Over the last year we’ve seen small brands like Intense and Transition join mid-sized companies like Niner and Pivot in offering carbon fiber bikes. As we spoke to them about it, the discussion turned to the challenges of small brands scaling up in today’s marketplace – that they need to go beyond alloy bikes and offer a carbon fiber model in order to grow.
The challenge is one of scale and resources. And by resources, we’re not just talking about the costs of production, there’s a finite number of quality manufacturers willing to do small runs, and the R&D process becomes much more involved with carbon. That means more people, new skills and lots of time.
So we spoke to these brands about the process. We also spoke to Turner and Foes, two small, storied brands that are facing the reality that consumers are less and less likely to spend more than $2,500 on an alloy mountain bike frameset. Yet, that’s often what it costs if you want the latest and greatest hydroformed, fully modern alloy frame, particularly if you want it made in America. We also spoke to Moots, who only produces titanium bikes, for a different perspective.
With Cannondale’s CAAD10 aluminum road bike flying off the shelves, and Specialized revamping their Allez, is Alloy making a comeback? Or, do you really need to go carbon to go big? See what everyone has to say after the break…
BIKERUMOR: Do you think a brand today can grow or remain relevant in the mainstream without offering a carbon fiber bike?
NINER: I think that it is increasingly difficult to do this. Carbon has so much unexplored potential as a material – this is where companies are investing their development time and funding. To maintain relevance without a carbon product will be tough.
FOES: Our company is different than a lot of big companies. Big companies can experiment more because they have the budget and a lot of their stuff is made overseas. We don’t make anything overseas, I like to hand fabricate our stuff, so if I did decide to do something in carbon, we’d have to go overseas, and that’s just not an option for us, so we’d look to do something else. For us, not having a carbon fiber bike hasn’t been an issue. If we had them, we could probably sell more stuff, but I’m just not interested in going overseas.
TURNER: No. I’m basing that answer on the verbatim question…in the mainstream. Not a high end brand. A brand like Turner Bikes, or any other niche brand, can because it’s a higher end item that’s aimed at a different segment. The big advertising budgets of the big companies have conditioned riders to think that carbon is the pinnacle. A small brand, particularly those in the dirt jump/downhill segment could grow for quite a while on just metal frames.
TRANSITION: I think they can in certain categories, and in other categories, no. There are certain price points and genres that without carbon you could probably exist but you wouldn’t be growing your market share. If we look at our first bike, a 6″ all-mountain enduro bike, we could have kept the Covert alloy only, but it’ll do better with the new carbon version. I feel like we’re one of the smaller brands doing it, but we’re doing our own thing, not rebranding some off the shelf crap. We’re at that size where we’re right on the cusp, but we definitely see some benefits to doing it.
INTENSE: Carbon is so widely accepted now, and it offers so many advantages over aluminum, having said that there is still a place for aluminum, and there are some people that really do not like the idea of carbon used in mountain bike frames. If you don’t offer carbon as a company, you are limiting how many customers will want your product. I would say that it would be very difficult to grow a company without offering carbon.
PIVOT: I think it would be difficult to make a go of it without carbon. Many customers simply want carbon fiber and its part of their check list of features they want or think they want in a bike.
MOOTS: Absolutely. A securely niched, well respected non-carbon fiber brand with a long history of designing and building performance titanium bikes can be very relevant in the high-end bike market today, and going forward. For Moots, with the introduction three years ago of our RSL line road, mountain and ‘cross bikes which have ride qualities similar to high-end carbon bikes with the important addition of lifetime durability and increased comfort, we have seen significant growth in our business worldwide, especially in the U.S. and Europe. We are continuing to see more and more customers make the switch from carbon to titanium as they realize the ride quality in terms of stiffness and responsiveness is really not that different. And, many times the weight differences are minimal or non-existent. On top of that there is a lot of cyclist frustration with the lack of durability in carbon bikes, even at the high-end. So, the combination of those three things have certainly benefitted us. It’s also been interesting to see more interest in Moots and titanium from young male riders and women. This is encouraging. For the younger cyclists, some are choosing titanium on their own and some have some parental influence. We’ve had a couple very recent stories of young cyclists (early 20’s) purchasing Moots road bikes for racing because they have broken too many carbon frames and the costs are becoming too prohibitive to continue to pay the crash-replacement prices, not to mention the inconvenience of not having one’s bike for a period of time while waiting for the replacement.
