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Could your bike be a counterfeit?

Peter Stuart
24 May 2018

The bike market is awash with counterfeit frames. Cyclist investigates the extent of the problem and learns how to spot a fake

Everyone loves a bargain. Carbon fibre road bikes are expensive things, but if you take your time, shop around and scour the internet, you can find some amazing offers on top-end brands. But if you look too hard for a good deal you may stumble across the darker side of the industry – the booming business of counterfeit carbon frames.

Dig around online and you’ll quickly find dozens of new carbon frames for under £300. Some are perfectly legitimate unbranded frames, but others bear big brand names, such as Pinarello or Cervélo.

The growth of the trade has been fuelled by a multitude of factors, from the emerging business in carbon fibre construction in the Far East to the changing attitudes of consumers towards bikes, and of course the emergence of online global trading platforms that so easily bring consumer and counterfeiter together.

Some say counterfeit bikes are poorly made and potentially lethal copies, while others suggest they are perfectly decent bikes, only with fake logos. Another camp believes the counterfeits are genuine, top brand bikes being sold out the back door of the factory rather than through official channels.

Cyclist decided it was time to get the true story.

Counterfeit conspiracy

The counterfeit industry is a vast and mysterious beast, and it’s big business. In the last year alone Specialized seized over $423,000 (£270,000) of counterfeiters’ proceeds, while a group of brands led by Pinarello halted the sale of $1,300,000 (£830,000) worth of counterfeit products.

Yet the real problem for the cycling industry is not unsuspecting consumers buying fakes at retail price, but instead it’s consumers actively seeking supremely cheap high-end goods.

These items include helmets and components such as chains, but no component is more sought after than the heart of the bike – the frame. 

‘There’s a full spectrum of buyers, from those who assume that they’re fakes but just want something with Cervélo on it, to those who honestly think they’re getting a good deal on the real thing,’ says Michael Clarry, legal consultant at Cervélo. 

There is a widespread perception that some counterfeit frames originate from the same source as, and are identical to, the genuine articles. This mindset may explain why the trade has become such big business for dozens of Far Eastern firms.

For those who are so inclined, finding a counterfeit frame can be worryingly straightforward. While there are dozens of websites where counterfeit cycling products can be found, including Amazon and Ebay, the most direct route is through business-to-business trading platforms such as Alibaba, DHgate or AliExpress.

Only a few minutes of searching for certain bike brands will quickly reveal dozens of cheap frames and gateways to platforms selling counterfeit kit exclusively. 

Cyclist chased up a few of them ourselves, reaching the purchasing phase with two companies, one based in China and the other claiming to be based in Taiwan. Each company claimed to sell hundreds of these frames per month.

The practice is rife, with listings available for virtually all major brands. 

Part of the problem is that the industry is already closely tied to the Far East and often trades through small retailers online, so the business model is already similar to that of the counterfeiters. 

‘The cycling industry is the ideal target for counterfeiters because of its structure,’ says Specialized’s brand security officer, Andrew Love, who’s at the forefront of fighting counterfeiters across the brand’s entire portfolio.

‘Even big companies like Specialized aren’t that big compared to the pharmaceutical or apparel industries, so we’re less able to fight the problem by throwing unlimited money at it. But even those big industries can’t stop it altogether,’ says Love.

When it comes to the broader phenomenon of counterfeit goods, it could be said that the internet started the fire and modern trading platforms such as Alibaba and Ebay have fanned the flames.

‘It’s not just Alibaba but the whole internet has made it easier to counterfeit,’ says Gavin Terry, lead officer for intellectual property for UK Trading Standards.

‘If you wanted to buy counterfeit socks or bicycles or anything 15 years ago you would have had to send someone to China to make contact with an agent to introduce you to a counterfeit factory. Nowadays they simply advertise on the internet.’

So what would have once involved a complex criminal network can now be conducted with the greatest of ease online, in what can appear to be a fairly innocent exchange.

