Carbon Handlebars for Cyclocross? The Pros Do It, So Why Not?

Jonathan Page runs a carbon handlebar on his Blue cyclocross bike, however Blue's stock builds only offer alloy bar options.

As we’ve previewed and written about a lot of the cyclocross bikes that have popped up over the year, we’ve noticed one thing: Whether their price points are in the hundreds or pushing past $5,000, all of them have alloy handlebars.

But, looking around the races (and acknowledging our own weight weenie tendencies), it seems like many of the pros opt for carbon fiber bars. So what’s the story?

Having run carbon handlebars on most of our road and mountain bikes for years, there’s no doubt they’re strong enough. And they’re light, and unless you’re going super high end, they’ve become somewhat affordable. So why not spec them as a selling point on mid- and high-end bikes?  And should you make that one of the first upgrades after you catch the ‘cross bug (and you will catch the bug…just try it once, we guarantee it)?

Jump past the break and hear the opinions from three of the top carbon fiber handlebar manufacturers: Easton, Ritchey and FSA, then decide if the weight savings and other benefits are worth what seems to be just one major concern…

The answers below were only edited for spelling grammar, not content, so you’re going to see some repetition in the opinions, but we wanted to leave it all intact so you could see what each manufacturer had to say.

BIKERUMOR: Are your carbon fiber handlebars suited for cyclocross? If so, are they better suited for it than the alloy bars, the same, or not quite as appropriate?

EASTON: Yes, our carbon bars are approved for cyclocross. It really comes down to rider preference as to what they want to run. I know some riders have had issues with carbon bars from other manufactures in the past and now only run alloy, and sometimes it comes down to bar geometry as to which fits the rider better.

RITCHEY: Carbon bars are in fact very well-suited to CX and despite the rumors a number of top pro racers are on carbon bars. Like current World Champion Stybar, and recently crowned US National Champion Todd Wells (see pics above). Carbon bars have a far superior strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum bars, as well as potentially better stiffness, vibration damping properties and ride tuning. They’re great for CX.

The only reasons to run aluminum vs. carbon: COST. If you’re serious about your cyclocrossing, you’re going to need TWO bikes, so you can swap when one gets packed with mud. Alloy components offer raceworthy performance at a fraction of the cost of their carbon counterparts. CRASHING. If you race CX, you’re going to crash more often than you do on the road, and regardless of material, crashes can damage things. Aluminum bars are more affordable to replace (see previous point) and also easier for riders to inspect for damage post-crash. Finally, WRENCHING. I’m amazed at how few racers/home mechanics own a torque wrench. Proper torque is very important when it comes to carbon components; if your stem is too tight OR too loose, you increase the risk of damaging a bar in the abusive circumstances of Cyclocross. This is one of the best performance upgrades any racer can make:

ritchey logic pocket torque wrench for bicycle tool kits

Ritchey's Torque Key makes checking bolt torque super quick and easy, and we've seen it being used by pro mechanics all over.

FSA: Yes our Carbon bars are suited for CX cross. It depends on the rider and what performance attributes they want from the bike…which would be why they would choose it over an alloy bar.

The carbon bar is more suited for the no holds barred racer who wants nothing but the best (light, stiff, overall fatigue reduction) and usually has a bike or 2 that they can switch out during a race.

That said, due to the unruly nature of CX cross and possibility of crashing the alloy bar is better suited because;
• Cost replacement of alloy is not as high as a carbon bar. For the average rider this is the logical choice.
• A carbon bar can break/crack depending on the impact….sometimes not. Unless a carbon bar snaps or shows obvious damage immediately, it is difficult to know from the onset of the crash if a carbon bar has been compromised or if it just has a scratch. For instance The rider could get up from a wreck, back on the bike and all works well. Later, that wreck could have started as a small fracture, not seen to the eye, that will creep to the point of failure. The rider may not realize that the wreak, earlier in the season, is actually what created the failure in the carbon bar today. Same goes for alloy bars but cracks and damage are easier to see and diagnose which is why people choose them over carbon for CX cross. Also, It is a general rule (similar to helmets) to replace your bars after getting in a crash which could have possibly compromised the bar. This goes for carbon and alloy bars.

Carbon bars are not “weaker” in the function of a handlebar. On the contrary carbon is quite superior to alloy in regards to weight to stiffness and vibration dampening. Diagnosing whether or not the bar has been compromised (after a wreck) is what is difficult.

