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How safe is your carbon frame?

There are certain things you need to beware of when buying a used carbon bike, and they're not always visible...

If you've bought a used carbon-fibre bike, are you certain that the frame and fork are safe? Really certain? We don't want to be alarmist, but carbon can occasionally fail with no apparent warning because of hidden damage.

With a bike you have bought brand new, you'll be aware of any incidents that could have caused damage. But a lack of awareness and information available on the current condition of a carbon bike is even more serious in the used bike market.

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Guides on buying second hand bikes exist, including our own, which explain how you can inspect a bike for wear and tear on parts such as chain rings, bottom bracket bearings, and so on. But when it comes to how to check for damage to the carbon frame itself, it is often just a remark about looking over for any obvious cracks to the frame. It’s not possible to properly check to see if a carbon frame is safe to ride from just looking at it or running your hand over it. Damage is often obvious, but sometimes it isn't.

Following a crash, some of us are diligent enough to send off a carbon bike to a place such as the Carbon Bike Repair in the UK for a deep scan (using digital microscopes and thermographic ‘x-ray’ techniques), even though no damage can be seen, to detect hidden issues.

But considering there can be hidden issues, why do so many of us continue to ride our ageing carbon bikes and buy used carbon bikes without taking them for check ups—at all, never mind regularly?

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This current situation, with a lack of appropriate and accessible systems in place, is one that is only becoming more prevalent as the carbon bike industry continues to expand. Global market researchers Technavio has been monitoring the size of the carbon bike market and says it has the potential to grow by 6.48 million units from 2020 to 2024.

With the recent supply shortages and drive towards sustainability with reusing products – Decathlon recently launched "Second Life Marketplace" to sell refurbished bikes in stores, for example – more and more of us are heading to the used bike market. But the bike's history is not available to us, nor can bikes be easily and effectively inspected for underlying structural damage prior to purchase.

Imagine having access to data about a bike’s history and the failure rate of that particular brand’s model, so you can make an informed decision about whether a bike is safe to ride —whether that is one which you are intending to buy from the used bike market, or your own you’ve had for years and has potentially had some knocks along the way (but nothing so noteworthy that you were prompted to get it checked out).

This is what the founder of startup business Cycle Inspect, Michael Briggs, is on a mission to do. He may be driving this change from his base in Australia (Hobart, Tasmania) but the same issues are applicable worldwide.

Michael believes the issue of carbon bike safety has been reactive for far too long, and proposes the introduction of a standardised safety inspection service to be carried out by local bikes shops alongside routine bike services to look for hidden damage.

Long-term, Cycle Inspect hopes to build a database containing information about a bike’s history and the failure rate of particular models in order that consumers can make informed decisions about whether a bike is safe to ride.

Through a personal experience of buying a used carbon bike for his father, who was just getting into cycling, Briggs was hit with the reality that systems to determine the safe state of a carbon bike were not adequately in place for the second hand bike market.

Cycle Inspect carbon

Briggs admitted: “I felt guilty. I bought a bike for him that, a couple of months later, was diagnosed as unsafe to ride by a specialist—there were a couple of hidden cracks and delaminations under the surface.”

This prompted Briggs to do his own personal research on what he could have done differently and locating what services exist to help people like his father, buying their first used carbon bike.

His findings?

“I found there is none,” Briggs said. “There is a very small scattering of specialists who repair bikes and use inspection methods to locate and diagnose damage and risk. But as I started to talk to more experts, I found there is huge disagreement in these processes and technology they use, as well as the way it is applied.”

Uncovering this issue of a lack of standardisation with inspection methods and a lack of governance around the quality of inspections, as well as the quality of repairs, Briggs founded Cycle Inspect to tackle these issues and offer a viable solution—one that is accessible for consumers, both when buying a used bike and for carbon bike owners in understanding the current condition of their own, taking into account degradation over time.

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Briggs said: “As a result of our research partnership with Deakin University, detailed literature review and consultation with the industry, our method looks to combine ultrasonic inspection with a variety of manual tests and techniques.

“We want to train individuals to perform these tests, rolling it out so it’s not just a small scattering of specialists that have these skills.”

The initial idea of an aggressive route of mandating safety measures and restrictions was aborted as Briggs says “it is not really addressing the problem”.

