Technical FAQ: Yes, I still race cyclocross on carbon bars

Technical writer Lennard Zinn responds to reader comments and reaffirms his belief in carbon bars for ’cross

Editor’s Note: Lennard Zinn’s regular column is devoted to addressing readers’ technical questions about bikes, their care and how we as riders can use them as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Readers can send brief technical questions directly to Zinn.

Carbon ’cross bars follow-up

Dear Lennard,
If your handlebar broke because the wind pushed the stand over, I’d have to ask two questions: How hard was the ground? Are these bars inherently weak? Do you really trust them now for cyclocross racing? (Sorry, that’s three.)
— Leo

Dear Leo,
The ground was not particularly hard — just firm ground with short grass. No, the bars are not inherently weak (more on this below). Yes, I do trust them for cyclocross racing. In fact, two days after I got home from Louisville, I put another pair of the same Easton EC90 SLX3 bars on, and I even won a race (SM 55+) on them a few days later; it was my first win at the Valmont Bike Park after many attempts, and it wasn’t by much, so every little gram might have helped.

This comment from Easton cycling product manager Adam Marriott sums up my perspective on what the bars can and cannot do:

We’re glad that Lennard Zinn likes our carbon bars enough to race them as well as recommend them to the clients he builds bikes for, who often are big, demanding riders like he is himself. Obviously, he’s getting a lot of use out of a handlebar that we have complete confidence in. Unfortunately, no handlebar is designed to withstand the kind of side impact inflicted by a workstand toppling over and smashing the bike against the ground. Carbon is an ideal material for handlebars with vastly superior fatigue resistance and excellent impact resistance in normal use. Easton aluminum and carbon bars exceed what Easton believes is safe for use and the current industry requirements, EN 14781, the industry standard for road bikes. Riders can continue to rely on Easton carbon handlebars for the best performance in all cycling disciplines, even demanding ones such as cyclocross and downhill racing.

By the time this bar broke, I had raced both of my cyclocross bikes all of the 2011-2012 season and half of the 2012-2013 season on Easton EC90 carbon bars. Being a tall rider with a tall bike, I will naturally have a heavier bike than that of smaller riders, all other things being equal, since my frame, cranks, bar, stem, seatpost and fork will all be longer and hence heavier. When I can have a bar that weighs only 204g in a 46cm center-to-center width, that is something very appealing to me. I also find the shape to my liking, and I really like the vibration damping the bar offers as well.

It of course depends on how it is engineered and laid up, but in general, carbon tends to be very good in fatigue resistance. This is a great thing for cyclocross, as your body weight, much of which is supported on the bars, is constantly being bounced around.

As you saw, the direct impact resistance of a carbon bar is perhaps not encouraging, but I’m convinced that a good aluminum bar would have been bent in that crash from the bike stand. And if a reasonably lightweight, high-strength aluminum bar gets any kind of a bend or kink in it, I wouldn’t want to ride on it anymore. So I’m sure that bar replacement would have been in order in either case. Then the consideration becomes price and yes, I had to swallow hard before coughing up the money for another EC90 SLX3, but I really think I’m faster and plenty safe with it.

I have crashed hard on carbon mountain bike bars and broken those as well. Nonetheless, I have had carbon bars on both cyclocross bikes, all but one of my road bikes, and all of my mountain bikes for many years. My track bike, tandem, and one road bike are the only ones without them. (I have a lot of bikes because I make frames and cranks primarily for tall riders out of titanium, magnesium, steel, and aluminum and offer two different full-suspension 29er models; I use my personal bikes not only for testing and product development but also for test rides and loaners for potential customers.)

Many people have asked me over the years why WorldTour riders use aluminum bars rather than carbon bars. First of all, this is not universally true, as André Greipel, for instance, uses the Deda Trentacinque (35) carbon bars, and he applies plenty of force to his bars. The refrain that I hear about why most WorldTour riders are on aluminum bars is that they don’t trust carbon bars. I think that there’s a little more to it than that. I believe that it is a function of the UCI’s minimum-bike-weight rule. Since the bikes of most riders can easily be under 6.8kg (15 pounds), they are not looking for places to lighten them up. Rather, they are using the cushion they have between what their bike could weigh and what it has to weigh to increase data collection with power meters as well as for other things, one of which could be to increase security.

The fact that WorldTour riders, especially in the first week of the Tour de France, crash extremely hard quite often yet have to jump right up and keep riding makes more of a case for aluminum bars. If their carbon wheel breaks, they can get another wheel from any number of sources other than their team car. But if their bar breaks, they have no alternative other than to get another bike from their team car. And a bent aluminum bar can be ridden to the finish and replaced that night, but a broken bar cannot be ridden. However, absent the 6.8kg bike weight rule, I’ll bet most pro riders would have carbon bars, as they’d be trying to get their bikes under 5kg.