For Ti to be relevant in the mainstream (high-end mainstream), we’d likely need to have a top tier road team riding Ti bikes and some more top world cup mountain bikers riding Ti. We believe today’s titanium technology is there on the product side, but because it occupies such a niche space, there is no company and/or marketing scale to make that financial equation work. On the mountain biking side, the product is clearly there and it’s a bit more doable from an athlete support standpoint. But, still to really justify the investment in the top tier rider sponsorship, titanium as a whole would need to achieve some level of market critical mass first. And to truly be mainstream, price points need to be at the mid-level to appeal to that broader audience. A properly US-made Ti bike will not hit those lower price points.
BIKERUMOR: Do you think riders are still interested in high end alloy frames?
NINER: Yes, but the customer base has become more specific than in the past – we still see strong interest in longer travel alloy trail/all mountain bikes. I suspect that this is due to two things. One, there are still people out there who worry about carbon durability, particularly in the long travel market. As carbon continues to prove itself on the trail, I believe some of this distrust will dissipate. The second issue is driven by market size. The more frames within particular model you produce, the less expensive you can make it for the customer. While the longer travel market is growing, it has not reached the same economies of scale that you see in cross country or road bike markets. This means that there is still a good argument for comparison shopping between alloy and carbon trail bike models, unlike what has happened in road bikes, where you can get a very nice carbon option for what used to be an alloy-only price.
FOES: We’re still selling frames, and we have customers that have had our frames for a long time. So yes, I think people are still interested.
TURNER: Absolutely. It keeps us, and others like us, in business. It’s small volume, and the number is shrinking as the lightweight lure of carbon attracts more customers. Part of aluminum’s draw is the durability. A dented alloy frame can be ridden for years, but impact a carbon frame and it’s expensive, usually not warrantied and needs immediate replacement.
TRANSITION: I think some. There are people out there, even experienced, skilled riders, that prefer alloy. It comes down to personal preference. There’s definitely still a market for it. The size of that market is the question mark.
INTENSE: There is a certain customer that still loves that high end aluminum, which to some people is a contradiction in terms, and there is a certain customer that is dedicated to buying Made in USA. There is a lot of value in buying a frame where you know it was crafted by a human, and you can get a custom color.
PIVOT: Absolutely. Our alloy models sell very strongly.
MOOTS: We believe there is a growing slice of the high-end customer who is becoming more interested than ever in modern titanium bikes. There are several factors driving this:
- More cyclists are discovering the stiff and responsive ride quality of today’s well built titanium bikes, like our RSL models that incorporate leading edge design and technology and offer similar performance levels to high-end bikes made from other non-titanium materials.
- A rapidly growing number of high-end carbon bikes have become more expensive than high-end titanium bikes. This was not the case five years ago. So, when you look at the true value equation; cost – performance – durability – pride of ownership, titanium offers unique and compelling value.
- The commoditization of carbon is making it more and more challenging for cycling consumers to understand what they are really getting for the prices they are paying.
- The lifetime nature of a well built titanium bike is appealing to many cyclists, especially as the struggles with the breakage issues of carbon frames continues.
- Socio-culturally, since the economy crashed in 2008/2009, more and more people are valuing hand-built, U.S. based brands that have values similar to their own. In the bike world specifically, the whole notion of Asian-made, non-durable disposable bikes is not feeling real good to a growing percentage of high-end cycling customers, especially as carbon frame and bike prices continue to rise.
For us at Moots, all of these factors lead to a much more personal and emotional experience and relationship between our owners, their bikes and the Moots brand. It’s pretty special.
BIKERUMOR: If so, what’s the price ceiling for what they seem willing to spend on alloy before they jump to carbon bikes?
NINER: This is tough to be specific about – it depends upon bike-genre, region and currency exchanges. Generally speaking, long travel alloy bikes go into higher price points than XC bikes, due in part to complexity and in part to the economies of scale referred to in the previous question.
FOES: For our alloy frames, we try to be competitive, but we probably should charge more. They’re all made here…if the customer saw how much work went into actually making one of our hydroformed frames from start to finish, they’d know they’re getting their money’s worth.
