Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Off-the-Shelf Carbon - Part 3

It's time to bring this series of articles to a close. I promise this is my last entry on the subject. 

In Part 2 of this examination of off-the-shelf carbon I ended the post with a question about who actually tests carbon bikes and parts, and how are the tests administered. Let's get on with it... 

Compliance Testing: The majority of reputable cycling companies that sell carbon products into the market elect to test to the EN standards. The EN standards come from Europe and are currently the toughest compliance standards in the world. But, if you only sell into the US market you don't have to go that route. The CPSC standards for bicycle products are much easier to pass, and in some cases are virtually non-existent. 

The EN standards exist to insure, as much as they can, consumer safety and fitness-for-use of the products we use every day. This includes bicycles and their associated parts. There are specific compliance standards for everything from handlebars to stems, frames to forks and so on. Within each compliance standard are the specific tests required to determine compliance. And this is where things can get wonky. This is where I should tell you that there are no material specific accommodations outlined in the standards at this time. If you think this is a problem, it sure is. Carbon is not steel, and steel is not aluminum.  

How tests are administered (the fixtures used) is open to interpretation, which is also a challenge. And in many cases a brand can use more than one product to gain compliance. What I mean is that if there are six tests required to determine compliance for a bicycle frame, the manufacturer can use one frame for each test - not one frame to pass all six tests. Ok, don't get alarmed yet. Again, these tests where largely developed with aluminum frames in mind and it's very difficult to get any one carbon frame to survive the tests back to back to back. The frontal impact test alone fatigues the frame so much that surviving the remaining tests is very tough. 

Using one frame for each test is perfectly acceptable, to be honest. That said, the testing standards allow you to test just one size, too. Huh? Yes, you can take your 54cm road frame, make six of them and use one frame for each test to qualify the entire size-run as compliant. The more reputable brands demand more, and test every size and will do everything they can to have any one frame pass as many tests as they can back to back to back. 

When I helped launch a certain carbon bicycle brand we spent a lot of time and money testing frames. We pushed for one frame to pass all the compliance tests back to back to back, which was virtually impossible after the abuse the frame took in each preceding test. Carbon isn't aluminum, and the tests are designed around aluminum. We were close, but adding weight to reinforce certain areas so we could achieve our goal wasn't reasonable to remain competitive in the marketplace. So, we had to understand that after all the abuse the frame took, which resulted in more fatigue than any reasonable human could produce, not passing the final test was acceptable in our back to back scenario. So, we tested for frontal impact with a separate frame and it passed. In my mind, we went above and beyond what the testing protocols required; most reputable brands do. 

Based on how the frame molds were being produced when I help launch a certain carbon bike brand, we had medium and large frames first, which passed testing. Now, with passing results on two sizes we could infer based on logic and experience that the small and extra-large sizes of this particular frame would be compliant. We were also only required to pass one size to determine compliance for the full size-run. But, we tested the small and extra-large sizes anyway, because it was the right thing to do.  

So, who determines if these products are safe and where are they tested? Another question that's tricky to answer. A company can elect to self-certify the carbon products they produce. Depending on the company that might be perfectly acceptable, if they're known to be ethical and beyond reproach. In this case, an ethical manufacturer who self certifies will have tons of documentation around their procedures that show's complete transparency. In my experience, there are only a handful of carbon manufacturers in Asia the industry trusts to self certify their products; it's not the norm. Many companies will have their products sent to an independent third-party lab to be tested. This is better, but go back and read what I wrote about the testing protocols and numbers of samples a company can use to determine compliance.

Wrap-Up: When you ask why some carbon products cost more than others, it has a lot to do with the costs of development and testing. You can be sure that the bigger brands are testing each and every size of a given carbon model. They don't have to according to the standards, but they do it because they're committed to producing high-quality, safe and reliable products. When you buy a Colnago, a Trek, a Santa Cruz or any other reputable brands' carbon bike (including some off-the-shelf brands) the price you pay includes a lot of broken frames and development costs that are incurred over months, if not years. This is worth paying for folks. This is your piece of mind. 

Remember our Ford Mustang example. It's what's under the hood that matters. Two bicycle brands might share the same mold, but that doesn't mean they're made the same, tested the same or developed the same. Different grades of carbon, different lay-ups, adherence to compliance testing protocols, demanding all frame sizes be tested for compliance and so on. They might look the same, but can be as different as night and day. 

Now, I need to be careful not to imply that carbon frames and parts you can by on Ebay or the private label frame from an online retailer aren't safe. In my experience, it depends on who the manufacturer is behind those products. There are some very good carbon manufacturers that do due diligence to make sure their products are safe. And then there are some manufacturers that cut corners to save a buck. 

