Half-Cocked: the New York Times Trolls Carbon Fiber

Half-Cocked: the New York Times Trolls Carbon Fiber

If you’ve been following social media at all, there’s a chance you ran across a piece by Ian Austen of the New York Times regarding the inherent danger of carbon fiber bicycles. Austen’s central thesis is simple enough, that the use of carbon fiber to make ultra-light bicycles is resulting in more crashes and injuries. Simple enough, yes. But wrong, also.

And if you were lucky before your blood pressure geysered like that water main here in LA, you ran across this excellent rebuttal by Matt Philips of Bicycling. Matt is a fine writer and one of the most experienced bike reviewers on the planet. He did the bike world a solid by taking apart Austen’s piece point by point, demonstrating places where language conflated unrelated events and attributed causality where nothing more than coincidence existed.

I wouldn’t be weighing in now were it not for the fact that after digesting Matt’s dismantling of what was to any educated cyclist a really sloppy piece of writing that should have been beneath the Times to publish, Austen took to Twitter to both defend himself and throw his editor under the bus. It might be fair to characterize the injuries both suffered as road rash.

There are some assertions that he has stuck by that continue to irk me.

First, Austen’s definition of crashing is so nonstandard as to recall Bill Clinton’s need to define “is.” I think we can generally agree that if someone tells you they crashed we will conclude that they deck checked. Conversely, if they didn’t hit the ground, they didn’t actually crash, right?

Fundamentally, what I, and plenty of others, find so troubling about this story is his baseless assertion that riders are hitting debris, downed bikes, other riders, etc. in circumstances that he qualifies as a crash, but would otherwise have been able to ride out had their carbon fiber frames not detonated beneath them. I can hear the slogan now—Ride steel to keep riding.

It’s a point that is as wrong as evolution-denying.

My own experience of decelerating from 30 mph to wham in less than a second is a fair testimony to just what a carbon fiber bike can withstand. Would a steel frame have fared as well? I hope so, but I can’t say for certain.

This highlights another distinction Austen fails to either understand or explain is that a carbon fiber bicycle is designed to be able to withstand certain impacts, certain loads. Riding your bike straight at a curb may cause you to crash, but unless you’re going 40 mph, there’s a fair chance the bike will survive that impact and if you’re sufficiently skilled, you might even ride that situation out. However, no one is designing carbon fiber bikes to withstand a hammer strike to the tubes. In other words, carbon fiber is designed to withstand the forces you encounter while riding, not the forces you encounter once you’ve crashed.

As part of his defense on Twitter, he said that materials engineers have told him that “metallic frames more likely to bend rather than fragment….” Technically, he’s correct, but what he seems to be trying to suggest is that metallic frames (steel and titanium in particular) have an ability to flex that will allow a rider on a metal frame to ride through a crash without going down because his bike exploded. What he doesn’t understand is that carbon fiber frames flex as well. Further, what he also doesn’t understand is that the force required for a 150-lb. pro rider to break a carbon fiber frame by plowing into something unmovable (say a brick wall, or Congress) is almost identical to the force required for the same rider to hit something hard enough to bend a steel or aluminum frame. A frame made from titanium is the least likely to bend in the event of a crash due to its superlative elongation properties. 

Austen also paints the landscape of what the pros are riding as one where the riders have been victims of overzealous bike manufacturers who are foisting unworthy carbon fiber frames on the peloton. He claims in his piece that riders are complaining that their bikes break in crashes. What he doesn’t also say is that riders want the lightest, stiffest bikes they can ride—a point highlighted by Philips. As we know, reduced weight aids acceleration and climbing. Stiffness is necessary for control and power transfer. No one has figured out how to make a frame that weighs 800 grams, stands up to a Marcel Kittel sprint and can withstand a 28 mph front impact.

Austen’s overarching point is that bikes break more often now than they did in the past because they are made from carbon fiber and because they are underbuilt because manufacturers are chasing weight and performance without enough attention paid to safety.

But there’s more to broken bikes than carbon fiber. The peloton travels at speeds that were unthinkable in Eddy Merckx’ day, so when crashes happen, there is more force at work. There’s also more pressure on riders to deliver results at the Tour, so riders are more aggressive today. They ride closer together and that has increased the number of crashes as well.

