Cream, competent or cowboy – which factories are faking it?

An often repeated claim – from buyers of fake frames, and even some low-rent vendors – is that counterfeited big-brand bike frames are made in the same factories as the genuine articles. This is tosh. Gold-plated tosh. With bells on. This was confirmed to BikeBiz by the main manufacturer of fake Pinarellos.

Chinese manufacturers sculpting hundreds of thousands of high-end carbon frames for leading marques would be risking far too much to make fakes.

The Asian composites manufacturing scene is complex but, for simplicity’s sake, there are three carbon factory tiers in China: "cream," "competent," and "cowboy."

State-of-the-art manufacturers – such as Giant, Ten Tech Composites, G&M Carbon Components, Quest, Topkey, and Carbotec – are in the cream-of-the-crop tier, and make for many of the world’s top cycling brands. In the middle are the competent companies making carbon frames for mid-ranking bike brands, and which also make "open-mold" frames. The third tier of factories is the cowboy outfits churning out carbon-fibre frames that, on the surface, look fine but which, on bad days, could be anything but.

It is the cowboy factories – without lucrative contracts with overseas bike brands – which are churning out the fake frames. It is this tier which pays scant regard to workers’ rights, and couldn’t care less about end-user safety.

The worst of the cowboy-tier factories don’t batch-test internally or externally; don’t filter out dust to protect their workers’ lungs; don’t fret about frame imperfections that top-tier factories would spot and reject; and don’t offer warranties worth the paper they’re not written on.

Cowboy factories don’t produce frames using the latest bleeding-edge designs, and they don’t do their own R&D – Cowboy factories wouldn’t know a wind tunnel if one hit them in the chops.

There are clear and obvious differences between the factory tiers, says Rob Granville, MD of Surrey’s Carbon Bike Repair:

"The cream know why they are making a particular frame; the competents are simply reproducing, and as for cowboys, well, there will always be a market for fake Rolex watches."

It’s a stretch too far to claim that the cowboy carbon factories are owned and run by the mafia – making fake bike frames isn’t anywhere near as profitable as making antibiotics out of talcum powder – but using "intellectual property" (IP) developed by others is now, in theory, illegal in China just as much as it is in the West. By stealing ideas, designs and perhaps even sales from the genuine brands the cowboys are doing economic harm to others.

As can be seen from their hate messages to the investigators who close down their online stores, many of those who run the cowboy factories are rogues: happy to cut corners, deaf to complaints and aggressive when challenged.

Cowboy factories trade on the fact that many Western consumers believe they are "ripped off" by big-name brands who moved their production to China. Frames cost very little to make, goes the thinking. And such views have often been held by those in prominent positions. When he was the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale Pat McQuaid told a group of journalists – myself included – that the bikes used by the professional peloton "are made in China, by a just a couple of plants. And they’re turning out thousands and thousands of these carbon fibre frames, at a cost of maybe $30 or $40 a piece, and that same bike is ultimately being sold as a bike on the market for four or five or six thousand Euros."

As with many of McQuaid’s statements over the years this was stone-cold wrong.

Pro bikes are made in the cream-of-the-crop factories. Ten Tech Composites, known in the industry as TTC, crowed in 2008 that it "monopolised the top-three places of the Tour de France." The three pros on the podium that year were riding bikes from different brands – Cervélo, Ridley and Specialized – but the frames were all made in the TTC factory; a high-class factory, a factory at the top of its game, a factory that doesn’t also churn out fakes on some fictional "third shift", a factory where the manufacturing cost of the frames is more than ten times what the UCI president claimed.

The cream factories also tend to produce their own-name frames. Giant, of course, is the best-known and largest of these, but other cream factories also have own-brand bikes. Carbotec, for instance, makes Pinarello frames but also makes Carbotec frames, available at a fraction of the cost of Pinarello frames. The frame shapes are different, of course, and a Carbotec – because it isn’t marketed, or ridden to Grand Tour victories – does not turn heads the same way as a Pinarello turns heads.

Chinese factories which make fashion shoes, bags and non-technical products for mainstream luxe brands may have two shifts producing the real articles and an unofficial third one making same-as-the-real-thing leather hand-bags, or whatever, but this isn’t the modus operandi of how bike frames are made.

Take Giant, for example. As well as making ultra-high-quality Giant-brand carbon frames in its two C-Tech composites factories – one in China, one in Taiwan – it makes for companies such as Scott, Colnago, and many others. C-Tech plants make 500 carbon frames a day, 150 of which are for brands other than Giant itself. Each frame takes a total of 18 hours to produce and goes through 32 different pairs of hands and visits 14 quality-control stations. This is labour intensive, but forget any notion of slave labour or sweat-shop conditions. Workers clock-on at 8 am and work through until 5.30 pm, with breaks for tea and lunch. This makes for a 41-hour, five-day working week. At peak times there will be a sixth day added, but no night shift. Giant looks after its workers, many of whom live in dormitories close to the factory.

