Are All Carbon Bikes Created Equal?
Every so often I get someone asking for my opinion about some ridiculously cheap carbon frame or set of wheels they came across on the web. They’re nice and shiny and look almost identical to any name-brand component you see the pros riding on. Are they just as good? Are you paying for anything except marketing with name-brands?
Here is an example of an email I received last week from Kevin from Yishun Bike company. I get one of these almost every week from different suppliers:
How are u? Hope everything goes well with you all along!
Here, i am very glad to introduce our company. I am kevin from Yishun Bike company, which is one carbon bike supplier that have many years’ experience on the carbon bike. Yishun bike have professional workers, can sell you the best quality at the best price. At the same time, we also have Pro after-service, can deal with the probs soon and offer the guarantee for every products.
For now, we are supplying all carbon bike parts.(carbon wheels, carbon frames, and carbon bike accessories).
Kevin from Yishun Bike company makes almost anything that’s carbon. Pedals, bars, saddles, wheels, even full groupsets. So what is the difference between these things that cost a mere few hundred dollars compared to the things we spend thousands on?
I spoke with a gentleman named Raoul Luescher about this topic to find out his views. If there’s anything you want to know about composite materials, Raoul is the man to ask. He owns Luescherteknik has been involved with composite materials for nearly 20 years. He’s worked with Boeing Aerospace, Defence, the AIS and is the designer of the Malvern Star Oppy.
When I asked Raoul about the difference between brand name and no-name bikes, his first response was “You just don’t know…”
You don’t know the quality system behind it, you don’t know the engineering behind it, you don’t know the materials it was built with, you don’t know anything. It could be good, it could be rubbish. How do you know? From an engineering point of view that’s a concern. Fiber type, strength tolerances, bonding, each tube’s structural design are all considerations.
From Raoul’s point of view coming from an aerospace background, you want to know everything about an airplane before you fly it. Same thing on a bike. If you’re ripping down a descent at 80km/hr, you don’t want the thing to break. You want a good degree of confidence that your bike has been engineered properly and quality tested to comply with standards. There are plenty of people out there who have bought one of these inexpensive no-name bikes and haven’t had any problems with them, but you simply don’t know what process they’ve gone through and there is no way to find it out.
There are dozens of factors involved that make up a good manufacturing facility. How often they calibrate their ovens and equipment, the environmental control in the layup room, and storage of their raw materials are all things that brands take into consideration when choosing a factory.
Sourcing quality material is also extremely important. An engineer needs know the properties that a material will provide so that the structure can be designed around that. There are hundreds of different grades of carbon fiber and each have different properties and suitabilities. It’s easy to design the shape of a bike frame you need to know the strength and stiffness of the materials to get the proper structural integrity. All of these considerations take time and costs money.
Once the factory produces pre-production samples, all the destructive testing takes place. There are certifications that the frame needs to pass. The factory can do this testing in-house, but reputable brands will hire independent labs to verify that testing.
Testing to failure is another important thing. Determining how the bike will actually fail after it’s been overloaded. It’s one thing to pass a test saying that the bike can handle 100,000 cycles at a load of 1200N, but it’s another thing to find out exactly how the bike behaves once it’s been overloaded to failure (in a crash for example). Everything will fail if you put enough load into it, but how exactly does it fail? Does it fail in a controlled manner, or does it fail in a catastrophic manner? If you have a crash, does your bike break in two? Or does it just get a crack in it and stay together? This is an extremely important consideration from a safety point of view. The way a frame fails is just as important as the load that it takes to produce failure. Reputable brands will perform this testing to find out these characteristics. This adds extra cost to the product.
How do we know this testing has been done? Well, in order to sell bikes in Europe all this testing needs to comply to CEN standards. Standards Australia are generally the same but with additional requirements for our market. There are different levels of testing for different bikes (i.e. mountain bike, road bike, commuter bike, etc). Particular components must comply to these standards as well.
