happen in a few years after it was being said. Maybe.....just maybe, it is happening now, a full 20 years afterward. Is that not sort of weird? Maybe, maybe not. Bicycles are not at the top of the heap when it comes to getting new technology. No, that goes to defense, aero-space, and the auto industry first, and maybe that's why the promise took so long to trickle down to the lowly cyclist.

Check out those bluebells!
So, whatever.....yesterday I was riding this Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Carbon rig. I had one of these back in 2010 here, which was a great bike. Carbon fiber and all, and it rode quite nicely, but it was dead feeling and actually, it was a bit harsh in the saddle. But I liked the way it handled, the way it accelerated, and it was decently lightweight.

Now I am riding this 2013 model as a review bike for Twenty Nine Inches, and it is night and day different in feeling. This rides like a steel bike. It springs and smooths out things, and all at an amazing light weight. Is this finally the fulfillment of that "carbon promise" made all those years ago? Hmm.........ya know, maybe it is. 

And maybe it isn't either. I mean.....this bike is expensive! You don't get a front shock,  and don't even get a front derailleur! So, there is that money factor, the price to buy in, that carbon fiber has seemed to always been  at the extreme of. You also still have that specter of failure to hang over your head as well. Carbon fails catastrophically, most of the time. Not an appealing feature, and added in to this is the fact that carbon can be quite weak in resisting blows if they are applied at an angle the frame wasn't meant to deal with them at. Snap! Crack! Yeah.....

While that is getting rarer and carbon fiber frames are used in DH competitions and in other realms thought to be the exclusive place for steel, (BMX), and aluminum and titanium, (XC/Trail), it still figures into the public's consciousness.

Carbon fat bikes? Why yes...
But carbon marches on and is being put to use in many places. Even fat bikes are going to get the carbon fiber treatment and you have to figure that those big rims will be another thing rendered in carbon and resin soon.

But unless something can be done about these things costing $2000.00-$2500.00 for frames and forks, (at least for the "best" quality stuff), and until the public can accept this material fully and trust it wholeheartedly, the "promise" remains an elusive one in the bicycle world. A promise reserved for the well heeled and fortunate to taste? Mostly, it would seem that way. Yes, there are the direct from China offerings, but those are generally not the "latest-greatest" technology on the planet for bicycles either. The price is definitely a lot more appealing though. That's for sure!

So, I am saying that while the "promise" of a smooth riding, lively carbon frame can now be manufactured and is available, it still is a rarefied air sort of product that not many are going to be able to justify. Certainly not when you see titanium frames with outstanding features and competitive weights selling for less. And those are "metal" frames with a reputation for resiliency that resonates with consumers. So a "steel-like riding" carbon fiber frame- elusive, yes- but possible.

The saying goes that carbon is just too labor intensive to come down in price much, but you never know. Maybe manufacturers will drop all this super-stiffness nonsense. Maybe someday the promise won't be quite so elusive,(and expensive!).


finn maguire said...

I think I share your opinion on carbon and was excited to see where this post was going...and then it went to the 2013 Carbon Stumpy, a bike I rode for a long time and tried setting up many different ways, but still always felt like the rear wheel was shooting arrows into my asscheeks via the seat tubes. I finally, mercifully, sold it and switched to a 2013 Cdale F(lash) 29 Carbon, which is a bit better, but still requires beefier tires and a soft saddle to dampen the arrow-to-ass effect.

Then there's my 2010 Scandium Niner One9 with its Boticellian curved seatstays that allow me to sit and spin, and bear down on my carbon dualie teammates on the rocky downs, much to their growls. I call it my "full suspension hardtail."

Anyway, I'm still not sold on carbon. I wish I was as the weight savings and climbing stiffness is great, but I'd still take my scandium niner and even my old rusty steel Karate Monkey over a new carbon hardtail any day.

Brian said...

I think the real trouble with price, at this point, is in terms of R&D. This bike has made massive gains over three seasons --that's new engineering, new molds, and new layups being made multiple times each year. Until manufacturers get to the point where they're using 3/5/10-year old molds to pump out another couple thousand 'perfect' bikes, the cost won't come down because they won't realize the economy-of-scale-type gains, and that means the prices will stay high.

Matt Maxwell said...

Carbon has come a long way, but it still isn't "Ragbrai-proof". In other words when you're drunk and standing on your top-tube aluminum is still better.

Guitar Ted said...

@Matt Maxwell: Now that is funny!