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The Problem with Fake Bikes: From Frames to Wheels… A Few Points to Consider

Last August I bought a brand spanking new Specialized Venge Comp.  It is, without a doubt, the sexiest bike I’ve ever seen.  I love that bike – with the exception of the wheels that came on it.  On sale, I spent over three grand on that bike, a little more than I thought I could get away with when it came to Mrs. Bgddy.  Within two weeks, I knew darn good and well that I hated the wheels and they had to go.  The bike weighed in at over just over 18 pounds and I’d heard of rebuilds of that same bike that were down in the 14.5 pound range, after several thousand dollars worth of upgrades (Crank, stem, handlebar, wheels…) so 18 just wasn’t going to cut it (not to mention, the rear wheel had a loose hub or something – which has since been rectified, easily, and the wheels are on my old Cannondale).  I started searching the interwebz and found that wheels were the first place to start.

The wheels that came on my Venge, according to the message boards, weighed somewhere around 2,000 grams or about 4-1/2 pounds and it just so happened that I ride with a guy who said he had just purchased a used unmarked set of carbon clincher wheels for his high-end bike on eBay for something like $500.  I began my search with the bigger brands, Zipp, Easton and a couple of others that fellow bloggers recommended first.  When I saw the price tag on those new, I checked eBay – for used carbon wheel sets, but quickly found a huge selection of carbon rims from overseas sellers that looked surprisingly like my friend’s, and deeply discounted ($400-$500 for a pair compared with $1,600 -$2,500 which was well out of my price range).  Now, I’m guessing, but I’m pretty sure that Zipp and Easton are making a pretty penny on their rims.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they doubled their manufacturing cost by the time I got them, but four to five times?  That seemed a little steep, it just didn’t sound right – so I took to the message boards again to see if I could get a handle on why… I wear a helmet every time I ride, no matter what, because if I crash (or more likely, am crashed into), I want to give myself the best chance for survival without needing a diaper for the rest of my life.  In other, simpler terms, my safety is worth the extra effort and the money.

What I found about the knock-offs, made overseas, did not surprise me:  You’ve got a vast majority of people who are happy as you can be and would recommend the wheels to their grandmother, with the remainder, miffed.  It’s that unhappy minority that I wanted to know about.  Of those few unhappy customers, I found one who was really pissed.  He had a wheel break on him after he busted a spoke and kept riding the bike.  Fortunately, he provided a photo of the busted wheel…  Then I found another fella who had one break on him under fairly normal conditions (he hit a small rock or something).  He provided a photo as well, so I compared the two.  Both wheels had seams in the carbon wall directly under a spoke nipple.  Then I started looking at the bigger brands, Zipp and so forth…  None of the photos of the big brands showed a seam under a spoke nipple, the seams fell in between the spokes on every wheel I looked at – and I looked at a lot.

Now, I have absolutely no idea if I was onto something or not, nor did I care to go further.  What is important, and what makes sense, is that the knock-off companies simply don’t put the effort into making sure their wheels are made well, they just copy the good rims and in the process, make mistakes.  It makes sense that they save on production by skipping a few steps and that the knock-off companies wouldn’t think to worry about the physics of where the carbon sheet layout falls in relation to the drilled holes in the rim, they just cut up a brand name wheel, copy it and crank them out.  Add to that the concerns of special brake pads and the rims overheating and delaminating on hard braking and it was just too much… I ended up opting for an aluminum wheel set from Nashbar, Vuelta Corsa SLR’s for just under $375 after shipping and tax and I knocked off almost a full pound from the overall weight of my bike (I’m down to 17.3 pounds now, with pedals).  They roll fantastically well and I cannot be happier so I dropped my little “investigation”.  Let those who are paid to do so deal with them.

Then I received an e-newsletter from Bike Radar last week and this headline jumped out:  “Local bike shops blend real and fake bike kit to mislead consumers

If you remember that story about Café Roubaix and Specialized from a few months ago, the worry of counterfeits played into the story…  Now, there’s no doubt the big manufacturers want to protect their market – they don’t want to lose profit to knock-off companies and they surely don’t want us to know how little something really costs to make (out of context too, you have to figure in R&D)…  BUT, if you buy a knock-off, you’re not getting the same standard equipment you would get from a real bike maker.  Have a look:
Fake Pinarello Fake Pinarello 2 Fake Specialized
Now, where does it look like those bikes are failing?  I’m guessing at the seams.

I would be willing to bet my lunch that, even though we all know most of the carbon fiber frames that are sold by the big manufacturers are made in Taiwan, the knock-off companies simply steal the designs and lay the carbon out with little concern for where the seams fall (or even use inferior composite materials).  Whatever the problem is with the knock-offs and no matter what they’re doing wrong, I don’t want what happened in the photos above to happen to me – and that’s what really matters.

So this leads me to wonder, what can I do to make certain that this doesn’t happen to me?

First, I know where I buy my bikes.  My local shop is an authorized Specialized, Trek and Giant shop.  Next, I know and ride with the owner of our local shop, he knows my kids too – so I trust him not to pawn cheap, untested, unsafe crap off on me.  I also know that any deal that seems too good to be true, probably is.  When I do come home with a new bike, I inspect and photograph the Serial number tags on my bikes and register them.  Finally, and not surprisingly, shopping on the web or small hole-in-the-wall shops seem to be the problem, whether for a new or a used bike.  I know for a fact, as far as the big manufacturers go, the best way to tell if it’s real or not is to have the bike inspected by an authorized dealer (like my local shop) – but that’s only if I’m buying a used bike.  New Specialized, Trek and Giant bikes cannot be purchased from a website.  They have to be picked up at a real brick and mortar Authorized shop.  If you’re buying one of those three brands online, there’s a very good chance that it’s a fake.

Now I would never suggest that anyone else adhere to my strict guidelines when it comes to purchasing bikes or wheels, a guy’s gotta save a buck and fight those evil corporations, right?

The point is, cycling is a scary enough sport when you trust the equipment (at least the way I do it). I don’t need the added worry of whether or not my bike will rip apart while I’m tearing down a mountain road at 45+ 56 mph.

If you want more evidence to back up choosing a major brand over the knock-off’s, check out this poor guy’s luck:  Chinese Carbon Bike Build.

UPDATE 2018: I bought a pair of 700c x 38mm carbon clinchers from Ican.  They set me back a mere $400 (and change) and they are fantastic.  They’re solid, sturdy, and FAST.  I’ve got some serious test riding to do on them, but they’ve exceeded my expectations thus far.

I may have to walk back some of this post… or I can attribute the purchase to publicized quality improvements.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

I have three friends who also ride the less expensive Chinese rims now.  One A guy rides Yoeleo, one C guy rides Superteam and another rides Ican.  All four of us have nothing but good things to say about the wheels so far.

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