Note, the new UCI approved frames has nothing to do with structural testing – it only relates to their geometry rules. That’s a completely separate topic that can get quite contentious.
The processes involved for making carbon frames are all very similar. The analogy that Raoul uses for making composites is that it’s very similar to baking a cake. You can have all the exact same ingredients, but the cake can taste different depending on the process. That’s very much the same with composite manufacturing. The process control determines the quality of the final product. This is absolutely critical. The brand creates a specification for the factory, it follows through to make sure that specification is met. This is the key difference with regards to cost. Raw material costs are very inexpensive in most cases. When the factory produces a quote on manufacturing costs, they take the required level of specification into account. The higher the spec, the more involved processes and quality procedures, the longer and the more expensive the frame will be to make. This is a large portion of the “craftsmanship” you’re paying for. Of course you’re paying a lot for their marketing costs as well. Let’s be real. What you’re buying is an image and a story. These marketing costs need to come from somewhere…
Process control in one factory doesn’t necessarily carry through to all the the frames manufactured in that same factory however. There’s a misconception in the bike world where people believe that those who make bikes are passionate about bikes. That’s not always the case. Generally, most of these manufacturing facilities simply happen to make bikes. Likely, many things are made there. Ambulance stretchers, sailing equipment, model airplanes, whatever. They make a product to a specification. The real difference between a brand name product and a no-name product is that you have no idea what that specification it is built against.
Are all these carbon frames made in the same factories?
There is some truth to this. There are a number of factories that make bikes for multiple brands. The factory that Raoul chose for Malvern Star produced many other name-brand frames as well. This is simply the way it’s done and there’s nothing wrong with it. There is a perception of a Chinese or Taiwanese frame being low quality as opposed to one in a Western country. I’ve been told many times that the factories in China are very good and operate to an extremely high standard.
The most famous example is Giant. They used to be a manufacturing business who made bikes for everyone else. In the late 80’s they decided to start making their own brand and continued to making bikes for many others. They still make heaps of bikes for brands including Colnago. Between Giant and Merida, they are the two of the largest manufacturers of carbon frames.
Open Mold Frames
An “open mold frame” is a mold which the factory owns. They can sell that frame to anyone they choose. The brands who buy these open mold frames don’t own or control the design, engineering, or material selection for the products they’re marketing. Generally, they specify the paint and logos. You’ll see some of the smaller brands with identical frames from one to the next. This is often what you’ll be getting when you select an inexpensive carbon frame or component. These might be perfectly good, and they might not be. You just don’t know.
Many name-brands will purchase the molds they use and own them. That is the brand’s IP and the factory cannot sell that frame to anyone else.
Made In Italy?
In order for a bike to claim “Italian made” or “made in USA” for example, the cost of the frame needs to be above certain percentage (50% from what I understand) which originates from that country. Design, painting, engineering, marketing, etc. The cost of material is relatively cheap, so it’s easy to claim that a frame is made in a more “prestigious” country. I’ve spoken with people who have seen “Made In Italy” stickers being put on bikes in the factory in China (Bianchi, Pinerello, Colnago are some examples).
The fact is however, a bike made in Taiwan is a feature, not something to be hidden. The would probably do a better job than any Western country and there is no hesitation for bike brands to manufacture their products there. They’re very good factories.
In the end, there are good manufacturers and bad manufactureres in every sphere of life. The same holds true with bikes. Shortcuts can be common for brands trying to break into the market, but you never know.
You just don’t know the process, materials and quality control that these cheap no-name bikes have been through. If the worst were to happen and your frame snapped in half while going down a descent you don’t have anything to fall back on. Reputable bicycle brands need to go through homologation procedures in order to import and sell in Australia. This costs money, but it also adds a degree of confidence that your bike has been tested properly (which doesn’t necessarily mean that your $4000 frame will never fail).
BTW, notice on the Yishun website on the bottom left corner that the “Testing” link does not work.
Special thanks to Raoul Luescher for kindly sharing his knowledge and experience with me on this topic.