The other day I got an email from a company offering to sell me a Rolex for $179. Here is the actual image from my email. It certainly looks like a real Rolex, though at $179 it can't be. Or rather, the picture could be of a real Rolex, but the watch I would be getting for $179 would not be. And I'm reasonably certain it wouldn't look exactly like the one in the picture.
The watch offered to me is made in China. Lots of knock offs are made in China - from psuedo Prada handbags to spurious Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, to phony Fendi fragrances. Why, only in China can you go into an Apple store that isn't really an Apple store, and which is selling products that may or may not actually be made by Apple.
Let me give you another example. Here is our HOT BUNS cyclocross frameset. And here is what looks like the exact same frameset, available through a trading company on Alibaba. And here is another one, offered by a different trading company. I expect if I scoured eBay I'd find more. Only like the fake Apple store, these other bikes that look like our HOT BUNS frameset are not actually our HOT BUNS frameset, but convincing copies. Or rather, more like the Rolex, they may be photos of samples from our HOT BUNS supplier of the exact same bike we tested all fall and are selling right now, but if you went ahead and ordered one you would not be getting the bike made from the same manufacturer our bikes come from. I don't know who makes these bikes, but I know the manufacturer who owns the molds and makes the HOT BUNS does not. So would you be getting a carbon fiber cross bike? Sure, just as you'd be getting a wristwatch for your $179. And you could build it up and ride it around and even race on it, just like your Rolex will function as a time-telling device. And it might hold up just fine, in which case you've just saved yourself a few hundred bucks. Or it might not. I have no idea. You have no idea. That's the risk in buying an unbranded carbon fiber bike. I'm not telling you anything you don't know already.
The part you might not know already is how this counterfeit commercialism comes to pass in China, and how it affects the quality of the products available here. Our agent in Taiwan pointed me at a remarkable book entitled Poorly Made in China. It's a first-hand account from an American making his living as an agent of American importers doing business with Chinese manufacturers, and it shines a light on what, exactly, that risk the buyer of unbranded or "generic" carbon may be taking. It's a collection of personal anecdotes that reveal a lot about Chinese business culture, and how vastly different it is from ours. For example, you learn that counterfeiting is an act to be lauded in China. Creating a credible copy - whether it is a handbag or paper money or a bicycle frame or even a whole store - is seen as a demonstration of business acumen and skill. Business ethics never even figure into it in the way they would in western culture. Almost nothing is immune to counterfeiters, and the better a deal you think you're getting from there the more likely you're buying something fake.
There are several examples in the book about how counterfeiters operate, or rather, how manufacturers operate in a way that we would interpret as counterfeiting, but they don't so much. One tactic is to pose as an American company and request samples from an established manufacturer. These samples are then photographed and displayed as the company's own work, and used to generate larger orders from importing brands. Then when orders come in the samples are copied (with varying degrees of skill).
The book does not cover the bicycle business directly, but our agent in Taiwan assures me that the business practices detailed in the book are prevalent in every industry he has seen - including the bicycle industry where he makes his own living. In the case of the bicycle business, the growing consumer knowledge that most high-end carbon fiber comes from China and Taiwan ends up working in the favor of the counterfeiters. It becomes plausible to believe that this factory that builds Pinarellos somehow ran off a few extras without the brand knowing, and are offering the exact same bike direct to customers at a fraction of the cost. The reality is the owners of molds are very protective of them - whether they are proprietary molds owned by a brand like Cervelo or Specialized, or open molds owned by a supplier. So while the scenario of the extra Pinarellos rolling off the assembly line may seem plausible, it is ultimately unrealistic.
We typically apply the term counterfeiting to recognizable tradmarks, as they're the most apt to be knocked off. But it happens in China with all manner of product design - from ceramic vases to apparel and even open mold bicycle frames. Something doesn't need to be famous to be knocked off, particularly if copying it will lead to increased sales and reduced expenses (and the need for reduced design and R&D expertise, which is far more of a safety and quality issue in bicycles than, say, dinnerware). And knocking off unbranded products actually creates more reasons to believe in a product's provenance. If you can't believe that that Chinarello is a bona fide Pinarello in different paint (or none at all), it's at least easier to subscribe to the theory that all the high end stuff comes out of the same few factories, so even if you don't recognize this generic frame it could very well be made in the same place and by the same people as frames that sell for $2500 and are spotted underneath professional racers.
There is a fallacy in that assumption. Yes, the majority of the high end frames are made in a relatively small number of factories. And those factories scrutinize detail and quality for all the frames they manufacture, including the open mold frames like the ones we buy. But the generic bikes you see for impossibly low prices do not come out of the same factories. If you're filling 500 frame orders Cervelo or Focus or Willier or Cannondale, are you going to waste your production throughput and reputation selling bikes one at a time for $400 each, through a channel that undercuts your core business?
I'm not saying that the generic stuff available direct to consumers is crap. All I'm saying is that its quality is unknown. We know the quality of our bikes, and it's not because of what they look like - it's because we know who built them, had them EN tested, and stands behind them.
The consumer appeal of the generic carbon is of course the irresistible pricing. You can get an unbranded road frameset for under $400 on eBay - one that certainly looks the part too. At that price, it's easy to see why every night the men come around, and lay their money down. Now let's wilfully suspend disbelief for a minute and assume that this isn't a photo of a sample from a manufacturer who supplies established brands, and is in fact a bike developed and built in earnest by a small manufacturer in China specializing in carbon fiber. At $360, it could make money on the frame. Not as much as our supplier makes selling dozens of them at a time to us, but there is some margin in that $360 to be sure. How much margin? According to "Poorly Made in China," not enough. Manufacturers in China are always looking for ways to cut costs. One story is about a manufacturer supplying shampoo to an American personal care company. They subcontracted another manufacturer to make the bottles, and over time changed the bottle spec - provided by the American brand - to use less and less plastic in the bottle in order to save on raw materials costs. The American brand was never notified of the change until the bottles became so thin that they collapsed in peoples' grasp (think bottled water, not shampoo). In China, this is seen as resourceful and clever in the way it increases manufacturer profitability. When the brand did notice and demanded that the product be built to spec, the manufacturer made the importer pay the additional costs for the thicker bottles, as if it were not the original spec but a change order.
When I read that section I immediately thought what would happen if a bike manufacturer - spurred by the same economic incentive - did the same thing. Reducing the number of carbon wraps in a frame or fork or rims to save on costs would not only make the product less expensive to manufacture - it would reduce the weight, making it appear more desirable at the same time. Only that's no more strategic a route to weight reduction in a frame than drilling holes in it. I don't know if this happens. Neither do you. But the economic climate in which a practice like this flourishes exists in the very regions where generic carbon fiber bike parts are made.
We started November because we thought consumer choices for buying a racing bike were bookended by two equally unattractive options. On the one hand, you could buy from an established major brand where $1500 or more of the purchase price of a frameset has nothing to do with the product itself, and goes instead towards distribution and marketing activities designed to reassure you of the bike's quality and panache. On the other hand, you could go straight to China by way of the intertubes and get yourself something that looks very like a racing bike (or wheels) for about 25% of the cost. So you get to choose between overpaying for peace of mind, or give up peace of mind altogether to save money. We exist as a middle ground, where we hope you can find peace of mind at a cost that actually makes sense given the product you're buying.