MBR delves into the world of counterfeit bikes and cheap reproductions. Are they a bargain, or a disaster waiting to happen?
We found a bargain – a brand new carbon frame, complete with VPP lower link driven shock layout and Santa Cruz good looks for less than $1,000. If that sounds too good to be true though, it really is, because the bike we saw isn’t actually made by Santa Cruz. Instead, your $1,000 frame is fabricated by Winow Sports and made in Guangdong, China – it’s got 150mm travel, comes in eight colours, sells through alibaba.com, and is a near copy of the original.
We’re not suggesting Winow Sports has done anything illegal here, because the VPP link patent has expired and the words “Santa Cruz” do not appear on the listing or bike. But to any right-thinking rider, the bikes are identical to the eye. We reached out to Winow Sports, which told us that there are some “data changes” that also mean Santa Cruz is unable to ask them to stop production, no patents having been breached.
While hunting out the Winow Sports bikes (the company makes plenty more than just the Santa-Cruz-alike) we also stumbled across a slew of other bikes from various sellers that bear striking resemblances to other mainstream brands’ offerings. And a bike that looked suspiciously like a Specialized Stumpjumper, complete with Sidearm suspension design, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale after we pointed it out to Specialized.
You can break the fake road Aerofly handlebars with your bare hands
So, with huge savings to be made for consumers with frames selling at less than a third the price of the real thing, is it in your best interests to buy a near-replica ride?
Absolutely not, Specialized says. But then it would say that, wouldn’t it? “One quality that makes it tough to differentiate is paint is often pretty good,” says Andrew Love from Specialized. “But you don’t ride paint.”
Are counterfeit and reproduction bikes safe?
Why shouldn’t we opt for something that looks just as good as the original, we asked, and save ourselves some money? They are problematic principally because they’re dangerous, Love told us. He’s the man in charge of brand security and tasked with stopping the fakes. “They contain inferior carbon and incomplete layup – you can break the fake road Aerofly handlebars with your bare hands,” he says.
There are serious safety concerns, with misaligned frames, weak carbon and a lack of precision in terms of wall thickness and quality control.
When we put the question of safety, testing and regulation adherence to Winow Sports, they responded initially (and the response is transcribed below verbatim), then conversation dried up.
“Sorry I am not going to make business like an interview. My bike so far no quality issue and we sell a lot but if it suits your country or EU or not I have no idea! We sell all over the world and so far no issue on the rules to limits or not. If you are going to sell you have to check your country or EU rules if have limits or not.”
Bikes sold in the UK must adhere to the European General Product Safety Regulations (GPSR) standard, which has been carried over after Brexit. That means manufacturers need to ensure a bike is safe, that buyers are told about any risks inherent in using it, and that there’s recourse should things go wrong.
Does the Winow Sports brand sign up to GPSR? The short answer was no, with the erroneous suggestion this is something the distributor is solely responsible for.
Buying a copycat bike is a dangerous game
“These counterfeiters are selling to foreigners who can never find them,” Andrew Love said of the fake Stumpjumper. “They have zero motivation or concern for safety. I say this because we see the same safety concerns in bikes as counterfeit helmets. They are absolutely deadly and offer no protection for riders at all. Their focus is the appearance of the product and hitting as low of a price point as possible, but provides zero functionality for what a helmet should have by cutting corners.”
There are other concerns too, with no recourse should things go wrong and no support in the event of the product breaking. “The sales outlets move all the time. Riders get no recourse when something goes wrong (frame cracks or wheel misalignment, seatposts not staying fixed in place, etc).”
“Not comparable bikes”
Specialized has plenty to lose from knock-off bikes, not least sales and a potential loss of reputation if riders get mixed up and assume the knock-offs are the real thing. But do we as riders lose out going down this road and buying direct from China? Would you buy one?
“Naaah, at least not until a bunch of others tested it first, but even then dubious quality control between individual frames would put me off. The injury risk is needless. Rather just take my steel hardtail out and know it’s bomb proof,” said Drwilliams, via Instagram.
A quick straw poll on social media showed a pretty even split between those who’d buy directly from China and riders who’d want the real deal.
There’s also a strong belief out there that these bikes are made in the same factories as the original products. “Those frames have a good chance to be made in the same place, in the same moulds. Ya know – ‘after hours’. Carbon is such a commodity there, and they honestly make excellent components,” said powertrip via Instagram.
This is certainly not the case with our Chinese Stumpjumper here, because the Morgan Hill brand makes all its high-end frames in Taiwan rather than the mainland. Its argument against getting a fake bike is that they’re of inferior quality too, made in inferior moulds, and “are not comparable bikes,” in the words of Andrew Love.
To protect itself, and consumers, Specialized reckons it removes 40-50 listings a day across various sales and social media platforms. It’s more than just whack-a-mole though, according to Love, the brand goes after the factories in China that make the stuff and distributors across Europe and the US that bring it in, following the money chain just as the police does against organised crime.
“We fight, full spectrum, in every way we can,” Love says. “Something that is equally as important is rider education. It’s important to bring these issues to light any way possible so that they make educated and informed purchase decisions, not just looking at the cheapest price on the internet.”
Buying a copycat bike is a dangerous game to play in our view, because you risk your money and your health on a bike without warranty or quality control. Buying some fake CK underwear online or a stunning new “Rolex” from a market stall on holiday is one thing, because they don’t really have to work properly to perform their function.
A bike is another level though. We need to trust it not to break under normal circumstances, and we don’t think you can put your faith in a knock off.
- Best mountain bikes tried and tested by MBR: the ultimate trail, enduro and cross-country bikes
- Best electric mountain bike: join the riding revolution!
- Best mountain bike helmets: a bunch of brilliant brain savers