Not all frames are created equal. A look deep inside the carbon in counterfeit bikes

Words by Logan VonBokel
Photos by Brad Kaminski and Chris Case

“The speed wobbles were so awful, I had to ride the brakes down the entire mountain,” California rider Mike Parsons said, recounting his experience descending on what he believed to be a close replica of a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4. “I squeezed the top tube with my knees, locked my ankles against the crank arms, and held the handlebars with everything I had just to make the speed wobbles manageable, still watching my front wheel wobble left-right.”

Parsons, a triathlete and former motocross racer, purchased his frame through, a website with the tagline, “Buy smart. Buy direct.” It insinuates that what you’re purchasing comes direct from the brands that are listed on its website.

But that $690 “Scott Foil Premium” frameset is not made by Scott. It’s not from the same mold as Scott’s Foil. The SL4 is not a real SL4. Both are fakes that have been reverse-engineered to be aesthetically similar pseudo-copies.

The assumptions made by consumers seeking a low-cost, Chinese-made copy of a frame might be laughable to people in the industry, but many buyers have rationalized those assumptions, until they, too, experience a similar issue to what Parsons experienced.

“I can’t afford a real S-Works. The replicas are just as good.” “They’re all made in the same factory in China.” “It’s the same mold.”

At Velo, we set out to ascertain how similar these counterfeit frames were to the authentic versions. Did they qualify as “replicas” — or deathtraps?

As we have in every VeloLab test, we enlisted the help of Microbac Laboratories. We asked them to examine Parsons’ counterfeit S-Works Tarmac SL4 and compare it to the genuine article — a 58cm 2014 Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4.

The results are clear: The counterfeit is a poorly-executed, and dangerous, replica.

The test

The counterfeit Tarmac resembles the authentic SL4. The graphics are close, and if we did not have the real SL4 on hand to compare, we would have thought the counterfeit bike had a genuine Specialized paint job. The counterfeit seatpost, too, closely resembled that of the real SL4. However, and most importantly, upon close inspection of the frames, it was clear they are not the same. They are not even close.

First, the counterfeit frame did not come from the same mold as the SL4. If it had, the two frames would have identical geometries; they do not. No tube on the counterfeit frame is the same length as the real SL4.

The weights of the two framesets — frame, fork, headset, seatpost, and seatpost collar — were comparable. The SL4 weighed in at 1,460 grams, while the counterfeit weighed in at 1,570 grams. The weight difference between the framesets alone can be considered a wash, as the counterfeit used a low-quality headset and seat collar — two components that could very easily tack on an additional 100 grams.

The construction of the headset was particularly worrisome. The genuine SL4 uses carbon cups integrated into the frame’s head tube, while the counterfeit uses alloy cups bonded into the frame. Specialized, which has its own testing facility, tested a similar counterfeit frame and found the alloy headset cups would not hold up to even the most elementary of destructive testing. It’s a claim that Velo and Microbac can confirm; the alloy cups in our counterfeit frame displayed considerable play as we secured the frame to the testing jig.

Microbac performed several tests. The first, and least destructive, was a system “stiffness” test. This was performed by vertically loading the frame and fork with 300 pounds of force at the seatpost. The results are measured in the amount of compression, or splay, that the frames demonstrated in force per inch of vertical deflection. The results showed the counterfeit to be over 11 percent less stiff than the SL4.

To some, the difference might sound negligible; however, Steve Ferry of Microbac said, “I think it is a noteworthy difference.” In this game of high performance and marginal gains, 11 percent is a substantial figure.

The next test required Microbac to cut the counterfeit frame and, yes, the brand-new SL4, into several pieces to measure the tensile strength of different parts of the bike. The results of this test were even more telling.

Each frame had sections cut out of the top and bottom of the top tube, as well as out of the top, bottom, left, and right of the down tube. The strength of each cutout was individually tested, and this is where the differences of the frames were magnified. The Tarmac is engineered to ride like a high-performance bike; the counterfeit is designed to simply look like a Tarmac.

The top of the down tube on the Specialized is measurably stronger than the bottom, while on the counterfeit, the top of the down tube is slightly weaker than the bottom. The top of the Tarmac’s down tube has a modulus of elasticity (a measure of a material’s resistance to deformation) greater than 40 million psi. The counterfeit has varying elasticity between 7 million and 10 million psi, at its weakest about a quarter of the modulus of elasticity (see chart). Bike manufacturers love to advertise their high-modulus carbon fiber frames. They often claim to use higher-modulus carbon fiber than their competitors, though a frame has a variety of carbon fabric in it. A Tarmac’s highest-modulus area is the top of the down tube, and it is quite high. The counterfeit frame, despite the fact that Parsons paid for the “higher-end carbon,” apparently used no high-modulus carbon at all.

“In total, this indicates an engineered approach to tune the ride in the Specialized, and just a blunt force approach with the counterfeit,” Ferry said. “They’re just slapping stuff into the mold. If you look at thickness, yield strength, and modulus, the Specialized is much more varied [from tube to tube as well as within each tube] and there is little difference in the counterfeit.”

If it’s too good to be true …

The websites that sell the counterfeit frames appeal to the deal-savvy consumer. In the world of cycling, where exorbitant prices seem to become more commonplace by the season, the attraction is understandable. Unfortunately, the repercussions can be tragic.

“The [S-Works] frame I wanted was $3,500, and over there it was $700. I believed they were using the same molds,” Parsons said of the counterfeit frame he purchased. “There is no scenario [where] I could recommend a knockoff frame to anyone. They’re terrifying. At minimum, it will result in a terrible crash.”

The sellers, mostly from China, seem to be unconcerned with the safety of their product, or the customers who fall for the fakes. Parsons’ pleas to return the frame went unanswered. “I think they strung me along just long enough so that I couldn’t get my credit card [bank] to cancel the transaction, but this was after all the headaches just to get the bike in my hands,” Parsons said.

As with most things, if the price tag looks too good to be true, it likely is. Don’t be the sucker who falls for it.

Could you tell which frame was fake? Here’s a guide to the images shown above:

– Second image from the top: fake
– Third image from the top: Left is real; right is fake.
– Two head tube images: Frame on right is fake in both.
– Splintered carbon image above: fake

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

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