The Lighter the Bike, the Harder They Fall?

In the 1980s, Greg Lemond was the first Tour de France winner to ride a carbon fibre bike. This year, all competitors were riding carbon.

Unlike bikes made from steel, aluminum, or titanium, carbon fibre is light, strong, and flexible. It can be moulded into a single, aerodynamic form, eliminating the need to glue and fuse joints together. Manufacturers are able to build strength where necessary, like around the cranks, while relying on flexibility for greater comfort in areas that don’t affect performance.

An epoxy layer over the carbon fibre creates what feels like a strong, plastic bicycle. One that’s beautifully light, aerodynamic, and fast.

But is it all too good to be true?

A recent New York Times article considers the risks associated with carbon. The article quotes Doug Perovic, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Toronto. Perovic compares a carbon fibre bike to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, also made of carbon fibre. He says the plane, unconcerned with weight, is constructed with many layers to ensure strength and toughness. But bike designs skimp on materials to ensure lightness (for the sake of speed). The result is a bike with strength, but not durability.

Unlike steel and aluminum, the article explains, carbon fibre does not bend. So in the event of a crash, the bike may shatter, “often hurling riders to the road.”

“Few people in the public appreciate how many bikes a pro team will go through in a season, because they break for one reason or another,” says Mike Greve, a doctor and professor of sports medicine at Brown University. “The bikes, they completely explode.”

Other experts explain that careful manufacturing is critical when building a carbon fibre bike.

Michael Kaiser is the head of product development at Canyon, a German company that offers both carbon and aluminum bikes. “To get exactly the right result [with carbon] is more demanding than with metals, as it requires a comparatively large degree of work by hand,” says Kaiser. Extensive quality controls must be in place to ensure there are no defects.

Canyon goes so far as to use CT scanners to uncover hidden defects in its forks, a potentially fatal flaw in manufacturing.

And that’s where things get tricky.

Carbon fibre is no longer limited to the professional tour, but is “making its way to increasingly affordable models available to the more casual riders,” reads the article.

But if affordability comes at the cost of quality, is there a greater risk for a growing community of riders?

“Would I be happy to use a carbon bike if I was still racing?” Asks Robert Millar, one of the first riders to ride carbon bikes. “Yes, but that would be a custom product designed to be as light, fast and strong enough to withstand the demands of racing,” he answers. “The cost would be irrelevant.”

The growing demand is also fueled by endorsements made by the sport’s top performers. But the New York Times article points to an alarming “cover-up” in the racing community. It says professional riders aren’t speaking up against the dangers of carbon because their lucrative contracts prevent them from doing so.

But it’s not all bad news for carbon fibre. Experts Greve and Perovic agree that for consumers “who are not constantly banging their bikes around on team vehicles and who are unlikely to be involved in crashes, the risks in buying a carbon bike made by a reputable company should be minimal.” And there are limits in place. In 2000, the International Cycling Union, concerned about the potential danger of carbon bikes, imposed a minimum weight of 15 pounds for bikes used in competitive races.

The consensus is that carbon fibre is not going anywhere in the biking world. But there seems little doubt that the material and manufacturing will demand further attention to ensure the safety and well-being of riders at all levels.

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Tony Vecchio, K.C.
Tony Vecchio, K.C.
Anthony (Tony) Vecchio, K.C., founded Slater Vecchio in January 1998. He has been counsel on some of the largest cases in British Columbia.