Let me cut to the chase. As a consumer you need to have your eyes wide open when you're buying cycling products, especially carbon fiber. Ask the questions that need to be asked, and if the retailer or brand can't answer them...buyer beware. I'd also be wary of any testing documentation that's written in Chinese. Testing documents written in Chinese may be perfectly legitimate, but a reputable company selling carbon bicycle products to you will have done the work to insure the source manufacturer has done their job and provided documentation in English - the language here in America. 

I hope this helps and gets you thinking about why things cost what they do, and why that might actually matter. I didn't go into how frame weights and the consumers quest for reduced weight plays into all of this; that'll have to wait for another day. Nor, did I get into the specifics of components. Again, that's a big topic on its own. My goal was to get you thinking about the cost of things and what goes into it. Big brands aren't ripping you off, and you're not paying for big marketing campaigns.  

Send me an email or post a comment if you have any questions or feedback. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Off-the-Shelf Carbon - Part 2

Paul Harvey was famous for saying "And now, the rest of the story." So, here we continue with the rest of our examination of all things off-the-shelf carbon. 

In my last post I talked about all the things that go into a carbon frame. You have the carbon, the resins, the layup and so on. I also talked about the extent to which a manufacturer will go to insure safety and compliance of the finished products, which is a big deal. Let's deconstruct each of these elements. 

Carbon Fiber: I am no engineer, but I know enough to tell you that there is not just one type of carbon fiber material. Much like aluminum or steel, carbon fiber has a myriad of grades and types. There are carbon fibers that have never been twisted, and there are some that have. There are different strand lengths, different weaves and so on. Take a look at this chart, which comes from a carbon factory in Alabama. Unless you are a highly skilled engineer you probably don't know how to apply any of these types of carbon to the production of a bicycle. Yes, the better bicycle manufacturers will use more than one type of carbon fiber in the layup of a bicycle. Why? So that the bike flexes where they want it and is stronger where it needs to be. 

Resin: Think of this as the glue that holds all the carbon fibers together in a sheet. It's also the glue that holds multiple sheets of carbon together. Did you know that resin's have a "best by" kind of date associated with them? Maybe you did. The point is that the resin that holds your carbon fiber bike together is just as critical as the carbon fibers themselves. Again I'm no engineer, but I do know that resins that sit to long and aren't kept in environmentally controlled conditions can lead to product integrity issues down the line. Hence, like a lot of things the resin's used in carbon need to be monitored throughout the supply chain. 

Engineering: Composites engineers don't come cheap and many bicycle brands don't have the budgets to keep one on staff. The big brands like Trek, Specialized, Giant, Focus and some others certainly have among the best composite engineers money can buy on their staff. But, what about a smaller brand? Many smaller, credible brands certainly have engineers on staff that are fluent in the geometries and physics of a bicycle. So, what they do when engineering a carbon fiber bicycle is work closely with their manufacturing partners in Asia (maybe Eastern Europe) that have a composites engineer on staff. This is a pretty common practice and is more than acceptable. 

The more reputable brands, those who might not have the volume of carbon bike sales to support a composites engineer, typically know what they want in terms of handling and comfort. So, they work closely with the engineers on the other end to create designs and layups that deliver the desired bike. Sometimes they'll create an entirely new bike (a mold) that has a proprietary shape to it. Sometimes they'll take an existing (off-the-shelf) mold the manufacturer has already developed and modify specific elements of the shape to make it more proprietary. Or they'll use an existing mold the manufacturer owns to save tooling costs, which add-up quickly when you consider all the frame sizes.

Here's where we go back to our Ford Mustang in the dark example. The shape of the thing does not always indicate the quality of the thing. Heck, Parlee's are boring to look at and it's conceivable that someone could make an incorrect judgement about their quality based on their "boring" shape. And they'd be wrong, right? It's not logical to conclude that if something looks "off-the-shelf" that it is somehow inferior in terms of its quality, workmanship and engineering. There are questions that need to be asked.

Compliance and Testing: People might assume that if a brand is selling a carbon bike frame or part that it must meet all applicable compliance regulations. Ok, which set of regulations are being followed and are they properly applied and interpreted for the specific product? There are European compliance standards, there are Asian compliance standards and there are US compliance standards. The European compliance standards are by far the toughest, but they don't cover everything and in some cases don't make sense for certain products. While developing the Whisky thru-axle disc road forks the engineer discovered that there were no guidelines for testing disc brakes within the road bike standards. Kind of makes sense. Until this year road bikes didn't have disc brakes. 

