Not long ago, I wrote a post about carbon fiber bicycle forks. It was written in response to a comment I received on a bicycle review where I discussed my partiality towards carbon forks. This comment reiterated the common belief that cyclists should avoid carbon as a frame or fork material because it “fails catastrophically.”
Carbon does sometimes fail catastrophically, that is totally and without warning. But so do other frame materials. In the carbon article, I pointed to a report of an unexpected steel fork failure. According to the rider whose fork failed, he had no reason to suspect a problem with his fork. He noticed some symptoms which he attributed to dirty rims or a brake problem since the brakes were acting “grabby.”
By viewing this problem in hindsight, some commenters opined that this wasn’t a catastrophic failure because there were symptoms. Yes, there were. But those symptoms pointed to the brakes. The fork was new. And, the rider only noticed a problem when he was braking. Nine out of ten cyclists would have looked at the brakes or rims as the culprit. Very few cyclists would have thought of the fork. And, they certainly would not have expected the fork to be cracked all the way through.
The carbon commenters seemed confident in their own ability to recognize this problem as a potential fork failure. Hindsight is 20/20. They recognize it as a fork problem now because the alternative is too scary. No one wants to believe that their frame or fork can fail without warning.
This problem is not confined to carbon or steel. I had a similar problem with a titanium frame. It cracked without warning. Just like the guy with the broken steel fork, I was lucky and finished a ride before the frame had a chance to collapse. Supposedly, titanium doesn’t fail catastrophically. In reality, it sometimes does — but that’s a topic for another post.
Nonetheless, having seen frames and forks of all materials fail without warning, I believe that the manufacturing quality is what counts, not which material is being used.
With respect to carbon, there is an anecdotal nature to the catastrophic failure reports. Most of these reports come from people whose forks or frames have failed. Some of these riders have been injured. Out of anger and frustration, they make the incidents widely known (and who wouldn’t do the same in their shoes?).
What’s missing is consumer groups or cycling publications warning about the high risk of injury from the use of carbon in bicycles. In addition, carbon bicycles have been widely available for more than a decade, but there haven’t been any class action lawsuits related to their failure. A lack of class action lawsuits usually indicates a problem too small for a lawyer to justify taking on the case.
As I was writing the carbon article, I wondered how often catastrophic failures occurred. I expected a large number of cyclists, who had experienced carbon failures, to come out of the woodwork. In a way, I wish they had.
The carbon article gets a lot of traffic. Despite thousands of people having read the article, only one person has left a comment about a carbon frame failure.
“I had a 2009 carbon Trek Madone 6.5 with Bontrager Race X Lite carbon fork and it catastrophically failed on me with very little riding and meticulous care taken with the bike…it had never even fallen over much less crashed. I was riding on good surface with no obstructions and the carbon imploded. I have 2 broken and 1 compressed vertebrate from that crash 1 year ago. Absolutely no warning with it. Can send photo if you would like to send an address to send one to for posting to this article. Class Action could very likely happen in the near future as in my visits with attorneys and carbon fibre experts around the country, it is scarey how common place this carbon failure is. It appears bike manufacturers are excellent at fighting each case in court as hard as possible and settling just before a full trial….getting confidentiality agreements signed and it disappears from the public.”
The commenter made some interesting points. His case is an example of how carbon can “implode” without warning.
I took him up on his offer to send me a photo of his bike. I e-mailed him, using the e-mail address he left with his comment. I also left two follow up comments, one informing him to look for my e-mail and another mentioning the presence of a contact form on my blog where he could contact me if he didn’t receive my e-mail.
He never replied. I would like to see a photo of his bike. And I would like to see some sort of documentation supporting his claims about such failures being “commonplace.”
I agree with his point about bicycle manufacturers fighting such cases to keep them out of the public eye. I saw similar behavior when I filed a warranty claim for my cracked frame.
Bicycle manufacturers handle these failures on a case by case basis, rather than making the problems known in a way that would allow consumers to protect themselves. From time to time, the failure rate of a particular frame or fork is so high that the manufacturer recalls it to avoid massive law suits.
While much of what the commenter said is true, his claims and conclusions are not unbiased. He was injured. Therefore, he has a product liability case against the bike’s manufacturer.
In order to win the product liability lawsuit, and get a sizable settlement, his lawyer must prove certain things. First, that the bike was defective. And second, that the carbon failure (which injured the rider) is a common problem which the manufacturer could have prevented with some action on their part. So, when a lawyer tells a client that such occurrences are commonplace, it’s because both the client and the lawyer have something to gain by taking this stance. In other words, it’s not objective.
In spite of this lack of objectivity, the problem of carbon failure could still be more common than the public knows. Due to the way business is conducted in the U.S., and the nature of the legal system, consumers don’t have access to statistics on the percentage of bicycle failures.
For this reason, I was hoping to receive something tangible from the commenter, such as a statement from a carbon fiber expert — with all personal information omitted, of course. It would be interesting to see what expert testimonies consist of.
The need for lawyers to make a case for their clients is understandable. What’s surprising is the behavior of the carbon fiber “experts.” If, in their expert opinion, catastrophic carbon failures are a common problem — which lies in the nature of carbon or how it is used in bicycle manufacturing — why doesn’t one of them write about this subject in a peer reviewed journal?
Experts are not bound to silence. Confidentiality agreements only pertain to the particulars of a given legal case. No one could stop an expert from writing about carbon fiber and any dangers associated with it. If any expert had written such a paper, the public would have heard about it by now.
Instead of acting ethically, to protect the public from injury, these experts wait for someone to get injured and then make a lot of money testifying on their behalf. They put monetary interests ahead of people’s welfare. How trustworthy, then, are their “opinions?”
Certainly, the public is in the dark. Failure rates could be miniscule, in relation to the total number of bikes sold, or they could be unacceptably high for those who ride bikes and expect them to be safe.
Who can be believed?
The riders with the failed carbon forks and frames have been harmed either physically or by losing the money they spent. Having suffered injury, the riders are not objective.
Lawyers want to win cases. The arguments they make will be based upon the probability of their success. So, the lawyers are not objective.
“Experts” make money from the suffering of the unfortunate riders who experience crashes when their equipment fails. Since the experts have something to gain by testifying for an injured party, they are not objective either.
So, how will the public ever find out whether carbon is safe?
It all comes down to the experts. One of them will have to come forward and tell us something about the properties of carbon and whether it is inherently dangerous to use in bicycle building. They will also have to tell us if a particular manufacturing method is the cause of failures. Finally, they will have to compare the failure rate of carbon to other frame materials. This will allow cyclists to make purchase decisions from both a financial and a safety standpoint.
Until material experts familiar with bicycle manufacturing speak out, cyclists will only be able to guess at the prevalence of catastrophic frame and fork failures — and they will have no choice but to blindly buy bicycles and hope for the best.