My primary bicycle is a carbon Bianchi Infinito Ultegra and if it is up to me I will ride it forever. Is that safe? I always hear people say carbon bikes are great, but if they fail it is usually a “catastrophic failure”…. just the kind no one wants! In my search for this answer, I found a lot of valuable information about carbon bicycles in a bicycling magazine article and a Cycling Tips Article. I am not an engineer, so this blog relied heavily on information from these blogs.
When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, all carbon bikes from reputable manufactures are sufficiently strong and durable if the bike is never damaged or crashed. Things get more foggy once a bike has potential damage from a fall or crash. Absent damage to the frame, all the engineers agree the frame will outlast your lifetime. Composites do not behave like metals. In fact, they don’t actually fatigue like metals in the same classic sense of the word. The fatigue life of the fibre itself is just about infinite. This is why almost all carbon being manufactured is used in aviation.
While carbon fibre composites have a high strength to weight ratio, they are highly susceptible to high loads over a small area, such as an impact. Once the integrity of the composite is compromised, the matrix essentially starts to crumble and must be repaired or replaced.
In the absence of any impact, the matrix can deteriorate with use, but it takes an extremely long time. But it takes hundreds of thousands of cycles to even get to that. For all practical purposes you will never ride your bike enough to actually perceive any deterioration of the carbon.
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As robust as carbon composites can be, that there are some threats that are easy to overlook. This would include damage during maintenance of the bike such as overcooking clamping or damage during travel. Travel damage may happen when you are not present, so you may not know your bike was dropped. The key message here is to avoid any kind of impact or excessive local forces to preserve the integrity of the composite.
The susceptibility of composites to impact damage creates enormous potential for catastrophic failure. A quick survey of the Internet will yield a multitude of instances where carbon frames and forks have snapped into pieces during a crash. However, it is possible to prevent such catastrophic failures and protect the rider as well as preserve a brand’s reputation.
“You can have the same product but depending on how you work with the layers you can have different fail modes,” explained Benoit Grelier. “In one case it could collapse and crack into two different pieces and in the other case it could crack but still be in one piece.”
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“Anybody can break any product if they tried hard enough,” said Steve Nielson. “Products aren’t indestructible, especially when you’re looking at high end products. Even though we have a minimum requirement, we’re expected to go above that requirement, so we continue to test until failure. And when it does fail, it has to fail in a safe manner. We want it to break in a manner so that the rider will stay upright and won’t get blown to pieces.”
THE FUTURE FOR COMPOSITES IN THE BICYCLE INDUSTRY
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By comparing today’s carbon road bikes with the industry’s earliest efforts, it is clear that enormous advances have been made in all aspects ranging from the design and engineering to improved materials and manufacturing. And while carbon bikes still extract a hefty premium, there has also been remarkable growth in low-cost carbon bikes.
So what can consumers expect for the future of carbon bikes? “A lot of research has been done at the university level,” said Steve Nielson, “but a lot of it is still very academic. It’ll be interesting to see how the research translates. I think there are new materials on the horizon and there’s a lot of things that people are looking at to make a composite more ductile. It’ll be interesting to see how the material changes as more and more of it is used in the automotive industry.”
“We are studying some materials which are not fully carbon fibre based,” said Benoit Grelier. “Kevlar could be an interesting player. We did some tests with self-healing composites but it hasn’t moved forward a lot.”
Carbon fibre composites have emerged as a near-ideal material for building bikes thanks to its high strength to weight ratio and the flexibility it affords construction. Where once carbon frames were assembled, now they are sculpted and moulded. Advances in materials have improved upon the impact resistance of carbon composites, and while that Achilles heel still remains, the nature of the materials ensures a frameset that will not deteriorate with use. I think the main take away, is that if your bike did not sustain damage, you can feel extremely safe when riding. If your bike sustained possible or noticeable damage, you MUST have it checked out by a reputable dealer.
Ride. Be Safe. Have Fun.
Andrew Kass – Bicycle Injury Lawyer, enthusiast