In cycling, a fall can definitely put a spoke in a rider's wheel. Quite apart from the injuries riders have to endure: the racing bicycle has to take some hard knocks too, from time to time. KU Leuven spin-off REIN4CED wants to remedy this problem with an unbreakable bicycle frame.
Would the Eddy Merckx of 1969 still lead the pack today? Probably not. And that has nothing to do with the achievements of the young Merckx, but with the bike he was riding at the time. The model with which he won the Tour de France half a century ago weighs a lot more than the carbon racing bike of the current Tour winner.
Although these feather-light carbon frames are the standard in the peloton today, the material has some shortcomings, says co-founder and CEO of REIN4CED, Michaël Callens. "Carbon, short for carbon fibre, is like glass. Both materials are relatively strong but can break unexpectedly. The danger lies in small, almost invisible cracks that continue to expand until the carbon frame suddenly breaks down."
By reinforcing carbon frames with wafer-thin steel fibres, they become more robust while remaining just as light.
Strong as steel
That's why Callens looked for an impact-resistant alternative to carbon frames. Ever since he followed a Bachelor of Applied Science and Engineering, he has been under the spell of composites, in which different materials are cleverly combined. As a PhD student at KU Leuven, Callens discovered that steel can improve the impact behaviour of carbon. "A cyclist who used to crash his bike with a steel or aluminium frame could often continue cycling afterwards if the frame was not too crooked. With carbon frames, in some cases it would be over and out", he explains.
"By reinforcing carbon frames with wafer-thin steel fibres, they become more robust while remaining just as light. In case of damage, the frame stays intact and shows a visible dent, making an abrupt breakage unlikely." Callens' composite thus combines the advantages of both materials: it is as light as carbon and as strong as steel. Consequently, the material is unbreakable and not only safer, but also more durable.
Callens' composite is as light as carbon and as strong as steel.
Together with co-founders Niels De Greef and Dave Luyckx, Callens transformed what started out as fundamental research into a company that produces lightweight and impact-resistant bicycle frames at full speed. "REIN4CED started as a consultancy firm that supported other companies in the development of lightweight materials, but secretly we always had the ambition to grow into a production company. Behind the scenes, we spent years testing different and unique combinations of carbon and steel until we arrived at the ultimate composite."
In addition to the new composite material, the spin-off from Leuven also devised an innovative production method. "In bicycle factories in Asia, bicycle frames are entirely made by hand. We were the first to automate that process. Instead of having to hire thousands of workers, we are able to run the company with a much smaller number of employees. Because of this, it was profitable to set up our factory in Winksele."
With its local production, REIN4CED responds to the needs of European bicycle brands: "Brands have to wait about six to eight months on orders from Asia, and COVID-19 has prolonged that waiting time even more the past year. We sense that brands therefore wish to keep the production of bicycle parts as close as possible to their market."
Will every rider soon be cycling with a REIN4CED frame? "Bicycle brands are very positive about our alternative to the carbon frame. Of course, we hope that this interest will continue to grow, and that more and more brands will want to offer our product", concludes Callens. "It will be a bit too early for the UCI Road World Championships in Leuven this year, but you never know if one day, a bicycle with our frame will cross the finish first."