I rang an engineer I know to ask him what he could tell me about the forces necessary to cause a carbon fiber bike to break while you were riding it, but would otherwise have allowed a steel bike to escape and the rider to remain upright. He laughed. What he told me was that in testing he had done, impacts sufficient to break a carbon fiber bicycle are such that the rider is thrown from the bike long before the bike breaks. It’s a matter of weight distribution, he said; the bike simply gets upended because all the weight is up high. Being on steel won’t help.

There’s a final factor that Austen’s piece and his subsequent Twitter defense completely underestimated. Whether or not the frames in question have passed all the relevant safety testing standards (and everything on the market has passed stringent tests), there’s another force at work where carbon fiber bikes are concerned. If the teams really thought that a manufacturer was making a crap product, they wouldn’t renew the sponsorship agreement. There are other companies out there that would be happy to sponsor a pro team, even if the cost of that sponsorship is more expensive than sending your family to college. And finally, there’s the market itself. If consumers had the impression that a Specialized Tarmac was a $5k ticket to the emergency room, they wouldn’t buy them. If carbon fiber deserves such a categorically bad reputation that people far and wide should assume the bike would crumple beneath them, steel frame builders ought to have wait times that exceeded their life expectancy, right?

I’d love to see steel builders get more business, but trying to convince the public that carbon fiber is patently unsafe is no way to do it. Again, I’m stunned that the Gray Lady would publish such an irresponsible piece of work.

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38 comments

  1. peter lin

    when I was a kid, my brother was speeding down a hill and bent his metal fork about 60 degrees. he was probably going 25mph when his front wheel hit a low wall. luckily he flew over the wall and landed on the grass on the other side. any assumption that steel prevents a crash is is hog wash. in my teens I cracked a bmx bike frame after 1 to many jumps. luckily I walked away with some scratches, but the frame was done!
    Too bad so many bad articles are published by papers these days.

  2. Sophrosune

    Nice piece. A couple of notes. First, the New York Times over the past decade has had it editorial integrity so diminished, I think we should expect a lot more of this sloppy work. Second, if you know anything about the subject that is being covered in the mainstream press, you can recognize how poorly they are covering the topic. A realization that should give us pause about those topics that are covered for which we know little. Finally, the main cause of the large number of crashes nowadays is that there are too many riders in the peloton. Nearly 200 starters is twice as many riders as there should be for any race.

  3. Seth

    Carbon isn’t some conspiracy. It is used because it works. But say for the sake of discussion a carbon and steel (or any metal really) bike were crashed the carbon frame cracked on impact and the steel frame is dented or bent would you really feel comfortable riding a dented or cracked frame?

    What would happen if you did this with a metallic frame? (watch till the final concrete test)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xreZdUBqpJs

  4. Peter Dedes

    Crashes at the TdF; Shorter stages leading to more aggressive racing, a majority of fitter riders actually capable of completing the Tour, continual featuring of narrow picturesque roads as part of the route, and an increase in traffic furniture in towns and cities.

  5. Gene

    Carbon fiber is used in far more demanding applications then bicycles. A 700 HP F1 car would run dead last without carbon fiber. I trust the math and I trust my bike.

  6. Gene

    Carbon fiber is used in far more demanding applications then bicycles. A 700 HP F1 car would run dead last without carbon fiber. I trust the math and I trust my bike.

  7. blaise

    Then why are major sections of Formula 1 race car made out of carbon fiber? Might I suggest Mr. Austen conduct research into the impact/safety issues involved in a Formula 1 race car hitting a wall at full speed and the driver often walks away unhurt.

  8. Michael

    Thanks for tackling this Patrick. When I read the original Times piece I immediately thought it was nonsense. Like you I’ve spent many hours in industry QA labs (Specialized) documenting carbon frame testing under both riding loads and tests to failure. While carbon frames have become lighter there’s no question that engineers have a far more sophisticated understanding of the material’s properties with the result that layup schedules (the orientation, sequencing and specific grades of carbon used in different locations on the bike frame) are incredibly precise. The most dramatic example of this evolution was a side-by-side comparison of the original Tarmac and the Tarmac III locked into jigs flexing under simulated pedaling load. No one who watched this test and put their hands on the two frames as they flexed could come to any conclusion other than carbon fiber race bikes are getting stronger, while simultaneously becoming lighter and more compliant in key areas.

  9. Randall

    Another thing that is false is the statement: “fractures into many pieces while metals bend, the energy absorption is the bending.”

