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  1. #1
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    Is carbon necessary to compete on a podium level?

    This year was my first year as a high school racer and I have absolutely fallen in love with the sport. However, I was blown away by the level of bikes in my league, SoCal. These guys around me, even these middle school kids were rolling up with several thousand dollar bikes as if it was nothing. I recently bought a nice, shiny Superfly 8, which is Trek's highest level aluminum bike and was wondering what the real difference is between Carbon and Aluminum. Is it not entirely possible that a light aluminum bike could be comparable if not better (in some aspects) than a carbon bike?
    Last edited by Sheldon Pryor; 06-18-2015 at 04:09 PM.

  2. #2
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    Sheldon,

    Let's do some math.

    Most carbon HT frames weigh about 0.75-1.0lbs less than their aluminum counterparts. Going from an aluminum frame to a carbon frame will take Bike X from 25lbs to 24lbs, all else being equal.

    Now, let's say you weigh 140lbs dressed to ride. Your bike still weighs 25lbs. The total system weight is 165lbs. If you drop a poound, that takes it down to 164lbs. The amount of power that you produce stays the same regardless of the bike, so the amount of speed that you gain by riding a lighter bike is linear. By loosing that pound, you will go about 0.6% faster up a climb of any given length. Less than 1%.

    Now, that DOES make a difference. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. But I'd wager that your hydration, diet, sleep, and training, particularly as a high schooler, are going to make a significantly greater impact on your race results than a bike that is one pound lighter.

    Also, thank you for being a well spoken/written young person. Seriously. You write better than the vast majority of adults I know, and almost everyone on this forum. Keep it up.
    Death from Below.

  3. #3
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    As Duke said, there is a difference. However its not a huge difference nor will it determine who wins and who looses. Carbon fiber at a middle and high school level is much more about image. The need to "feel" that they are the best/better than others. As with any other sport, students will buy the best of the best because they think it makes them better. Truly except for the pro level racers, adults are honestly far more guilty of this (and they obviously supply their children with the bikes they ride)

    However in the end, it all comes down to skills and physical training. Dont get hung up on carbon fiber. Concentrate on being a better rider and use the money you saved on something more important.

  4. #4
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    In disciplines such as track cycling where avg speeds are high and difference between one rider and the next diminishes as you go up the professional ranks, aerodynamics and weight are amongst the major considerations in performance enhancement. It is here where carbon first appeared in cycling for it's unmatched qualities, specifically easy to form, super light, stiff and strong. It is also for these reasons and the lower manufacturing costs that carbon bikes are now a common sight in bikes stores.

    However, there are many other factors which are not associated with the material which will affect your performance. These include :

    1. How the bike fits you, the geometry, ergonomics etc
    2. The quality of the components
    3. The choice of gearing
    4. Bike characteristics ( this varies as a function of material and geometry )
    5. And most important of all, you ! your handling skills, athletism, stamina etc..

    If you train hard, there is no reason why you cannot finish on the podium in top spot. In the old days when I raced, the same two racers always finished at the top at the end of the season. Their bikes were heavier and lesser specced than the rest of our bikes but they still won by a wide margin. Even if we all had carbon bikes weighing under 8lbs, we still would not even come close.

    In other words, don't get hung up on aluminium vs carbon or let anyone make you feel inferior as you have a great bike. In answer to your question about what the difference is, it's not so straight forward if we are discussing bike frames. As touched on in point 4, the feel ( stiffness, rigidity, hardness, balance, shock absorption qualities ) of the bike will depend greatly on the overall design/geometry. An aluminium could be much better than a carbon bike in this respect. In terms of weight, carbon frames are generally lighter but at a high school level, I would not expect the difference to impact the racing results.

  5. #5
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    In general, carbon fiber frames are lighter than aluminum frames. The quality of the frame will ultimately determine weight. A well-built lightweight aluminum frame could weigh less than an inexpensive carbon frame. You have a well-built frame and likely a nice build, so as long as it's the right fit you will not be limited by it.

    My son podiumed in the JV class of the Colorado League last year using a 7 year-old aluminum-framed bike -- it's a darn nice bike, but definitely not new or trendy. It's a bit big for me, but I've ridden it several times and raced it once -- it's an absolute rocket despite being an older model with some significant miles on it. He'll race it again this next fall in Varsity, where he is unlikely to podium. And that's not going to be due to the bike, but rather the insanely tough competition he'll face.

    Finally, I have never seen any attitude from riders at the Colorado HS racing events, either about the equipment they're sporting or the place they finish. It's such a wholesome environment it's almost frightening!
    "The plural of anecdote is not data." -- Attributed to various people in a variety of forms, but always worth remembering...

  6. #6
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    Spending that same money bringing expertise on fit, training, and mental preparation is going to take you far further than the small weight delta of going to carbon.

