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.

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