Carbon Failure – Why It Happens

An exotic material once used on the most expensive frames, carbon fiber is now ubiquitous in cycling. A quick search online reveals carbon frame closeout bikes from a previous model year sell for as low as $1000. That price is for a complete bike! Current model year bikes from major manufacturers start at well below $2000. This brings up a question many riders may not consider when purchasing a carbon bike. How durable is carbon fiber?

A Modern Material for a Modern Age

The history of carbon fiber goes back to the industrial revolution. Carbon fiber’s original form came about in the 1860s for use in light bulbs. It wasn’t available commercially until the 1960s, however. At this point, continued developments in the material illustrated carbon fiber’s potential for strength. Adaptation into the aerospace industry developed the material’s evolution further. In the sport of cycling, 1986 was the first year a carbon bike was successfully used, by American Greg LeMond, to win the Tour de France.

Carbon Today

Depending on how far you want to take it, you can construct a bicycle that features a carbon fiber composition well into the high ninetieth percentile. I’ve ridden bikes with a carbon frame, wheels, seat post, saddle, stem, handlebars, water bottle cages, pedals, cranks, derailleurs, and whatever else I may be forgetting. There is no denying the bike was both light and fast. The ride was far more capable than I ever was or will be. An incredible machine, without a doubt, but I never felt at ease on the bike. Having witnessed carbon fail, the fragility of all the components was always at the back of my mind.

One of the many aspects of carbon fiber construction that differentiates it from other materials is that when it fails, it fails catastrophically. It tends to do so without any warning. While a component or frame made of any number of alloys will generally creak, crack, or dent before failing, carbon is incredibly difficult to test without an expensive ultrasound test. Unforgiving of being over-torqued, should a mechanic not strictly adhere to the manufacturer’s torque specifications, a carbon part will fail. It’s simply the nature of the material. With little give, going beyond carbon’s designed specifications leads to cracks that are invisible until it is too late. Keep this in mind if you are looking at any second-hand carbon frame or component.

Carbon Manufacturing

This leads us to manufacturing. The bicycle industry is notorious for a lack of universal standards. From bottom bracket widths and crank spindle lengths, to seat post and handle bar diameters, the only standard is one of constant change. This also means there is no safety standard when it comes to the manufacture of carbon fiber frames and components.

The majority of riders I know who use carbon frames and components have never had any kind of incident. These riders meticulously maintain their bikes. Their reward for such diligence is countless hours of high performance enjoyment. With that in mind, I have to add, I have personally witnessed a rider watch his handlebars come off his steer tube. This was a nightmare just like George Hindcapie had in the 2006 edition of Paris-Roubaix. I’ve seen carbon frames end up in multiple pieces after a rider has fallen. I have had carbon saddle rails break in the middle of a ride, and I use a torque wrench on every bolt on my bike.

Considering carbon fiber is the standard of high performance in cycling, and it is important to be aware of the shortcomings of the material. It’s incredibly strong and lightweight, but it can fail without warning. EB Cycling Law has experience in both component failure liability and frame failure liability cases. If you or someone you know has been injured due to these failures, please contact us for a free consultation. Thanks for reading, and as always, keep the rubber side down!

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Founded in 1989, Swami’s Cycling Club is one of the premier and most recognized clubs in southern California. We are composed of more than 300 male and female cyclists in the San Diego region who participate in the entire spectrum of cycling activities from the adrenalin-pumping action of racing to mountain bike and fitness rides.

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