Manufacturers and brand owners like to claim that fake frames and parts are little better than papier-mâché and will, at some point, collapse. The uncomfortable truth for the industry is that despite YouTube videos that appear to show fake handlebars being crushed with biceps many fake frames and parts are actually almost as tough as the genuine articles; some are perhaps even tougher - it's cheaper to over-engineer a product to make it strong than it is to use all sorts of clever computer programs and complex carbon pre-preg layups. (Over-engineering makes the frames or parts heavier, of course.)
Even genuine products fail - the difference is that consumers who buy pukka products from bona fide retailers can rely on supplier warranties, and if the worst came to the worst the consumer can sue the locally-accountable supplier for any injuries caused by defective products. It would be far harder for a Western consumer to sue a reputable Chinese manufacturer directly, and next to impossible to sue the here-today-gone-tomorrow merchants buying from Cowboy factories.
There are no figures available on how many injuries - or deaths - have been caused by fake products collapsing on riders. Nevertheless, it's probable that it's statistically less safe to ride with products made by factories with little interest in the latest ISO standards and even less interest in cycling itself.
Genuine products may crumple, but they are usually designed so that in the unlikely event of a high-speed failure they crack or split in a relatively predictable way, with the rider hopefully being able to ride to a stop; fake products don't benefit from the same sort of failsafe protocols.
(Some high-end frames from Cream factories use pre-preg sheets embedded with "nanoparticles" that prevent microfractures from spreading which can avoid immediate collapse - such enhancements are expensive yet invisible, and are not used by Cowboy factories.)
Well-made carbon frames are lighter and stronger than their metal equivalents. But not all carbon cycle products - real or fake - are perfect. Some dud ones slip through. The Cream and Competent factories spot more duds than the Cowboy factories - this is because they look and test for them. According to Raoul Luescher of Carbon Bike Repair of Australia, common problems include:
- Delamination - "where the plies are separated and can no longer transfer load."
- Unbond - "when the plies or other fittings were not bonded properly during manufacture."
- Porosity - "dispersed air trapped in the resin during cure causing a reduction in mechanical properties."
- Void - "large, trapped air bubble."
- Cracks - "broken fibres and/or matrix."
The aerospace industry relies on composites. Every carbon part is tested for such problems, usually with non-destructive inspection (NDI) technologies such as ultrasound. The cycle industry doesn't yet test every frame and part with NDI imaging methods.
Luescher uses ultrasound equipment to work out where repairs to the matrix are required.
"I am not aware of any of [cycle] factories doing any ultrasound scans of production frames or parts," Luescher told BikeBiz.
"The data interpretation on a typical frame is not straightforward. I have discussed this with factories in the past, but they are looking for a "go or no go" solution. This is not simple with the shapes and laminates used in a cycle frame.
"Other technologies such as CT scans may be more likely to be used. Larger voids could be found like this. However, they would typically not be able to find porosity."
Carbon Bike Repair works on frames from bona fide manufacturers - branded and open-mould - as well as frames from the fakers.
"I have scanned some of the fakes, mainly Pinarellos," says Luescher.
"The compaction was mainly ok. There was some variability - some were better than others. However, you also can get this in the original brands as well. Overall the laminate was comparable from a porosity and void perspective.
"The unknown is the fibre and resin quality, grade and type as well as the ply orientation. I would need to do destructive tests to identify these parameters. The fakes were similar in weight and wall thickness and there was no sign of low-cost glass fibres in the scans.
"I have seen some bars, forks and rims from the fakes all the way up to the very high-end brands that were full of porosity, voids and other flaws such as wrinkles, which could cause a catastrophic failure or at the very least reduce the life span of the part.
"One thing that was noticeably different [on the fakes] was the poor quality of the headset bearing seats and other fittings."
The frames from the Cowboy factories are getting better, but those from the Competent and Cream factories still rule the roost, says Rob Granville, MD of Carbon Bike Repair of Dorking, Surrey. (No relation to the Oz Carbon Bike Repair.)
"The Competent manufacturers are just about hanging in with the developments and fine tuning that the Cream produce. The Competents have access to some of the processes they see in the Cream factories, but a lot of the advantages are invisible."
