Do you trust your cycling equipment?

Do you trust your cycling equipment?

Do you make buying decisions based on your safety? If you don’t consider the manufactured quality of the cycling components you purchase and ride you’re taking a big risk. You might think that the responsibility for this is being considered by the company selling you the product. You should know that they may not have your best interest as their top priority.

In this article, I’ll describe aspects of carbon-fiber manufacturing, and the risks associated with improper specification of material, material traceability, and process control, and which amount to substandard manufacturing practices. I’ll end this article with recommendations for how to make wise buying decisions that put product reliability first.

When I’m designing, manufacturing, or advising, I put myself in the place of the cyclist using the product. I’ve spent a significant portion of my professional career as both an athlete and a cycling components manufacturer or manufacturing consultant, and my top priority has always been designing and manufacturing reliable products.

Although I’m known for designing and manufacturing ultra lightweight wheels, I’ve never designed lightweight performance or minimized material structure that would put the cyclist at risk. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to ensure that products with which I associate are manufactured to the highest standards, and tested to comply with all known safety standards. I have personal relationships with many of the top professionals who trust me to design and manufacture reliable and durable products. Additionally, I ride, and my friends ride the products that I design and manufacture, and I understand the importance of avoiding the consequences of product failures.

Because I have a clear understanding of the importance of safety, durability, and reliability, I have dedicated a significant amount of my time to advocating for standards which improve cycling safety. I was one of the founding members and long-standing Vice-Chairman of the WFSGI/ UCI wheel committee (industry peer-nominated) which established safe wheel standards for Pro-Tour competition. I’ve supervised more wheel tests than I can count for the 15 years UCI maintained a testing operation at Sirris laboratory in Liege, Belgium (1 January 2000 to 31 December 2015); UCI competition wheels had the obligation to be approved by passing impact tests conducted there.

Cyclists demand aerodynamic performance and lightweight carbon-fiber components. Competition among cycling brands is fierce. Although cyclesport continues to grow, the number of companies entering the marketplace outpaces the growth of the sport. Many brands choose to compete for market share by offering lower prices or by making outrageous marketing claims.

Let’s begin with an investigation of the concept of outsource manufacturing vs. in-house manufacturing. While outsource manufacturing, and 3-rd party sourcing, which is largely trading companies pretending to be manufacturers, can present a successful model, the risks associated with outsourcing are significant- significant to the cycling brand outsourcing the product, and significant to the end-user/ the cyclist.

What are the risks? The risks are not only minor reliability issues which can leave you stranded far away from your destination, the risks associated with substandard manufacturing can put a cyclist and those around them, in grave danger, and can even turn into a life-and-death situation.

There are many reasons products fail.  Some fail slowly and some fail instantly and catastrophically.  The sudden and catastrophic failures are the danger in our sport. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about history is that we don’t learn from history.  As long as I’ve been in the cycling industry, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the same manufacturing mistake repeatedly made.  The failure modes and their root causes are usually not easily discovered, which makes them difficult to correct.  It’s also common for the root cause of the failure to be misdiagnosed.  Contrary to the saying, “what you don’t see can’t kill you” when it comes to manufacturing mistakes, “what you don’t see can kill you.” 

For example, pick up any tensioned metal spoke wheel and squeeze the spokes together, comment that spoke tension feels very high, and the spoke feel solid, and conclude that the wheel is durable.  Or, grab two fork legs and push them against each other, and feel the rigidity of the structure- these forks must be bomb-proof.  Think again, what you can’t see is the 1-mm overlap of carbon fiber plys that make-up the structure is a mistake.  The carbon fiber plys were supposed to overlap 3-mm, not 1-mm.  That mistake is completely unnoticed and undetected until the stress-strain relationship exceeds the structural limits of the materials and catastrophic failure results from a sudden overload.  Until that point, there is virtually no detection method other than detailed ultrasound inspection, which is unreasonable in a high-rate, low-margin production facility.  How is this mistake avoided? There is reliable and safe product in the marketplace, which is proof that manufacturers can avoid this mistake.

The answer is process control.  Process control either through automation or rigorous standards and practices overlaid and integrated into the human workforce.  Mistakes like the ply overlap can only happen because, 1. the automated equipment was incorrectly programmed (by a human operator), or 2. a human hand-laying-up the carbon-fiber made a mistake.  Design is the basis for long-term success. Process control, or the lack of, is the basis for instantaneous failure. Process control, when implemented and rigorous roots out, or prevents mistakes like this- hidden mistakes that are waiting for just the right (or wrong) combination of events to show themselves.  Let’s take a look at how process control, not design failure was the demise of one of the most popular and successful bicycle wheels in history.

