Thursday, November 17, 2011

Carbon 29"er Wheels: Black Magic Or Bad Disco? Part II

When I posted on this subject last week (seen here), I got a lot of responses. One of the things that recently came to the fore was about carbon fiber in general. Why is it that some components and frames are so expensive, while others seem so cheap in comparison. It is then assumed that somebody is making a lot of hay off of something that shouldn't be so expensive.  Carbon is carbon, after all, or is it? 

Commodity or special design?
 You see, there seems to be a viewpoint held by many that points to carbon fiber products as a commodity that certain companies are over-charging for. The "same frame as they are using" can be bought on an on-line Asian factory outlet for hundreds less. But is it really the same frame? Is it made with the same standards and quality of carbon fiber that a well known brand may specify?

I doubt consumers could actually know this data. Not with any certainty, at any rate. And do know that there are several levels of quality in carbon fiber raw materials, and that doesn't touch on the manufacturing angle.

I read an article some time ago now that detailed the enormous energy required to manufacture carbon fiber strands. (Yes- it really isn't a very "green" material to use, but that's another story altogether.) What caught my eye was the disparity in price at the raw material state for different types of carbon fiber. Prices varied from approximately 30-40% just for the raw fiber materials. Then you add resins, and then you add design requirements, labor, manufacturing costs, and final destination charges with labor to assemble the frame into a bike on top of that.

My point here is that when taken into context, carbon fiber isn't "just carbon" and there are a lot of places where prices could vary. Then you have "catalog companies".

These are Asian sources that have designs already "in the can" that product managers can look at and choose from. Sometimes there are several choices in quality that all look the same outwardly. Product managers then can specify options which differentiate their brand and specific models from other companies choosing from the same catalog. On top of this, some of these factories have set up shop on-line selling the lowest cost options direct to consumers. It's happened previously with rigid carbon forks, and now it is happening with carbon fiber frames.

Molded to very precise tolerances in Mexico.
When other companies that do their own R&D, own their own facilities for making carbon components, and use proprietary materials and techniques come along, they get unfairly bunched in with the things that are going on in the on-line world- the "carbon commodity" mentality, and viewpoints get skewed.

In the particular case of companies like Easton, or Enve, as examples, they are doing things that just are not coming out of Asia, and can not be duplicated or copied easily, or at all. Yet, they are "carbon fiber", so you know....."they are ripping us off with those ridiculous prices".

So, in a lot of ways I think folks do see carbon fiber wheels and frames as some kind of "black magic" that isn't real, because the on-line marketers of carbon components have made folks think they are getting stuff from the on-line companies at cheaper prices than what is being charged by bigger brands. But is the quality the same? Is the carbon used lower end, or upper end? Are the processes used the same, or different than the bigger brands use, and does any of that make any difference?

To some, it doesn't. It's just about saving money for something that looks expensive. That's the "bad disco" part. And it is hard for the average folks to separate the sheep from the goats.


B said...

Have you ridden a calfee frame or similar GT? I road my old alum frame the other day and after steel it rattled my teeth...

Bruce Brown said...

Excellent post, Mark!

I have used and tested hundreds of carbon golf shafts the past 20+ years. Having stood on the range testing out the top of the line products from Easton compared to the "cheap Asia knockoffs" - there is no comparison in performance (at least with golf club shafts). I have to assume it is the same with carbon frames, wheels, etc... as you point out in your post.

Well done. Carbon is not carbon - at least in terms of all being created equal.

Garet Steinmetz AKA G-Wiz said...

I read over your original post, along with this one. Some interesting points were brought up. One thing you mentioned was that if carbon wheels could get under 2g's, they'd be more appealing. How about Specialized Carbon Rovals? 1400 grams, and only $1700. They went up a bit this year, but regardless they're still under 2g's. I've raced, ridden, and otherwise beat the hell out of mine this year. They've been great, and the weight and stiffness is second to none. I also back up the fact that carbon is repairable. We have a local guy in KC who repairs carbon with a lifetime warrenty... Cheap. He's repaired my Epic and I've been ripping it hard ever since. Just a few thoughts.


Guitar Ted said...

@Garet Steinmetz AKA G-Wiz: On the Twenty Nine Inches side, (The website I run about 29"ers), we are doing a Roval Carbon wheel test right now. My writer in SoCal is riding them, so I look forward to hearing more about them from him. So far-so good!

You are also correct about carbon's ability to be repaired. The shop where I work has used Calfee and they did a great job on the repairs we have had them do.

recyclist said...

". . .but are they the same?" I don't know. Anytime you see a cost difference one presumes quality difference, but sometimes you just pay for sexy. The whole iMovement is about $ for sexy and sometimes it is the same in the bike industry. Some times new is just a different sexy to instill desire and liberate you of your $$$.

Guitar Ted said...

@recyclist: But you see, you've just validated my point. Nobody really knows, yet many equate all carbon products similarly. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle between yours and Bruce Brown's comments.