The world’s top bike brands have their frames made in Asia not just because labour costs are low (this is increasingly no longer the case) but because the facilities and the framebuilding technologies built up over 30+ years are world-beating.

Apple also has many of its products made in China for quality reasons rather than just costs. In 2015, the company’s CEO Tim Cook told CBS News "China puts an enormous focus on manufacturing … vocational kind of skills. The US, over time, began to stop having as many vocational kind of skills. You can take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in a room that we’re currently sitting. In China, you would have to have multiple football fields."

Chinese universities churn out composites engineers in their hundreds and thousands. With a glut of engineers the top tier and second tier factories can take their pick of tech workers. Some Chinese workers are better than others, of course. (Many factories in China also employ overseas workers, including from Thailand – the Giant factory’s instruction posters are written in Thai as well as Chinese.)

In the cream factories only the longest serving and most skilled workers will get to make the high-end frames. The frames themselves are not made by engineers but by semi-skilled workers – often women, who are more dextrous than men. They stick strips of computer-cut carbon fibre sheets called "pre-preg" (fabric pre-impregnated with plastic resin) on to frame-like shapes with blowers that look a lot like hair driers. Some of these pre-preg shapes can be as tiny as postage stamps. A Giant Advanced SL frame is made in a climate- and dust-controlled room from 300+ individual pieces of carbon fibre sheets, most but not all of them high-grade carbon. Less high-end frames will have fewer pieces. The fakes likely have even fewer pieces, and no matter what the listings on Alibaba say, they will be made from cheaper fibres and resins.

(The laying-up of carbon fibre frames is all done by hand, no robots in sight. It’s dress-making, really, with patterns and pinning materials on to dummies, and in some factories, such as Giant’s, there are even spools of carbon thread. Because it’s so primitive – although the Cream factories have layup rooms that look like pristine science labs – there’s a very low barrier to entry to becoming a manufacturer of carbon frames and parts.)

Similar to wood, carbon is anisotropic, stronger in one direction than another. Strength is dependent on the direction of the carbon fibres. There are two basic types of carbon fibre used on bicycle frames: sheets of plain-looking unidirectional carbon pre-preg have all the fibres running in one direction, parallel to one another. The second is a lattice-work sheet of interwoven strands, the classic black-and-grey carbon-twill weave.

Using woven carbon-fibre sheeting is easier and cheaper than manually laying-up sheets made with unidirectional fibres. High-end frames use a great deal of unidirectional carbon in the high-stress areas, such as bottom-bracket shells.

Cheaper frames – and presumably most fakes – will opt for more woven cloth, even in the high-stress areas. The junctions between the high-stress areas on a high-end frame are a 3D jigsaw of carbon plies, each ply pointing in different directions. These ply lay-ups can be incredibly complex for something as seemingly simple as a bicycle frame (they are even complex compared to typical aerospace joins).

The fake frames may be the same shape as high-end frames but underneath they probably haven’t benefitted from the same complexity of design and lay-up. The top layer of carbon – which is for show and doesn’t hold the frame together – is no indication of what’s below. The best carbon frames – with "best" being subjective; best at climbing or all-day comfort? – will be made of up to 13 layers of carbon fibre of various stiffness moduli.

High-end frames are computer-designed with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) programs to make sure the strips of carbon fibre are in the right place in the 3D jigsaw, determined by the fibre orientation relative to the frame section and to the stacks and plies of the layup in that part of the frame. To achieve a certain ride characteristic the aim will be for the high-end frame to be rigid in some zones, compliant in others. This is achieved with the precision lay-up of the strips of carbon fibre, with an optimum layering technique leading to consistent laminates. "Lay a sheet a few millimetres in the wrong direction or in the incorrect order and the characteristics and integrity of the frame may be compromised," says Phil Latz, former editor of Australia’s Bicycling Trade.

The layers of carbon plies are thin and precise in expensive frames; thicker and less precise in cheaper frames, and possibly slapdash in the fake frames.

The "stiffness" of carbon is measured in Gigapascals, or GPAs. The higher the GPA, the stiffer the carbon, expressed as "modulus" (a measure of elasticity, or stiffness-for-weight). Key parts of the top-end frames are made with a higher content of significantly more expensive high-modulus carbon, with a small amount of ultra-high modulus carbon, too (you couldn’t build a whole frame from high modulus material – it would be too brittle).

A fake frame may look the same as the real thing, but this can be just paint-deep.