He adds: "The manufacturing quality of frames from the Competent factories is generally good. The layup patterns are generally good but in some cases we have had examples of "dry" carbon structural failures where the carbon is not bonded by enough resin. It is either from a low quality supplier or they are chasing weight, we don't know which."
The Cowboy factories are getting better, but still have a long way to go, says Granville.
"The real problem isn't so much that they want to make cheap, dangerous bikes, it's that they don't understand the limits. In many cases the wall thicknesses are inconsistent. This is where we see problems."
In the near future there may at least be a baseline for safety which is accessible by all, even the Cowboy factories. Improvements are in the pipeline for the current international safety standard for bike frames and structural parts: ISO 4210. This is essentially a set of fatigue tests to tick off. The forthcoming changes aim to bring ISO 4210 up to speed with composite materials, although whether Cowboy factories will apply it any more diligently than they do the current version is open to debate. One of the weaknesses of the existing standard is that it was developed before carbon became commonplace, and doesn't take into account carbon's very different build, use and failure characteristics. Experts from the cycle industry, testing laboratories, and trading standards bodies have been working on the composites-specific CEN Technical Committee 333 Working Group 8, or WG8 for short.
"The current fatigue tests are based on the properties of steel and aluminium," says Peter Eland, technical service manager for the Bicycle Association of Great Britain.
"There are differences in fatigue behaviour between metals, but the differences between metals and composites are very much more significant. The key factor is that impacts have a far more significant effect on composite materials than they do on metals. But low-cycle impact loads were not really considered when the [original] tests were agreed."
This means that a composite component could very likely pass all of the fatigue testing specified in the current standard, but could still fail in use.
"This sort of failure was identified in seatposts by some of the major companies producing composites, and they swiftly changed their in-house fatigue testing to be more stringent," says Eland.
(Cowboy factories, which don't tend to test, and don't keep up to date with standards, probably won't be up to speed on such changes.) New tests proposed by WG8 - which includes tech experts from Shimano, SRAM, Trek, Accell Group, and Mavic - will include the effect of temperature on composite rims, which have to withstand burst pressure from the tyres when heated through braking (or being left in a car in the sunshine).
There will also be composite-specific tests for steerer tubes and composite saddle rails. WG8 will make its recommendations in a Technical Report due out soon, and this will eventually become part of the ISO standard for bicycles. Currently, all factories should already be testing to the imperfect ISO 4210 as a minimum. There should also be a paper-trail so that third-parties can see which factories are doing the right tests. Factories making fakes or open-mold frames have little official incentive to carry out proper testing.
Some merchants on Alibaba carry certificates of the standards and testing they are supposed to have carried out. Dig down and these certificates are often many years out of date, not the actual standards required and, anyway, even if all the details appear correct they could be bogus - if a factory is in the business of faking frames it could very well fake its test certificates, too.
"Counterfeiters don't consider safety or standards when building fake goods," Fisher Outdoor Road product manager Tim Bayley told BikeBiz:
"At the start line [of a TT race], I saw a chap's TT-build crumble into three pieces as he tried to mount to begin the race. The route featured a descent that can take you to 45mph, so it could have killed him. Sadly, people will persuade themselves that something's genuine despite it obviously being far too good to be true. Ultimately it's down to the buyer to ask themselves a few questions if they're not buying from a reputable source."
Reputable factories don't just test in-house, and to the standards they are supposed to meet, they also send out their frames and parts to external test houses.
Velo News and Bicycling have both carried excellent articles on the battery of tests that such businesses carry out. Caveat emptor - or buyer beware - is a solid piece of advice for the growing number of enthusiast consumers sourcing frames and parts from China.
But bike shops need to be aware, too. Some have been known to take in open-mould frames - and sometimes even counterfeits - and fit parts, for a fee. This is not a sensible idea because the retailer who works on such a bike becomes the assembler, in effect the manufacturer, and could be held liable should the frame or parts collapse on a rider and cause injury.
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 a PDF, a Kindle file, an eBook and a Word document.