My situation and most cyclists’ situations are different than the WorldTour riders’. First of all, we are much less likely to crash hard than a rider in the WorldTour peloton. Secondly, we don’t have to jump back up and keep racing after a crash. Bike racing is not our job. And when it comes to cyclocross, yes, you “crash” quite frequently, but in most cases, it is just sliding out due to insufficient traction. While it might result in road rash and banged shins, crashes like this do not tend to result in a hard impact to the handlebar. Cyclocross speeds are lower than on the road, and the surface is softer.

Would I prefer it if my bar could withstand the impact it took falling with the bike stand in Louisville? Of course. And when I showed it to another tall buddy of mine at the race, he told me that his identical bar had broken when his bike, which was leaning against his desk, tipped over in his office. And there’s at least one guy out there who broke an EC90 SLX in cyclocross who says it happened while riding, not while crashing. I have a hard time imagining that this could happen JRA (just riding around) without the bar having been weakened in a significant crash before, but in any case, I don’t think I could pull on my bars hard enough while riding to break them.

The scariest incident I know of, and the only one that I have some worry about happening to me, is my former college housemate who crashed on a fast descent near Santa Barbara in 2009 when his carbon bar broke. He came around a blind corner at high speed and encountered a huge pothole at the apex. He braced himself for the impact, but he hit so hard that he broke the right drop off of his handlebar and went down violently. He says, “I broke my scapula, three ribs and punctured a lung. It sucked because I was in the best shape in years and now I have to rehab. I was up in the mountains doing one last big ride before opening weekend races.” I have taken this to heart by not pushing it on descents that I’m not intimately and recently familiar with. I also have stopped chasing Strava records on descents.

Responding to comments

I generally never read the comments at the bottom of my columns. Between being a husband and father, communicating with and meeting with customers, designing custom frames, running Zinn Cycles, writing another book, writing these columns and other content for, writing for Velo, training (a lot this year!), racing, traveling, gluing cyclocross tires, cleaning and working on my (and sometimes my daughter’s) cyclocross bikes, and answering (or ignoring) the mountains of emails that pour into my various email addresses, I simply am not willing to devote time for that or for other social media (besides Strava, of course!). However, I did read the comments on this particular column about my broken handlebar to get a feel for what people’s reactions were to such an occurrence, and I’ll respond here to some of them.

I did pay for less than retail for the replacement bars; as we stock them at Zinn Cycles for assembly onto bicycles, I buy them at wholesale.

I hardly think that my cable-actuated 10-speed Centaur rear derailleur (or the Veloce derailleur on my pit bike) constitutes an e-drivetrain. It does bring up the point of where I choose to add weight and minimize expense, though. Rear derailleurs are very vulnerable in small crashes as well as to pedaling plant material into them and being grabbed by spokes under extreme wheel flex at low speed (i.e., when pedaling with extremely high torque in the largest cog to just barely get over the top of a steep hill in cyclocross without dismounting). I have broken a few carbon rear derailleurs on the road; it happens too easily, I think, and they’re super expensive to replace. So I don’t race cyclocross with them; I get the least expensive derailleurs I can that are compatible with my shifters. That said, I of course do test products for Veloand, so sometimes I will be using stuff I wouldn’t buy myself.

After every time I crash or travel with my bike, I put the Park DAG derailleur alignment gauge on my derailleur hanger. Invariably, every little crash and many flights with my bike have bent my derailleur hanger, and this blow-down from the stand was no exception; I straightened it before reinstalling my derailleur. I use really thick aluminum replaceable dropouts on both sides of my magnesium frames with the derailleur hanger integrated into the right one, so I can bend it back many times before replacing it. This is not the case with most aluminum replaceable derailleur hangers, because they are half-thickness at the top to meet a half-thickness dropout integrated into the frame. These get very weak and prone to easy bending and even breaking once bent and straightened. It’s a good idea for cyclocross racers to carry extra derailleur hangers in their race bags.

I love my three Feedback stands, and we use them exclusively in my shop for assembling bikes and packing them for shipping. Yes, we generally have one leg straight out toward the mechanic, but we use them indoors. I didn’t notice the leg positioning when I hung my bike up there before mounting the podium in Louisville, but with the wind coming from different angles and not necessarily from straight behind the bike, the placement of the legs probably had little to do with it. And Compton’s Gould’s, and Nash’s bikes all fell, despite the fact that the stands they were on had three different configurations of the legs, one of them being with one leg out forward. With that wind, I’m quite sure that it wouldn’t have mattered either way.

I wandered away from the podium area in mild shock with my bike after my bar broke and was certainly not thinking about the stand, only about my bike. The podium crew had seen what happened to my bike and apparently made no corrections by the time the elite women’s race ended hours later. And my job as a journalist is to record the news, not to affect it (i.e., by changing the stands, not that it ultimately helped anyway, since they blew over in the lowered position as well). Yes, sandbags on the legs when outside is a capital idea! Maybe the organizers or Feedback Sports will make that change for the USGP event in Bend, Oregon, December 8-9.