After I shared seven horror stories about carbon bicycles and components failing in last week’s Tech Talk, fellow Bicycling Magazine alumnus and longtime Adventure Cyclist technical editor John Schubert wrote on Facebook (tagging me, so that I would see it),
“My friend Jim Langley loves his carbon fiber bikes, but he manages to convince me that I don't want one,” citing my tale of the carbon-piercing telephone-pole splinter.
Here, I was trying to warn roadies away from things that might wreck their carbon, and I apparently gave John another reason not to want to try a carbon bike or components!
Carbon has - and will continue to - advance bicycle performance
After John’s comment, I feel the need to make it clear that I trust carbon bicycles, wheels and components and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend quality carbon to anyone. My best bicycles (Cervelo), wheels (Bontrager) and some components (Ritchey stem and Lightning Cycle Dynamics crankset) are made of carbon, in fact.
I love the way bicycle performance has improved thanks to this magic material that can be fine-tuned almost to the molecular level. And, I can’t wait to see what happens now that we have supercomputers and 3-D printers that allow making as many prototypes as needed to speed better and better carbon products to the market.
Two exciting examples for 2016 include Trek’s Madone 9.9 and Specialized’s Venge. Look at the way the carbon frame, fork, wheels and components are integrated into a single unit on these sleek sleds for an idea what the future of carbon may hold. This is just the beginning.
Caring for your carbon
But, in case you’re worried about carbon -- like John -- I want to provide a few simple tips to protect it.
The first requires thinking differently about your bicycle, especially if you’ve only ever owned metal ones. You need to realize that carbon is more like glass than metal. Both can be amazingly strong, but metal bends when hit hard, while glass and carbon can shatter or crush, respectively.
If you keep this in mind, you can avoid mistakes that put your carbon at risk, like that roof rack I mentioned last week. Or, like tossing your bike on top of another bike in the back of a pickup or wagon. Or letting loose parts slam into the frame when you’re flying somewhere with the bike disassembled in a box.
With a little luck, you can get away with these mistakes with metal bikes, but it’s hazardous to treat carbon like that because if it gets hit just right (“wrong” is more like it), a tube could get seriously damaged. For stacking bikes, be sure to put cardboard or blankets between them. For shipping in a box, it’s even more important to pad the tubes to protect them and attach loose parts so they can’t move and hit the frame.
For the same reason, you don’t want to overtighten components or work on your bike in such a way that you might drop a hammer or something else heavy on the frame/components. It might bounce off metal and only chip the paint. But it could smash the carbon.
Back to roof racks. I’ve heard a couple of stories of airborne debris striking and damaging carbon bikes carried in roof racks. Just the way a stone thrown off a big-rig can crack a windshield, it can travel bullet-like through a frame, too. For protection, consider a product like Trek’s Bike Bra.
Tip: Just about any carbon break can be repaired. The company that’s been doing it longer than anyone is Calfee Designs. But more and more firms are providing this service, and there are even DIY instructions online if you’re handy and would like to try. Depending on the damage, it can be little like surfboard repair, using fabric and glue.
Effetto Mariposa makes a carbon protector
For those worried about their carbon, or for roadies who love gravel roads and trails where carbon is subjected to stones and debris hurled at the frame from the wheels, there’s a cool product called Shelter Bike Frame Protector ($29.95).
It’s made by the same company that offered some of the first bicycle-specific miniature torque wrenches. Shelter tape is a clear .6mm-thick tape that can be applied to any part of the frame to protect it. It doesn’t just add a layer of protection. It also absorbs impacts so that they are less likely to reach the carbon.
By installing Shelter beneath your down tube, behind your seat tube, and on your right chainstay (where the chain can hit over rough roads) you can protect it and keep it safe. You could even purchase the mountain-bike version, which is 1.2mm thick for even more peace of mind.
Tip: For all bikes, not just carbon, it’s a good idea to inspect the brake and shift cable housings to see if they rub against the frame. Be sure to turn the handlebars in both directions fully when you do this. If there’s rubbing, the housings can eventually cut right through the paint finish and into the material below. To prevent this, place tape at those contact points and replace it if it falls off or wears out.
Touching up carbon frame dings and chips
The one thing that’s the same with painted carbon and metal bikes is that they can get chipped or dinged from road debris or just normal use. Here, carbon has an advantage over steel bikes because it won’t rust. But, it’s still best to touch up the chip or ding because chipped paint can worsen. If you touch it up, you seal the chip and help your paint finish stay attached.
Touching up carbon chips can be as simple as dabbing on some clear nail polish. Nail polish is cheap, includes a brush built-into the cap, and it dries fast, too. It will nicely touch up clear coats over natural carbon frames. And, if yours is a painted frame where only the clear coat over the paint got chipped, the clear polish will work on that, too.
If your color coat got chipped, however, you’ll want to match the color. Here again, nail polish can do the trick since it comes in so many common and not so common hues. You can certainly try to get matching touch-up paint from the company that made your bicycle. But offering paint is not a common practice in the bike industry, the way it is for automobiles.
Finally, a few tips on carbon component care. As mentioned a few times now, be sure to get a torque wrench and use it when assembling carbon parts. But only after reading up on the parts and learning the correct torque specifications.
Tip: Handy tools to have are torque “keys” preset to tighten certain components exactly right, like Ritchey’s 6-Bit Torque Key ($22.95) for their stems.
Another basic rule is that it’s best not to twist carbon parts to install them on your bike. For example, if you twist a seatpost during installation, and there’s something inside the frame or a binder that can scratch or cut the post, it could ruin the post. Again, read the assembly instructions.
Some carbon components are best assembled with carbon assembly paste, for example (a special grease with grit in it to lube and hold the part tight). Never use regular greases on carbon components because it can become embedded and make it difficult to impossible to tighten the part.
Lastly, a word about carbon wheels, especially those with deep-dish (tall) aero rims. These can have thin carbon sidewalls. If you have these, use care when removing and installing tight tires because it’s possible to dent the carbon if you squeeze or pinch the rim too hard because you fix tires that way on aluminum rims.
Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.