Carbon 29"ers: "Black Magic" Or "Sliced Bread"?

The recent leaks and press releases about 2010 big wheeled bike introductions has largely focused on several carbon fiber wonder bikes. Full suspension and hard tail, single speed and multi-geared, it seems to have become the choice for companies high end models in the coming year. This leaves us with several questions. Durability and affordability seem to be at the top of that list.

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Racers like National Champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski have readily accepted carbon fiber frames as being an advantage. (photo from JHK’s Twitter pics)

Carbon fiber mountain bikes are nothing new, frames made from carbon fiber were showing up in the late 80’s. The technological breakthroughs in manufacturing and design have pushed the black fabric and resin concoction to the forefront of cutting edge bicycle design. Along the way barriers have been broken in weight and strength, but have the barriers been pushed back too far? This and the processes that are engaged to produce the material leave the average trail rider scratching their heads in wonderment. What frame or component is going to last and what one isn’t? Even though tougher testing standards have been implemented by the European Union and others in the bicycle industry, the question still remains a concern for many riders.

So why all the carbon 29″ers? Well, it is technologically the best material for the job, for one thing. It can be tuned to be stiff, compliant, light, and still remain strong. Many of these attributes play well into what makes a big wheeler a better bicycle as well. Torsional frame stiffness will be much improved along with the handling aspects that in the early production 29″ers was lacking, especially when compared to 26 inch wheeled bicycles. The carbon fiber 29″er has now made racing and winning at top levels of competition a reality. For racing, it might become the only frame material choice that makes sense for 29″ers.

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Companies like Santa Cruz believe that carbon fiber is the way to go for trail bikes of both wheel sizes. Here is the upcoming 29″er Tall Boy. (from Santa Cruz’s blog)

On the other hand, will carbon fiber become a viable choice for the trail/all mountain/or free ride categories of 29″ers? Now 29″ers can be made to perform like their 26 inch predecessors both in weight and lateral stiffness, it is a possibility. As mentioned, testing standards are more stringent than ever. It is possible that used in the context that the frames are designed for, riders could expect that the bikes will hold up underneath them and deliver performance that was only wishful thinking for 29″ers just five years ago.

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Rumor has it that Team Niner Ergon rider DeJay Birtch will be riding this frame at the Leadville 100.

Then one has to wonder how much these carbon frames will cost. If rumors are to be believed, most of these in complete bike form are going to be in the $4500-$8000 price range. In these economic times, the question is whether the market will support the new technological marvels. Time will tell, but the timing would appear to be a bit off in terms of where we are at with the economy. Keep in mind though that many of these projects were in the works long before the trouble hit late last year. Niner Bikes says they were working on their new Carbon Air 9 for the last 12 months, as an example.

Since performance promises to be a marked improvement, and if riders get a taste of the new benchmarks being set, it may be that a way will be found to subsidize riders desire for the best big wheeler money can buy. Carbon fiber is a labor intensive material to produce into a bicycle frame and unless technology can be used to replace the hand labor necessary, carbon fiber will not likely come down in price much if at all.

Is carbon fiber going to be the top tier material for all 29″ers then? Will the market forsake the other metal frame choices in favor of this man made wonder material? Not likely. The expense and riders mistrust of carbon will assure a market for other materials far into the future. That said, carbon fiber will be the material a lot of companies use to push the performance limits of 29″ers. However; some manufacturers have not given up on making metallic 29″ers to perform at high levels. Titanium and aluminum will still have their places, and perhaps even steel frames will still be tweaked further than we have yet seen. Twenty Nine Inches has learned that possible advances in aluminum forming technologies may one day rival carbon fiber for weight and strength. That is hopefully going to be a less expensive alternative as well, but we will have to wait and see.

So for now is carbon fiber the pinnacle of technology for 29″ers, the material that will vault 29″ers into the fore as the wheel of choice, or is it just an expensive exercise in technological wizardry that will never really be an influence on the average trail riding public? The answers are not clear cut, but suffice it to say that carbon fiber is going to be a big deal with big wheeled bikes in 2010.

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No Responses to “Carbon 29"ers: "Black Magic" Or "Sliced Bread"?”