This popular wheel was the darling of the cycling community in the 1990’s; I’ll call it Wheel-X.  The manufacturing of the wheel ended more than a decade ago. In it’s time, the wheel was loved by racers and recreational cyclists alike- these stylish wheels had allure.  The commonly accepted reason for the demise of Wheel-X was the banning of the wheel by UCI for competition- hearsay implied that UCI was concerned about the large gaps between spokes that could fit an entire arm, leg, elbow or kneecap, and the sharp spoke edges that could cut like a knife. The UCI conspiracy theory has been detailed in many forms of media over the years.

What is not typically known about Wheel-X is that the wheel model was not pulled from the market because of the UCI ruling, but rather the reason was substandard manufacturing processes.  There was no debate about whether the wheel failed and injured cyclists, the question to investigate is the failure mode and what lessons can be learned to improve product safety.

The commonly accepted reasons for the Wheel-X failures were rooted in design flaws. In the final analysis, the wheel failures were traced back to poor manufacturing practices.

The commonly accepted design flaws of Wheel-X focused on the spokes:

  • stress-risers at the transition between the spoke and rim
  • spoke flutter, spoke vibration, and harmonics
  • longitudinal loading of the spokes that resulted in compression failures

Steps were taken to address all of these issues, and none of these issues characterized the weakness or danger of the wheel. In fact, I would suggest that the UCI conspiracy theory was just that- a conspiracy theory, and not accurate. I was part of the committee investigating the risk, and solutions were offered which would blunt the sharp spoke edges, and potentially make Wheel-X no more dangerous than any bladed metal spoke wheel.

You can read the technical details surrounding the manufacturing process of Wheel-X that led to their structural failures in the blog article KNOWLEDGE FROM LESSONS LEARNED > WHEEL-X

Ultimately, the failure mode was the introduction of a load or force on the wheel which caused the poorly bonded sidewalls of the carbon rim to separate from the aluminum channel. The visual appearance post-failure oftentimes appeared to be a broken spoke (or spokes), but that was a result of an unintended stress load on the spokes as a result of the weakness that developed as a result of the bond failure between the carbon rim sidewall and the aluminum channel.

So, how does this story relate to the product the wheel that you may be riding? The failure mode that I explained above had dreadful consequences. One prominent incident played out in a Southern California lawsuit Mr-T v. Wheel-X. Mr. T and a friend were cycling along a smooth road at approximately 20 MPH when Mr. T’s front wheel experienced the failure mode I described above. Instantly Mr. T lost control of his bicycle, and as a result his bicycle veered across the center-line of the road and he was hit at full speed by an incoming vehicle. Mr. T was dragged under the vehicle, and his resulting injuries left him disfigured and paraplegic.

I cannot stress enough the importance of manufacturing aptitude, and process control, a responsibility of the manufacturer , and  at the same time, it is our responsibility as cyclists to research the brands and products we purchase and ride. Cyclists at a grass-roots level can have a big impact on industry safety standards.

Trust is not in the equation. As I stated in the introduction, I’ve been a manufacturer most of my professional life, and I don’t trust my employees or my process- I verify that my employees and processes meet my expectations to ensure the products that I associate with are safe. I verify my process through testing. I verify my process controls are rigorous and robust to withstand the human error in the manufacturing environment. When humans make mistakes, people should not get injured; when humans make mistakes there must be process control safeguards in place to identify the error and ensure that the defective action is corrected.

The dreadful story about Mr. T and Wheel-X is a lessons learned opportunity, and yet this mistake is repeated over-and-over again. Today, the cycling industry is flooded with marketing and sales companies, and not manufacturing companies. They have no aptitude for manufacturing and they trust, and expect the end-user to trust any number of anonymous manufacturers they have selected to provide them with the product they brand, market and sell. They often-times do not know the source of origin of the manufactured item, let alone the source of the raw material, the aptitude of the labor, nor do they have any regard for their corporate social responsibility as it pertains to the labor force. The only focus is cost and profit margin.

Companies which are focused on marketing and sales (and not manufacturing) spend a disproportionate amount of their resources attempting to attract customers, and ship products expeditiously, with little regard for eliminating defective manufacturing practices, identifying defective products, or planning for the well-being of the end-user when a product deficiency is identified.

One of the problems with this marketing and sales company model is that for many of the marketing and sales companies, their feedback loop of product issues is significantly larger than the straight line product supply to the end-user, and therefore there is an inherent delay in the company’s ability to react to problems in a timely manner. Meaning that multiple-deliveries have been made to the end-user before a deficiency can be corrected. And, related to this problem is the unacceptable approach that many companies take to literally use their customers as their test group (unbeknownst to their customers).

