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's high strength-to-weight ratio makes it extremely attractive as a material for bike frames that are strong, light, stiff and durable. It's arguably the perfect material for bikes
Carbon fibre's versatility means bikes can be tuned for both ride and aerodynamics in a way that's virtually impossible with metals
If you have very deep pockets, it's not hard to spend over £10,000 on a carbon fibre bike with all the (carbon fibre) trimmings
While carbon fibre bikes are no longer all mega-pricy, the day of the sub-£1,000 carbon bike appears to be over
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.
There aren't currently very many carbon-framed bikes for around a grand thanks to massive demand during Covid-19 lockdown and all the recent supply and shipping problems, but Boardman has come up with this value for money gem. There was a previous Tiagra-equipped version of this bike, but the latest edition has 11-speed Shimano 105 shifting so you can fit very wide-range gearing if you feel the need.
This is Ribble’s cheapest carbon fibre model, with a range of options starting at £1,099 for a Shimano Tiagra 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; the Shimano 105-equipped version above is £1,399.
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.
Van Ryself is the 'serious' bike line from French-based sports megastore chain Decathlon, and the Shimano Ultegra-equipped Ultra CF (previously known as RR 920 CF) has a full carbon frame and fork. It boasts handling, manners and ride feel that belie its bargain price.
Your two grand gets you a full Ultegra groupset, Mavic Cosmic wheels and a ride that our Stu described thus: "The ride is sublime, absorbing pretty much everything the road surface can chuck at it, so you just waft along at a very impressive pace, smashing mile after mile without effort."
The Ultimate is Canyon’s all-round race bike bike for riding long distances in comfort, with a frame better suited to long race stages than the stiffer Aeroad. You get a full Shimano Ultegra R8000 11-speed groupset with this bike, no shortcuts, even the brake calipers and crankset are Ultegra. Quality abounds with DT Swiss wheels shod with Continental Grand Prix 5000 25mm tyres. Canyon claims a bike weight of just over 7kg which, if accurate, is very respectable for a bike of this price and old-school riders will be pleased to see rim brakes.
One of the picks of 2021's Cannondale range is the latest incarnation of the SuperSix Evo Ultegra, which packs quite a lot of bike for a bit over three grand.
Cannondale totally redesigned its flagship carbon road race bike for 2020 with an all-new frame that is more aerodynamic, stiffer and comfortable than the bike first introduced in 2011 and last updated in 2015, with wider tyre clearance and revised geometry.
The changes make for a bike that's comfier than its predecessor and, if Cannondale's wind tunnel numbers are right, a bit faster too. This model comes with hydraulic disc brakes and Cannondale's own HollowGram Si carbon wheels.
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.
Tester Stu loved the 202 version of this bike, writing in his review: "Orro has quite simply nailed it with the Venturi Ultegra Di2 Wind 400. Comfort, speed, handling, feedback and stiffness – you can have it all. And the icing on the cake? It's a looker too!
"I've ridden a lot of bikes over the last 20 years, especially in the 10 that I've been with road.cc (41 in 2019 alone), and while a lot of them have been very good, there are probably ten or so that really stand out as brilliant – and the Venturi is one of those.
"I like a stiff bike. I want that feeling of performance, and if that sacrifices comfort, I can deal with it. I like a frame that feels alive, a bit on the edge, I want to feel everything that is going on from that tiny rubber footprint on the ground, and if I need to take a little bit of a battering to get that then so be it.
"The Venturi delivers that in spades, but the carbon lay-up used means it manages to do that while being very comfortable too, without taking anything away."
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 new 2021 Tarmac SL7 Pro version gets Shimano's reliable Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting, and like all the new Tarmac SL7 bikes it has disc brakes.
More important than that, though, is the way Specialized has blended low weight and aerodynamics here into a dramatic looking bike that's claimed to be fast enough you simply don't need an aero bike.
In the interest of smashing Strava segments the Tarmac SL7 Pro has deep-section Roval Rapide CL wheels and Specialized's S-Works Aerofly II handlebar, so aside from a bit of weight and four grand on the price tag it should give up very little to the flagship S-Works Tarmac SL7 Dura Ace Di2.
This Italian brand is one of the most desirable, with its history and iconic celeste paint, and the disc-brake-equipped Specialissima is its newest creation. It’s a bike designed unashamedly to be light, 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 few years ago. The Campagnolo Super Record groupset and Fulcrum Wind 400 Carbon wheels produce a bike that blasts through the £10,000 price level, with one of the most desirably Italian bikes we've seen this year.
Scott offers two versions of its Addict road bike, dividing it into Addict endurance bikes and Addict RC race machines; this is Scott's number two race bike, topped only by the Addict RC Ultimate. As well as one of the lightest disc-compatible frames around it has Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting, Syncros Capital 1.0 35 carbon clincher wheels, Syncros one-piece carbon bar and stem, and Syncros carbon seatpost. Scott claims a weight of 7kg, very impressive for a disc-braked bike.
Swiss manufacturer BMC has pulled a blinder with its top model for 2021 taking the fundamentals of its time trial bikes and using them to build a disk-braked aero road bike that looks like it's powering away from the bunch even when it's standing still. It boasts SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless electronic shifting and its disc brakes and DT Swiss ARC 1100 carbon fibre wheels make for 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 routed almost-invisibly through the frame, super-tidy Direct Frontal Flat Mount brake mounts.
Unlike the majority of carbon frames in this guide that are made using the common moulding process, the C64 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.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.