11 November 2012 ~ 4 Comments

Aren’t Carbon Fiber Bikes Just Fancy Plastic?

Ever since I started riding with other randonneurs, the mantra has been among many of them that “steel is real,” dismissing carbon fiber as inadequate for long distance cycling. Many of them prefer a steel or titanium frame because of the ride quality and most importantly, the durability. They claim that carbon fiber (and many aluminum frames) simply don’t have the long term strength to hold up to the thousands of miles a typical randonneur puts on, especially over multiple years of use. I figure that I can purchase a carbon fiber bike and if I get five to six years out of it, that is good enough, since it is lighter, which for me, at the age of 58, yields high performance.

In April of 2010 I found a new 2009 Rocky Mountain Prestige 70CR carbon fiber road bike at a Salt Lake City shop. I got this model because it has relaxed geometry including a tall head tube — an important feature for my tall 6′ 4″ height. Rocky bikes are noted for their big lineup of mountain bikes and not for their road bike line. Their retail pricing was typically much less than the big brands like Trek, Cannondale or Specialized. With a close-out discount of 30% I was persuaded to make the purchase.

For the next two years I put on about 13,000 miles on this bike. In the fall of 2011, my local mechanic, while doing an annual maintenance overhaul, which included lubing the bottom bracket, pointed out a hairline fracture on the carbon fiber near where the alloy bottom bracket attaches to the carbon fiber. I took the bike up to the dealer where I made the purchase. They opened it up but didn’t think there was an eminent problem or possible frame failure. The warranty for this bike frame is five years. I continued riding it and the following summer, it started to look worse. This time I e-mailed photos to Rocky Mountain Bikes in Canada for review. After they reviewed the photos they promised me a new frame, which was later (July of 2012) delivered at no charge to me. I did have to pay my local mechanic to strip off the old components and put them on the new frame. Their customer service was professional and quick.

So were my rando-cycling friends correct in indicating that most carbon frames will not last? Do all brands start to crap out after 10 to 15,000 miles? Or is the problem only with this off-brand road frame, whereas a frame from one of the big three manufactures would last longer? I believe that many randonneurs, quite frankly, just like the aesthetics of old school components. Personally, I just look at the end of the day practical performance, without regard to how cool or vintage my gear looks. I honestly thought I would get five or six years out of this frame, and then if necessary, purchase another frame to replace it. (I affectionately refer to this bike as my “Tuperware bike” since carbon fiber is basically a “plastic” right?) I read recently that the Cannondale pro team gets four new bikes every season (two racing bikes, one training bike and a time trial bike). They would never have a chance to literally wear one out as I did. Most “average Joe” cyclists, that do two or three century rides a season, put on maybe 1,000 to 2,000 miles a year. At that rate, they would never wear out a frame before the components became “old school” and not worthy or stylish to ride in public. So are carbon fiber bikes designed like most consumer vacuum cleaners…to barely last past the warranty period? (I was told this by a Wal-Mart manager—I own a German-made commercial vacuum in our household.)

Meanwhile, I now have a new “Tuperware” bike, but I have also taken preventative measures to prolong the life of that frame. Since then I have acquired other road bikes to spread out the mileage. First I purchased a used 2009 Cannondale CAAD10 aluminum cyclo-cross bike, which now has full fenders for wet-weather training rides or dirt road riding. I can put either road slicks or narrow knobby tires on it. And then more recently, I acquired a 2nd-hand Seven Axiom titanium road bike (the owner was replacing it with a Specialized Tarmac carbon fiber racing frame). I am currently in the process of building it up (including an extra long custom crank) and will have a review on it later. Depending how I like the Seven bike, I may use that frame instead of the Rocky for long events, despite it’s increased weight. (In September I achieved a new personal record on the Seven bike with it’s original components [clunky 53/39 double & a worn out BB]…a 6:59 solo 200K). Titanium is supposed to almost last forever, making it a lifetime investment. The frame I purchased is ten years old and has no indication of hairline fractures or frame problems. Stay tuned, as I ride the Seven Axiom more, with the new crank and gearing, which I just received last week, I will have better opinion on whether steel (or ti) is really more real.

