“I bought a fake” – who’s buying the knock-offs and why?

A small but growing number of cyclists openly flaunt the fact they sport shady shades and ride on faux frames. In the UK, USA, and Australia some folks brag about bagging such supposed anti-corporate bargains. Sometimes the well-off will mix in a fake with their originals for a laugh. For many there’s no shame involved in owning a fake Rolex, or buying a knock-off K-Force handlebar – for some, it’s a game, a bit of harmless fun. Any safety worries – green wrists, or crashing to the ground holding just a brake lever – are trumped by the virtuousness of saving cash, and not succumbing to the false marketing of brands said to be selling plastic products at premium prices even though, apparently but incorrectly, they cost just pennies to make. People who pay full whack, goes the thinking, are suckers; those who buy fakes are "smart".

But some of those who buy fakes don’t know they’ve done so. For instance, who would knowingly buy a fake downhill helmet? Nevertheless, the usual and greatest motivator behind buying counterfeit frames, bike parts, clothing, and sunglasses is, of course, to save money, but it’s not the only motivator because many of those who buy fakes are not short of a penny or two. BikeBiz has talked to doctors, IT specialists and other well-paid professionals who have bought knock-offs when they could easily afford the real thing. None are hardened criminals but, according to psychologists, because they’ve bought fakes they could be subsequently more likely to make poor ethical decisions in other parts of their lives.

Those who knowingly buy fakes may be at risk not just from sub-standard manufacturing but could also be paying a price regarding their long-term morality, studies have found. Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University have been researching whether buying counterfeit goods might have hidden psychological costs, warping people’s actions and attitudes.

"Once you start acting unethically, including buying faked goods, you are more likely to continue with this behaviour," Ariely told BikeBiz.

"Does that mean if a lawyer buys a road racing bicycle frame they will start charging their clients too much? I think the answer is no. But will they be more likely to cheat on [self-reported race] times or do other things which have to do with riding? I think the answer is yes."

People try to justify to themselves their purchasing of counterfeit products, says Ariely.

"People are not writing to Oakley asking them to charge less; people are not really outraged, but the moment they have a chance to benefit personally they justify it with the story that Oakley doesn’t deserve excessive amounts of money from them. With bicycle frames, people are more careful because they are more worried about safety concerns."

When some cyclists see others on fake frames and riding with Foakleys they are more likely to buy knock-off products, too.

"There is a social contagion," says Ariely. "One of the things we have shown is that when people are cheating in public other people see them misbehaving and are also likely to misbehave as well. Club riders who see fellow club members buying fakes are more likely to follow suit."

A leading British bike industry executive told BikeBiz: "I don’t think any of the riders in my club have genuine Oakleys –- they’ve been copying each other by buying fakes for at least the last couple of years."

Along with colleagues at the University of North Carolina and Harvard Business School, Dr. Ariely carried out a study that found buying fakes was a starter-drug for other forms of petty dishonesty. The researchers gave a group of young women pairs of expensive fashion sunglasses but told half of the group that their specs were knock-offs. The study wanted to test if wearing fake shades might make the women act dishonestly. Via a series of honesty tests it was found that a large majority of the women in the supposed counterfeit glasses consistently cheated more than those wearing the real thing.

Wearing or using fake gear makes people feel like phonies, even if just subliminally, and, says Ariely, this counterfeit-unhappy "self" could be on a slippery slope to smallscale cheating in other ways, too. The professor believes that those who wear fake clothing or ride on fake frames are knocking out of kilter their "self-signalling," the psychological concept that we take cues about what we stand for from our own behaviour.

Despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are, says Professor Ariely.

"We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality, we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people – inferring who we are and what we like from our actions."

Dr. Ariely adds: "thanks to self-signalling, a single act of dishonesty can change a person’s behaviour from that point onward. If it’s an act of dishonesty that comes with a built-in reminder – think about fake sunglasses with a big [logo] stamped on the side – the downstream influence could be long-lived and substantial."


BikeBiz has interviewed consumers who have bought fake cycling goods. All of the names below have been changed, but all of the jobs and localities are real.


Sam is an IT security manager for a large company in the south of England.

"I don’t normally wear pro kit, I get most of my stuff from Aldi, but I bought some Ag2r team replica cycling kit from a Chinese website. Originally I wasn’t planning on buying fake stuff. I shopped around; genuine-year-old kit was around 200 euros. There wasn’t a chance of me buying that; it’s far too much for a standard set of cycling gear with some different colours on it so I gave up looking.

"But Google had picked up on my searches and started offering me kit from Chinese shops. Initially, I ignored them but after a while, I had a look. In the photos, the clothing looked just like the real thing. I forget how much it cost me for bibs and short sleeved jersey, but not much, about £25. I thought I’d try it.

"When the kit arrived, I tried it on. I’m a medium cyclist build – slim with big thighs. The kit is made for, let’s say, recreational riders. The top has a huge bulge around the stomach area; it flops down. The bibs are loose around the middle, very tight on the legs.

"The quality isn’t great: very thin fabrics, cheap zips, all to be expected I suppose.

"I use the set for commuting – no-one will ever see it because I wear baggies over the shorts and normally a jacket over the jersey.

