Key Takeaways: Carbon fiber, a strong and lightweight polymer, is used in modern bike frames and can potentially last indefinitely with proper care. Factors affecting its lifespan include fatigue point, build quality, exposure to elements, and durability.
To extend the life of a carbon fiber frame, avoid overloading it, keep it clean, use appropriate torque when tightening bolts, and transport it carefully.
Carbon fiber is a wonder material, and it’s something you will often hear spoken about in the cycling industry a lot. Carbon fiber came on the cycling scene in a big fashion around 40 years ago, in the 1980s.
It was stronger than steel and weighed much less a wonder material, to say the least. It would be the new bike thing, and they were very right in saying that.
In this article, we will tell you all about carbon fiber and how long a bike frame will last.
What is Carbon Fiber?
Carbon fiber is a polymer which is a long string of carbon atoms that are joined together. When you see carbon fiber in its natural form, it is like a sheet and is very flexible, and can be moved around easily. It becomes the strong material we all know and love when it is layered and then molded together with a resin.
The resin which holds carbon fiber together gives it its strength and spreads any load on the frame.
Good Carbon and Bad Carbon
You will often hear people speak about good carbon fiber and bad carbon fiber, and there are a few things that you need to understand when it comes to this. Firstly the carbon sheets come in different sizes and weave.
Here’s an example, on a cheaper carbon frame, you might have a larger weaved carbon that will layer 3 times that is cheaper to buy which does make the frame less robust.
On a high-end frame, you will have a small weaved carbon fiber that is layer 6 times, making it a similar weight but much stronger.
You will also find the resin makes quite a big difference too. The traditional resin was very thick and struggled to get in all the micro parts of the carbon fiber as it was so thick, but it still worked.
Modern-day resins are much better, and high-end frame providers will use water-like resin alongside many layers of weaved carbon to make incredibly strong frames.
How strong is Carbon Fiber
Carbon fiber is incredibly strong and, providing it has been made correctly, can be five times stronger than steel and twice as stiff.
The feeling you will get riding a carbon fiber road bike compared to a steel one is completely different. Carbon fiber is so strong because it distributes the weight along its whole structure.
So over a bike frame, it is extremely strong because all of the fibers in the frame support each other. Carbon fiber can crack though, and does have a fairly large weakness.
If too much pressure is applied to a very small area of a bike frame, it can crack easily as the load is on too small an area.
How long will a Carbon Fiber frame last
Before we start, you have to understand old carbon fiber from 30 years ago is nothing like modern carbon fiber. Old carbon fiber didn’t have the quality we have today and typically couldn’t last as modern carbon fiber does.
In this article, we are referring to modern carbon fiber. It actually comes down to a few things.
How much you hit the Fatigue Point
As with many materials, you have a fatigue point. This simply means anything past a certain point of pressure will be too much and will fatigue the material.
It doesn’t mean it will break, but it does mean it weakens the material, and if it’s taken to this point too many times, it will eventually just give up. Carbon fiber’s fatigue point is very high but still can be reached with a serious pothole hit.
Well made Carbon Fiber with many layers, as we discussed before, does have the ability to last much longer than poorly made carbon fiber.
There are more sheets to give it strength, and a better resin will provide a better join and give it strength. This means it will have a very high maximum fatigue point that you will typically never hit.
Expose to Elements
As with any material, exposure to certain elements can cause problems. Things like sunlight over time damaged frames, but typically if they are painted, this does act as a layer of protection.
Typically not much will be able to damage carbon, providing it is sealed with a layer of paint.
If you let your bike get dropped and knocked about a lot, you will find that it won’t last as long as you probably would like. Carbon frames are designed to be strong where they need to be. Any knock in vulnerable places can cause issues.
How long will a Carbon Fiber frame last?
Modern Carbon Fiber frames can last in theory forever, providing you look after them well, and they don’t get a knock that can break the structure or leave it vulnerable.
If you want to ensure the life of a carbon fiber frame, just don’t drop it, keep it clean, and don’t over tighten bolts like a seat tube bolt.
How To Make Your Carbon Frame Last Longer?
Avoid Pushing It Too Much
All bikes have limitations, and although carbon fiber is incredibly strong, you have to respect those limits. A good example is avoiding taking your carbon road bike on gravel roads or trails. This generally won’t break it straight away, but it fatigues it over time.
Keep It Clean And Protected
Regarding carbon fiber frames, it’s important to keep the frame as clean as possible and avoid scratches that break through the lacquer. The moment the carbon fiber is susceptible to the elements, it can weaken very quickly.
Use Appropriate Torque
Many points on the frame will require bolt torquing up, such as the seat post and the forks. Use a torque wrench because if you start over-tightening or tightening, you will get problems.
Transport It Well
Surprisingly a lot of broken bikes don’t happen on the road. The breaks happen when they are being transported or stored. We highly recommend taking extra care when moving a bike around.
How Long Do Other Bike Frames Last?
|10 Years +
|5 – 10 Years
|10 – 20 Years
There are many other materials on the market you can choose from when it comes to bikes. They all are very different and offer advantages and disadvantages. Regarding how long they last, here’s what you need to know.
Titanium, for many cyclists, is referred to as a lifetime material. It has to be welded in an oxygen-free chamber. It offers a great mix between durability and comfort and is very lightweight. They won’t rust, can take a knock, and can be resilient to poor conditions. Many companies offer either a 100-year warranty or a lifetime.
Aluminum frames generally last 5 to 10 years. A lot of this comes down to build quality and the riding that it receives over its life. It is incredibly cheap to buy, fairly lightweight, and can take a hit. Most companies offer a limited warranty due to the fact they can get weaker, and they often suffer from corrosion when not protected.
Bamboo bike frames are something you might not have come across before. They are made from a Bamboo tree and can be easily custom-built at home in your own garage. Most companies state Bamboo will last up to 20 years, but it comes down to many factors such as build quality, how it was ridden, where it’s stored, and the original strength of the tree.
Finally, we have steel. Bike frames have been made out of steel since the beginning, and it’s an excellent material. Steel frames are super strong, easy to manufacture, and cheap to buy. They last a lifetime, but they must be protected by paint to ensure they don’t rust.
Robbie Ferri has spent years working in a bike shop, has worked with industry leading brands on product creation, has been a semi pro athlete, and is a fully qualified strength and conditioning coach. He has broken World Records, bikepacked all over the World and raced ultra distance at a top-level.