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In light of a recent article in Outside Magazine, NPR reached out to bicycle expert Luke Elrath to comment on the potential for failure in carbon fiber bicycle frames and components. Informed by his own forensic casework, as well as his experience building carbon fiber components and performing quality assurance within the bicycle industry, Luke discusses the catastrophic nature of carbon fiber failures and the necessity for proper, regular maintenance.

The experts at Robson Forensic, including Mr. Elrath, have investigated many incidents involving the failure of carbon fiber bicycle frames and components. Due to the nature of the material, defects or damage can be more difficult to spot on carbon fiber than on traditional bicycle materials such as steel or aluminum. As a result of the challenges in detecting issues as well as the potentially severe consequences of failures, it is particularly important for bicycle shops and owners (within the extent of their abilities) to follow standards relevant to assembly and maintenance, and periodically have carbon fiber components inspected by an expert (particularly after a fall or crash).

While Luke warns consumers to be cautious and diligent when choosing a carbon fiber bike and getting it serviced, he does not discourage cyclists from riding carbon fiber bikes. Click the media player to listen to the full segment, or review excerpts from the interview transcription below.

TRANSCRIPTION EXCERPT

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST: For people who like high-performance bicycles, carbon fiber is something of a wonder material. It’s strong and lightweight. But it has a downside. Damage to bikes with carbon fiber frames or components can be hard to spot and potentially catastrophic. Reporter Jeff Tyler considers some of the risks.

JEFF TYLER, BYLINE: On a perfect sunny day in Santa Barbara four years ago, Cynthia Walker went on a bike ride with a friend. She was riding an 8-year-old bike made by TIME, a top-of-the-line French brand that retailed for $5,000.

CYNTHIA WALKER: We had just started our ride. And we’re on a flat road. And the next thing I know, I was on the ground in a pool of blood. And I remember my friend saying he was picking up my teeth from the pavement.

TYLER: A small twig got caught in the spokes, and the bike frame shattered.

WALKER: It just imploded on me without any warning at all.

TYLER: Generally speaking, a twig is not enough to cause a carbon fiber frame to shatter. That is, unless there was prior damage to the bike. But Walker says there wasn’t.

WALKER: I had just had it looked over by one of the best bike mechanics in town. He didn’t notice anything unusual. And I’d taken really good care of the bike. I’d never crashed on it before.

TYLER: After the accident, she got the bike inspected at a lab.

WALKER: The results were that it was bad epoxy. That’s what the expert said. It wasn’t really made well.

TYLER: TIME did not respond to a request for comment. While these kinds of accidents are rare, they do happen. An online article from Outside magazine last month highlighted other examples of carbon bikes failing seemingly out of nowhere. Many in the industry dismiss such accidents, insisting that riders aren’t taking responsibility for damaging their bikes. But some experts disagree.

LUKE ELRATH: In some cases, there is a legitimate design or manufacturing defect in the carbon fiber that leads to a failure of use under normal conditions.

TYLER: That’s forensic investigator Luke Elrath with Robson Forensic. He’s handled 12 cases involving carbon fiber bike defects in the last six years. Elrath says it can be hard for people to identify problems in carbon fiber bikes.

ELRATH: Carbon fiber is unique in that it can sometimes be very difficult to identify these cracks before they are able to propagate and fail catastrophically and often without warning.

TYLER: Nonetheless, Elrath does not recommend that consumers abandon carbon fiber bikes. He rides one himself. He says people just need to be aware that these bikes require extra maintenance and regular inspections. Read that owner’s manual closely. Avoid overtightening carbon fiber components, like the seatpost. And if you crash your bike, or if you’re shopping for a used bike, get it checked out by an expert.

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Featured Expert

J. Lucas Elrath

​Bicycle Expert

Luke has worked as a product manager for large and small bicycle manufacturers, raced competitively on the road and on the trails, and has worked as a metropolitan bicycle courier. In addition to assembling bikes as a product manager, he also designs and builds his own frames. He is a licensed League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructor. He is licensed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association as a tour guide and skills instructor. Luke’s casework includes all matters related to bicycles including bicycle failures, improper bicycle assembly, rider actions, shop operations, and event organization.

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