Why aren’t we going for carbon frames

Today we shocked the MTB world by saying that the whole carbon process is unethical.

Last year here at Pole Bicycles, we announced that we would go carbon just like the rest of the mountain biking industry. So, after 2 hard years of developing our frame sets with two researches and one master’s degree in engineering, we were 90% ready and all that was left was to find a suitable factory in China where the production would take place… It turned out to be a heavy hit and a shock to us at Pole when we flew into China and discovered the inner workings of carbon frame production.

Before you read this article you should first understand what many people misunderstood:

  1. We are not going to save the world.
  2. We do not want to create more jobs.
  3. The world has bigger problems than carbon frames.

What we want to say is:

  1. We want to move forward in the world to a better future
  2. We think that working in certain factories, is not for humans
  3. Everything you do has an effect on the world. We want to minimize the negative effect.

From riders to…

Yeah right, “from riders to riders”. That phrase have been said so many times that it almost does not mean anything. But really, how do you measure this and what’s the definition of that phrase. I personally literally bleed for the sport every now and then. Yes, we ride bikes but so does the others. The idea of Pole Bicycles is to make bikes for our liking and around our passion. The passion is in the sport but the passion is also in our values. We value simplicity and fairness. We want to share the passion through our products without nonsense marketing. We are not thinking about market segments or market shares. Our customers are those who share our values and wants to ride with something extraordinary. Our business is products that are exiting. Our driving force is a passion to create something new and wonderful. Pole is breaking the boundaries of mountain biking by evolving fast. We have already introduced the sport to a new concept of riding bikes with only one concept. Our suspension layout is different from others and all together with our new school geometry concept the bikes are fascinating people all over the planet. Our sales have peaked up since we introduced EVOLINK and we are just in the beginning of introducing new innovations to mountain biking. Our values stand in Scandinavian culture where we respect the nature and people. We believe in openness and speaking the truth. Our dearest companions on our journey are science and arts. WE hope that you understand the story behind this decision that this decision comes straight from our hearts.

The big picture

Back here in the West, we have been taught to enjoy our lives by getting more stuff. There are malls that are like amusement parks to spend money on cheap products. In Finland, this culture is not very common but this unfortunately seems to be the exception to the rule. People who purchase cheap stuff don’t seem to care or know if the lithium in their cell phone battery is acquired by killing people in Tibet or the clothes they purchase are made by children in sweatshops, they simply want cheap products but as we have just demonstrated this comes at a high price in the long run for us all.

We are not going to build carbon fiber bikes now

We have been producing high end mountain bikes for four years now. Within the mountain bike industry there is tremendous pressure that every bike manufactures must have their carbon fiber models instead of aluminum because the bikes would be lighter and the market seems to think that only way to be in high end is by producing carbon frames. First, carbon fiber products are not easily recyclable. there are methods but they are not very efficient. Secondly carbon frames are very labor intensive products that are made in places where human rights are not watched over. Mountain bikes are not the biggest polluters in the world of carbon fiber (airplanes are) but the carbon fiber industry itself is not good for the planet (well maybe in airplanes to save fuel). Mountain biking is the best thing I know but it should not be used to exploit and ruin our environment. We are moms and dads here at Pole Bicycles and we all agree that we would like to be able to look into our children’s eyes when they grow up and tell them that we made choices that turned people’s heads to a cleaner future for the living beings on this planet.

Chinese air pollution is melting our ice caps (you should read this)

When we visited China in January, we were fully aware of the reports about the problem of air pollution there but we simply had no idea just HOW bad it is. Giving you a few quick facts, currently in Jyväskylä, Finland the pollution index is 7 and in our capital Helsinki it’s around 50. In the Don Guang area the number is ~150 but at its worse in China it were then 750.  Few months ago the scale ended up at 999. That is equivalent to the amount of dust kicked up if you were standing right next to a building after it was demolished – try breathing in that! At the moment Chinese air quality seems to be in reasonable scale but it shifts from time to time and generally it’s not very good.  You can check the air quality in your area here. It would be stupid to think that the problem is only confined to China and it will not spill over globally. We need to think this through. For example, everyone should know by now that there is a huge amount of plastic garbage floating in our oceans created by Chinese and Indian factories manufacturing just the sort of products we then buy. Do we really want to add to this problem? I believe that all of us would answer resounding no. In the end, it matters what we produce and how we produce it and Pole Bicycles does not wish to add to this ever-increasing problem.

Making molds usually makes things more effective but not in carbon bikes

Generally, when a mold is made it means that the process time is reduced to a fraction it would take in machining or hand crafting. In the manufacturing process of carbon fiber frames the molds are just for the shape, not to make the process faster. The carbon fiber process is ultimately labor intensive process and that’s why it’s so expensive. First of all, you need multiple molds for EPS inner molds where the carbon fiber is laid on top. The EPS is dipped by hand to silicone and then dried in a separate room. In the meanwhile, the resin is mixed to the carbon fibers to produce the prepreg material which is laid on top of the EPS mold by hand. In the layup process, a heat gun is used to bend the pre-prepared materials. The next phase is to cook the fibers to the shape of a frame in pressurized mold. After this process, there are bonding or machining phases to finalize the frame structure. After these phases the process is like aluminum producing. The raw frame is quality checked and moved to sanding, painting and applying decals.