  1. Yourdaguy Says:

    Carbon frames on the factory level in China don’t cost that much more to make. By the time they get over here with the multiple levels of mark up they cost a lot more. For example a simple “high end” aluminum road frame from China probably costs less than $50 to manufacture (such as the CAAD9’s that are now going to be made in China). A similar road frame in Carbon such as a System 6 probably costs less than $300 to make so the real additional cost is $250.

    In road bikes, you can now buy a Carbon framed complete bike for just over $1000. This is because as more players and more competition got into the game, some are willing to go with lower margins to gain market share. They have been making road frames from carbon for over 10 years and I would expect this process to be faster the 2nd time around with MTB. I project that in 5 years you will be able to buy a respectable 29er carbon MTB for around $1500. (I am talking in todays dollars since there is possibly huge inflation coming in the next 5 years-but that is another topic)

  2. AGuy Says:

    I would not draw a lesson from the road bike market. MTB frames and components take a lot of abuse Road bike, in contrast, are treated with silken gloves. Many riders, me included, share an inherent distrust to carbon. They prefer to purchase equipment that functions flawlessly and lasts for many years of mistreatment. Carbon does not fall under this category. It requires periodic replacement and ongoing inspection for cracks and fault lines.

    As for the irresistible attractiveness of the light weight, Super Fly SS (carbon) is merely 250g lighter than Niner One (Scandium). The only justification to double your expense on a 250g lighter frame is if you are a professional racer or a mega poser. For %99.8 of the people, the Niner would be the logical and practical choice. To any one that objected with the ‘stiffness’ argument I would suggest riding an Air 9 or One 9. They are stiff as any carbon frame.

  3. t0m Says:

    Carbon has the highest potential design performance of bike materials. Also the highest markup. The problem is you can’t necessarily tell a strong design with a safety margin from one that could fail catastrophically. It’s also hard to tell if carbon has acquired a stress riser from a crash or scratch. That’s no different from any other material, but carbon has a very thin safety margin for bad design. It also needs to have impact resistance designed in, which the road market can mostly ignore.
    Choose a carbon bike maker well. It’s good to have a staff of real engineers and R&D behind a carbon design, which (unfortunately in my view) weights the carbon future toward big companies. I like to look at the cutting edge designs, the Tallboy looks like a real classic to me, but no way can I afford or justify carbon. For any bike part really. Maybe in the future when prices come down.

  4. yourdaguy Says:

    AGuy; you are preaching to the quire. The only carbon road bike I ever bought was 4 bikes ago and while it has the smoothest ride of any of my fleet, it is the slowest due to flexy bottom bracket. It is a 2004 TCR Advanced. In the last few years all the bike companies have beefed up the bottom bracket area to solve this problem on their road bike frames. Now this year, even the knock off frames with no name on them have this feature and road bike carbon frames are almost a commodity item. If you know what forums to hand out in there are group buys of raw frames from China. Road frames don’t all lead cushy lives. Many of the purchasers of road frames race and if they race crits, they crash some. The failure mode of carbon frames is generally not that catastrophic. Back in the early days Treck probably replaced half the Maddones due to cracks in the seat or down tube in the BB area. I know 3 guys and they all discovered the cracks while cleaning their bikes. Carbon forks have been on road bikes for well over a decade with very few overall problems. Lance once cracked a stay on a carbon frame in a wreck during the TDF and finished the stage up the mountain on the same bike.

    I am generally not a buyer of carbon frames because I think they are overpriced for the benefit, but I think the same economics and design improvements that happened in road bikes will happen faster in MTB’s due to the knowledge already gained in road bikes.

    I totally agree with your figure of 250 grams. 2 of the bikes that I own are a 2004 TCR Advanced and a 2004 TCR Aluux frame. Those frames weighed 240 grams different but the forks supplied with them weighed 300 grams different because one had Cf steer tube and the other had aluminum steer tube and they took no pains to reduce the weight. The 2004 TCR Aluxx frame is my stiffest frame in the BB area and I consider it my fastest frame. Weight isn’t everything.

