Carbon is a great material for building bicycle frames and forks. It's strength-to-weight ratio is awesome, which is why all top-level pro bikes are made from it. The problems arise, for all of the rest of us who actually have to pay for the things we ride ourselves, in that manufacturers get away with charging ridiculous amounts for us to mimic our heroes, and then, in shaving as much weight off as possible, the frames are built only to specifically resist the stresses they encounter in normal cycling use. If the frame is stressed in a way that's not normally expected of a bicycle, the material is quite fragile and can crack.
It's happened to me a couple of times, and to a few of my friends. If you're lucky, the crack will not be in a place that undermines the structural integrity of the frame, and you can get it repaired. Either way it's a shock when you've put your hard-earned pennies into having the best bike you can afford, only to find that the most expensive part has just failed. If you're extremely lucky, the manufacturer will accept responsibility and replace the frame, but that hasn't been my experience. I know guys who swear they'll never buy carbon again. I have chosen to take another route.
On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to give the China-based "no-name" frame manufacturers a go. I think we're all aware that 90% of carbon manufacture comes out of China these days. Many of the top bicycle brands have their entire ranges built there. It used to carry a certain stigma, but not any more. The growth of China as a major manufacturing force has meant that they undoubtedly have more experience at building quality products from new-age materials than any other nation.
You'll find many offerings online through eBay and countless online-order sites, some only available in wholesale quantities, while others like Velo Build can customize one single frame from their catalogue for a fraction of the cost of a branded frame. Because of the recommendation, and some online reviews, I decided the risk was worth taking. If it didn't work out, at least I'd only have spent a couple of hundred dollars rather than several thousand. And since buying from a "reputable" international brand counts for nothing in my experience, what the hell!
My selection was for their latest light-weight climbing beast - boasting a weight of 850 grams , DI2-ready, and able to withstand heavier riders, the VB-R-016 sounded just the ticket. I set up an order and was immediately in touch with Chris at Velo Build who (in excellent English) helped me make a choice. Onced ordered, it arrived within 5 days in Singapore, nicely packed and well protected in a strong carton.
My choice was for the UD (uni-directional) carbon finish, which doesn't have the typical weave look of most carbon products, this with a matt lacquer on a 54cm frame with BB30 bottom bracket It all came, with forks and headset included, for US$429 plus a bit more for the shipping.
Since I was retiring my 10-year old cracked frame, I simply moved the Dura Ace groupset and Soul wheels to the new frame, so the only other new elements in the assembly were the 100mm carbon stem, a 31.6mm carbon seatpost, and a set of my now-favourite cranks, the Rotor 3D+.
Having originally entertained the idea of getting the frame custom painted, I wasn't too sure how the whole thing would look in such a bare state, but the matt UD carbon looks great, and with the added touch of some black Easton bar tape, the bike really has a "stealth" look, which is nicely highlighted with the lime green cable housing.
"I f*****g love this bike" were my exact words upon arriving back at the bike shop to cut the steerer after my first real outing on the bike. It still inspires that kind of emotive outburst from me after more than a month of intimacy.
Even with the relatively heavy wheels and components, it's noticeably lightweight. The over-sized bottom bracket really doesn't flex even a fraction, so all of the power you put into the pedals is transferred to forward momentum. It really feels like a quality article.
On the downhills it inspires confidence. The geometry of the front end feels very stable in a way that I didn't expect, and I still find myself a little surprised by how freely it plummets down hills. It's not particularly aero - it's a climber - but it rolls beautifully. Maybe due to an exceptional balance of weight or something. Of course, the uphill is assisted by it's light weight, and perhaps by the new 3D+ crankset which may be even more impressive than the older version I also have. This coupled with the 50/34 Q Rings is really the business on the terrain that I ride most frequently - always either up or down.
As far as comfort goes, it does seem to iron out the worst of the road vibration at the back end, but then I'm comparing it to the other bike I ride on these roads, which is a super-stiff racer and completely unforgiving, so pretty much anything is a sofa by comparison. I don't think it could be called comfortable exactly, but it works for me. I'm running 25mm tyres on it which is just about maxing out the clearance, but then I don't see myself using anything bigger.
Out of the saddle it feels very strong and responsive with an overall distribution of weight that works for me at least, so it gives me a lot of confidence in most riding situations.
So the only thing that can detract from my current state of bliss, is some kind of weakness in the structure that may present itself. I'm watching carefully. For now though, it's the best climbing bike I've ever owned, and the fact that I paid a fraction of the price of the same article with a brand name on it, only makes the ride that little bit sweeter.