    Some smart spec changes (especially tires) are going to be a much bigger difference as well.

    Carbon is getting cheaper, and it's the flashiest way to feel fast, but a better wheelset, better drivetrain, and especially better fit are going to be worth minutes on longer courses while the weight delta of carbon is worth seconds.

    Some parents won't think twice to just throw money at it - just make sure that the hardware isn't actually impairing your ability to do you best, then go from there.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by PeT View Post
    Finally, I have never seen any attitude from riders at the Colorado HS racing events, either about the equipment they're sporting or the place they finish. It's such a wholesome environment it's almost frightening!
    This is great to see/hear.

  8. #8
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    Thanks for all the input, really appreciate it!

  9. #9
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    I think carbon is great to smooth out the vibrations passed from the trail to the rider?
    Titanium is also great at absorbing vibrations?
    Typically its the rider, not the bike when you ride faster???

    and the fit is most important

  10. #10
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    What he said^^^ about ride quality is a factor carbon impacts beyond just the weight difference between the Superfly 8 alunimun and the carbon 9.6.
    Trek engineered the carbon frame with very real vertical compliance with the help of their road bike engineers. With the XR1 Team tires and a fork damper upgrade it is not going to beat you up over rocky terrain races or training rides. That could put you higher up in the standings for almost the same price as an aluminum Superfly. And it is lighter.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by MTRRON View Post
    Titanium is also great at absorbing vibrations?
    Having ridden a rigid Zaskar and a HT Zaskar for over a decade, then to a custom titanium, I also noticed the damping quality. That said, I still love the Zaskars for their thrilling ride quality and will always keep them.

  12. #12
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    The fact of the matter is is that the California NICA leagues are VERY competitive.

    I would say that as a guiding principal.... if you're determined to put together a podium run you can't afford to give up anything to the competition. Diet, training, equipment, rest, pre-race routine, coaching, off season skills and base mileage, etc all have to be there to make a regular showing on the steps. You're talking about a year round time and energy commitment and a financial commit that dwarfs the price difference between Al and Carbon. I would dare say that difference between a NICA podium racer's and non-podium racer's grocery store bill is several times the cost of the bike frame.

    My advice would be is that if you get a chance to get on a better whip, that you should do it. But don't give up if you can't find a better ride. Just try to make it up on all the other things that matter just as much or more.

    The other thing I would mention is this. There is a LOT of grass-roots help out there for the needy highschool racer than proves, buy their actions, that they are worthy. Ingratiate yourself with the regulars at the local shop rides. Hit all the shops rides if there's more than one. Always have your gear squared away for those rides and bring a tube, a good attitude, and a willingness to hammer or hang-out as the ride dictates. If there's a trail work project... volunteer. If your shop is having an event that the need extra hand for, volunteer. Make friends with the mechanics and get them to teach you to do repairs. Make friends with the local pros and see if you can get invited to a ride with them once in a while; its a great training opportunity. The kids I know that have done this usually ended up with a nice afternoon or summer job at a shop, and a lot of very high quality gear came their way at very low or no cost from people who respected their commitment and wanted to see them on a worthy bike. There's a lot of older riders out there who's own kids are slugs sitting at home playing video games. They would love to do what they can move forward a good racer that just needs a little support to be a great racer.

  13. #13
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    To OPs question, yes it is possible but carbon bikes have gotten yo be so darned good that you can no-longer hold the durability point in Aluminums' favor.

    Carbon
    + Lighter
    + Better vibration damping
    + Sexier
    + Stiffer
    - More expensive
    - Catastrophic failure mode (it won't bend but it will break)

    Aluminum
    + Cheaper
    + Less to worry about during transport
    - Will be harsher
    - Not as sexy
    - Potentially heavier for the stiffness

    I'd go carbon if you can but not worry too much about it if you can't. There are other factors listed in this thread that are more important.

    I raced a Ti hardtail in Norcal Varsity for two years. Was top 10 competitive with that bike. I just liked it and didn't want something made out of carbon. Custom frame from russia so it wasn't all that expensive either. Relatively speaking. Before that I was racing aluminum bikes. Most important to me is that you find a bike that you are comfortable with. Everything else will follow.

  14. #14
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    If the bike fits you and functions, it is more than good enough. Saving a few grams won't put you on the podium (or even change where you finish, unless it's by a few seconds in an hour+ length race). Save your money for something more useful (like college) and train your butt off!

    If you're really bored, you can calculate how much faster you'd be with a lighter bike here (assuming a straight hillclimb): http://www.analyticcycling.com/Force...ight_Page.html

    As an example, on a relatively steep/long 400 meter (1300 foot) climb at 10% grade, a pound of weight savings gets you...9 seconds (assuming a 75kg bike+rider). On flat sections and downhills the lighter bike won't matter much/at all, so if your race has a couple of really big steep climbs, your 1# lighter frame might save you 20 seconds total. Not nothing, but also not much.