It was fake Pinarellos that brought the growth in counterfeiting to widespread attention, to the extent that the Chinese replicas became known as Chinarellos.

‘Somewhere, someone got hold of a Prince frame and took a mould of the genuine frame,’ says Simon Humphreys, IP protection officer at Pinarello’s UK distributor. ‘After that they could reproduce a good enough mould and start making bikes.’

Techniques developed, and it wasn’t long before Ebay was awash with all variety of Pinarello frames.

While Ebay has raised its game in stopping companies selling fakes directly on the site, second-hand sales still happen. ‘We probably spot one or two auctions a day at the moment,’ Humphreys says.

‘It was worse when we first started looking at it – I couldn’t even keep up with the number of fakes. They’d be listed quicker than I could report them.’

Pinarello’s response has been so strong that the counterfeiters switched to other brands. They now advertise BMC, Colnago, Wilier, Cervélo and use suggestive titles such as ‘carbon bikes compatible with Pinarello wheels’.

But who’s making them?

Carbon copies

‘There are a lot of industries that use carbon fibre,’ Love says. ‘There are tennis rackets, hockey sticks and the military, to name just a few.

Especially with the downscaling of the US war machine in Iraq some of these industries aren’t getting the orders they used to, so they’re seeing cycling as a good industry to pop into.’

For many, it’s difficult to imagine factories not previously involved in cycling having the sophistication to create convincing frames.

Indeed, a glance at any fanatic forum such as weightweenies or roadbikereview reveals that some users firmly believe counterfeits and originals come from the same factory.

That situation has historically been true of other industries. Graham Mogg, intelligence coordinator for the ACG (Anti-Counterfeiting Group), says, ‘A lot of industry has gone to China because the cost of labour is very cheap.

'But you can get a lot of overruns [excess production] and, although it has become less common, factories would often make legitimate products during the day and make counterfeits in the evening, because the market is there and it’s a commercial opportunity.'

Counterfeiters are aware of these perceptions, and play on them by marketing themselves as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) – factories that make the original frames for the major brands. 

Those very tactics were employed in the case of two counterfeit frames that we investigated. In response to queries about a BMC Impec and a Cervélo P5 frame, both sellers (extremely promptly) assured us they were based at the factory where the genuine article was made.

In the case of the Cervélo, efforts had been made to not mark the original listing as a Cervélo specifically, but as an unbranded ‘P5’. Only once we requested it did the retailer send us pictures of a full Cervélo paint job and logo on the frame.

We contacted both Cervélo and BMC to inquire whether either factory was involved with either brand. Unsurpringly they denied any involvement, and both pursued the sellers to remove the listings. 

A close look at the frames proved neither could possibly be the same as the original. In the case of the Impec, the lugs of the bike showed them to be part of a monocoque construction, not the separate lugs used for the real frame.

Equally, an out-of-hours factory assembly would be unlikely given that the genuine model is created entirely in Switzerland at BMC’s Impec facility.

In the case of the Cervélo, closer inspection of photos sent by the factory revealed it to be a well-known openly available factory model called the FM086, simply painted up in Cervélo colours and hiked up in price.

Even where fakes look more convincing, factory double-ups are very unlikely. The factories that make many of the world’s best carbon frames are enormous businesses, eclipsing in size most of the brands that use them.

Take Giant Manufacturing Co. The manufacturing side of the business, which creates frames for Giant as well as half a dozen other prominent brands, is worth over $3 billion.

Smaller players such as TopKey or Ideal Bike Corporation are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Pumping counterfeit frames out of the back door for a few hundred pounds apiece would hardly be worth compromising multi-million pound contracts.

‘It’s too big an operation for someone to creep in after hours – there’s simply no way,’ says Jon Swanson, global category manager at Giant.