On a side note, on the chain stays of the Rocky frame, it says in bold type “Built in Canada,” yet the new frame, when it was delivered, clearly said “Made in China.” So does that mean the frame is made in China and the components are added in Canada? Hmmm….these days, nearly every frame is made in either Taiwan or China, so it really comes as no surprise.

4 Responses to “Aren’t Carbon Fiber Bikes Just Fancy Plastic?”

  1. Dave Spaizman 18 February 2013 at 4:01 pm Permalink

    I have been reading your blog for a while and find some commonality being 6’4′ and putting in some decent miles on a road bike. In June 2010 I moved from a ’90s Italian bike made of Columbus steel tubing over to a full carbon 64cm Madone 5.2. It came with a big label that reads: “hand made in the USA”. By the end of 2010 I was doing almost all my riding on it. Moving into my second year on the bike I changed the wheels, tire size and saddle to create a more civilized ride. Now it has been over 2 years and I’m closing in on 13,000 miles with no signs of weakness or hairline cracks, yet. I ride it just about everyday with my only real complaint being the pits and abrasions in the paint job caused my small rocks and pebbles. If all goes well I should see 18 or 19K by years end. I have very long leg extension and the bike has a 175 crank. I am curious what the length of you custom crank is, let me know if you can.

  2. Richard 7 May 2013 at 2:09 pm Permalink

    I’m an old weight-wennie. Steel might be real, but is also heavier than other materials. Since then I have purchased a 2nd-hand Seven titanium frame.

  3. John Ward 15 December 2014 at 7:07 pm Permalink

    Richard, in response to carbon fiber bikes for brevets and long distance riding. I bought a felt Z-4 to have a lite bike for brevets in 2012 I also have a titanium Motobecane cyclocross with mechanical discs as a rain bike. I put only 7,600 miles on the Felt before finding a 2 inch crack in the center of the chain stays in October of 2013.I called the bike shop and he said they do fail sometimes.I had a new frame in less then 2 weeks, just had to pay to tranfer the group on it. Since then I bit the bullet and bought a lynskey sportive disc titanium with the new 11 speed ultegra electronic shifting and the hydraulic disc brakes for my long rides. The Lynskey is really a great distance bike and the shifting and braking are unreal.I find my self descending faster then I ever have because the braking is so great. The bike has not done any rides over 125 miles long yet but the ride is very smooth and yes it may weigh more then the Felt, but I think it will last longer then the carbon fiber. I did break a litespeed titanium frame years ago ,2″ up from the bottom bracket. I was the second owner so that frame was not covered under warranty. So yes I think a lot of carbon bikes will not last along time for distance riding. I have seen 4 other carbon fiber frame failures in the last 2 years. 3 of them were on bikes used by normal club riders. The 4 frames were each from a different manufacturer. So keep up the good gear and blogs. John

  4. Rando Richard 15 December 2014 at 9:22 pm Permalink

    John,
    Not sure you saw my post on the comfort of Ti vs. Carbon frames. This summer I did two 24-hour (or more) races. Gotta tell you, the Ti just is not as comfy. In fact, late this summer, I have been switching around my aerobars converting both bikes to have them and then not. During one ride, a 100K hill climb, I rode the Seven Ti bike w/o the aerobars. Normally, I have kept aerobars on that frame, but just wanted to lighten my load and test this frame in that mode. Afterwards, my hands were numb, despite wearing gel gloves and using 25mm tires. And that was after a major upgrade — I put on a high-end Enve fork (100% carbon, including the drop-outs).
    I am torn, because, like you, I want a frame that will last a long time, but I also want comfort!
    ~ Rando Richard