So, If you are as smooth as butter on a Teflon skillet, then by all means run the carbon. If you are like the general population who will end up on their backside a few times during the season…the alloy bar is economically the better option.

BIKERUMOR: What are some advantages to running carbon bars for cyclocross, in particular, what benefits do your carbon bars provide over alloy bars for that sport?

EASTON: Better vibration dampening, (Easton develops our carbon bars to have intelligent flex, meaning in the drops if you pull up on the bar in a sprint they are stiff, but you ride over a bump and the bar can flex down to provide dampening) as well as decreased weight. Down side is increased cost. The other down side is if you crash on your carbon bars they need to be inspected. As most of the bar is wrapped in tape thus damage can be hidden so it’s important to do more than a quick once over.

RITCHEY: In addition to our incredibly broad size offerings (six different models/bends available) our carbon bars, specifically SuperLogic, use a unique-to-Ritchey resin system that improves strength and fatigue life over what we’ve tested from the competition. We’ve found this translates to a tougher bar that’s well suited to the abusive world of CX. Ritchey carbon bars are also one-piece monocoque constructions, whereas many other bars are three-piece assemblies. It’s a lot harder to control the manufacturing process in a monocoque bar (which is why others don’t try) but the resulting structure doesn’t have any seams that act as stress risers in critical zones. We’ve frequently seen competitor bars fail at the assembly seams.

FSA: A carbon bar is lighter than an alloy bar, and will reduce hand and upper body fatigue. So if courses in your local area leave your hands numb or you are looking to drop a few grams on your bike then the carbon bar could be a good choice.

Specialized rider Todd Wells runs a carbon bar with alloy stem. Photo: James Haung / CyclingNews

BIKERUMOR: Do they have the same impact and fatigue strength as alloy?

FSA: In general carbon bars have an increased fatigue strength but do not have the impact resistance or  compression abilities that an alloy bar does. Carbon is a very stiff composite whose goal is to attain (retain? -ed) its shape for its usable lifespan. So when external forces overcome the strength properties of the carbon, the structure will crack or break instead of ding or bend like alloy.

RITCHEY: No. Carbon bars, when engineered and manufactured properly will much, much stronger in both impact and fatigue strength. There’s no comparison.

EASTON: Impact and fatigue strength of our carbon bars is much higher than alloy. We do a drop test on road bars as well as MTN bars and carbon bars have more than 45% higher impact strength than alloy. Easton made the first carbon road bars as well as arguably the best alloy bars of all time so we have a great deal of knowledge about what you can do with each material. We have been running fatigue and impact tests on carbon and alloy bars for over 20 years and we know how strong a bar needs to be to not have issue in the field.

zdenek stybar's full carbon one piece fsa handlebar stem combo on his x-night cyclocross bike

World Champion Zdenek Stybar runs a full carbon one-piece 395g 4ZA Cirrus Pro handlebar stem combo on his cyclocross bike. Photo: VeloNews

BIKERUMOR: Do you your sponsored cyclocross athletes run carbon or alloy bars and why?

RITCHEY: A mix of both. It’s often determined by how much sponsorship budget we have allocated to a given team (alloy bars are less expensive) but we’re also sensitive to the requests of riders and mechanics. Some prefer our WCS alloy bar since they’ve been racing or wrenching on it for years, and that’s fine. We still believe in the performance of a premium quality butted alloy bar as well, so we certainly don’t feel the need to discourage teams from running alloy if that’s their preference.

EASTON: We have teams running carbon and some running alloy, as stated above it comes down to what the riders wants, as well as budget, and inventory levels at the time. Our carbon bars have been selling extremely well this year and it’s been an issue having enough stock for teams.

FSA: Most use alloy but a few use carbon. Dependability and cost are the main reasons for Alloy over Carbon. The last thing an athlete (Or his or her mechanic) wants to do is switch out a pair of bars (i.e. cables, etc.) every other week due to the bike getting banged up or dropped. The athletes who do run the carbon bars are usually lighter, smaller athletes who need any weight reduction they can get within the bike.

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So, what do you run on your cyclocross bike?  Personally, I’ve got an alloy bar waiting to go on my new ‘cross bike as soon as the frame comes in, but to be honest, the weight weenie in me will likely replace that in the future, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to throw a carbon bar on there the next time we get one in for review…

NOTE: Yes, I completely get the irony of not featuring an image of any bar from the manufacturers interviewed, but hey, we gotta work with what we get or find. Waddya gonna do?

