I’ve been an avid competitive cyclist for most of the last 17 years. One of the interesting developments in the cycling industry in the last decade has been emergence of a grassroots, ‘no-name’ manufacturing industry in Asia specialising in carbon fibre. From humble and somewhat disreputable beginnings, the quality and availability of the product has progressed to the point that many thousands of westerners are turning to Taiwan and China in protest at the exorbitant prices demanded for near-identical products by brands in the West, often manufactured in those same Asian factories.
I’ve purchased a number of different Chinese carbon components over the last few years from several different manufacturers, including wheels, frames and handlebars. As I’m often asked questions about purchasing parts from Asia, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a few posts explaining the ins and outs of Chinese carbon, to arm people with the information they need to buy for themself.
What is Chinese carbon, and who makes it?
Chinese carbon refers to small manufacturers of ‘generic mould’ carbon fibre components, mostly in Shenzen province (but manufacturers also exist in other parts of China as well as Taiwan). There are a dozen or so manufacturers which are well-known and trusted in the West, with undoubtedly many more who either haven’t established a sphere of influence amongst Western customers or are considered a bit shonky/poor quality. Many of these manufacturers make most of their money manufacturing components for companies in the US and Europe – their no-name components are essentially a bit of cash on the side.
Chinese carbon manufacturers are often accused of making ‘counterfeit’ components – copies of brand-name designs from Western countries – however this is not the case with reputable manufacturers. Many of the designs are definitely ‘inspired’ by brand-name products (for example, from afar the FM098 mould bears a striking resemblance to a Specialized Venge frame), however up close it is clear to the informed observer that there are many differences to easily distinguish the two. Generic mould designs have rarely undergone wind tunnel testing, and are usually overengineered in order to meet strength and rigidity requirements at a low cost, so they will usually be heavier than brand-name products and their aerodynamic properties have no data behind them.
What parts are available, and how are they made?
Carbon fibre rims/wheelsets, frames, bottle cages, handlebars, seatposts and other components are available. These are manufactured from ‘generic moulds’. To (grossly) generalise, these are designs for which a licence is purchased to replicate the mould, much like an advertising executive may buy the right to include a particular song as the soundtrack for a TV advertisement. Some of these designs are discontinued models from Western manufacturers for which the design has been sold, but many are the work of Asian designers. Frames usually have a model number in the format “FM123” which allows one to identify a design when doing research on the internet.
That said, the designers of these products are smart, and will incorporate whatever design features they (legally) can to make their products perform well and integrate successfully with the other components on modern bikes. The latest deep-dish wheels coming out of China today will perform better aerodynamically than anything Zipp was producing prior to Firecrest, although you will notice the extra weight. The products are often so good that respected Western brands even forego the cost of designing their own products and simply buy a licence to a generic mould themselves – German brand Stevens, for example sells an FM086 time trial frame under the product name ‘Super Trofeo’.
Most Chinese carbon manufacturers will source wheel components such as hubs and spokes from respected manufacturers in Asia and elsewhere to complete their wheelsets. These components are regularly seen on brand name wheels, though not always with the same brand names. Many companies offer choices in hubs, spokes and nipples for a given rim. Again, these parts are high quality and perfectly functional, but can be a tad heavier than top-of-the-line brand name products.
Aren’t Chinese carbon components prone to breaking? What warranties exist?
Chinese carbon manufacturers conduct all the same safety tests on components that western manufacturers do – the last thing they want is to have to fight a lawsuit in the US! While the odd example of failure can be found on the internet, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Chinese carbon components are more prone to failure than anything from a Western manufacturer.
Most reputable Chinese carbon manufacturers offer warranties on their components. While claiming a warranty from a manufacturer in China can be a hassle, there are plenty of stories from happy customers to be found on the internet.
Wheels are usually built by a machine so there can be some imperfections and mistakes, as with most machine built wheels. These can usually be picked up and rectified at minimal cost by taking your new wheels to your local bike shop for a true once you receive them. Also, the finish on some carbon products can be a bit rough, a side effect of keeping costs down.
How are Chinese carbon components presented?
Most manufacturers will sell their components with no brand labels. In many cases, you will be able to choose the weave of the outer layer of carbon (3k, 12k and unidirectional carbon finishes are common – the outer layer of carbon is usually not structural, so having a single ‘presentation’ layer on the outside doesn’t affect the integrity), and/or whether your component comes with a gloss or matte finish. The choices and any additional costs involved depend on the component and the manufacturer.
In addition, many manufacturers have a paint shop, and can (for a cost) paint your frame in a design of your choice. This can be a great option if you’re after that ‘fully custom’ look, or you want to start your own ‘bike brand’.
Sooo… how much money will I save?
The short answer – heaps, if you know what you’re after. A pair of deep dish carbon wheels can be bought for between US$300 and US$600, depending on the particular rims, spokes and hubs you choose. Framesets will typically start at around US$300 for a basic carbon road frame, up to US$6-800 for their most sophisticated time trial or dual suspension MTB frames (note that suspension frames usually won’t come with a rear shock). Add at least US$50-100 for EMS shipping, depending on what/how many you buy. There can be a lead time on some items, but once shipped delivery to Australia usually occurs in around a week.
That’s all for part 1. In part 2, I will guide you through some of the better known manufacturers, and show you how to request a quote and make an order.