TURNER: In our case, for many riders we are at or just above the ceiling. We’re right at $2,400-$2,500 retail for a frame. Does that mean we’re on the roof? Each rider has to decide what their ceiling is. This is something I think the press has a tremendous sway on what people will spend. When you look at a 180lb rider with gear, a trail bike, dropper post, hydration pack, etc., a pound and a half on the frame means f**king nothing. Nothing! As our customers weigh these things out, they look more at the rotational weight and their own body weight. These people take a dump that’s a bigger difference than the a 5 Spot and a Blur LTc. Our bikes are expensive because we’re paying for U.S. labor. Our frames and parts are made and machined here, and we’re using higher quality tubing. Our margins are the same or sometimes slightly less than bigger brands, so it’s not like we’re gouging anyone.
TRANSITION: That’s a tough one. We haven’t released our (carbon Covert) and given people a firm price. It’s coming up, we’re going into production, but it sounds like people are more than comfortable spending $1,000 more to get carbon (full suspension frame). Our most expensive frame is our DH frame at $2,500. In the downhill world, people paying for a premium alloy frame is accepted. I don’t think people would go for a $3,000 frame, but then again, carbon DH bikes are getting really expensive. I think when things first come out, people gasp at the price, but then it settles in. We just try to provide a high value for the price and provide something really good for the riders that can’t or don’t want to plunk down the extra $800 or so for the carbon frame.
INTENSE: Thats a tough one, that gap seems to be growing for some people, but for others, it is not about the price.
PIVOT: That’s a really good question. There have been a lot of carbon mountain bikes out there that are more flexy, less durable, and in many cases heavier then the aluminum frames. I think in many cases the wool was pulled over consumers’ eyes. On the road and in hardtails, carbon is pretty much mandatory and justifiably so, because ride tuning plays a much greater factor, and the parameters are different in terms of all out durability and impact strength. With carbon, you can build a lighter, better riding bike with tuned stiffness in all the right places and you cannot necessarily achieve that combination with other materials currently. On a suspension bike, chassis stiffness, impact strength, durability and weight are all big factors. In the strive to hit the stiffness numbers and properly support all the pivot points along with the requirement to have much higher impact resistance than what is acceptable in aluminum and the gap between a really well designed aluminum frame and a really well designed carbon frame narrows. In most cases a well designed aluminum frame is better than much of the carbon that’s in the market. But…Carbon is now a key feature and like coatings on shocks and the differences between an XT and XTR group, people are willing to pay for it. As carbon technology continually improves on mountain bike frames and material as well as labor costs go up, the costs of the carbon models will go up. Aluminum may follow slightly, but it’s relatively stable in comparison. As far as what they are willing to spend, our Mach 5.7 alloy vs. our Mach 5.7 Carbon is a great example because the frames are essentially identical in geometry and technical features. The carbon version is 7% stiffer and .25lb lighter so it has benefits beyond just being carbon. These models are about $500 different in price and we sell about 65% carbon. I think on the high end if a cutting edge aluminum frame is $1900-$2200 they will sell well. Riders will stretch their budgets $500 or so to get a similar version in carbon but when the price gap becomes $700-$1000 between similar models there will be a lot of riders that I think would opt for the aluminum. $1000 is not an insignificant amount of money for most riders.
MOOTS: The perception of a well-built ti bike being too expensive is starting to fade as many carbon models from brands of all sizes have surpassed high-end ti prices. Carbon certainly offers some positive riding characteristics, but at the end of the day, a cyclist who invests $6,000-$12,000 on a road bike wants to feel good about his/her purchase. All things considered, it’s becoming more clear for that customer to realize the value of titanium vs. carbon and is very comfortable knowing that they will be riding a high-performance bike that meets all of their needs riding and racing needs and, as importantly that they have just purchased a lifetime bike.
BIKERUMOR: What led you to the decision to (or not to, as the case may be) offer carbon fiber frames?
NINER: Internally, the choice was easy. Our lead engineer, George Parry, has significant experience designing carbon bikes, including long travel and DH programs with GT as well as experience setting safety testing standards as a board member of ASTM. Carbon is where we can really push our potential – and with our engineering team, we have great confidence in our bike designs.
FOES: We’re not into carbon. I don’t know how to make carbon frames, and I’m not going to go overseas just to have someone put my name on a frame. I could easily go to Asia and have a frame made for $300, but that’s just not who we are.
