Thursday, April 18, 2013

Carbon Wheels – A Sexy Necessity, Or Over-Hyped, Expensive Toys?

 Reynolds RZR Full-Carbon Bicycle Wheels - $4000.00 to $6000.00 USD.

The carbon fiber bicycle wheel.  Whether Tubular or Clincher, they are light, exotic, and sexy.  They make us faster.  They give us status.  They are flat-out cool.  They are considered the “Holy Grail” of bicycle components.  They are also an expensive double-edged sword.

So, just how dare I speweth forth such carbon blasphemy, you say?  It is simple really.  Unless you are a sponsored racer, comparing the cost/benefit analysis of the proverbial “Bang for the Buck,” is all it takes to question marketing hype on the subject. 

So, just what is the real price of achieving “Carbon Bliss?”  In actual, everyday life, this is a perfectly viable question to ponder.  In this author’s humble opinion, one must be independently wealthy, a knucklehead, crazy, or a combination of all to pop for a set of “Top of the Line” carbon wheels. 

And, for the record, I too love all things carbon fiber just as much as anyone, and I own a set of carbon clincher SRAM S40’s, complete with aluminum brake tracks (I am not sold on full-carbon wheels).  Not that full-carbon wheels are horrible, mind you, I just question the amount of hype, the safety concerns, and I definitely question the very real cost versus performance equation to the average cyclist.
Consider the following.

Back in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, carbon wheels were a pipe dream except in World Championship motorcycle racing where they were just being introduced.  It took a full 25 years, however, for them to be offered to the public at a cost approaching reasonable and being built tough enough for everyday street use, if desired. 

Blackstone Tech Full-Carbon Motorcycle Wheels - $4000.00 USD
Today, for $4000.00 USD, you can own a set of full carbon fiber motorcycle wheels which can sustain speeds in excess of 200 MPH.  They can support a rider of any weight, are strong enough to support load paths in, and from, all directions, including having brake discs bolted to them, plus cushion drives, and sprockets.  Remember, all this performance and durability for about $4000.00 USD ($150.00 additional for ceramic bearings).  Oh, and they come with a full warranty and can conceivably last the life of the motorcycle.  Heck, the price of a set of “Top of the line” carbon bicycle wheels even makes forged Magnesium motorcycle racing wheels look like a bargain at $3000.00.  Or, one can even procure a darn good set of forged aluminum wheels for about $2000.00 bucks.

And remember, weight is just as important in the motorcycling world as it is in bicycling.  The technology that was previously the realm of Grand Prix racing has now been brought down to the level of the everyday consumer.  The results are predictable, too.  They are showing up on street bikes, with the durability to survive the pot holes and bad streets of the real-world we all live in.

And, the benefits are real.  A set of carbon motorcycle wheels can knock twenty (20) pounds, or more, off a motorcycle.  A set of carbon bicycle wheels, meanwhile, will maybe take off a pound, possibly two in extreme cases.  In reality, it is only grams we’re fighting with our wallets, which is why I call all of this madness in cycling “The Gram Wars.”
 Lightweight Full-Carbon Bicycle Wheels - $5000.00 to $6000.00 USD

As for the realities of carbon bicycle wheels, these puppies can easily reach the same $4000.00 USD, and can even go as high as $6000.00 USD (a price no motorcyclist would pay for wheels, this side of a MotoGP World Championship team).  This end cost of product is a completely relevant discussion, as it is what we consumers are being asked to swallow (or bend over for, depending on one’s perspective).  In other words, what does motorcycling know in total about carbon fiber wheels that bicycling does not?  And, in even more basic terms, it is money out of the consumer’s pocket that won’t go to rent, food, gasoline, or the light bill.

The issues of reliability are very real, too.  See, you can make something so light that it basically becomes flimsy.  That is called compromise.  Sure, carbon bicycle wheels are asked to do a lot of things motorcycle wheels are not (and vice-versa), and one of the major functions is braking.  While MotoGP (and Commercial Aircraft, like the Boeing 787) can take technology to the fullest, utilizing carbon rotors AND carbon pads, bicycling is still trying to get by with rubber pads on carbon tracks, and doing a miserable job of it, too.  Disc brakes will solve this issue, completely.

So, what we have here are two different applications of a similar material, however, in motorcycling, the wheels are being asked to do a whole lot more for less money.  And, that is the basis of this article. 

Additionally, the roads we ride upon are so bad (especially here in sunny California, land of movie stars and the wealthy) that anything less than a very durable, dare I say it, alloy wheel, is a waste of material and money for anyone short of a sponsored racer.  Yes, I state it boldly here – Carbon is nice, but it is an oversold feature to the average cyclist. 

But wait, there’s more.     
I recently spoke to a friend of mine who is an engineer for a major civil and military satellite manufacturer.  Being they utilize a boat load of exotic materials on spacecraft (yes, including a whole lot of carbon composites), I asked him, off the cuff, how aerospace and racing can make carbon work reliably, without all of the downsides that bicycling seems to be facing (heat issues, stress load failures, and high cost).  While admitting he was not familiar with the variables involved with the bicycling world, he did state that in aerospace the issues of stress loading, reliability, strength-to-weight ratio, temperature variance, and even to a certain point, cost, had long since been realized with composites, including carbon fiber.  What he ventured to guess in bicycling were the issues of economics and weight, and figured the lack of a total wheel solution in bicycling must be due to cost – It (reliability) could probably be done, but at a price (and weight) that no bicyclist would pay for.

I then mentioned to him that you could get a set of feather-weight wheels which possess hit-or-miss braking performance in the dry, will not work worth a damn in the rain, and not take much abuse from road irregularities for $6000.00.  He just laughed.  “Why would anyone pay that kind of money for something which was basically unreliable in most aspects of its design envelope?”

Good question, my friend.  Good question.


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