    Wrong, when our esteemed curator Padraig had his incident, the “energy absorption” occurred when the bike moved to it’s point of maximum flex. This is a material agnostic action, the transfer of energy.

    When a metal bike bends, or a carbon fiber bike breaks, that is because it has absorbed more energy than it can hold. The technical term for this is… elastic modulus. You may have heard that term before because it’s painted onto almost every carbon fiber bike out there!

    When a metal frame bends, it is actually consuming/dissipating the energy which was previously stored. A carbon frame breaks in this case, but the amount of energy which is consumed by the failure is related to the amount the frame could absorb prior, and as a concept, carbon fiber is higher. Seth’s Santa Cruz video does a good job of showing how far that modulus will allow the frame to bend, it’s ridiculous. Note also that modulus is material mass independent, a steel pipe that is heavy enough to survive 100 pounds might bend 6 degrees, the same steel in a thicker pipe might hold 1000 pounds, but it should still bend only 6 degrees. By using higher modulus, the frames can bend farther, which provides more time of deceleration and makes them safer in a crash, although it is the responsibility of the frame manufacturer to use enough that it doesn’t break until a reasonable level of stress (like two 4,000 pound cars ripping it apart). Let me caveat that “safer,” if the frame is able to absorb significantly more energy (which that santa cruz did) and transfer that energy back into the rider somehow, then it wouldn’t necessarily be safer. In Padraig’s case where there may have been an “endo,” the energy was most likely released with the bike springing backwards after the back wheel left the ground.

  10. Girl

    I am under no delusion that carbon fiber bikes “cause” accidents, while metal bikes “prevent” them. But I think that if I crash on a $5K+ carbon fiber bike, it is more likely to break than a (more expensive) Ti bike. Maybe my Ti bike can be fixed. But not the carbon fiber one. (I know Calfee advertises repairs of carbon fiber, but I’m not sure of how that compares to a repair of metal.) So, it’s Ti for me.

  11. Hoshie99

    That article is a Luddite’s fantasy and the”steel is real” crowd’s wet dream.

    Beyond crashes, most upgrades happen due to boredom atmo.

    Stuff breaks but without hard data from manufacturer’s warranty claims or specific test bench results , it’s largely anecdotal evidence.

    J

  12. Pat O'Brien

    My unscientific analysis says what suffers more when you crash a carbon frame vs Ti or steel is your wallet. The guy wrote bullshit and got caught. The web is unforgiving to bullshitters, sooner or later.

    1. Albie

      If you were descending the Baldy switchbacks on a CF bike and heard a crack would you continue to bomb the descent at 30-40mph. On the same descent, if I suddenly felt a speed wobble on one of my steel bikes, at least I’d get a little warning to slow down, ya kno? Maybe the point of the article was to inform the general public that, hey, some of us who love bikes dont have any illusions about carbon fiber. In fact, in a recent Velocipede salon thread, a composites fiber expert from the UK revealed that when a Venge was cut open at McLaren, their engineers LAUGHED OUT LOUD. Let’s think about that next time we compare a $3500 asian made mass produced frame to an F1 car or a Boeing Dreamliner.


    2. Author
      Padraig

      Albie: If I heard a crack come from the frame while on a descent, I would pull over for sure. Now, that said, I liken that possibility to watching the front quick release fall open or having a steel tube separate from the lug. Statistically, I think they are equally likely because none of them have ever happened to me. Further, I don’t know anyone at all who has ever had a carbon fiber frame break during normal riding, and believe me, because people know I work in the industry, anytime someone I know has a bad experience of one sort or another, they make sure to tell me the story. If that was happening with any regularity, I think I’d be hearing about it.

      Les.B: The labor required to repair an aluminum frame, depending on the nature of the repair, is rarely a wise investment. The frames just aren’t worth that much. Ti frames, however due their high retail value, are usually worth repairing and Seven Cycles repaired my Axiom years ago when a Campy chain detonated and pulled the rear derailleur into the spokes, destroying the derailleur, the rear wheel and torqued the the drive-side seatstay so badly (it kinked) the entire rear triangle had to be replaced. The bike returned looking every bit as good as new.

  13. Albie

    The article was not a materials science dissertation. It was a “technology” or even “human interest” story. Why, well because the general public does not care about professional cycling. That said, as a guy who owns 10 bikes, I don’t get the outrage. I prefer my C40 and my Evo but I’m under no delusion that my Evo is a durable bike. When I ride and hear a crack or creak, I fear for my life. Seriously, if you don’t feel the same, you’re delusional.

