In the early days of Mtbr 20 years ago, we ran a massive survey on what the ideal frame material was, aluminum, steel, titanium, or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber finished firmly in last place with steel taking top honors. Now the tables have turned, as carbon fiber has become the material of choice for high end bikes. The price for admission is around $2000 minimum for the bike, so it is for the true enthusiasts to justify the cost versus benefit. But the surprising thing is it has not only taken over frame material dominance, but also many components as well. Parts such as handlebars, wheels, and even cranks are now the domain of carbon fiber when top performance is required. Here’s a primer on carbon fiber from our friends at the Global Mountain Bike Network.
Carbon fiber manufacturing is a labor intensive process that can produce lightweight, complex frames with many different combinations of attributes desirable for bicycles.
What is a carbon fiber?
Carbon fiber is a long strand of material made from carbon atoms. Thousands of these are spun together to make a yarn, which are then combined with resin to make carbon sheets.
What’s a layup?
A carbon layup is a combination of these sheets, laid into a mold, usually around a bladder, before being baked or cooked in order to harden them into the frame shape.
Where is it made?
Most carbon bikes come from a handful of factories in Asia, specifically Taiwan and China. These factories have been producing carbon fiber bikes and products for decades.
Sheet and Layup
The sheets have a uni-directional weave, which lends itself to the ride characteristics of the bike. Ideal carbon frames are stiff, light, and dampen vibration. A combination of these factors will produce a great bike. All of these factors are in fact controlled by the layup, so the better the layup, the better the bike!
How strong is it?
Super strong! Carbon can take a lot of cosmetic damage before becoming compromised and even then can be repaired much easier than most other materials.
As with most things in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. A fake frame will be from a budget knock-off mold and will have a fraction of the engineering and development behind it to make it the bike it is.
Carbon is still being developed as a material, meaning bikes have got a long way to go to becoming stronger, lighter and more affordable.