Carbon Fiber Bikes: There Is An Alternative

Carbon Fiber Bikes: There Is An Alternative

Many cycling enthusiasts believe that fall is the best time to run out and buy a new bike.

Retailers, as the theory goes, are more desperate to sell leftover inventory to make room for next year’s models and generate much needed cash to weather the upcoming winter.  It’s all just a matter of surgical shopping.

In prior posts, I cautioned against off-brand carbon bikes, as well as raised questions about value-priced name-brand models with lesser carbon formulations.  Armed with this knowledge, you feel certain you can score the bike of your dreams at a substantial savings.

Maybe you can and maybe you can’t.

It all depends on how much money you have in your budget.  If you don’t have at least twenty five hundred to invest, you’re not likely to find the latest carbon technology with the highest formulation level and the race-ready groupset of your dreams.  If your budget doesn’t top seventeen hundred, you shouldn't expect to find anything more than a budget carbon frame with an entry-level groupset.

Unless you shop on a day with nice riding weather (and those days are getting shorter), you may not get to test enough carbon frames to really feel the difference.  As I suggested before, it's important that you ride the bike of your dreams first - even if you can't afford it - and compare each successive lower-priced model against it.

If ride quality is important to you, if you value higher end components that operate smoothly, and if you’re only halfway to your savings goal for your ideal carbon road bike, do not despair.  Allow me to reintroduce you to an old friend; aluminum.

You may remember how aluminum’s reduced weight made your old steel bike feel like a boat anchor.  You may also remember how its stiffness made you more aware of road imperfections and introduced you to that numbing buzz from vibrations carried through the frame and fork.  With carbon fiber now making aluminum feel like a boat anchor, you may see no reason whatsoever to consider an aluminum bike.

Aluminum has come a long way, baby!

No longer limited by traditional wide oval tubing, today’s aluminum can be shaped to minimize road vibration and offer compliance rivaling that of a steel frame.  Advances in technology – specifically hydroforming – allow a greater strength to weight ratio rivaling that of a carbon frame.  With pricing hundreds of dollars less than a comparably performing carbon bike, today’s aluminum allows you to have the component spec of your dreams at nearly half the price.

I see that you still need to be convinced.

Let’s start with hydroforming.  Basically, it involves using a high pressure fluid to form the shape of the frame’s tubes.  This allows the engineers to create more surface area at critical junctions – the points where the toptube, headtube, and downtube are welded together, as well as the points where the seattube, downtube, and bottom bracket intersect.

Greater surface area means greater strength, more stiffness, and less lateral deflection.  In other words, when you stand on the pedals and transfer more of your weight to the headtube, the bike sways less and more of the torque created as you pedal is transferred to the drivetrain and is not lost in sideways motion.

Up until very recently, the ability to shape tubing to achieve a desired level of stiffness has been one of the major advantages of carbon fiber technology over traditional oval-shaped aluminum tubes.  Advances in hydroforming technology, however, allow for more unique tube shapes to rival those of a carbon frame.

A new procedure – the triple hydroformed process – allows tubes to be reshaped after they are welded together.  This process achieves greater stiffness with less material, significantly lightening the overall frame weight at the same time.  It also gives the appearance of a carbon fiber frame with less visible welds.

The advantages of triple-hydroforming are not limited to reduced weight or greater junction stiffness.  Hydroforming enables a unique chainstay and seatstay shape that can tune out high frequency road vibration, minimizing the buzz traveling to the seatpost.  Coupled with a carbon fiber fork, today’s aluminum road bike rivals the compliance of steel or carbon bikes on long rides.

Instead of settling for an open mould or budget formulation frame with an entry level groupset like Shimano Tiagra or SRAM Apex, it is possible to buy a triple-hydroformed aluminum frame with Shimano Ultegra for the same price.  It may be slightly heavier than carbon, but the ride characteristics of the frame will lend itself to faster acceleration, easier hill climbing, more stable descending, and better cornering than the budget carbon frame.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.  My advice to anyone who asks is to always buy the best frame that you can afford.  As long as the frame offers the best performance for your riding style, you can always upgrade the wheels, groupset, crankset, saddle, seatpost, handlebar, and stem at a later date.  No amount of upgraded components, however, will make a budget carbon bike stiffer, more stable, or more compliant.  You are stuck with that particular ride quality as long as you own the bike.

The choice is yours.  Buy a high performance, triple-hydroformed aluminum frame with a race-ready groupset, a budget carbon frame with an entry level groupset, or keep riding your old bike until you have saved enough for your dream bike.

Just don’t sell yourself short.  Your bike is an investment.  Buy the best riding bike you can afford and you’ll want to ride it every day.  Compromise and you’ll look for excuses not to ride.

*The 2012 Bianchi Impulso Ultegra version pictured will be available around January 1st.

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