Companies that are new to the marketplace, bootstrapping, under-resourced, and looking to make a big push against the competition take risks with their marketing claims and their product. As an end-user, when you think that you are getting the newest, most technologically advanced design in a beautifully packaged product at a bargain price, you should think again- this is a red flag, and this is the part of personal responsibility I referenced at the beginning of my article. Don’t purchase the product, or purchase it with the full understanding that the seller has not disclosed that you are the product tester, and that you are taking a risk. 

One of the most popular topics of discussion on cycling industry forums is a discussion about the price of wheels vs. the cost of wheels. It's inevitable, someone will add up the cost of wheel components, including the cost of the raw material and suggest that a set of $2000 carbon fiber wheels is robbery. And why not?

The raw materials and components that go into a carbon fiber wheelset may be $150.00, but that doesn’t take into account the cost of the molding equipment or an engineering team to create a fool-proof manufacturing process, implement control of that process, ensure that the manufacturing team not only understands the steps, but understands the rigor of the steps as the engineering team has designed them.

$150.00 doesn’t take into account the product qualification and rigorous testing on a broad basis- thousands of testing iterations and multiple failure modes (not testing by a few select athletes). $150.00 doesn’t take into account the cost of inspection intake of raw material and final product non-destructive testing (NDT) or random sample testing. And, if the product is required to exhibit aerodynamic performance, $150.00 does not pay for the development and validation of the product at a cost of $400 per hour for the wind tunnel and an engineering team, and overhead costs which can all add up to thousands-of-dollars-per-hour. 

The answer lies in these details, and the details are a matter of life-and-death. The Wheel-X story didn’t have to end badly. Corners were cut. The marketing and sales arm had no interest in taking on the responsibility to ensure that their wheels were safe. What’s worse is that the end-user was deceived, and many of them were badly injured.

With all wheel companies competing for customers in a limited market, volume sales may not be a path to recuperation of development costs. What then, is a reasonable cost for a wheelset, and how is it possible for some wheel companies to sell high-performance wheelsets for $1000 and less? 

For long-established and manufacturing companies such as Reynolds, Sram/ Zipp, Shimano, Cormia, Mavic, Campagnolo, DT Swiss, FSA Vision (TH), Enve, Easton, and many more who have a long-standing high-quality reputation for process control, a standing engineering team, a skilled manufacturing team, methods in place which incorporate best practices, and decades of experience in structural and aerodynamic testing, low-cost designs are possible. They can allocate their overhead expenses and experienced resources over a large offering of products while at the same time maintaining high-standards for safety and reliability. 

There are reliable, quality-conscious companies that are experts in outsource manufacturing, such as FFWD, Mercury Cycling, Ritchey, Sector UK, and many more. These companies take advantage of expertise available from long-standing relationships with manufacturers who employ best practices, they invest in product testing and validation before making claims, and before releasing products to consumers.

Both types of companies mentioned above rely on existing infrastructure and in-house resources to develop cost competitive and highly reliable products. While established companies are not immune to mistakes, the end-user can trust their products, regardless of the retail price point.  What concerns me now is the proliferation of the marketing and sales company business model which encourages corner cutting, literally using their customers as their test group, and prioritizing their profits above end-user safety.

At the beginning of the article I told you I’d offer guidance to know how to make a good buying decision. First, if a product is very low cost/ leading the market in low price-point, and is offering cutting edge design, be skeptical. Whether it’s structure, aerodynamics, or some other benefit, cutting edge design is expensive, and if the product is cheap, you’re taking a risk. If it’s a tried-and-true model that has been selling for 5-years and is cheap, it may be a safe product to consider. I recommend that you always check for product recalls. In particular, look for new companies that have single stream products. For example, a new company, that only makes wheels, has a wheel recall- this is a red flag, not only for the product being recalled, but also for the company itself. And, if that company is offering its products at a low price, you can be sure they’re cutting corners and taking advantage of your trust- don’t buy from them. 

On the other hand, if you see a product recall from a large well-known brand such as Canyon, Specialized, Cannondale, Cube, Wilier, and many more reliable companies, one that sells complete bicycles (manages multiple product streams), you’re probably safe trusting the company. Their challenges are different from smaller, single stream product brands, in that they are sourcing multiple products from different suppliers- and assembling them into a single product such as a bicycle, and that’s a complicated process. Most likely, if a company has decided to supply multiple products and multiple streams, they also have the footprint to establish specifications and implement practices for oversight of their supply chain. 

A Google search is a good place to find product recall information. Here is a jump-start: Bike Radar Product Recall List

Paul Lew, "Bicycles make friends"