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If Bicycling Has Mastered the Carbon Frame, Why Can’t Motorcycling?

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The Tour de France is the world’s largest sporting event that occurs annually in July and consists of more than 20 days of bicycle racing throughout France and adjacent countries. The Tour de France is contested by roughly 200 professional bicycle riders who represent the elite in bicycling.  As has been the case for several years now, virtually every Tour de France rider will be aboard a carbon fiber bicycle frame throughout the event.

Carbon fiber bicycle frames were first developed decades ago, and even relatively inexpensive bicycles today often have carbon fiber frames.

For many years now, the bicycle industry has poured millions and millions of dollars into R&D to improve all aspects of carbon fiber frame technology in order to achieve the lightest, stiffest, most comfortable and best handling frames. Specialized Bicycles, for instance, has a partnership with the McLaren F1 team centered around carbon fiber technology and Specialized, like many other bicycle manufacturers, has developed great expertise in advanced, intricate carbon fiber fabrication … involving such things as layup technique, resin technology, and various bladder molding techniques designed to combine light, thin walls with sufficient strength characteristics.

Literally dozens of bicycle manufacturers create carbon fiber frames for customer bicycles. Pictured above is a production bicycle produced by the Canadian manufacturer Cervelo.

In the motorcycle world, of course, carbon fiber frames are a rarity and at the professional racing level a failure. Most recently, Ducati tried to race in MotoGP with a carbon fiber frame, but abandoned the effort when riders simply could not develop the frame to work competitively. Ducati races now with an aluminum frame, just like all the other manufacturers. Some manufacturers still employ steel frames for production bikes and for some racing outside of MotoGP.

Why can’t motorcycles successfully transition to carbon fiber frame technology, like bicycles have? Obviously, the forces generated by a motorcycle for acceleration, braking and cornering can far exceed those generated by a bicycle, but frame strength is not an issue. Carbon fiber frames are easily capable of being strong enough for use in motorcycles.

Cost is not really an issue, either. Although lower end and mid-priced motorcycles might need steel or aluminum frames to be cost competitive, higher end motorcycles ought to absorb the frame cost without significant issue. Of course, an initial transition to carbon fiber manufacturing techniques would be costly, but ultimately the materials involved shouldn’t prevent their use in higher end motorcycles.

The one critical difference between bicycles and motorcycles is weight. A bicycle frame, as a percentage of the total weight of the bicycle is far higher than that of a  motorcycle. Many carbon fiber bicycle frames now weigh less than one Kilo (2.2 pounds) . The weight savings for a human-powered machine is far more significant than for a machine powered by an internal combustion engine, or even an electric motor.

We would like readers to weigh in with their thoughts in the comment section below.

136 Comments

  1. Larry says:

    The Desmosedici had a CF frame. I doubt there were any that accumulate a lot of miles but were there any issues with the CF?

  2. Mick says:

    Odd that Ti hasn’t been mentioned.

    Also odd is that at least one guy insists on discussing road bicycles only. The road is fairly easy on bicycle frames. Street bikes are not bicycles. They have to channel a lot of power and handle a lot of weight. A mountain bike frame would be a more comparable thing discuss when discussing bicycle V motorcycle frames in my opinion.

    Have a look at bike frames. Aluminium frames are generally the cheapest, followed by well made steel frames and then Ti and CF.

    I just replaced one of my motocross bikes with an earlier steel frame model. Why? Aluminium is a poor frame material. Sure the Japanese have done a very impressive job of engineering aluminium frames. But they are still harsh compared to a steel fame. Ducati had sweet handling bikes. Right up until they stopped making their frames from steel tubes.

    Ride any aluminium framed bicycle back to back with a bicycle made from anything else and you’ll find that the aluminium frame is harsh. Aluminium cannot work like a spring for long before is fatigues and breaks. So an aluminium frame has to be made very ridged or it will crack and fail. This makes bicycles and motorcycles with aluminium frames less compliant.

    • Dave says:

      Motorcycles have the benefit of suspension to manage comfort and traction. Aluminum is an excellent frame material for motorcycles because of that, and it’s workability in production for welding, shaping, etc.

      Road bicycle frames have the hardest life (impact damage notwithstanding) because they’re held to the highest expectations of rigidity, weight, and ride quality (the frame is the suspension), while having the smallest amount of insulation from the surface because of their small, high pressure tires. Carbon is sought after because it’s the best material available to tick those boxes. MTB’s behave more like motorcycle frames (suspension, large tires insulating shock).

  3. scott says:

    One of the most successful racing bikes of all time, the Britten V1000, used a carbon frame (well, at least the stuff that wasn’t bolted direct to the engine!)……it can be done, it just takes desire and vision.

  4. George Krpan says:

    What would be the point of going to carbon? Weight savings? FYI, the lightest bicycles are aluminum, not carbon. A carbon fibre frame has got to be much more expensive to produce, lots more labor intensive. A carbon bicycle may have a smoother ride but they don’t have suspension, motorcycles do. If motorcycles want to shed weight do what automobiles are doing, shrink engine size and increase specific output. Mercedes has a 2 litre engine that makes 370hp and comes with a warranty. A smaller, lighter engine can have a lighter frame, lighter supension components, and so on and so forth. BTW there are no fast bicycles, only fast riders. The fastest guys would still be the fastest even if they were riding steel frames. Steel still makes a darn good bicycle.

