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Guest Opinion: A retailer responds to Eben Weiss' column on carbon bikes

Published February 8, 2024

By Brian Jenks

Editor's note: Brian Jenks is the owner of Hubbub, a retail store and e-commerce business based in Beachwood, Ohio. This submission is in response to an article that appeared on one of BRAIN's fellow Outside Inc. titles, Outside Online. The article by Eben Weiss was titled “There’s No Good Reason to Buy a Carbon Bike.”

As desperately as I want to agree with Eben Weiss’s recent op-ed — as I have my own history of preferring bicycles made with steel — I must respectfully disagree with his titled premise, based on reasoning that revolves around his comment that "(carbon fiber manufacturers) can tune ride quality and maintain strength while simultaneously keeping the weight to a minimum in a way that’s not really possible with metal tubing.”

After almost four decades of studying bicycle design, and three decades of participating heavily in their creation — with a distinction of learning from direct exposure to every result, often in perpetuity — the value of my agreement (or minor points of disagreement) is roughly equivalent to a couple teardrops in the sea, especially in today’s world.

I would argue that it’s not only easier to tune the ride of a metal bicycle frame, but more economical, and the possibilities for tune-ability are infinite, same as with carbon. I personally find I prefer the ride of a tuned steel frame over any of the finest carbon bikes I’ve yet ridden. So then, where’s my disagreement with Mr. Weiss, of Bike Snob NYC fame?

Most modern high-end components are designed for what the “miraculous” qualities of carbon fiber can provide, with a focus on winning races. Of course, we can, and do, build steel frames to accept these components but, in doing so, we must sacrifice significant characteristics of what used to make steel so fabulous, thereby losing a most important justification for steel, its ride quality.

Riders’ belief that “steel bikes are heavy” is perhaps truer now than in the past 30 years … Steel bikes now need to be overbuilt, so they are indeed heavier — and more critically, stiffer — than necessary. The reason they’re overbuilt is not because steel isn’t strong enough … They need to be overbuilt because most parts today worthy of the craftsmanship in a fine steel frame are instead designed for non-steel bikes that do need to be overbuilt — disc brakes, thru-axle dropouts, oversize steerers and headsets and headtubes, etc.

Bike Snob is of course in the business of satire and opinions, not having to demonstrate value for folks walking through the door of a brick-and-mortar establishment. We have enjoyed his commentary for many years, and watching the controversy stirred up by his posting this time is no different. Based on his later elaboration on his own blog site, it appears he too is getting a kick out of the silly controversy. There is no end to the amusement that comes with watching folks spend time and energy arguing for personal beliefs that are completely irrelevant to everyone else.

The bike in my stand, whatever the frame’s material, is important to its rider, and my job is to ensure she loves riding it, not to judge her choices. This is especially true considering that, especially today, her freedom to make wise purchasing decisions is extremely limited by what the industry pushes; and, in her enthusiasm for what she’s been sold on what magic the bike can perform for her, she may not even be aware of this.

Materials have advanced immensely. Carbon is just dandy if that’s your thing. I’ve owned or ridden extensively some of the finest carbon bikes ever made, but I don’t have them anymore. I’ve owned or ridden extensively some of the finest titanium bikes ever made. I no longer have any of them either. Some of them I liked OK, but none of them impressed me enough to keep them more than a season or so. Likewise, I’ve owned and ridden extensively some fine aluminum bikes too. No, I don’t have them anymore. On a side note, we have produced countless supposedly “forever bikes” over the years that are now obsolete and barely supportable. When their components wear out, modern equivalent replacements simply don’t exist to fit on the same bike. Some obsolescence is understandable: technology advances. But we’ve been forced to accept that fine bikes are disposable. So. Much. Silliness.

None of this makes me right about much of anything, except as I apply it to either myself or keeping my customer happy to come back. Like Weiss, I will not admit to being a curmudgeon. I enjoyed my 5-, 6-, and 7-speed bicycles, but I don’t regularly ride one anymore. The history of bicycles (or anything else) is full of bad ideas. That’s how creative progress is made, and I enjoy legitimate progress as much as anyone. Far too many of the final product decisions made over the past 5-10 years in bicycles however qualify as regress. So much silliness, not progress.

For me, my newest bike is from 2015 and my oldest rideable bike is from the 1960s, with several scattered in-between – 80s, 90s, and 00s, among the finest specimens created. Of the handful that I ride regularly, the experiences of riding them are exquisite, and yet unmatched by anything else I’ve ever owned or ridden. To me, and for my target customer, this is what matters most in a bicycle. They also happen to be steel, but I won’t claim that steel is the reason they’re exceptional. They’re all steel because I haven’t been impressed enough with anything else to keep it around. They were timeless, and there’s no excuse that the finest bicycles today, of any material, shouldn’t also be timeless.

I can carry on all day about my own preference for steel as a material for bicycles, and handily debunk every mythical objection to it. That said, there is indeed at least one good reason to buy a carbon bike. If you want a new bike today, the widest selection to choose from has been optimized using carbon fiber. This is not necessarily because carbon is inherently a superior material for anything but raw competition, but availability and choice in the market does make it arguably a superior purchasing option. Fair warning, however: Mr. Weiss’s point that “a carbon bike is thrillingly cutting edge until it’s about two or three seasons old, at which point it becomes yesterday’s hunk of plastic and nobody wants it, including you,” is truer now than for any material in the past.

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