The economic risks in carbon process

When we are making this kind of statement, it’s good to convince the hardliners as well, and here it goes. With such a labor intensive process, the most obvious solution would be to make more of it by machines but with current production method, it is not possible to make carbon bicycles by robots. The bicycle frame is quite complicated and there are far too many processes involved. In the future, the 3D printers MAY be so sophisticated that they could make the products but this seems  very unlikely. The carbon bicycle industry is going to remain a labor intensive for the time being. This means that when China’s labor gets more expensive, the products gets more expensive as well. We have seen that the factories are moving to a cheap labor countries like Myanmar (Burma), which is known as a country of military dictatorship and violator of human rights. This means that in the factories there will more than likely to be violations towards the working force and environment more than now in China. The investment company’s needs to do for the carbon fiber project is high as well. The mold charge in carbon fiber process is high and it’s a risk to invest to one factory in China. For us this is something that we are not willing to do now.

The ecological and ethical risks in carbon process

Carbon itself not the issue here. Actually, it’s good to bind the carbon to something useful and not to let it to our atmosphere. Epoxies that are used as a bonding material on the other hand, are not at all environmentally friendly substances. Synthetic resins are toxic wastes which cannot be recycled and mixed with carbon you cannot even burn them to get energy. The resins used in carbon industry are also risk to people’s health. They cause asthma and allergies. The carbon nanotubes are referred to asbestos. We are not talking about of friendly substances here. The carbon process is creating around 30% of cutting waste and we were told in the factory we visited that Chinese government have given them guidelines that they should simply dump the cutting waste to ocean. That includes the synthetic resins. The workers in China are often living around the factory so their families are also affected by the pollution that the factory is producing. Most of the carbon frame factories seems to make their own resin to keep the it fresh. Yes, the resin gets old so if you produce it too much and it gets old, and that too is simply dumped into the ocean. There are carbon recycling methods though. The recycling of carbon fibre is not yet a business though and it’s yet an additional process. The common method to “recycle” is to burn the resin around the carbon fibres and make the fibres shorter and later on they will be as a composite filling in injection molded parts in sports cars.

Metal recycles forever

Aluminum is 100% recyclable material because it’s metal and compared to carbon fiber it’s more reliable and does not lose on performance at all to carbon frames. We’ve learned that carbon bikes can be very unreliable compared to aluminum bikes. It is a significant risk to purchase a second-hand carbon fiber mountain bike as the previous owner could have crashed but there are no marks outside the frame. Carbon fiber trail bikes are not even very much lighter than aluminum bikes and are more prone to damage and catastrophic failures. Also, you cannot tell from the outside if there is a delamination on the fibers. You need an ultrasound sonar to find out if there is something wrong with your bike. On metal, you would see the cracks by naked eye. What comes to metal is that you can throw away your aluminum bike and be 100% saint. The aluminum will get recycled and it just changes its form to something else. There is still a growing need of metals in the west so the source of the metal does not play a big role here so it hardly matters if our bikes would be made from recycled aluminium or not. This is not to say you are a monster if you have purchased a carbon frame and we are not preaching here, it’s simply that the shock of discovering the true nature of the carbon fiber process we have decided that we cannot allow ourselves to become part of the problem.

So is Pole Bicycles a high end company if we are not going carbon?

Sure we are. We think that the high end in mountain biking products are not defined by the material. We think that it would actually be silly to bind ourselves to the high cost mold process for three to five years period. We want to keep moving and provide our customers the latest innovations right away and not five years later. We want to get rid of the burden of 90’s standards that are holding us down. We see that modern companies should think about moving away from labour intensive production towards automated processes rather than producing stuff that hurts people and nature. The high end that we represent is being able to think fresh and experiment new things how to improve the overall experience in the lifestyle of mountain biking. We represent the change in the industry that many want to make, but they just can’t yet let go from the past.

There is a silver lining

When we founded Pole Bicycle Company we determined that our values are openness truthfulness and effectiveness. We have changed the mountain bike industry by inventing a new geometry and way to ride. Next step is to kick ass with values that matter. We are not going to produce carbon fiber products until we can find a clean process from the beginning to the end of the lifecycle of the product. To this end, we have started a project that is researching new ways to use aluminum in producing mountain bikes that can compete with carbon fiber bikes on weight. Our goal is to produce cool looking, low weight, strong and stiff bikes made from aluminum that is also environmentally sustainable.

We will have something to show in the near future.

More to read

Here’s two more articles you’d might like to read: