Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Materials Vs Design

Wow! I was on the internet-o-sphere again yesterday and saw where another mid-level bicycle compnay is going to offer a carbon fiber 29 inch wheel based hard tail. The news source reporting this said that some companies are being accused of being “late to the carbon 29′r HT party". Really?

This would indicate to me that the thought process is that it is all about what you make your frame out of. If that is the case, I can tell you a lot of folks are being snookered by "Carbon Fiber: The Snake Oil Of Frame Materials".

Hey! Don't get me wrong- Carbon fiber, used correctly, and of a higher quality, can be a "magic carpet ride" material. But let's face it, you can use the "best material" and still come up with a "klunker" of a bicycle. And the way things are going, it seems that it is more about having a carbon fiber hard tail, and price point, than it is about smart design, and maybe, possibly another material better for the job.

 <===Yes it is carbon fiber, but the design is what won me over.

As I have said, a smart design in carbon fiber is one thing: The material and geometry working together to bring a higher level of performance, or a more enjoyable ride, or both together, ideally. Then you have the frames that are carbon fiber, but are, well.......they aren't that fun to ride, or they just stink from a handling/performance standpoint.

But hey! We have a carbon fiber 29"er hard tail for ya! Right over here! Step this way! Snake oil, I tell ya. Get on the bandwagon. Which leads me to....

Carbon Fiber: The Commodity: I've written about this before here, where I talk about how some companies are using scary-similar looking molds and charging vastly different prices. Carbon fiber is "carpet fiber", right? I mean, look at the rush to the bottom on the road bike side. Companies are fighting to bring carbon road bike frames into their lines at sub $1500.00 for completes, and next year that will go lower. The "grey market" on carbon road frames is crazy right now, and as I stated in my piece from a couple weeks ago, mountain bikes, and 29 inch hard tails in particular, are headed down this slippery slope at breakneck speed.

<===OS Bikes Blackbuck II- Steel, reasonably priced, great performance.

Meanwhile, companies like OS Bikes, Vassago, Singular, Salsa Cycles, and others are selling reasonably priced steel frames and aluminum frames that are, well.......awesome! And yes- steel and to some degree aluminum, rides great, but the deal is that these companies and others have just made use of great materials and designed a bicycle with great geometry that is fun to ride, high performance, and reasonably priced. Oh! Did I mention that these materials are proven in the field with years of use? Not that carbon fiber couldn't be, but the variables are far greater with regards to carbon fiber. 

 Some of these bikes have a lot of thought in the geometry and the execution of the design. Yet they are not all that fancy-pants in the marketability department, apparently, like carbon fiber is.

So, what's the point? Forget the hype maybe, I guess. It just seems to me that the hype over the carbon frames is getting a little lopsided and design, and smart materials use is being overshadowed, that's all.


grannygear said...

"Carbon Fiber: The Snake Oil Of Frame Materials".

Guffah...snicker, snicker. Funny, dat. You are a poke in the eye of the marketing guys, I tell ya.

Keep it up.

Head Honcho said...

ya. I like that line too. I wish I could say I've ridden a a carbon bike to say definitively that they're not for me. But they don't make them big enough. Guess that's my answer for sticking with steel...

blackmountaincycles said...

"Carbon fiber" is not an adjective (someone else came up with that term). Yet, everyone seems to think that it is. At the same time, it is known that there are varying grades of steel and aluminum. A 6061 plain gauge aluminum frame is not the same as an Easton 7005 butted tubeset, yet they are both "aluminum." A hi-ten steel frame is still steel, much like a Reynolds 853 tube is also steel.

I think this is less about geometry and more about the bluring of what exactly it is that makes a carbon fiber frame. The truth of the matter is the cost to make a carbon fiber frame is pretty much the same across the board. However, by the time the cost is paid at the cash register, the differences are profound between different brands. Are you paying for a huge marketing effort? Are you paying for the company's in house engineering and design and their mold costs?

Everyone knows that a $900 titanium frame is not the same as a $2900 Steve Potts titanium frame, yet that distinction is not so clear among the swoopy, painted curves of a carbon fiber frame.


Guitar Ted said...

@blackmountaincycles/Mike: I get your point, but I think that the "out the back door" carbon sales by Chinese companies, the "rush to the bottom" in terms of price points on carbon road bikes, (in particular), and the over-all perception/misunderstanding about carbon fiber by consumers is quickly making "carbon fiber" the "Kleenex" of frame materials. Just buy the cheapest one you can find, because "they are all the same/good".

That's where I see this carbon fiber frame thing going.

Unknown said...

Mike, I respectfully disagree with this statement, even knowing your experience.

"the cost to make a carbon fiber frame is pretty much the same across the board".

It's too broad a generalization. Yes, certainly you are paying for the costs you've outlined, but you are also paying for materials used, factory overhead, the quality of one factory to the next (which can be significant), certainly engineering, testing, and development play a role as well, don't forget quality assurance... There is certainly a difference between a 'big three' manufacturers frame and a 'carbon Walmart' frame in all aspects.

Doesn't mean I would spend my own dollars to ride one...but certainly it's not simple enough to make generalizations about all manufacturers.

MG said...

Good points Joe. Thanks for offering that perspective.


blackmountaincycles said...

Yes, that was a broad statement and you are correct. My meaning was more about he actual OEM cost of making a frame not taking into account the various costs incurred by companies who go to the extra measures to actually engineer and do their own QC on frames - as well as actually being present during production. Going to the TBG for a seat post clamp is one thing. Going to it for a carbon frame is another.