Carbon fibre is the wonder material of the cycling world. Once it was exotic and hugely expensive, now it is commonplace and prices have tumbled.
Carbon fibre has rapidly become the most desirable and popular material with performance-minded cyclists. It’s an attractive material because it is extremely light and strong and can build a very stiff frame. It can also be moulded, which has allowed designers to step away from the traditional constraints of round metal tubes.
There’s a bewildering choice of carbon fibre frames these days. From super lightweight climbing bikes to aerodynamic racing frames designed and honed in a wind tunnel, to bikes built to provide comfort for endurance and sportive cyclists, to a growing breed of adventure and gravel bikes, there’s a carbon bike for all riding styles.
There are two key carbon frame construction methods. The majority are made using a mould, with layers of carbon fibre precisely positioned to create the frame, usually in a couple of larger sections, that are then bonded together. The other popular method is tube-to-tube, where tubes are bonded together, sometimes with lugs and sometimes the joints are wrapped with carbon, and is a process favoured by bespoke frame builders as it allows easier customisation.
Not all carbon frames are the same. There are many buzzwords used to describe carbon frames, and many manufacturers have their own names to describe the carbon used in a frame. Typically a manufacturer will use various different grades of carbon fibre depending on what they want to achieve with the frame, or section of a frame, whether it’s the pursuit of stiffness, low weight or a price point.
The more you spend, the better the quality of carbon used to make the frame. Typically higher modulus (stiffer) carbon is used in more expensive frames, which means less material is needed, so the frame weight can be reduced. That's why there is such a range of prices on show in this article.
Carbon manufacturing is complicated, though, and this video explanation by Gerard Vroomen, previously co-founder of Cervélo and now heading up Open Cycle, provides a good description of the business of making carbon frames.
You don't find many carbon fibre bikes under £1,000, so one with disc brakes for just £750 is very impressive. It's reduced from its original £1,000.
We've always liked the various Zenium bikes we've had in for test. This model is very much configured or speed, with a full Tiagra groupset, 52/36 chainset and 12-28 cassette.
This is Ribble’s cheapest carbon fibre model, with a range of options starting at £999 for a Shimano Tiagra group on a carbon fibre frameset designed for taming sportives. The benefit of the Bike Builder option is that you can spec exactly what you want; the Shimano 105-equipped version above is £1,199.
Giant offer their amazing TCR in a Tiagra 4700 version. The groupset is Tiagra throughout with no cutting corners. Giant supply all the contact points, wheels, tyres, stem and seatpost to bring a bike that really impresses both on the spec sheet and out on the road.
The Endurace is Canyon’s bike for riding long distances in comfort, with a more relaxed geometry than the racier Ultimate, and wider tyres also contributing to the smoother ride this model aims to offer. You get a full Shimano 105 R7000 11-speed groupset with this bike, no shortcuts, even the brake calipers and crankset are 105. Quality abounds with Mavic Aksium wheels shod with Continental Grand Prix SL tyres. Canyon claims a bike weight of 8.0kg which, if accurate, is a very respectable weight for a bike of this price.
Van Ryself is the 'serious' bike line from French-based sports megastore chain Decathlon, and the Shimano Ultegra-equipped RR 920 CF is the marque's second-from top offering, with a full carbon frame and fork. It boasts handling, manners and ride feel that belie its bargain price.
Your two grand gets you a full Ultegra groupset, Mavic Cosmic wheels and a ride that our Stu described thus: " The ride is sublime, absorbing pretty much everything the road surface can chuck at it, so you just waft along at a very impressive pace, smashing mile after mile without effort."
The SuperSix Evo is dead. Long live the SuperSix Evo. 'Next year' models are in the shops already and one of the picks of 2020's range is the latest incarnation of Cannondale's SuperSix Evo Ultegra, which packs quite a lot of bike for three grand.
Cannondale has totally redesigned its flagship carbon road race bike with an all-new frame that is more aerodynamic, stiffer and comfortable than the bike first introduced in 2011 and last updated in 2015, with wider tyre clearance and revised geometry.
The changes make for a bike that's comfier than its predecessor and, if Cannondale's wind tunnel numbers are right, a bit faster too. This model comes with hydraulic disc brakes and Cannondale's own HollowGram Si carbon wheels.
If comfort interests you most in a carbon road bike, then the latest incarnation of the Domane might be the bike for you. It features a unique system that allows the seatpost to move independently of the frame, which works to smooth out bumps and vibrations generated when riding over a rough road. Or cobbles. The SL also features the same technology at the front and it, along with a new rubber infused carbon handlebar, helps to provide an incredibly smooth and composed ride over any sort of road surface. There are also hidden mudguard mounts for the winter. It's truly a bike for all weathers.
A monocoque frame made in Italy. For many, that fact alone warrants the price tag. If you're not convinced by that alone, the NK1K is made for sprinting. The chap with his name on it was rather good at going fast after all. Build options are up to you and depend on the depth of your pockets.
If you're looking for proven race pedigree, then Specialized's Tarmac series can probably win you a game of Top Trumps. In its various iterations, this frame has won Grand Tours, Classics and rainbow jerseys. The 2020 Tarmac Disc Pro version gets the latest SRAM Force eTap wireless electronic shifting, and like most of the Tarmac range has disc brakes, though there are still a couple of rim-braked models for traditionalists. The Roval CL 50 wheels are shod with Specialized Turbo S-Works tyres, there's a carbon S-Works handlebar and a Specialized Power saddle sits atop an S-Works carbon seatpost.
This Italian brand is one of the most desirable, with its history and iconic celeste paint, and this new Specialissima is its newest creation. It’s a bike designed unashamedly to be as light as possible, but there’s a concession to comfort, without compromising frame stiffness. The carbon layup incorporates the same vibration damping CounterVail technology first seen on the Infinito CV endurance bike a couple of years ago. The Campagnolo Super Record groupset and Bora Ultra wheels produce a complete bike weight that tickles the UCI minimum weight limit. So light that it’s illegal in any UCI race.
Scott offers two versions of its Addict road bike, dividing it into Addict endurance bikes and Addict RC race machines; this is Scott's top of the line race bike. As well as one of the lightest disc-compatible frames around it has Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting, DT Swiss PRC 1100 Dicut db carbon clincher wheels, Syncros one-piece carbon bar and stem, and Syncros carbon seatpost. Scott claims a weight of 6.85kg, very impressive for a disc-braked bike.
Swiss manufacturer BMC has pulled a blinder with its top model for 2019, taking the fundamentals of its time trial bikes and using them to build a disk-braked aero road bike that looks like it's powering away from the bunch even when it's standing still. The brain for its Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting is incorporated into the frame and its disc brakes and DT Swiss ARC 1100 carbon fibre wheels make for a thoroughly up-to-date race bike. It's dripping with clever details: BMC's own super-light through axles, the sleek Integrated Cockpit System bar and stem, brake hoses and gear wires routed almost-invisibly through the frame, super-tidy Direct Frontal Flat Mount brake mounts.
Unlike the majority of carbon frames in this guide that are made using the common moulding process, the C64 is constructed by bonding the tubes together using oversized lugs. It’s the same approach the Italian company has been using on its flagship carbon frames since the C40 some 20 years ago. It gives the frame a more traditional appearance perhaps than the smoother frames, but there’s no doubting the performance and quality of the ride it produces.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.