  5. AGuy Says:

    Thank you all for sharing your experience and opinions. It seems everybody is on board in one sense or another. I wish to stress one point about carbon fragility, though. I ride often in a rock and boulder strewn terrain and frequently need to navigate between man-made obstacles. Naturally, sometimes I graze and even whack my frame with the chainstay or bottom bracket receiving the full impact. With a a steel or aluminum steed–other than cosmetics–things are OK. I maybe be wrong, but I would not be as confidence with carbon.

  6. Jdog Says:

    Hey Yourdaguy .

    Interesting comments on the cadd 9..

    Did you know that the 2010 cadd 9 is STILL made in the usa.

    I did a 5 hour ride with c-dale’s Road product manager ( Murray Washburn) a few weeks back in Park City UT.

    Seems that they have been trying to get a cadd 9 made in Asia for some time, but they can’t seem to make a bike that will pass QC.

    I agree with you on many of the points of Carbon vs. alloy. A good example of someone who does not prefer Carbon is Tim Johnson. He loves the Cadd 9 cross bike and has chosen not to pursue the carbon route. Clearly he knows that for the hour effort that cross demands, an alloy bike is faster. If it were a 3 hour cross race it might be different.

  7. Lee T Says:

    @GT – excellent analysis – a unique combination of understanding of designing,riding and marketing bikes. As you say, carbon fiber is so tunable.

    @ Aguy – at my age ( I’m a grandfather) I am not expecting a new career as a pro XC racer, especially at my (40 pounds less than before mountain bikes 3 years back) 210 pounds. Maybe, then, I am a poser, but I can’t get past the acceleration my Flys give me, or the way I can do more Hurkey Creek laps faster, or the unique, compliant ride they give. They don’t jar like my aluminum HTs, but they are not springy like the one steel frame I used (still want a Fargo, though). You are right on the collisions with rocks – I use helicopter tape to cut the risk without being heavy, but beyond that I would rather do a crash replacement than give up the carbon benefits. Besides, the only bikes I’ve ever broken are aluminum.

    In short, I’m saving for the SF 100.

    Disclaimer – I work in aerospace, in composites manufacture. I have seen the failures and the successes, and the story of both is still being written in my trade too.

  8. EJ Says:

    I keep hearing that carbon bikes are stiffer, but is that true? Several years ago, Velonews compared the stiffness of several carbon road bikes (such as the Cervelo R3 and the Scott CR1). The stiffest bike by far was the control–an aluminum Cannondale Caad7.

    I ride road almost exclusively. In the past two years I’ve ridden a Ridley Excalibur and a Giant TCR Advanced (2009). Both are stiff bikes, but not as stiff as the aluminum Cannondale I used to ride. It seems to me that the biggest advantages to carbon are weight (carbon frames keep getting lighter, while aluminum frames seem to have reached the limit) and ride quality (carbon bikes can be stiff while retaining some degree of compliance). But in terms of absolute stiffness, aluminum seems to be as good as anything out there (consider that Dura Ace and Hollowgram cranks. both of which are extremely stiff, are aluminum).

    Can anyone offer any insight based on something other than their opinion?

    As for the durability of carbon, I have a hard time trusting the material on the road and can’t imagine riding a carbon MTB. That said, I’m a racer, and my road bikes have been ridden hard and crashed even harder, and they’ve held up fine. I suspect our collective fear of carbon failure is mostly irrational.

  9. DP Says:

    I find it interesting that over 10 years ago you could buy a carbon framed bike for under $2000 (Trek Y-11) but now I don’t think you can touch one for less than $4000.

  10. yourdaguy Says:

    Jdog; I also own a CAAD9 and it is my favorite overall bike. It is 99% as stiff as the TCR Aluxx and way more comfortable to ride long. You buddy might be interested to know that I also own the only CAAD9 Ironman ever made. Apparently they made one as a marketing example to decide if they were going to make them and then decided not to make them. They painted it yellow over the original Red and put the made in USA decals on and a company executive sold it on Ebay through an Ebay store.

  11. SinnerSpinner Says:

    The CAAD9 was an interesting example to throw out there…? Probably the most refined aluminum frame in production to date. A true “carbon killer”, and not inexpensive to produce. Your main point is understood however, and anyone who doesn’t see carbon mtb frames becoming both stronger and cheaper in the future should be in for a pleasant surprise.

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