TURNER: Going back three, four years, I thought that the support for US-made product would be greater in 2012. I made the decision a few years ago not to pursue carbon because the only way to offer it at a reasonable price was to make it in Asia. At the dealer, an imported carbon bike is likely to retail for the same as a US-made alloy bike. Even some of the small brands’ carbon offerings prices are starting to creep up. We researched US-made carbon, but the price would have put us in the realm of a high end road bike, and mountain bikers just aren’t going to buy a $4,000 frame. We have many customers that don’t want anything to do with carbon because they’re afraid of wrecking or just falling over on a rock and cracking or crushing a tube. That said, we did decide more recently that we need to pursue carbon to grow, and we’re working on something. It is going to have to be imported, though. Maybe that’ll change some day, manufacturing costs in Asia are going up.
TRANSITION: Part of it is the industry atmosphere, and part of it was doing something new and exciting for us, it was a challenge. With carbon, there were some unique benefits. We could save weight, add strength and do some things visually that are impossible with alloy. We did it because there is actually a benefit to the consumer and we knew our rider base wanted it.
INTENSE: We decided to develop a carbon range of bikes because of the evolution of carbon construction – improvements in reliability, strength to weight, rigidity/compliance – and the acceptance of carbon fiber in the mountain bike world.
PIVOT: I have been involved in carbon for a long time. During my Titus days we molded our own Isogrid and Exogrid carbon tubes in house. Also, we have been handling the carbon fiber development for BH bikes for the last 5 years so I knew what was possible and what wasn’t for a long time. The biggest thing for us is that Pivot is an engineering and performance driven company. We don’t chose a material because it’s cool. It has to have key advantages and it took a lot of time and development to come up with a carbon version that exceeded our aluminum versions (which were already better performing than the competitions’ alloy bikes), in key performance areas such as increased stiffness and strength as well as lighter weight. Now that we have achieved that, we feel confident that the future carbon products will also meet and exceed our expectations.
MOOTS: We’ve certainly had discussions about entering the carbon world with a uniquely Moots offering, however at this time we have no current plans to. Our feeling is that we have a special brand and heritage that is deeply steeped in the hand crafted bike world and feel confident we can meet all of our growth and cultural goals by continuing to focus on designing building the highest-performance titanium bikes possible.
BIKERUMOR: As a small company, what are the main hurdles to producing a carbon fiber bike? Are they financial, logistical, both and/or something else entirely?
NINER: All of the above! Carbon presents several challenges – your initial cash outlay is bigger (cost of molds, for example) and the financial liability is higher – it takes quite bit longer to get a carbon frame to market than an alloy one, and we have to sit on that investment. Additionally, if you want to increase production, it isn’t just a matter of buying more raw material – there is finite production per size-mold. To make more frames, we have to buy additional molds to increase output. With alloy it is much simpler – we just buy more materials and labor.
FOES: It’s a lot of stuff. I’ve done carbon fiber stuff before outside of the bicycle industry. You have to design the molds, have to make sure it’s made right and then you have to make sure the volume is there to justify those expenses.
TURNER: It’s a huge up front cost. The tooling is considerably higher than some welding fixtures in order to do a competitive mountain bike frame. It’s not only the main tools, there’s the sub tools to make the dropout bits and pivot parts. Not to mention a vast amount of engineering that has to be done perfectly. Whatever the computer shape is, if there are any waves or ripples because of less than perfect computer design, they translate into the molds, and then they’d have to be filled in with putty or otherwise finished. And they would compromise frame integrity. It has to be perfection. Every little transition and radius. You either pay more up front for the design and tooling, or you pay more in the end for finishing and fixes. And for us, it’s not only a foreign country, but it’s a foreign material and process, so our development cycle has been really long. And we have yet to experience the logistics of importing them, that’s a whole ‘nother world to learn.
TRANSITION: There weren’t too many hurdles, it just took a lot longer than we thought. You have to be patient. The number one thing is finding a manufacturing partner that can pull it off and do a good job. It was easier for us because the same factory that’s producing our alloy bikes is doing our carbon frames, too. If you had to go out and find one from scratch, it could be a lot harder. Financially, it’s a lot of money, but you work the numbers out and figure out how many you’re going to sell and the numbers worked out.