    This Much Less Weight 0.5 kg
    Over This Distance 4000 meters
    On Hill of Slope 0.1 Decimal
    Faster by 8.75 s
    Ahead by 25.49 m
    Frontal Area 0.5 m^2
    Coefficient Wind Drag 0.5 Dimensionless
    Air Density 1.226 kg/m^3
    Weight Rider & Bike 75 kg
    Rolling Coefficient 0.015 Dimensionless
    Power 250 watts


    -Walt

  15. #15
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    Not disagreeing with anything here. But..... Here's the counter point.

    My kid trained and raced his rear off last year. In the season final standings he ended up in 6th...1 step off the 5 step podium. I had him racing the bike we had (relatively heavy al frame designed to be an all mountain 29'er hardtail), on the wheels we had (relatively heavy AM 29'er wheels) with tires better suited to an aggressive weekend fun-rider than a racer. It is a competent and reliable bike. Well suited for 95% of riders and rides. But it was unquestionably at least 5 pounds heavy and did not roll and accelerate as fast something with racing rims and tires. Simply put...it was not competitive in NICA podium level competition. I'd even give you that this bike was completely fine for some mid-pack NICA racer. But what the ride gave up to the competition was significant to a racer getting a call-up. At that level a little bit faster acceleration from a light bike can get you to the first corner a 1/2 second before a competitor and frequently those places will carry clear through the race.

    So basically, I feel like I let my kid down. Like if I'd had him on a more competitive bike the 9 seconds you mention, or a 1/2 second on the start that I mentioned, would likely have somewhere along the way got him a finish 1 place higher in 1 of the races which would have put him at 5th instead of 6th at the end of the season.

    When I total the costs of the racing season (food, hotels, gear, gas, gym membership, many dozen training rides, tires, tubes, kits, cable and housing, chains and ders, etc), riding a less than 100% competitive bike was being penny wise and pound foolish.....at least for my kid. He's competitive enough that the small things start to matter.

    We're gearing up for the coming season. I've solved 1/2 the problem with new frame and fork that are top flight. I'm working on spec'ing some wheels now.

    Quote Originally Posted by Walt View Post
    If the bike fits you and functions, it is more than good enough. Saving a few grams won't put you on the podium (or even change where you finish, unless it's by a few seconds in an hour+ length race). Save your money for something more useful (like college) and train your butt off!

    If you're really bored, you can calculate how much faster you'd be with a lighter bike here (assuming a straight hillclimb): http://www.analyticcycling.com/Force...ight_Page.html

    As an example, on a relatively steep/long 400 meter (1300 foot) climb at 10% grade, a pound of weight savings gets you...9 seconds (assuming a 75kg bike+rider). On flat sections and downhills the lighter bike won't matter much/at all, so if your race has a couple of really big steep climbs, your 1# lighter frame might save you 20 seconds total. Not nothing, but also not much.


    This Much Less Weight 0.5 kg
    Over This Distance 4000 meters
    On Hill of Slope 0.1 Decimal
    Faster by 8.75 s
    Ahead by 25.49 m
    Frontal Area 0.5 m^2
    Coefficient Wind Drag 0.5 Dimensionless
    Air Density 1.226 kg/m^3
    Weight Rider & Bike 75 kg
    Rolling Coefficient 0.015 Dimensionless
    Power 250 watts


    -Walt

  16. #16
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    Your problem was tires and (maybe) suspension, not weight. Tires can add double digit watts of rolling resistance (of course, road tires won't serve you well on the descents, though!). That'll add minutes, not seconds, to your time.

    I'm sure the kid will kill it on the new bike, but you could have gotten the same basic effect with a new set of tires, probably.

    If you're young and trying to be fast, here's the rule - it's like graduate school in the humanities. If someone's not giving it to you for free, paying for it is probably a waste of money.

    -Walt

  17. #17
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    As usual, Walt nailed it. A set of Schwalbe Racing Ralphs would have set you back $110, and made up the vast majority of the difference.

    FWIW, I race against a dude on the collegiate scene who has been racing junior and U23 World Cup races on an aluminum Specialized S-Works 29er frame. Gasp!
    Last edited by Le Duke; 10-04-2015 at 09:58 AM.
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  18. #18
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    Well, I found a killer deal on a Niner Air Carbon frame, which is by all reports a rocketship. So we should be good to go.

  19. #19
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    I agree that tires are where you get the real bang for the buck in terms of speed improvements. (Although, to be Devil's advocate, if you get Racing Ralphs then you will need several sets of them for when the first ones flat or disintegrate.)

