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. It only comes in three sizes, but if one of them fits you, it's a staggering bargain.
This is Ribble’s cheapest carbon fibre model, with a range of options starting at £999 for a Shimano Sora 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 4000S II 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 6000. This is also one of the lightest frames in this guide, with a weight of just 750g for the frame, impressive considering the price of the whole bike. It’s certainly not a cheap bike but that sort of frame weight is highly impressive at this price. You also get a full Shimano Ultegra groupset and direct mount brakes, with the rear being position under the chainstays to decrease drag.
The Cannondale SuperSix Evo Ultegra Di2 packs quite a lot of bike under the 3 grand mark. 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 are a little out of their league on this setup.
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 new 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. The £3,500 gets you a full Ultegra hydraulic groupset with Vision Metron 40 wheels and 32mm Bontrager tyres. There are also hidden mudguard mounts for the winter. It's truly a bike for all weathers.
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, the S-Works Tarmac can probably win you a game of Top Trumps. In its various iterations, this frame has won Grand Tours, Classics and rainbow jerseys. The 2017 Dura-Ace version gets the latest 9100 Shimano offering in mechanical form. The Roval CLX 32 wheels are shod with Specialized Turbo cotton tyres and also feature DT Swiss internals and Ceramic Speed bearings. The bars and stem are both S-works with the bars being carbon and the stem aluminium. An S-Works 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.
Do you like your Italian road bikes? Then you’ll like this Basso Diamante Super Veloce, or SV for short. It’s a brand new bike for the company that's celebrating its 40th anniversary. We first saw it at Eurobike earlier this year, and it was one of the standout bikes at the show. The new full carbon frame weighs just 820g, and it’s made in Italy, a designation that's a lot less common than it used to be on bikes from Italian brands. There are various frame and build options, we’ve got a very fancy Campagnolo Super Record EPS build with a full complement of carbon wheels and handlebars. It weighs just 6.5kg!
At the best part of 10 grand, the Trek Emonda SLR 10 unsurprisingly comes decked out with a super-bike spec list. The frame is Trek's OCLV carbon and maintains the Emonda's impressive stiffness, even though the frame is 20g lighter than a SuperSix. The Wheels are Bontrager Aeolus XXX SL tubular and come wrapped with Bontrager R4 tubulars in a very useable 25mm. The SRAM Red eTap provides lightweight, cableless shifting. All of this combined gives a total weight of just 5.38kg. But if you think it'll just snap, Trek provide a lifetime warranty of the frame.
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.