In the sport of cycling, carbon has sky-rocked in fame. Hoards of professional cyclists and weekend warriors alike enjoy the lightweight, zippy feel of carbon. Most manufacturers produce lines of carbon frames along with a whole slew of carbon accessories for the carbon-crazed gram-shavers. If you're looking for a valuable way to upgrade your bike, reduce road vibration and cut some weight, swapping out a steel or aluminum fork for a carbon fork could be worth your while.
Types of Carbon Forks
First, it's important to note that not all "carbon" forks are purely carbon. Manufacturers often combine aluminum and carbon to produce carbon/aluminum forks. These forks typically have carbon fork blades bonded to aluminum crowns or steerers. While they are cheaper, aluminum/carbon combination forks are about 40 percent heavier than pure carbon forks. The process of bonding carbon to aluminum also makes combination forks less sturdy. If you're going to upgrade to carbon, it's best to spend a little more money to get a pure carbon fork.
On average, a pure carbon fork weights about one-third the weight of a steel fork and about one-half the weight of an aluminum fork. In terms of actual weight, switching from a steel fork to a carbon fork could shave off nearly 1 pound of weight. James C. Martin, PhD., assistant professor at the University of Utah, created a chart to quantify performance in accordance with changes in bicycle weight. The 1-pound weight reduction from upgrading to a carbon fork could save a 160-pound rider about six seconds over a 5 kilometer ride up a 7-degree grade. For the average rider, this is insignificant. However, for a professional cyclist, it's enormous.
Another Pro and Con of Carbon
Besides shaving weight, carbon forks can improve ride comfort by dulling road vibration. In fact, if a full-carbon bicycle is out of your price range, simply upgrading the fork of a steel or aluminum bike can reduce the shock that your arms, neck and shoulders have to absorb during rides. The other side of the coin features a significant drawback to carbon forks: their fragility. Carbon fiber does not hold up well in accidents, and if a fork has been compromised, it will be trashed. If a carbon fork were to give out on a rider during a ride, the consequences could be tragic -- since a large percentage of a cyclist's weight rests on the handlebars, which are supported by the fork, a shattered fork could lead to a crash and potentially serious injuries. Carbon may also not have the life of other fork materials, especially for heavier riders.
Other Ways to Reduce Weight
Whether or not your decide to upgrade your fork, there are other ways to reduce weight. The first -- and often most overlooked -- way to shave grams is for the rider to lose weight. If a cyclist is 25 pounds overweight, he'd probably see much greater performance gains from losing that excess body fat than from swapping out bike parts. Upgrading to lighter wheelsets and components can also cut a fair amount of weight. Other upgrades, like carbon bottle cages, may produce a weight reduction so insignificant that it's not worth the cost, unless you're a pro cyclist with a huge sponsorship.