    Wheels are the next place to spend money; a $500 expenditure can make a huge difference, as can a set of carbon rims (now sub-$1000). An aluminum frame on excellent wheels and tires will likely be faster and more responsive than a top-line carbon frame with cheap wheels and heavy tires.

    I went through a similar series of developments with my son, who is now racing in college and seeking to take it to the next level next season. He raced on a $250 Trek 4500 his first year. That bike weighed maybe 33 pounds and he beat it to smithereens. He fell in love with the sport and worked all the next summer to afford an entry-level carbon hardtail on sale. He rode that bike hard for 1.5 years and outgrew it/graduated to an expert-level Epic which he paid for over the course of a year (shop pricing helps, he worked at our LBS) and still rides, with various upgrades. I helped finance these things but made sure he paid for a significant part; I think it helps with the ownership mentality. He's deeply dedicated to the sport now and has the results to show for it.

    Some of those against whom he now competes have bikes that cost twice as much, others can't begin to afford such a nice bike. It's not a level playing field. But there is usually a way when there's a will, and the engine matters much more than the bike.

  20. #20
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    It's the rider...

    My daughter rides a Trek Lush SL, came in 2nd overall for Freshman girls then 1st for Sophomores in NY. She continues to get faster every time we ride together! Would she be significantly faster on a lighter carbon bike? Maybe but if Walts numbers are right not enough to justify the expense. Get out there and train more but have fun doing it because when you're having fun on a mt bike you ARE faster than when you're working too hard.

  21. #21
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    In my experience, as the parent of a high school racer (3 years) and a former casual racer myself, the guys and girls in the top five would still be in the top five on any decent bike. There are quite a lot of top finishers on aluminum in the MN league and long as its well maintained, reasonably light, and fits you can do well on it.

    I also totally agree with Walt above. If you really want to spend money get lighter tires and go tubeless. Lighter wheels will help more than a carbon frame any day.

  22. #22
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    You don't need a carbon bike. I recently marshaled a race here in Mammoth and paid some attention to the bikes. Our local team uses donated Trek bikes (the Fuel Ex 7, which looks similar to yours but I believe the 7 is lower end) and the kids do really well. In my league, Nevada, the variety of bikes was more on the mid-tier level. I didn't see very many high end bikes in my opinion.

    Yes, it's a race/competition, but I don't see a carbon frame benefitting a high school racer yet as the sport is still somewhat new, and the teams (at least in my league) are fairly small and varied skill level. At the super professional level where multiple riders come in at the exact same second, it might help more. Though, I am not an expert so YMMV.

    The weight difference is noticeable only in that carbon bikes handle differently. I really wanted a carbon bike because I am not skinny... but I also crash a lot. Carbon frames apparently get damaged much easier in crashes and are very expensive to repair.

    I agree with the others. It's the rider, not the bike, but the bike can help in certain circumstances. Focus on being a better rider. You can improve yourself above what a carbon bike would give you right now. If you eventually find a deal, get the money, or start racing in huge races with hundreds of great riders all arriving at the finish line at near the same time, then go for carbon.

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sheldon Pryor View Post
    This year was my first year as a high school racer and I have absolutely fallen in love with the sport. However, I was blown away by the level of bikes in my league, SoCal. These guys around me, even these middle school kids were rolling up with several thousand dollar bikes as if it was nothing. I recently bought a nice, shiny Superfly 8, which is Trek's highest level aluminum bike and was wondering what the real difference is between Carbon and Aluminum. Is it not entirely possible that a light aluminum bike could be comparable if not better (in some aspects) than a carbon bike?
    As you know the courses for the Socal league are really tame. Many of the courses are the same as the middle school races. So boys and girls from 12-18 ride the same course.

    Very little climbing and plenty of wide open space. Learning how to draft of other racers is more important than any upgrade on the bike.

    IMO the best bang for your buck is.

    Fast tires
    Lighter wheels
    1X10 or 1x11 drivetrain
    Fork with a lock out. Some courses could be ridden with a rigid fork.

    I have seen more dropped chains than any other issue. Mainly 2X or 3X front rings without a clutch derailleur.

  24. #24
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    Your alloy bike will do just fine. Fast riders will clean house because they are fast. If all the riders were all racing the same bike you would see little difference in the results. Have fun, learn how to tune your bike and welcome to mountain biking!

  25. #25
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    Have you heard the phrase "is not the horse, is the jockey"? That 100% applies to this.

    Good gear can only take you so far, commitment, discipline, training, etc will get you to the podium. Give it 110% and you'll see results no matter if Al or carbon.

    Btw, my son did NICA NY on his senior year on an upgraded Giant Talon and beat kids with more expensive better equipped bikes.

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