    1. Pat O'Brien

      Perhaps, Albie, you should sell them if they scare you that bad. I had a Trek OCLV Pilot, a retirement gift to myself. It didn’t make me fear for my life, but I did check the frame carefully before each ride. Sold it, but not because it scared me. I check my steel frames regularly, just not before each ride.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Well, it’s a popular bike ridden by a lot of pros. Seemed a reasonable example.

      (irony) There’s also the $10k check that’s on its way from Morgan Hill that I get for each media mention I give them. Heading to Fiji on Monday. (/irony)

  14. Les.B.

    Carbon frames ARE repairable. Predator Cycling in Santa Monica fixed mine.
    I understand that thin-walled aluminum frames are not repairable. Maybe the same applies to thin-walled Ti?

  15. Mic hael

    Thanks for tackling this Patrick. When I read the original Times piece I immediately thought it was nonsense. Like you I’ve spent many hours in industry QA labs (Specialized) photographically documenting carbon frame testing under both riding loads and tests to failure. While carbon frames have become lighter there’s no question that engineers have a far more sophisticated understanding of the material’s properties with the result that layup schedules (the orientation, sequencing and specific grades of carbon used in different locations on the bike frame) are now incredibly precise. The most dramatic example of this evolution I’ve seen was a side-by-side comparison of the original Tarmac and the Tarmac III locked into jigs flexing under simulated pedaling load. No one who watched this test and put their hands on the two frames as they flexed could come to any conclusion other than carbon fiber race bikes are getting stronger, while simultaneously becoming lighter and more compliant in key areas.

  16. Maremma Mark

    Someone forwarded that article to me and I couldn’t even finish it. I mean, why bother? I like to read things that are well researched and actually informative, that piece wasn’t either. The yearly debate regarding crashes at the TDF probably won’t end soon, and neither will the crashes. As Sophrosune noted above, 200+ riders are simply too many. The constant imperative that each team captain be at the front of the peleton coupled with all the traffic furniture does the rest. Let’s not forget the need to ride within centimeters of the wheel in front of you, generally high profile rims with tubulars inflated to over 9 atmospheres. That adds up to a twitchy environment. There are so many reasons for the numerous crashes that the debate could go on for weeks and months.

    The choice of carbon or steel/titanium really comes down to personal taste or economic possibilities. Aesthetics play a role for me, bike frames also need to be beautiful in my opinion. Personally I prefer the look of steel or titanium but that’s just my taste. Perhaps because I began riding in the 80’s and beautiful steel frames were what I dreamed of. Carbon works great, there’s no debate on that. And the idea that carbon frames contribute to the crashes seen this year at the Tour are simply idiotic.

  17. Albie

    It’s a material, not a religion or world view? So why the emotional investment.

    And, Padraig, your JRA comment? Come on, are you being intentionally obtuse.? The article is about the nature of material failure and whether or not a CF frame failing is worse than steel, ti or Al. Most guys I know who ride a lot or have raced for years, have no illusions about CF. It is a fragile material under certain loads. I haven’t been riding for 30 years but the crashes and failures I’ve seen on carbon frames always look worse. That perception helps me make a rational choice about what and how I ride. Anyway, check out this guy’s Strava profile:
    http://www.strava.com/athletes/4502881

    I saw him go down at the Rose Bowl in a 15 bike pile up. His frame didn’t cause the crash but losing your front end like that hurts more than just skidding on the pavement. I’m calling a spade a spade.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Albie: My response to you wasn’t remotely emotional. As to my JRA comment, it was meant as a direct response to the situation you posed, so, no, I wasn’t being obtuse.

  18. Bielas

    Anyway, have there been more crashes this season (or last TdF) than previous years? I don’t think so, this is something I have heard every time (especially during the first week of the TdF) for the last 25 years! Check out the number of retired riders, is nothing unusual. The first week of any 3 week tour is always mayhem, and every year many riders have to go home. Of course this year was unusual because two previous GC winners and main favorites had to retire, but every year many other top10 capable riders have to retire as well.
    About carbon and crashing, if the bike is broken as a result of the crash, and not as a consequence of it, can’t say it is less safe from material to material. The frame breaking as a result of the crash takes a lot of the energy of it, that the rider doesn’t suffer. If the frame is really tough and unbreakable, it could as well hurt the rider by not absorbing any energy out of the crash.