Comments

Hugh Jass - 12/16/10 - 1:29pm

Ritchey hit it on the nail. Cost. What privateer has the money to replace carbon bars after a crash? I’m sure many riders still ride on damaged/scratched carbon components in hopes they don’t fail. Russian-roulette so to speak.

Uri - 12/16/10 - 1:34pm

FSA seems to be on the mark the most here, most notably with “In general carbon bars have an increased fatigue strength but do not have the impact resistance or compression abilities that an alloy bar does” and “Dependability and cost are the main reasons for Alloy over Carbon.” Many of the pro-carbon arguments being made here (better damping, lighter weight) could also be applied to carbon posts, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re a bad idea on a cross bike.

As for the pros running carbon, they are pros that not only get their bits for free, but also get replacements as soon as they break their stuff. They also seem to crash less than Cat 3/4 racers in the scrum with 100 other people. Sure, Zdenek runs a super-flash intergrated set-up, which is straight baller. But he’s also the world champ, which makes a difference. As I recall Nijs uses PRO’s heavier (but burlier) PLT cockpit, and price isn’t an issue there.

I have no problem with carbon bars on the road (though I’ve gone back to alloy), but for cross they seem ill-suited.

Minh - 12/16/10 - 5:25pm

I think most “amateur” racers don’t use carbon bars because cross is not their primary discipline. We’re all either roadies or mountain biker or both but I dont think anyone claims to be ONLY a cross racer. That being said, when you have the cash to spend on parts, you will most likely spend it on your primary discipline and not on the cross bike. I know that’s how it is with me at least. My cross bike (specialized tricross) is built mostly from my old road bike parts which got upgraded to something better.

Jason Lombard - 12/16/10 - 7:30pm

Would love to run carbon, but as a self-funded amateur, my budget only allows for alloy. Mainly due to crashes (when not if) and the subsequent parts replacement that is required.

ed - 12/16/10 - 7:49pm

I understand the positive attributes of the carbon bars as stated above except with the Easton bars where it says they provide “dampening”. Do they actually spray you with water or something when you hit a bump?

roadie - 12/16/10 - 10:48pm

I agree with Minh, my bike is all hand me downs from my road bike. I have a hard time putting new and sexy parts on a cross bike, they just get trashed, muddy, crashed, bunny hopped and pressure washed. The only new things my cross bike gets is tires, cables, bar tape and brakes.

Dr. Unk - 12/17/10 - 1:25am

Tired of the carbon CX fantasy?

Czech out the carbon REALITY:

http://www.skronglite.com

Greg - 12/17/10 - 1:49am

ed-

It appears that the FSA bars will also get you wet.

Seems that both suspension forks and carbon parts both contain dampen-ing.

Josh - 12/17/10 - 12:28pm

See v-2; this is a pretty common usage of the verb.

damp·en/?damp?n/Verb
1. Make slightly wet: “the fine rain dampened her face”.
2. Make less strong or intense: “nothing could dampen her enthusiasm”.

Rich - 12/17/10 - 2:14pm

@Greg,ed Holidays got you down? What you are griping about is just semantics because there is more than one meaning for both of those words. You can use them different ways and it will still be correct. I come from the world of sound, and the words damping and dampening mean the same thing with the only difference being one of them is a verb and the other is a noun or adjective. You can say “I’m going to dampen the walls of this recording studio with damping material” and it’s correct. The definitions of each word you posted up are almost identical in meaning, the only difference being that you can also use the word dampen/dampening to describe something being wet.

Besides, why does it even matter? If this was EnglishRumor I suppose we would have a problem, but come on!

Greg - 12/17/10 - 3:47pm

Rich-

The holidays always get me down, but that’s besides the point.

I’m what you call a “smartass”. I use sarcasm to make a joke. I come from the world of BikeShop, where exceptionally serious cyclers make me jaded.

Happy Holidays!

[...] Carbon Handlebars for Cyclocross? The Pros Do It, So Why Not? [...]

[...] conversation with 3T started when we published our tech article on using carbon handlebars for cyclocross. They replied that they had a ‘cross specific [...]

Milton - 08/01/11 - 12:14pm

Most carbon bars are manufactured in “segments”. The bond line where the segments are joined is not nearly as strong as a section of the bar itself, essentially these adhesive joints are a very week link in the chain. Not to mention the variability in the adhesive mixture (usually a 2 part epoxy). What does this mean? When you fall or go bump on a CX bike (it happens), the bar breaks. Maybe not 100% broken, but just slightly broken, waiting to break 100% later. This should sound very scarry to those who value their teeth.

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