"I’d not buy fake again, and I’ve never deliberately bought fake things before; this was a good life experience as far as I’m concerned."


Eric is a hospital consultant from Bristol.

"I started by buying some replica team kit from a Chinese website. The price was too good to be true, so I knew it was probably fake. My first concern was that the site itself was a fake, and I wouldn’t see the cash again. But three weeks later the kit turned up. I’m still using the jersey; the shorts lasted just a couple of hundred miles. The stitching was alright, but the chamois was rubbish. They had Craft branding on them, and they quite clearly weren’t Craft.

"It was dramatically cheaper – I paid about forty quid for stuff that, if it was real, would have cost about £160.

"In life I try to behave in an ethical way as much as I can, and I recognised that I might have been preventing Craft executives from buying shoes for their children but on the other hand, it’s hard to feel sorry for major corporations because replica kit is grotesquely over-priced.

"I didn’t feel good about it, I felt morally grubby; I just wanted to look like Fabian Cancellara for a couple of days. "Enve wheels spread like wildfire through our club last summer. I suspect half are not riding the real thing. A couple of the cat two guys have the real ones, but I’m sure the others don’t. I heard that second-hand from other people. I’m happy to ride behind the ones who I think are on fake wheels – there are many other things to factor in first, including general discipline. I’ve never seen one explode out on the road – I’m sure it happens, but it’s probably rare. The fake wheels, if that is what they are, are put through a tremendous amount of abuse, and they seem to survive."


Tim – a computer programmer from Portland, Oregon – knowingly bought a fake 3T handlebar stem, and regretted it.

"I bought it about a year ago, on eBay. I had been looking for a carbon stem of a certain size. I wasn’t searching for 3T. It should have been 100 to 200 dollars, and this was 30 dollars. From the location and the fuzzy picture I knew it was Chinese seller. I knew it wasn’t the real thing, but I was expecting it was going to be a clone, and might weigh a little more, it might not look quite as good as a 3T stem, but it would perform the same. Two weeks later when it arrived it wasn’t carbon; it was cast aluminium. It was just printed to look like carbon. Of course, it was cheap; I had overpaid for this!

"Originally I was wanting to test different stem sizes, but the rationale was that I didn’t want to buy three $150 stems to find that it’s not a 60mm I want it’s an 80.

"I could have fitted this stem to a bike but after the Joe Lindsay article [on fakes] I became nervous about the quality of fake stuff. If it was a genuine 3T and a bunch of them failed there would be recalls and media articles about them. That won’t happen with a fake stem from a small Chinese supplier. I don’t want to take the risk.

"Buying fake was a dumb thing to do. It was my fault; once bitten, twice shy."

Bill – from Brisbane, Australia, and an administration officer in the Queensland government – also bought a 3T stem but thought he was buying an original.

"I bought a counterfeit carbon 3T stem on eBay. After I had received it, I had a gut-feeling that it wasn’t legit. The seller replied along the lines of "Of course it isn’t legit for that price." I didn’t want to risk putting it on a crucial part of my bike. They agreed to take it back. I sent it via untracked mail; they said they never received it, and disappeared shortly afterwards. I cut my losses and viewed it as a fine I probably deserved. I also then submitted a counterfeit report to eBay as I figured it was the least I could do for 3T."


Tom – a 25-year-old administration assistant from South London – bought a Pinarello online but only found out it was fake some months later.

"I was on eBay [in 2013] when I saw a [Pinarello Dogma] frame. It was a bidding auction, not "buy it now"; it was a UK auction. It was four hundred odd quid – I put in a bid, thinking it would go up [in price], but it never did. A week or so later the frame turned up. I didn’t suspect anything was wrong with it; I just thought I’d landed a bargain. 

"I equipped it with a SRAM Red groupset and Dura-Ace wheels. The internal cable routing worked as it should, everything fitted. I rode it for six to eight months, and never had any problems. It was very light and felt very stiff. I’ve test-ridden an official Dogma – my frame handled just as well. I was happy chucking it around corners and down descents.

"I then started hearing about fake Pinarellos on podcasts and on forums, and I wondered if my bargain could be one of these counterfeits. I looked for a serial number but couldn’t find one. I took the bike into [Sigma Sport]; they took off the chainset and confirmed it wasn’t an official bike. They showed me how the threading was different. The paint job was identical, though.

"When I went back to eBay to complain about the frame being fake the seller was no longer listed. I then started doing research on it. I did a Google Image search on the photo used in the eBay listing and linked it back to Great Keen bikes of China. They now operate only through Aliexpress. They sell fake frames from Ridley, Cipollini, and Specialized. Right now they’ve got the [Pinarello] Dogma F8 on their site. From what I can see their operation hasn’t slowed down.

"[The frame has] been in my loft since I found out it was fake. It’s not moved since the day I brought it back from the shop. When I was riding back from the shop I was thinking "please don’t break, please don’t break." I was afraid to put force through the pedals. I imagined the bottom bracket would crack, and I would be left with a crank in my hand, and I’d have to walk home.

"I no longer wanted to risk riding it. Knowing it’s a fake puts doubts in your mind. I don’t want to be on it when it cracks when I’m doing 50 kmh downhill. It might, in fact, be strong but I no longer felt comfortable riding it." 


FAKING ITInside 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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