Bike Racing and Formula 1 – Parallel Tracks?
Sporting bicycles have changed almost beyond recognition in the past few years. The
traditional materials used to build them, steel and aluminium alloys, have given way to
Until quite recently, these exotic materials were very expensive and featured only
on top-level racing cycles. But what the pros use, top amateur racers are demanding
before the season ends. New technologies cascade down from the top, eventually, if
they work, achieving a critical mass in the general market place. Carbon composite
technology is now poised to reach that critical mass-market acceptance, making its way
quickly down from the high-end race market to comfort and utility bikes.
Commonly known simply as ‘carbon-fiber’, carbon composites are best known to
the public from Formula 1. High-end motor sport has opened people’s eyes to its potential.
To the public, carbon-fiber connotes ‘light, strong and stiff’ – all good, where speed is the
goal. It looks the part – that silky, gloss-black finish just oozes technological sophistication.
Now, it’s the automotive stylist’s shorthand for technical advancement and sporting
prowess. Quite ordinary vehicles are tricked out with fake carbon-fiber parts to confer a
sporting appeal. In short: composites sell.
When did composites cross over into the cycle industry? It’s almost as if nobody
noticed. We can’t say for sure when it first happened, but it’s a surprisingly long time ago –
this is not an overnight success. In fact, the bike industry’s adoption of composites has
followed a parallel timeline to motor sport’s. This is no coincidence. It was developers at
major aerospace companies in the 1970s who found new ways to utilize composites.
Though working behind closed doors, these guys also had lives outside the research
lab: some liked cycling, others were keen on making racing cars.
As early as the 1970s, some individual enthusiasts and small, forward-looking companies
were beginning to experiment with composites to build bike frames. Mostly, these frames
adopted a traditional lugged construction: frame tubes were the only composite parts, and
were bonded to lugs made of other materials, normally aluminium. However, it was not
until 1986 that Kestrel, a composite manufacturer, showed the way
forward by producing the world’s first commercial, non-lugged frame. Rather than an assembly
of tubes, the Kestrel was a single, molded unit, a paradigm shift whose consequences are still
being played out today, when increasing numbers of other components such as wheels, cranks, seat-posts,
and handlebars are built of composites.
In 1981, McLaren raced the first all-composite F1 chassis. At the time, many engineers believed they had chosen the wrong material and questioned its safety. Some engineers, citing the earlier failure of composites in aero-engine components, suggested they were dangerously brittle.
Compare that with today: now, F1 racing drivers entrust their lives to composite engineering every time they race. They are confident that the composite chassis around them will protect them in all situations; confident that the composite suspension arms securing the wheels, and the composite brake discs slowing them down, will perform reliably. Their strength and structural integrity are beyond question.
It’s a curious paradox that some of today’s pro riders are not entirely convinced that carbon composite handlebars are safe, and still insist on fitting aluminium bars. Despite the mass market’s enthusiasm, there’s remains something of a credibility gap for manufacturers of handlebars, stems and seat posts in composites.