Is A Carbon Fiber (Composite) Bicycle a Necessity?
A blog friend recently nicknamed me “Bgddy “I’m All Carbon” Jim” – like six hours ago ‘recently’ – and I like it. My main road bike, typically referred to as my “A” bike is, with the exception of the wheels, carbon fiber… Handlebar, stem (carbon wrapped aluminum allow because they’re typically lighter than full carbon – just barely over 100 grams for a 100mm stem), frame, fork (and the fork isn’t an alloy/composite mix, it’s a full carbon stem). I have picked out a composite set of wheels but it’ll take some time to put the cash together to afford them, maybe a year.
The “A” Bike, a $5,000 (retail, with the upgrades) Specialized Venge Comp, is fast, light and amazingly comfortable. Comfortable is typically referred to as “compliant” when it does a good job of absorbing road chatter while still remaining stiff enough to efficiently transfer the power in your legs to the crank arms to the chain to the rear wheel. The lower-end Venge, such as my “Comp” or “Elite” after 2014, has a truly amazing balance between speed and comfort (or compliance). The Venge, of course, is a race bike so the high-end models with the S-Works label are extremely stiff and are known for being an exceptionally harsh ride. There is one big item that makes the S-Works frame incredibly stiff while the standard Venge frame – the quality of the carbon fiber itself (I’d be willing to bet my lunch that the layup is a little different as well). Specialized has different names for their composite grades – I’ve seen 8r, my Venge Comp is 10r and the S-Works models are made with 11r carbon fiber. The higher grades are lighter and stiffer. I worked this out in my post yesterday, the Venge comes in, when all is accounted for, $303 per pound, retail.
My second bike, call it my “B” bike, is a ’99 Trek 5200. A carbon fiber frame an aluminum stem, aluminum handlebar and aluminum wheels. This is a decently rigid frame (it has more US State Championship wins than any other frame ever made):
The Trek, one of the first fully carbon fiber frames (second generation). It’s quite a bit stiffer than the Venge where it’s not wanted and as stiff as the Venge where it is – this means it’s a rather stiff ride and because carbon fiber bicycle frames were so new back then, they were overbuilt and quite a bit heavier (this one tops the scale at about 20 pounds). On the other hand, this bike cost only $2,530 brand new or $126.50 per pound. One of the biggest differences between the Venge and the Trek is the aluminum alloy handlebar. The Trek is now my “B” bike and is used for rainy days, cold days and on my trainer.
Finally is my “C” bike, which is now shared with my wife. It’s a ’91, all aluminum, Cannondale SR-400 though its fork is steel because aluminum is notoriously stiff though light – to have a front fork made of aluminum would make for quite the sucky ride. This was quite the nice bike back in ’91 because the frame was only 3 pounds:
The Cannondale is a mixed ride when it comes to enjoyment. First, it’s almost as fast as the Venge because it’s so damned stiff that you get every watt to the back wheel that can be delivered. On the other hand, because it’s so stiff, riding on anything but perfect asphalt, sucks the life right out of your legs. At around 22 pounds, the bike came in at around $36 per pound when it was new.
So far, I’ve got about 1,800 miles on the Cannondale, about 10,800 on the Trek and about 5,700 miles on the Venge (only about 2,000 as the bike is shown above, with all of the upgrades).
As for the question as to whether it’s worth it or not to ride a bike that goes for, pound for pound, about 4-1/2 times more than a Ferrari, what it boils down to is how much the price tag hurts.
As bike weight goes, you’ll notice a pound, so going from my 22 pound Cannondale to my 16-1/2 pound Venge is a huge difference and advantage. Then, and this is the biggest difference, there is feel. The feel of a composite bike over imperfect roads (and I used the proper word there, meaning “less than perfect”) is like night and day, even going from my Cannondale to a race bike like the Venge is a “night and day” difference. How this matters as far as speed goes, is tricky. An aluminum bike is a bit stiffer at the bottom bracket so the common sense dictates you get more power to the crank, right? Well not necessarily because there’s another factor that weighs into this. If the asphalt isn’t perfect, glass-smooth, every little imperfection will travel right up the bike and through your legs. Over long distances I found this to be absolutely demoralizing. With a composite bike you get none of that chatter so it’s actually more comfortable to push harder on the pedals.
As an example, on my normal weekday 16 or 20 miler, I have a stretch with a slight incline that spreads itself out over a half-mile on chip seal asphalt (chips of rock embedded in tar over the top of asphalt – it’s quite durable but “choppy” to ride on). The best I could hope for on my Cannondale on that stretch was 16-17 mph. On my Trek and Venge I can comfortably hold 20 mph. Not very scientific, but there is no doubt the carbon bikes are much faster on imperfect road surfaces. Not only that, over the longer distances the cumulative effect is that you’re fresher, longer.
The trick is, this can be overcome with a little determination and ignorance. If I could only have afforded an Allez Comp (entry-level aluminum frame with racing  components and a carbon fork $1,600), then I would never try riding a carbon fiber bike… If I don’t know what I’m missing, I’m more likely to learn to ride harder to keep up. If you’re riding with a group you end up making up the difference with determination and a little “want to”. This is specifically why I advocate only test-riding bikes at or under the top of your price range. Ignorance is bliss.
I ride with plenty of guys who can keep up with the main group on aluminum bikes so I would have to say a composite bike isn’t much in the way of a necessity, but only if you don’t know what you’re missing.
To test me, even if you can’t afford a $3,000 bike, save up for a carbon fiber handlebar and maybe even a stem. Put at least 10,000 miles on your bike as it is and then, mid-season, switch your alloy bar for the carbon. You’ll know what I’m talking about after your first bump. In short, unless you’re in no shape to afford it or under 30 years-old, a composite bike isn’t a necessity, it’s just a necessity.