    • Sean says:

      The lightest bikes are aluminum? Bikes don’t have suspension? What are u taking about???

      • George Krpan says:

        I am talking about road bikes, not mountain bikes. Do some research, the lightest bikes ARE aluminum. At any rate, it’s close, the additional cost of carbon not justified.

        • ze says:

          What ? I’m a cycle/motorcycle rider and have a carbon bike. All the lighter frames in the world are carbon, the best are between 800g – 1kg. The pic above shows the lighter in the world, the cervelo rca with only 670 g. The lighter aluminum frames are in the 1,0 – 1,2 kg range. Where did you find your information ?

        • Dave says:

          Re: “I am talking about road bikes, not mountain bikes. Do some research, the lightest bikes ARE aluminum.”

          No, they are not. Where did you do your research?

  5. Chuck says:

    I road race bicycles at an amateur level and own two CF bikes. In all honesty, for most of my races a CF frame made no difference speed wise over a comparable aluminum frame. Yes many CF frames ride better than many AL bikes, but both materials can produce a good or bad frame.

    The win on sunday, sell on monday adage applies to cycling as well. Pros in the Tour de France all ride CF frames, and the average cyclist believes it actually effects their performance in a significant way. Diving in further, average athletes believe that brand x’s aero CF frame is faster than brand y’s CF frame because of minute changes in tube shape, weight, etc. etc.

    If ducati would have been successful in motogp with their CF frame, it may have made it into production on the panigale (or maybe their next SBK), and we’d have a lot of journalists raving about the positives and how it’s “a complete game changer” etc. Would the average joe be able to really tell the difference, no less exploit the advantages of a CF framed superbike on the street? Probably not.

    The cycling industry has poured millions of dollars into R&D because people buy into the hype. Trickle down in sportbikes will only happen once motogp bikes with CF frames are shown to be superior.

    I understand that the frame weight is a large portion of bike weight, but you have to factor in the rider weight for a real glimpse at what matters. Frame weight becomes fairly insignificant at that point, unless you’re a 135lb pro climbing the alps. I ran some calculations for a race I’m training for that has an uphill finish. If I was to upgrade to a lighter bike (-2 lbs), I would have gained 2 seconds over a 5 minute climb. The upgrade cost was around $2,000. Worth it?

    I enjoy my bikes – a 2014 Felt AR and a Ducati Monster S2R…but I understand that the rider in both cases is the limiting factor.

    CF sportbikes will be successful when the consumers buy into the marketing hype.

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “Trickle down in sportbikes will only happen once motogp bikes with CF frames are shown to be superior.”

      unfortuntately, even if they were shown to be superior, the trickled down STILL wouldn’t happen. the modern-day motorcyclist response to innovation is to “devalue it” with the hopes of acquiring it for free. we’ve given up on being motorcyclists, we’re Wal-Mart consumers now.

      • Chuck says:

        I don’t buy into that rationale.

        Current superbikes have traction control, wheelie control, ABS, slipper clutches etc.

        Do you really believe these would have made it into production without the success in high level racing?

  6. joe b says:

    lets ask Ducati?

  7. tonifumi says:

    cf is unserviceable!! unless you are racing, give me steel every time – smooth ride and cheap.
    I have had a steel bicycle and it will still be fine in 132,000 miles!!

    • Chuck says:

      CF is not unserviceable.

      http://www.bicycling.com/maintenance/repair-maintenance/resurrection-calfees-carbon-frame-repair

      I have a teammate that is a very fast sprinter, who just had his seat stay demolished by another riders handle bar during a crash. The seat stay was basically sheared in half. He had it repaired for $500 and is racing that frame now. A typical steel/AL frame would have required some kind of repair as well.

      • tonifumi says:

        $500 is unserviceable !! (unless you are racing)

        • Dave says:

          $500 is a very reasonable price to repair a $3000+ frame. You could not get a steel tube replaced + repaint for that on a “serviceable” steel frame.

          • Chuck says:

            I agree. My teammate spent $2500 on the frame alone. He can’t tell the difference between the stock frame and the repaired frame.

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “cf is unserviceable!!”

      toni”rossi”fumi is right. semantics on repairability are moot.

      in motorcycle world, ANY type of frame repair frame is unreasonable to an adjuster. insurance co’s would be “totaling” bikes left and right, and they already total bikes left and right. in practice, a carbon frame may as well ship with a SALVAGE title from new.

      • Dave says:

        I have a friend who’s CBR XX 1100 was totaled out because a fairing mounting tab on his aluminum frame broke off in a low speed fall. How would frames of other materials be any different?

        He took the check, minus the insurance’s fee to surrender the bike and repaired the tab with JB weld.

        • Norm G. says:

          re: “How would frames of other materials be any different?”

          they wouldn’t. as indicated, they’d live on branded with the “scarlet letter” of a salvage title… effectively driving their value from 60 to 0 in 3.9 seconds.

  8. Mr.Mike says:

    I’m on my second carbon fiber road bicycle frame (the first started to de-laminate after 32,000 miles) and I would never go back to steel or aluminum. My current bike is a Cervelo similar to the one in the picture. It is stiff where it needs to be stiff and flexes where it needs to. I notice it dampens high frequency, low amplitude road vibrations while still leaping forward when I jump on the pedals. On a bicycle there are way fewer parts that make a difference in the ride and handing than on a motorcycle so the expense of the carbon is justifiable.