Carbon Concerns… Is carbon all it’s cracked up to be?

By | January 14, 2014

One of the more popular features at the BUTTCRACK Blog are the bike reviews.  From your reaction, I can only assume that many of you lust after the latest and greatest carbon creations just as I do.  Two of the most stunning carbon bikes on the market include the unbelievable Kovit Cycles and one of the most beautiful bikes ever, the Colnago C59 Disc.  I have reviewed the following carbon bikes:

After riding these bikes, it is clear that carbon is a fantastic material!  It is obviously strong, lightweight and the layering of the fibers can affect its characteristics from one end of a part to another.  No longer is a bike an assembly of tubes, with carbon, a bike is a piece of functional art.
Despite Carbon Fiber’s many great qualities, I have concerns in regards to carbon as a material. They are as follows:

  1. Carbon’s incredible strength and light weight come at the expense of low resistance to abrasion and impact.  A crash will often break a carbon frame.  Here is a fantastic/funny video of a crazy German abusing steel, aluminum and carbon frames.  Though his hi jinx are bizarre and there is a language barrier.  His unorthodox techniques and snazzy music make a good point.  Luckily, for a price, carbon frames can be repaired as described in this Bicycling Magazine Article.  Cervelo has another option, the RCA frame uses an impact resistant carbon resin.  The major drawback, cost.  In this video, Phil White of Cervelo describes this bike and discusses carbon layout and its affect of bike strength.
  2. It takes a lot of energy to produce carbon.  It takes up to 5 times the energy to produce a pound of carbon as it takes to produce a pound of steel.  Assuming a carbon frame is 2x as heavy as the corresponding steel frame, carbon still uses much more energy.  The auto industry is pushing hard to produce a less expensive, less energy intensive carbon fiber.  Expect this research to carry over to the bike market.
  3. Though aluminum is a more energy intensive material than carbon, aluminum and steel are infinitely recyclable.  This ends up saving a great deal of energy.  If you were to take your metal bike in to your local recycling center, everything but the seat, cable housings and grips are recyclable.  (Note:  I take my old tires and tubes to a bike shop.  they in turn give them to a craftsman who makes sex toys with them.)  If your bike is aluminum, you may even get a dollar or two back.  Carbon fiber is

    VERY difficult to recycle.  In addition recycled carbon will never be as strong as it was in its initial form.  Odds are if your carbon bike is no longer functional, it is going to the landfill.

I do believe that carbon is a great material, but it has its drawbacks. Its lack of abrasion and impact resistance can reduce its longevity. It takes a lot of energy to produce carbon, but the inability to recycle carbon really makes it an environmentally unfriendly material.  I am considering getting a new bike.  In part two of this series, I will discuss some of my favorite carbon alternatives.  Stay tuned!

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