[This article was last updated on March 14, 2018]
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
As far as we know, this is currently the cheapest carbon fibre framed bike on offer in the UK. French sports megastore chain Decathlon claims a frame weight of just 1,080g for a size M, and you get a full Shimano Tiagra 4700 groupset including brakes and chainset. Decathlon only has one size left — S — but if that's your size, it's a staggering bargain.
This is Ribble’s cheapest carbon fibre model, with a range of options starting at £749 for a Shimano Claris 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.
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 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 7.7kg which, if accurate, is a very respectable weight for a bike of this price.
Merida is one of the biggest manufacturers of carbon fibre frames, and that experience and expertise show in this Scultura 4000 Disc. As well as a light frame, you get a full Shimano 105 groupset with disc brakes. It has Merida's CF2 geometry, which is less racy than the CF4 layout of Merida's pure race bikes, and there's room in the frame for 28mm tyres.
'Next year' models are in the shops already and one of the picks of 2018's range is the latest incarnation of Cannondale's SuperSix Evo Ultegra Di2, which packs quite a lot of bike for three grand. The SuperSix Evo frame features Cannondale's BallisTech carbon fibre in a traditional frame geometry. The Ultegra Di2 a very nice balance of perfect shifting and more attractive price point. The semi-compact 52/36 chainset is paired with an 11/28 cassette to give aggressive climbing gearing. The Mavic Askium WTS wheels are a little out of their league on this setup, but you can always treat yourself to some top-flight wheels later and keep them for training.
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.
The 2018 model is significantly cheaper than 2017's, and has the latest Shimano R8000 Ultegra groupset, but lacks last year's Vision Metron carbon fibre wheels.
Unlike the majority of carbon frames in this guide that are made using the common moulding process, the C60 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.
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 2018 Di2 version gets the latest 8000 Shimano offering in electronic form. The Roval CL 50 wheels are shod with Specialized Turbo S-Works tyres and a Specialized Toupe 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.
For 2018 Scott has split its Addict road bike line in two, dividing it into Addict endurance bikes and Addict RC race machines; this is Scott's top of the line race bikes. As well as one of the lightest disc-compatible frames around it has SRAM's Red eTap wireless 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 6.7kg, very impressive for a disc-braked bike.
Swiss manufacturer BMC has stepped up a notch with its top model for 2018, incorporating the brain for Shimano's Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting into the frame and adding disc brakes and DT Swiss PRC 1100 DICUT carbon fibre wheels to the mix foe 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.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.