The rise of carbon fibre technology brought lighter bikes, faster speeds and innovative aerodynamics to the world of cycling. But an unexpected side effect is starting to frustrate the world's top bike builders. Chinese factories are counterfeiting their products and selling them for a fraction of the price. It's dangerous too.
As part of this year's Tour de France coverage, The New York Times reports on a boom in the carbon fibre bike counterfeiting market. If you're a bike company like Trek or Specialised, winning the Tour means priming the brand up for an explosion of knockoffs. It takes less than five minutes to find elite frame sets and components for sale on Alibaba for less than one tenth the retail price. This isn't just a business issue, either, say the companies.
"It really just becomes an enormous safety issue for consumers," Chad Moore of Mavic, a French wheel company, told the paper. "The wheels just kind of fall apart."
If there's anything you don't want while speeding down a steep hill on a carbon fibre bike, it's for the wheels to fall apart. Unlike the steel or aluminium bike frames and components of the past, it's easier for manufacturers to skip steps and use cheaper, weaker materials in order to cut costs while still producing a very lightweight bike. Using cheaper materials for a metal frame usually means the bike will be much heavier than one built with superior craftsmanship. But with carbon fibre, the counterfeiters just slap an name brand decal on a cheap frame and let the customer deal with the fallout.
The bike above, for example, looks like it's made by Time, an elite manufacturer from France, with components from Campagnolo. However, it's listed on Alibaba for just $US500. That seems impossible since the frame set alone retails for $US6000, and Campagnolo components are some of the most expensive ones on the market. But it's very possible that the Alibaba's seller's "promotion sale" is just a standard counterfeit price for a knockoff carbon fibre bike. This is a too common tale according to many bike forums.
The problem is made worse by the fact that some of the factories that produce carbon fibre frames and components for those name brands, also produce some extras for the counterfeit market. (This approach is explained well in a New Yorker article from a few years ago.) As such, many bike companies are moving the manufacturing away from China in order to ensure their trade secrets aren't being stolen. Nevertheless, it's obvious that Chinese factories can make passable carbon fibre bikes and sell them for steep prices. Just do yourself and your safety a favour and don't buy them.