"It’s tough to tell the difference in materials between a high-end frame and a cheaper one," says industry consultant Rick Vosper, the former director of global marketing for Specialized and later Cervélo.

"You’d need a lot of experience, a good eye, and a well-equipped test lab with ultrasound or X-ray and full mechanical testing equipment, staffed by a competent engineer, preferably a blood relative."

Raoul Luescher of Carbon Bike Repair of Australia likens the matrix mix to making a cake: "you can have the same ingredients every time, but the cake can taste different. It is the same with composites; every individual part is the result of the hand layup combined with the pressure and heat cycle. It is a hard process to control – there are lots of variables."

The factories producing the fakes may use questionable materials, including cheaper (and lighter, weaker and less stiff) fibreglass as well as carbon fibre (although the carbon repair workshops say they have yet to find any evidence of this).

Pre-preg is stored in big freezers as it has a limited shelf life. Pre-preg past its prime is sold on, and likely to be a staple of the Cowboy factories. Now, pre-preg past its use-by date may be fine, but it might also create problems with the integrity of the resin leading to tiny voids in the matrix.

Cream and competent factories go to a great deal of trouble to weed out imperfect frames; cowboy ones don’t.

Cream factories calibrate their ovens and equipment regularly, and they have strict environmental controls in the layup room. Cowboy factories don’t. Cowboy factories will also use cheaper materials.

"You’re dealing with [cowboy] factories who may or may not know what they’re doing, creating frames that may or may not be competently designed, and engineered from materials which may or may not consist of premium carbon, cling-film and old magazines, used cotton-buds and condoms, or spit and belly-button lint," jokes Vosper.

The cowboy factories may not be so fussed about checking for voids, porosity or other internal flaws, and they may not pull out samples, cut them in half and check laminate thicknesses. Fake frames may be made with a greater concentration of woven carbon cloth rather than unidirectional fibres. The faked end product often looks just the same as the real thing, the only person who ever knows the fake is spongy to ride is the end-user, thousands of miles from the factory and who has nobody local to call should the frame flop. The cowboy factories’ quality-control manager is the end-user.

The competent factories can and do produce excellent frames, and also have in-house testing regimes. Unlike many of the Cowboy factories, most of the Competent and all of the Cream factories can retrace a frame’s journey, from finished product back to the fibre.

It’s often tough to work out which competent factories are actually factories – many are, in fact, trading companies, with staff who can speak a smattering of English. HongFu and Dengfu are two of the biggest sellers of open-mold and "no-name" frames to Westerners (Nancy Huang of HongFu told BikeBiz the company makes 4000 frames a month.)

There are great many cowboy carbon factories in China, far fewer competent ones and just a handful of cream factories.

Cream factories include Topkey of Taiwan, which makes carbon frames for Specialized and Cannondale. It bills itself as the "largest carbon bike manufacturer in the world", with an annual production of 200,000 frames. It has been making carbon frames since 1994, and also makes most of the world’s high-end carbon tennis racquets, a business it has been in since 1980. One of Topkey’s subsidiaries is Keentech Composite Technology, which makes carbon frames in China for Cervélo. G&M Carbon Components makes for BMC. Pinarello frames are made by Carbotec Industrial of Taiwan and China, in the carbon business since 2004. Scott’s cheesy but informative video was, in fact, shot in the Giant factory. China’s Quest Composite Technology makes bike frames for Trek and Canyon. The American-owned Asia-situated Factor Bikes used to make bikes for Cervélo Focus, Argon 18 and others, but now makes mainly for itself.

Some of the smaller cowboy factories may be "pop-ups", able to disappear and reappear at the slightest whiff of a police raid, but most are much more substantial than this, far different to the "back-street workshops" of popular imagination.

"Don’t underestimate how large these companies are," a CEO of a well-known luxury European carbon-bike brand told BikeBiz.

"It doesn’t make sense for a garage company to make a mold to build ten frames – we’re talking huge numbers. But these factories are not ‘official’ ones, making genuine frames as well. The risk to the factory vendors would be just too great. The typical high-quality carbon-frame factory in China is owned by a Taiwanese national. They likely have kids who have been schooled in the US, Canada or the UK. They have a more Western style of running their companies, which have been around for twenty or more years making carbon fibre. 

"For them to make counterfeit frames as well as real ones would be too much of a risk. If they do other things then it is to make open-mold frames, but not counterfeits. The factories making for Pinarello and Specialized wouldn’t dare screw around."

Faking it – Inside the shady world of counterfeit bikes, clothing and parts is a series of 20 articles. For offline reading convenience the 25,000 words can be found on an illustration-rich PDF, a Kindle file, an eBook and a Word document.

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