INTENSE: We have doubled our ‘issues’ as a bike manufacturer. There are huge financial commitments before you ever see a frame, thats why we employed the world’s best to get us to that point, SEED Engineering. We also went from doing everything under one roof here in California, to doing all of that – plus we employ a range of new people and services to get the best carbon frames to complement our aluminum. We have the benefits of being a manufacturer, so when it came to developing a carbon frame we could nail the geometry of the frame with our ability to build a custom frame so easily.
PIVOT: They are both financial and logistical but those are the easy problems. Engineering and testing a carbon bike takes more engineering muscle and attention to details plus the cycle from start to finish is longer. We still do all the design of pivot locations, clearances, and new ideas and then build prototypes in alloy to test the theories. Once we get it right, if it was an aluminum bike, it would be pretty much good to go for production. With carbon, once all the hard points and details are worked out, it’s basically like starting over with a good road map, but you still have a long way to go. Also, there is a big up-front financial commitment and the engineering and 3D modeling better be perfect. When you make a mistake in aluminum and the first samples are not quite right, you can amend a forging tool, change a fixture, and make adjustments without too much fuss. With a carbon bike, once those big molds are open, if there is a mistake, it could be a $30,000 mistake and a big delay.
BIKERUMOR: How do development cycles and costs differ between launching a new alloy model versus a new carbon model?
NINER: Alloy is a great material for proof-of-concept projects (a good example is our extra-small EMD 9 frame) – you get instant feedback for the cost of a single prototype frame. For carbon, you have to go to molds to get a ride sample. It varies from company to company, but alloy product is about 4-8 months faster to the customer than carbon. There is also a significant cost of error with carbon – you have to be right.
FOES: They both start with an idea on a drawing board. If I were going to do one, I’d make a prototype out of aluminum to make sure everything works and feels right, then transform that into a mold for a carbon frame. I’m not sure how other companies do it. It’s definitely going to be more expensive than aluminum.
TURNER: For us, offering a new alloy mode is much quicker. Historically, all of our new models are sequential, very much related to their predecessors. We move tubes and pivots, modify an extrusion and share parts like rockers. This minimizes our development costs and time. That has a big impact on a company our size. The carbon, the best I can tell, every single carbon bike is a different animal. Everything is fresh, you can’t just take an existing BB and pivot system and repurpose it. Each cost will be high and the same. There’s no shared platform in a monocoque frame structure. That’s why our RFX still isn’t in production…it couldn’t share enough parts with our other bikes, and people just weren’t going to pay $3,000 for an alloy bike that gets shuttled up the mountain.
TRANSITION: The main issue with carbon molds is you’re paying for all that stuff up front, so there were way more costs to start. With tubing costs, a lot of time the manufacturer will roll that in to the production costs over time. And the molds for carbon bikes are way more expensive. With a traditional alloy bike, you can open up your own alloy molds or use an existing one -all of ours are our own- and if you do a really crazy tube design it can be as expensive as carbon fiber. But, with alloy, a lot of times you’re producing molds that can work across a range of sizes, but with carbon you’re producing a new mold for each frame size.
INTENSE: Making frames here with our frame builders means we can introduce a new aluminum model in a matter of months, or update an older model within weeks of the decision. The carbon frames can take a full year to go from concept to delivery to the show room floor.
PIVOT: See answer to question 5.
BIKERUMOR: What are the minimums required for outsourced production of an alloy frame versus a carbon frame?
NINER: There is no minimum but the price you pay is relative to the number you make.
FOES: There are companies out there that’ll do a minimum of 50 per size for alloy frames, but I don’t know for carbon.
TURNER: They’re not much different. Once you get the point of actually ordering, they’re quite similar. You still have to produce hundreds in the first batch for both, and there’s a minimum number per size (25 at Sapa). That’s why so many companies don’t do more than a few sizes. Those odd ducks, the XS and XL, they can’t justify the money hanging there unless they’re big. What I’ve experienced in our slow ramp up to carbon is that the minimums are the same.
TRANSITION: Every factory is different, I’m not sure I can get into the specific numbers for our factory. I can say with carbon, they’re produced a lot more slowly, so production runs are way smaller. With alloy, you can kind of turn it on and they’ll churn out 500+ frames in a week; there’s no way you could do that with carbon.