  19. Shawn

    Nicely done article. I’d really like too read ian throwing his publisher under the bus, but when I click on that link, it goes to the twitter link to matt’s rebuttal.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Shawn: the comments that suggest that are in the Twitter exchange, not another article.

  20. khal spencer

    I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Times article. Especially since many of the quotes were made anonymously and since I don’t think the author is an expert. The idea of a frame shattering into multiple pieces seemed odd unless the frame was struck in multiple places. I once was riding with a buddy who overcooked a curve. His Kestrel was in multiple pieces afterwards, but as the result of being run over by two wheels of a Chevy Suburban. He was OK, but a lot the poorer. I once was riding with a married couple whose car was also at the Subaru dealership in Santa Fe as mine. The lady’s carbon bike slid down a drain pipe she leaned it against and a centimeter chunk of top tube sheared off when it struck a protruding bolt in the direction normal to the top tube axis. Gulp. She being a racer, got a good deal on a replacement.

    But really, reading almost any article written by non-specialists on cycling leaves one with large clumps of hair in one’s hands and the neighbors wondering what all the cussing is about. I spent part of the morning writing a rant to an Albuquerque paper about their poor and superficial treatment of a draft bike plan.

    What seems to argue against the doom and gloom in the Times piece is that an awful lot of normal everyday folks, including fat guys like me, are riding carbon and we see no evidence of massive numbers of lawsuits driving the carbon fiber technology out of the business. That seems important, because freds like Yours Truly probably don’t have professional wrenches checking our bikes at the end of every ride but have plenty of access to trial lawyers. Heck, I’ve been bombing down Camp May Road and NM4 from the Jemez Mountains for almost ten years on a Six Thirteen at speeds I’d not admit to in case my wife is reading this. I do occasionally worry about crashing, but because of the sudden appearance of deer in the road, not the bike blowing up.

  21. Aaron

    Of the three bike I owned at the beginning of last summer, two were aluminum, and one carbon fiber. Both metal frames (both the product of major and trusted manufacturers) failed at the bottom bracket shell despite never hitting the deck. The open mold carbon Hong-fu is still standing after a race season full of riding, crashing, and other abuse. Not to mention the carbon soaks up more road chatter, increasing handling confidence and thus safety.

  22. Jon Webb

    What about durability? Over time, plastic becomes more brittle, because polymerization continues and the chains of molecules cross-link. Does this mean that older carbon frames and forks are less safe than new ones? I know this is not a problem for racers, but what about for regular guys like me?

    1. jorgensen

      I would consider a new carbon frame set, but not a used one. Any frame material can fail. Carbon can be crashed on and appear fine just like the other materials. The potential problem would be with multiple crashes where the fracture to the fibre epoxy matrix is not seen but the bike appears otherwise okay. Only potential? Yes. But it is in the nature of the material. There are non destructive tests, but they are not cheap. Metal usually shows what has happened more easily.

      As to carbon fibre aging, the issue I have are the clear finishes that show the weave. By their very nature the clear finishes even with a UV protectant additive will not keep the sun from inflicting damage long term, epoxy resin does not like UV. Here marketing has won out over sensibility.

  23. Jacob

    I have a theory: the NYT author wanted to write a piece citing Contador’s crash, with a thesis that “Carbon frames cause crashes.” I think he either began his “research” or at least began writing, and at some point his editors shot him down, and/or he realized that Contador’s crash was not, in fact, caused by carbon failure. Either way, he was committed to the piece and tried to salvage it into a “Carbon (somehow) makes crashes worse.” But there’s just no evidence of that, at all, and so he tries to paper over it by cobbling together true but vague statements into something that supports his new thesis.
    The main problem he has is that “Carbon frames are more likely to break in crashes” has absolutely no relationship to “Riders riding carbon frames are more likely to be injured in crashes.” The breaks occur DURING the crash – they are not the cause of the crash. Somehow the author totally misses or obscures this point, but it’s THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT — what’s the cause of the crash? It’s not the frame material. How the frame performs in the crash is irrelevant both to the cause, and the rider outcome.

  24. Mike

    Padraig, I have been reading your bike reviews long enough for both of us to remember how the same accusations of “built too light to be safe” were being leveled against steel and aluminum, especially in the forks. I also seem to remember a lot more tacoed wheels way-back-when, probably due to their “absurdly low” spoke count in the 20s.

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