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.