Carbon Fiber Bikes; Making The Grade

Carbon Fiber Bikes; Making The Grade
Generic carbon frame offered on ebay

Fall is in the air and the cycling enthusiast's thoughts turn to year-end deals on a new bike.

In my previous post on this topic, I listed the reasons why off-brand, budget-priced carbon fiber road bikes may appear to be an affordable option.  But after you strip away the paint and graphics, you really can’t be sure what it is that you’re actually buying.  One thing is certain – it’s not the latest technology.

What about purchasing last year's model from a more reputable brand?

Without question, this is an excellent way to save money.  For various reasons, manufacturers and retailers like to roll into the winter months with less inventory.  Savings are available on overstocked, discontinued, and demonstration models.

If you are willing to pay now for a bike that you won't get to enjoy until spring, savings of 10 to 20% may be found if you're in the right shop at the right time.  Remember, though, supplies are limited.  Your proper size may not be available.  You also can't expect savings on a well spec'd name brand model to rival that of a budget-priced off-brand model.  If you are constrained by a budget, even a higher quality closeout model may still be out of reach.

What about a top-tier brand offering a new model at a lower price than before?

There’s no denying that there is a race to the bottom with carbon fiber pricing.  Top tier brands, in an effort to maintain or increase market share, will use a variety of tactics to achieve a “price point” model.

One common approach is to continue production with an amortized mould.  With tooling costs recaptured, there is room for the manufacturer to lower the price.  If you don't mind riding the hot new bike from a year or two ago, you can save yourself a little money with this option.

Continuing with an amortized mould alone won't produce enough cost savings to hit the sub-$2000 price point.  Two other tactics must be factored in; carbon formulation and component specification.

Think of carbon formulation as a brand's "secret recipe" or specific carbon grade.  In the days of alloy bikes - steel and aluminum - a brand's geometry determined the ride characteristics while the specific tubing material - Reynolds 631 or Columbus Spirit, for example - determined the ride feel.  Back then, a bike consumer could readily differentiate frame quality and select the geometry that fit his or her riding style best.

While there is certainly a hierarchy of grades offered by various carbon formulators, there are no advertised carbon formulations nor any industry standards for a consumer to measure one against another.   Carbon formulations are proprietary by brand.  The common catch-phrase "high modulus" only means high stiffness.  With no hierarchy to compare it against, the phrase is extraordinarily vague and completely meaningless.

Many top-tier brands offer their flagship models in two or more carbon formulations.  Some use only one.  Sometimes it is clear to the consumer that the carbon grade of the entry level model is not the same as the one the pro riders race on.  Other times, that fact gets overshadowed by paint schemes or obscured by appending a sub-model name.  Is "sport" the highest or lowest?  Is the 1.0 better than the 5.0?  It is almost impossible to know by simply looking at the frame.

Since the performance of any frame is optimized by the unique characteristics of its specific carbon formulation – strength, stiffness, compliance, and weight – it stands to reason that a cheaper, heavier, weaker, more or less pliant formulation will yield less than optimal performance.  Altering the stiffness of the carbon at critical junctions, for example - toptube/headtube/downtube and downtube/bottom bracket/seattube - will alter lateral and torsional stiffness and impact ride characteristics.

In essence, the budget-priced bike may look exactly the same as the pro level model, but it won’t accelerate, climb, descend, or corner in the same way.   In simpler terms, it would be like buying a Corvette "Comp" with a different chassis than the Corvette "Pro" and expecting it to perform exactly the same.

Just as differences in carbon formulations determine ride characteristics, so too does a budget bike's component specification.

While there is nothing wrong with Shimano’s Tiagra group (shifter, front and rear derailleurs, and cassette), it is still several rungs down the ladder from the top of the line Dura Ace offering.  It's a little heavier and it won't shift quite as crisply as 105, Ultegra, or Dura Ace.  While you can pay to upgrade from Tiagra to any of the other three at a later date, you will be purchasing replacement components at aftermarket prices versus the OEM prices included with your bike purchase.

This also holds true with wheels, brakes, saddles, and bars.  The top-of-the-line model will have the best quality components available and it will be evident in the ride.  Lesser grade components will sacrifice performance characteristics just as the carbon formulation will.  Component upgrade costs are always more expensive because you are replacing something that you have already purchased (that has no real trade-in value) with something that you have to pay full retail value for.

The long and the short of it is all very simple; you get what you pay for.

You can't expect the budget-priced carbon bike to ride as well as the top-of-the-line carbon model.  If the top-of-the-line model is your dream bike, you are probably better off saving up your money and waiting to purchase it than trying to upgrade the entry level model to the dream model at a later date.  With differences in carbon formulation and the cost of component upgrades, it may not even be possible.

Off-brands.  Outdated technology.  Open moulds.  Closeout deals.  Price-point models.  Entry level component specifications.  Upgrade costs.  Selecting the best riding bike for your budget isn't as easy as comparing apples to apples and locating the best price.

In my next post, I'll help you evaluate if carbon is truly the right choice for your budget.

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