So, what did the engineers at Whisky do to make sure their new fork was safe (and compliant)?  First, they applied the mountain disc standard to the fork to make sure the lower part of the fork was strong enough. Second, they applied the road standards to the rest of the fork. The road standards are tougher than mountain. Don't ask... The point is that the engineers at Whisky could have tested to the road standard and called it a day. The fork would have passed and been compliant in accordance with the European standards they tested against. Remember this, compliance does not equal safety. The engineer at Whisky (Anna Schwinn. Yes, a legitimate Schwinn) demanded that fork be tested above and beyond the current standards to insure both compliance and safety. Smart! 

So, who determines if a product is compliant? There are tests outlined in the compliance regulations, but how they are to be administered is subjective. Yes, subjective. More on that in tomorrow's post: Off-the-Shelf Carbon - Part 3.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Off-the-Shelf Carbon - Part 1

I don't follow many online forums, nor do I read many comments people post to news articles on a variety of cycling "news" websites. Why? I think it has something to do with all the misinformation and opinion (spun as fact) that gets tossed around. Don't get me wrong, people are entitled to their opinions and I support a person's right to free speech. I just wish some people would dig a little deeper, listen a little harder and ask the right questions before they assume they "know" something. 

There seems to be a lot of sensitivity around the idea of off-the-shelf products bicycle brands sell into the market. Saying something is off-the-shelf is essentially the kiss-of-death in some peoples minds, even if they don't have all the facts. Hence, there are a number of people posting comments as if they know something they might not. The belief that something perceived to be or even known to be off-the-shelf somehow makes a product inferior simply isn't true. There are more questions that need to be asked, many people might not even think about or consider. 

Consider this, Ford makes the Mustang and in the dark of night you likely cannot tell which package it's stocking under the hood. It could be the run-of-the-mill V6 or it could be the Shelby GT, right? Hence, from the shape of the car you can't always tell what it's packing inside. And we all know that what's under the hood makes a huge difference. 

Let's apply our Ford example to carbon bike frames and parts. You might want to avoid assuming that the shape of the thing is an absolute indicator of how it's made - what's under the hood, if you will. Nor should you make assumptions about it's overall quality, the integrity of the manufacturer or its safety. 

Yes, there truly are a number of inexpensive carbon frames, parts and accessories that are widely available on Ebay and other retail websites. And yes, in some cases they may be constructed using lower quality forms of carbon fiber and resins. Yes, they may have funky geometries and odd features because the engineers designing them aren't always cyclists (or proportioned like many Westerner's). And yes, you might just get what you pay for...but, maybe you'll get more than you expected too. 

So, what about the companies (brands) that actively advertise their products, sell them through distributors or maybe through a known retail website, that you suspect (or claim) just buy their products from some foreign factory and slap their logo on it, claiming it as their own? This is where it gets tricky, and harder to know what's under the hood. 

Here's the skinny. There are several types of carbon, different tonnages, different resins, different manufacturing techniques, different quality controls, different layups and so on. Then there are the different testing standards for different countries, varying philosophies on  how many frames or parts need to be tested to determine compliance and safety. Then you have the testing facilities that do the testing, and in some cases you have manufacturers who self-certify their test results and more. Ugh! 

What does all this mean? I'll begin to explain it to you tomorrow in Part 2 of this article. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Road Bikes with Disc Brakes

One thing is for certain, disc brakes are coming to road bikes. You know the trend is something more than a fad when the legendary Colnago produces a disc brake version of their top-of-the-line C59 bicycle. From elite manufacturers to the run-of-the-mill Asian frame the sprint to bolt disc brakes onto road bikes has begun.

The performance benefits of disc brakes are well documented, mountain bikes have been running them for years. They offer better performance in all conditions. Aside from brake pad wear they're virtually maintenance free. And they're light. 

On the road, disc brakes will allow rim manufacturers to eliminate the brake track on their rims. That means potentially less material required in that part of the rim, which would translate into less rotational weight. And it means not having to manage heat from brake pads that often wreak havoc on carbon fiber. Not to mention eliminating the home science experiment of finding the right brake pads for your carbon rims, if you're running carbon rims. Sounds good, right?

Now for the rest of the story... 

Disc brakes are no joke. It seems simple enough, adding a disc brake to a carbon road fork. Well, it's not. And here's why. 