From the results of a petition it became clear that this was not an effective and popular direction. He added: “You may be mandating a safety inspection for a bike worth, say $1000, but that is only going to adjust people's behaviours. They’ll sell it for $999.99 or strip the bike down and sell parts individually to get around it.”

Instead Cycle Inspect strives to raise awareness of the issue of hidden damage in carbon frames, by informing consumers of both the risks and the solutions. The aim being to shift the mindset from one that is purely reactive (inspections following significant accidents) to preventative with inspections as a critical part of a routine bike service— looking for damage to the frame itself as a sort of health check, alongside traditional checks of components.

Cycle Inspect carbon

71% of riders surveyed by Cycle Inspect were aware of the potential for hidden damage, but only 48% who had been involved in an accident actually had their carbon fibre bike inspected for it.

While 78% of surveyed riders would buy a used bike, for those who wouldn’t, “unsure of history”,  “no warranty” and “no easy/effective way of ensuring quality and safety” were the key reasons why not.

With the local bike mechanic empowered to conduct these standardised tests as part of a larger network of trained (and trusted) inspection specialists, this accessibility to consumers will aid the move towards a preventative system.

Briggs said: “Whilst our focus is centred around the standardisation of inspection methodology and diagnosis, and increasing the accessibility of premium inspection solutions for riders to help reduce the risk of failure; there is a really important link I believe between our mission and the relative inaction of an industry which has not addressed this in any significant way since carbon bikes were introduced in the 70s.

“In essence, we want to arm consumers with the information they need to make better purchase or repair decisions, and build a capability within the industry for premium inspection services to reduce the reliance on manufacturers to drive change in safety standards and rider awareness.”

Briggs likens Cycle Inspect’s carbon bike safety solution to a three legged stool, with manufacturing safety standards being one leg, and the industry training of local bike mechanics and the bike inspection method—for which Cycle Inspect would be responsible—as the other two legs.

“If one of these three elements doesn’t exist, then the whole process falls down,” Briggs says.

Cycle Inspect carbon 3

Although this voluntary MOT solution can be conducted without any input from bike brands, Cycle Inspect's aim is for collaboration and for more brands be involved with its efforts towards improved safety procedures.

Briggs said: “We want to drive change amongst manufacturers for agreement on consistent safety testing procedures and for disclosure of critical safety benchmarks to enable independent safety assessments to be more accurately performed.”

Conversations about industry-standard tests from bike brands is beginning to happen, with, for example, VeloNews reporting Cervélo co-founder Phil White’s call for an industry-standard test for steerer tubes.

He said: “I’m not going to slag anyone, I’m not trying to target anyone, but as an industry I don’t think we’re doing a good job”.

“The reason the brands have different tests and the reason why repairers use different technology is because it is very hard to generate a single, 100 percent accurate approach,” Briggs explains.

“What we are doing is entering that discussion to provide something that is powered by science but with the intention of us learning as we conduct more inspections. The more we undertake, the more intelligent our system will become.

“Over time we can create a really powerful depository of data that can paint a picture around different brands and models, what are the different failure rates, what are the different contributing factors that led to certain types of damage.”

With this solution having direct implications for insurers (in how they diagnosis risk and utilise data to process claims) Cycle Inspect has partnered with the cycling insurance company Velosure.

Joe Fourie, Regional Head at Velosure, said: “Cyclists are exposed to several risks when riding their bicycles, and compromised equipment is one of them.

“We believe that knowledge is power, and if we can all learn more and understand the materials that we ride on and use every day, it will be beneficial for all involved. The Cycling Inspect model could potentially allow cyclists access to peace of mind that their equipment is safe to buy, ride and sell.

“We wish the Cycling Inspect team all the best in their development of this programme and are excited to see the results.”

Cycle Inspect has also received letters of support, including one from cycling commentator Phil Liggett. He said: “The issue of cycling safety is an important one, but is something that needs to broaden beyond driver awareness to bike maintenance and the risks involving in purchasing or riding damaged or defective equipment.

“What Cycle Inspect brings to the industry is a renewed push for higher standards in bicycle maintenance through a structured training and development program targeted at those entrusted to make riders safer on the road – the local bike mechanic.”

www.cycleinspect.com

Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.

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