INTENSE: I can’t compare as we do all the aluminum here in Temecula, CA. For carbon, it all depends on how much you want to pay.
PIVOT: Rather not discuss.
MOOTS: At Moots, we build 100% of our frames in-house in Steamboat Springs, CO.
BIKERUMOR: What can you tell us about your growth plans and future models…more alloy, more carbon, or something else entirely?
FOES: We’re constantly trying to refine our models and be one step ahead of everybody in terms of ideas. Some of the stuff we come up with never goes into production. We really just focus on building something that’ll last a customer a long time. I get calls from customers that are still keeping their bikes going from the late ’90s. We try not come up with a new model any more frequently than every few years, but we’re always tweaking our current stuff.
TURNER: We are working on carbon, but there’s not a single model I’m working on that’ll replace anything in the line today. The hope is there will still be some people that want high end alloy, made in the USA, and we’re going to keep making it. We just added to it with the Burner 27.5, which will complement the Sultan and 5 Spot. We’re going to place the carbon bikes in our line where we feel they’re most advantageous to the type of rider they’re aimed at. We’re going to look at those people who are hyper conscious about saving every gram they can.
TRANSITION: We have some carbon projects in our pipeline almost all the time now. We’re smaller, so we’re focusing on one bike at a time, whereas with alloy we might develop several new models at a time.
INTENSE: We are planning to develop more carbon models, and more aluminum models. We are about to release our Tracer 27.5, a new bike for us. We like to fully develop a model in aluminum before we take the plunge into a Carbon version.
PIVOT: Yes to both. We have customers that simply don’t want carbon frames and others that think carbon is the answer to all their prayers so we offer both. Also, we want more riders to enjoy our bikes and if we can get more riders on Pivot with the same level of technology, and very similar performance at a price they can afford then we’ve achieved our goal.
MOOTS: We did recently begin to offer carbon fiber forks for our road and cyclocross frames. This has proved to be very successful and filled a growing request from our customers. We will continue to do this, going forward but as mentioned before, on the frame side our current plans are focused on continuing to evolve our titanium offering.
BIKERUMOR: Anything else you’d like to add?
FOES: Everything’s hand fabricated and handmade in the US, and we do everything in house except the heat treating and paint. The life of a carbon frame is not, in my opinion, as long as an aluminum one. That’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s what we’ll continue doing as long as people want them. I see a lot of brands following trends, and if everyone else is doing carbon, they feel they need to do carbon, too. For us, it just makes us work harder to make an alloy bike that people will really want to ride.
TURNER: If there were anyone in the US that could make a quality carbon frame and let it come in at the same retail as a high end alloy frame, I’d much rather use them. I could fly there, meet with them, have a beer and be home in the time it takes to go one way to Asia. If we don’t make s**t here, we’re in trouble, but even if I made the carbon frames here, it would barely register. One line of washing machines made here would have a far greater impact on our GDP than anything Turner Bikes is going to do. Jeff Steber (Intense) built an entire factory with all the machinery here to produce high end alloy frames in house, but even they’ve gone to imported carbon frames. And when all the other brands left the US for manufacturing, Sapa looked at the small amount of business remaining and had to close.
INTENSE: We try to keep as much of our bikes Made in USA as possible. For the carbon models, we still make all the links, bolts and pivots here, and we assemble them here.
PIVOT: As a manufacturer that does a lot of testing of other frames and puts a lot of effort into bikes made from both aluminum and carbon I would like to point out that not all carbon is created equal and just because it’s carbon, doesn’t make it better. There are several very large, very well known companies that have complete carbon bike models that weigh less than the aluminum counterpart below it because one has the best and lightest components available and the aluminum version does not, but the aluminum frame is lighter and stiffer. Carbon can be awesome but it should not be the first item on a riders list of things to look for. Maybe 4th or 5th actually. Do your research and pick the frame or bike because of how it rides, what performance and dependability benefits it brings to your riding and if it happens to be carbon, then that’s great and if not, then choose the bike that fits your needs best.
We also reached out to Mike Sinyard, Specialized’s founder, for the perspective of a major manufacturer. Our timing is a bit bad with their international sales meetings happening this week, but we’ll update if we hear back from him and alert you via our Facebook and twitter pages. Be sure to follow us on one or both to get all the latest news.