Torque: The forces a disc brake applies to a carbon road fork are very different from a traditional rim brake. With brakes being mounted near the axle the fork leg needs to be reinforced (strengthened) to compensate for the torque being applied to it. And it's not just the left leg that needs to be reinforced, it's both. I pray that the run-of-the-mill producers of carbon road disc forks have figured this out. When the caliper grabs the disc brake rotor the entire fork wants to twist under the load. Again, if the fork isn't designed properly it will twist to some degree and that means handling can be compromised. The engineers at Colnago figured this out and designed their carbon disc forks to manage the load appropriately. The folks at Whisky Parts Co. also knew this would be a problem and opted for a thru-axle to unify the fork legs. Thus, they eliminated the problem. 

Testing and Compliance: There are no safety or testing standards for carbon road disc forks yet. It's up to the manufacturer of the fork (or the brand buying it off-the-shelf) to blend standards to determine if the fork is safe. And there's absolutely no protocol for twisting legs under disc brake applications. The scary thing is that some off-the-shelf brands don't actually validate testing from their source manufacturer, they accept a report (often written in Chinese) that claims the fork has passed road compliance standards. The challenge there is that you're not actually sure if they've applied the mountain standards for disc brakes to their testing protocol. 

Brake Pads: As Tyler from learned the hard way, don't assume the brake pads in your caliper are applicable to all riding conditions. Consumers demand quiet brakes. So, manufacturers often specify semi-metallic or organic compound brake pads for the brakes they're installing on a complete bike. And should you buy aftermarket brakes they likely come with semi-metallic brake pads installed. My point is simple, know what brake pads (the compound and it's intended uses) are in your calipers before you ride. Organic pads and 140mm rotors on the steep mountain roads of the Rockies or Smokies are probably a bad idea. The compound isn't designed to manage that much heat. And as Tyler learned you can burn through your pads pretty quickly and loose all braking ability, if you're not careful. 

I'm not suggesting that disc brakes are unsafe. What I am suggesting is that you know your equipment. Most riders will probably never have a problem with their forks or brakes. All I'm suggesting is that you ask the questions and keep yourself informed. 

Are disc brakes on road bikes a good idea? Yes, they are. Does it pay you to know your equipment and not to assume? Yes, it does. 

I don't see many companies talking about these issues or educating their customers around disc brake usage, maintenance or set-up on road bikes. If it were me, I'd have service and sales bulletins going out to every dealer, all the sales people and anyone else I could think to include. Why? Because rather than avoiding the issue or underplaying it I'd prefer to be the leader in the conversation. Take ownership, lead the way and show your customers that you're on their side. Simple.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Another Project

It's a cool feeling when you dream up a bike project. Then you pull together all the parts to build it. Riding it and wearing out the parts comes next with a huge smile on your face. Then you find something to upgrade because a bike is never really complete, right? You work on it some more and you repeat the process. Bike love!

I don't know how many bikes I've built, ridden and later sold over the years. Honestly, I almost love assembling bikes more than I like riding them. There's just something I love about mapping-out a bike build in my mind. The great thing about the cycling industry are all the options. What color scheme will I choose. What group will I run. Will it be a 1x9, a 2x10 or something more traditional like a 3x9. What fork will I use. How much am I willing to invest in this project. The list of things to think about goes on and on.

Having worked in the cycling industry my entire adult life I have a deep appreciation for the work Product Managers do. Building a cohesive product line for a bicycle brand is one part science and one part art. Product Managers must pay attention to the trends in the industry and within the larger cycling community. But, they must also be trend setters that use their personal style and preferences to put a unique stamp on their products. There are good product managers and there are not-so-good product managers out there. The good product managers are willing to take chances on something new or somehow different. Good product managers understand that part of their job is help advance the sport and related technology. And when they have an idea they find a way to make it happen. 

Here's a great example. Ben the Product Manager for Whisky Parts Co. (a brand I helped launch) had an idea to advance the proliferation of disc brakes on road and cyclocross bikes. Ben knew that most modern road and cross bikes use carbon forks and that they weren't designed with disc brake forces in mind. Rather than overbuilding the left fork blade to manage the forces of a disc brake he had another idea. Why not run a thru-axle system instead...Huh? It's a lighter system than a typical QR. It's safer than a typical QR. And it unifies the fork legs, which leads to a whole host of performance improvements. Bam! Differentiation is key and Ben found a way to achieve that while also producing a superior product. Bravo!

The cycling industry has always been one that thrives on innovation. Without innovation, new ideas and risks the sport of cycling would most certainly become stagnate and slide into decline. For those of us that work in the industry we need to continually produce fresh ideas that often drive to incompatibilities with older products. Yes, drive incompatibilities with aging products. 

If you think about it, we need to give the cycling consumer a reason to buy the latest, the greatest, the most cool products. And thank goodness for making things incompatible because it's a big part of why people need to buy something new. This is how we keep the economic engine of the cycling industry spinning round and round.