Do I Really Need a Carbon Fiber Bike?
Whether you’re in the market for a new mountain bike, road bike, cyclocross bike or maybe even a touring bike, composite carbon fiber is more popular than ever thanks to its outstanding strength to weight ratio and its increasing affordability. But despite being more affordable than ever, carbon fiber is still more expensive than most aluminum and steel alternatives. So does a carbon fiber bike offer enough of a performance advantage to make it worth the extra cost?
When it comes to all-out performance, strength versus weight is the ultimate deciding factor. And when it comes to strength versus weight, at this point, nothing beats composite carbon fiber. So for those in search of a bike compromising absolutely nothing in weight, responsiveness or performance, then yes, carbon fiber is going to be the best overall choice in most cases.
But most cyclists don’t have aspirations of becoming a national champion or even winning a local race for that matter. And if you’re in this category, justifying carbon fiber is a little more difficult. Modern aluminum and steel bikes offer outstanding durability, performance, value and although not as light carbon, not much heavier either.
Aluminum and steel offer advantages including far better impact resistance, and in the case of steel, better ride qualities. For more than a century, steel has been the choice of many bike buyers thanks to its incredible compliance over rough roads and liveliness, characteristics that experienced cyclists equate to “communicating” well with the rider, enhancing the enjoyment of the riding experience.
However, unlike aluminum and steel, if a carbon fiber frame is damaged, a composites expert can reliably and safely repair the frame for less cost than a replacement. Aluminum and steel, if damaged significantly enough, isn’t generally worth the cost to repair.
Road and Cyclocross Bikes
The case for carbon fiber is strongest with road bikes, where weight, aerodynamics shock absorption and stiffness are often at the top of a performance bike buyer’s list. There’s no debate that carbon fiber is the best material for a high performance road bike, as evidenced by its use with nearly every professional cyclist in the peloton today. If pinning a number on your shirt or chasing your friends in a weekly group ride is the goal, then a carbon fiber bike might be worth the extra cost.
Depending on your budget, carbon fiber road and cyclocross bikes have become popular enough that there are now different performance grades of carbon fiber. The higher the modulus of the carbon fiber used, the stiffer, lighter and more expensive it is. Higher modulus also means more sensitivity to impact, so owners must be extra vigilant in taking care of the bike.
Lower modulus carbon fiber bikes can now be had for a couple hundred dollars more than a similarly equipped aluminum or steel bike, making them perhaps the best overall performance value. But if buying used, it is critical to verify that any carbon fiber bike in question has never been crashed hard or damaged, as most manufacturers will not offer frame warranties to non-original owners.
Aluminum can be a more affordable alternative to carbon fiber without much weight penalty, but what aluminum lacks is the shock absorbing characteristics of carbon fiber. On a bumpy road, the difference in comfort between aluminum and carbon fiber is most noticeable. However, in an age where high performance aluminum road bikes are getting harder to find, Cannondale still makes incredibly capable road bikes out of aluminum with exceptional shock absorbing characteristics. The company has absolutely pioneered aluminum as a frame material, offering performance and weight that’s very close to carbon fiber with less cost.
For those more interested in doing centuries, Gran Fondos and bike touring, steel is a terrific option thanks to its superior ride qualities and feedback that make some carbon fiber bikes feel numb and lifeless. Additionally, steel bikes have seen resurgence in recent years as rolling works of art thanks to hundreds of custom frame builders. This is another benefit of steel – for the same price as a mass-produced carbon fiber road bike with only a handful of size options, you can have a steel road bike completely custom made to your body dimensions, color preference and riding style. Modern steel tubing isn’t as heavy as some may think, with some steel road bikes weighing only a pound or two more than a similarly equipped carbon fiber bike. Plus a steel bike is so durable that it might well outlive its owner.
Titanium is another very popular frame material with custom builders, but its cost is considerably higher than steel. For the true cycling aficionado where cost is not a factor, titanium offers the best overall balance of durability, weight, performance, aesthetics and responsiveness.
When it comes to mountain bikes, the case for carbon fiber is harder to justify because of its inherent susceptibility to impact damage. However, this weakness is mainly limited to lightweight hardtail and full-suspension bikes designed for cross-country racing. These bikes, which can weigh as little as 20 pounds with front suspension, can have extremely thin tubes that can easily crack when crashed into rocks. Aluminum frames are almost as light, are far more impact resistant and cost significantly less, but they deliver a noticeably harsher ride than carbon fiber over bumpy, rocky terrain. Steel mountain bikes can be several pounds heavier than carbon fiber, but can offer perhaps the best ride quality of any frame material for off-road use.
Perhaps the biggest advancement with carbon fiber mountain bikes in the last five years has been with longer-travel full-suspension mountain bikes, also known as all-mountain, trail or enduro bikes. The tubing on these bikes is significantly thicker and far more resistant to impact while still being lightweight. But because these bikes feature incredibly plush suspension, the shock absorbing characteristics of carbon fiber are less noticeable. Most riders would be hard pressed to detect a difference between an aluminum and carbon fiber version of the same trail bike. And the price differences can be significant, making the aluminum version seem like a far better value.
When it comes to carbon fiber, the case for composites is strongest for high performance road bikes, cyclocross bikes and race-specific cross-country mountain bikes. But if you’re in the market for a full-suspension trail bike, ride both carbon fiber and aluminum models. You might find that it isn’t necessarily worth spending the extra coin for carbon fiber.
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