‘When something like that happens the owner of the factory has to know that it’s happening. Because the materials are expensive, and it’s not easy to make a carbon frame, it’s not one guy knocking out a hundred thousand frames or even 50 frames.

'The material loss is going to get noticed. The finishing of the frame has to be done by somebody, the painting by somebody else. One person can’t make a frame from start to finish.’ 

In the unlikely event of an overrun, major factories also provide certificates of destruction, although most bike brands run low on stock year-to-year anyway.

Geography also plays a part. The mainstream cycling industry is centred around Taiwan, while the counterfeit bike industry is based in China.

So recognised is the difference in manufacturing between Taiwan and China that our counterfeit BMC vendor went to great lengths to convince us that it was based in the former.

‘Our BMC frames are all made in the Taiwan OEM factory, not mainland China,’ our friendly service assistant informed us. ‘The quality is the same as the original.’

If knowing that you’re extremely unlikely to be reaping the benefits of an overrun of World Tour-quality frames doesn’t put you off, and you still want to press ahead with buying a ‘replica’, there are a few other things that are worth taking into account.

Living with a lie

A counterfeit frame is, of course, living life outside the law. ‘There’s a number of ways a bicycle company is protected under intellectual property law,’ says Terry from Trading Standards.

‘The original design is a copyrighted artistic work, then the actual bike is protected as an unregistered design. The trademark, eg Raleigh or Specialized, is a badge of trade origin, so anybody who puts that on a frame or bicycle without authorisation commits an offence under the trademark act.’

Yet buying a counterfeit is not actually a crime.

‘In the UK it’s not an offence to buy,’ says Mogg, but many consumers forget that should they want to sell the frame second-hand, they become an offender.

‘The sale of counterfeit goods is a criminal offence and carries up to 10 years in prison,’ he adds. Often Ebay hosts sales of second-hand frames marketed as ‘replicas’ or openly fake, but even if there is no deception, an attempt to sell the bike is still illegal.

‘That’s the big message; a lot of consumers don’t see it as a real offence,’ Mogg says.

There is also the risk of not actually receiving your purchase. ‘If you bought from overseas then it runs the risk of being stopped at customs and seized,’ says Terry.

‘That happens a lot with sportswear from Alibaba.’ There is also the question of quality.

‘The commitment to safety [of the counterfeit traders] is simply not there. They only have to make a product good enough to cash in on the online purchase,’ says Love, who’s witnessed numerous counterfeit Specialized frame failures.

‘The connection between the head tube, down tube and top tube was a common problem – quite a few of them failed.’

That failure was limited to a run of fake S-Works Tarmacs, but Love also demonstrates with a selection of photos of the latest fake S-Works Venge to have been seized by his team – the bearing cups of the headset are damaged to the extent that they will inevitably fail, while an uneven steerer tube looks to be a recipe for imminent disaster too. 

Pinarello, too, has witnessed some disturbing failures from imitation frames.

‘We’ve found instances where inside they’re made from glass fibre rather than carbon fibre, which is only used on the exterior,’ says Humphreys. ‘Half the problem is safety and half is that a fake won’t ride anything like a genuine bike.’

As for the EN safety certification that counterfeiters often present, they can be as synthetic as the fake frame.

Clarry says, ‘There was one website I looked at a year or so ago that showed copies of various technical certificates they held. I checked with the issuers of the certificates and confirmed that they were all fakes.’

It can sometimes be easy to spot a fake from the advert, and may be as simple as checking the images against the real thing on the manufacturer’s website, but occasionally the differences are so subtle that only the brands’ counterfeiting experts can spot them. And, sadly, they’re not telling.

‘We have a list of things to look for and details that identify a fake and we try not to give away too many of these details,’ says Humphreys. ‘In the past we’ve told the seller what was wrong with it and so they just addressed those areas and re-listed it.’ 

Expensive items will always attract counterfeiters, and the unwary can easily be caught out. The message seems to be: if a deal looks too good to be true – it most likely is.

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