Friday, December 6, 2013

The Carbon Commodity Conundrum: What Causes It? (Pt 1)

Last time, we laid out what the Carbon Commodity Conundrum (CCC) is, and put forth a few contributing factors.  Today, we'll look at each in turn to better understand why people can be such amazing douchebags when it comes to crabon fibre bikes.

Very few cyclists are engineers

I don't have any data to support this, but "engineer" is not the most common profession, and composites engineer a smaller subset thereof.  I stand by my assumption that most cyclists are not engineers.  If you have data to refute this, bring it on.

Many of the physical characteristics of a carbon frame that affect its performance are not visible

With steel, you can see an imperfect weld.  They're lumpy, uneven, and full of voids.  You can see a fillet braze without a smooth radius.  You can see the difference between a nice lug and a not-nice lug.  Same for the welds on aluminum and titanium.

With carbon, not so much.  I'll stipulate that on a really shitty frame, you can see wrinkles or voids in the layup, and you may be able to see nastiness inside the seat tube.  Sometimes the frame components, like cable stops and dropouts, will look shitty.  I'm disregarding that level of frame, because I don't believe those are the frames this discussion is about.

Take any carbon frame that's manufactured overseas that is not visibly shitty, and it's much more difficult.  Much like you cannot see the butting on metal tubes, you cannot see the layups in a carbon frame, and it's not a problem to make a shitty frame that looks nice on the outside.  All you need is a smooth mold and somebody who knows which is the business end of the paint gun.

Add to this the fact that there is now such a thing as an "open mold."  An open mold is just that - a frame mold that is not licensed exclusively to any particular brand; it is open for use by any brand with the money to make an order.  Two frames made from the same open mold will look identical (or near enough for this discussion), but can have vastly different performance characteristics depending on the variables mentioned above.  Think of it this way: on a traditional, TIG welded steel frame, you can have straight gauge, heavy tubing with an outer diameter of 1.125", or you can have butted, thin walled tubing with an outer diameter of 1.125".  Assuming the welding appears of the same quality on both frames, you will have two frames that look the same but perform very differently.

It is impossible to quantify the overall performance of any bicycle/frame

"But what about when they say the new 2014 Kraptastic is 30% stiffer than the 2013 Kraptastic?!"  Here's the thing: you can quantify certain aspects of stiffness.  For instance, you can clamp a bicycle frame in a rigid jig and then thread into the bottom bracket shell a lever 1 foot long.  You can then hang a known weight off that lever (or at other strategic points), and you can then measure how much the frame bends or deflects.  Clamp another frame in the same jig and hang the same weights off it and measure again.  Compare the two.  If Frame A was deflected 1.0 mm and Frame B was deflected 0.7 mm, you can say Frame B is 30% stiffer [1.0 - 0.7 / 1.0 = .30(100%) = 30%].

But so the fuck what.

Nobody tells you how the frame deflected, so you have no way of knowing in what way it's "stiffer."  The industry trend has been "vertically compliant and laterally stiff."  We're lead to believe this means the frame is stiffer in all the ways that affect pedaling efficiency, so the energy you're putting into the pedal is transferred to forward motion rather than into deflection of the frame, all the while remaining vertically compliant so your scranus doesn't take such a beating.  I stand by my original interpretation: so the fuck what.  This is a single, fuzzy variable amongst dozens of other variables that will affect performance and comfort.  Slap on a different pair of wheels and you have a bike that will feel and perform completely differently.

Matt Phillips (test director for Bicycling Magazine) wrote a great piece directly related to this on his blog:  Product reviews, which are inherently subjective, exist because it is not possible to quantify the performance of a bike, which is what would be required if you wanted to objectively evaluate them.

So far, none of the above, collectively or individually, are the cause of the CCC.  The missing, secret ingredients are the newly found, pseudotransparency of the bike industry offered by the interwebs, and the mistrust in marketing it has created.  Next time...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Carbon Commodity Conundrum: What Is It?

Well, we're into The Slow Season, which means I don't have a lot of tales to tell about how stupid my customers are and how smart I am, so time to delve deeper into the quirks of this incestuous little industry.  One I can't believe I haven't touched on yet, since it's getting more and more common, is what I'll heretofore refer to as the Carbon Commodity Conundrum (CCC).

Commodity: an economic good, as:
  • a product of agriculture or mining
  • an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment
  • a mass-produced unspecialized product
Come to think of it, I do have one tale to tell that is directly related to the CCC.  Dude comes in with what looks from across the shop like a very nice, very fast carbon tri bike.  I immediately want to punch him in the throat, because that's the proper reaction to tri douches who clearly can more easily buy their speed than work for it.  Upon closer inspection, I'm delighted to see it's some no-name, generic frame with a mediocre paintjob.

"Whoa, nice bike...  What is that?"

"Oh...  It's a custom Pinarello...  A friend of mine has a connection at the factory..."

Oh god, this is too good to be true.  For the sake of getting him the fuck out of the shop, I just go along with his story, but as soon as he's out the door, I hop on the ol' interwebs.  It literally takes me 32 seconds to find this poor schmuck's frame on Alibaba.  I didn't get the back story, so I don't know if he was lying and deluding himself, or if he really got bent over by his "friend with the connection at the factory."  Ultimately, I don't care.

Another case in point.  QBP started a new brand, Foundry, and they seem to make some OK frames if you're into crabon fibre.  Nothing too fancy, OK prices, some innovation, and I like the understated graphics.  Do a search for "Foundry" on BikeRumor and check the comments under every single post.  They all get the same reaction: "Doood, I can score this exact frame from Hong Fu for 600 bucks.  This brand is a joke.  People who buy it are idiots."  There is then some back and forth from brand fanboys.  This always involves anecdotal evidence about their friend whose Hong Fu broke and now that friend has a TBI and will never ride again, to which the Hong Fu fanboys respond they have 4 frames and they've never had any issues, and both believe their individual experiences offer proof enough that Hong Fu/Foundry is awesome/a joke.

What is the real issue here?  The real issue is not whether Foundry/Hong Fu is a joke or not.  The real issue is that the average consumer in the bike industry is not equipped to decide if Hong Fu/Foundry is a joke.  Compounding the problem is the human tendency to accept that which supports what we want to believe, while rejecting that which refutes it.  That is the Carbon Commodity Conundrum: carbon fiber bicycle frames have become a commodity, just like field corn and computer chips.  There is too little to differentiate them to the untrained eye, and too little trust in the people responsible for selling them. 

As much as possible, let's start with and work from the facts:
  1. Very few cyclists are engineers, let alone composites engineers
  2. Many of the physical characteristics of a carbon frame that affect its performance (layups, types of carbon, resin to fiber ratio, etc) are not visible on the outside of the frame
  3. It is impossible to quantify the overall performance of any bicycle/frame (regardless of its material)
In the next installment of this enthralling series, we'll look at each of these in turn to better understand the CCC.

Now go ride your fucking bike.