“I knew they would be coming,” Love, the company’s head of brand protection, investigation and legal enforcement, recalled.
Contador’s success was ultimately short-lived — the title was revoked two years later because of doping — but that had nothing to do with Love’s fear: that Contador’s victory aboard the Specialized carbon fiber bicycle frame would hasten the arrival of copies from China, where there has been a surge in counterfeit high-end bikes, wheels and even helmets.
Unlike, for example, a fake Rolex watch that stops ticking, fake cycling products can have dangerous consequences, several manufacturers said.
“The wheels just kind of fall apart,” said Chad Moore, the global brand manager for Mavic, a long-established wheel maker based in France. “It really just becomes an enormous safety issue for consumers.”
The rise of the knockoffs has been fueled by online retailing, the nearly universal adoption of carbon fiber for racing cycles and the general outsourcing of bicycle production to Asia, but the appeal is, quite simply, price. The use of carbon fiber in bicycle frames and wheels has raised the price of a high-end racing bike to the level of a modest used car. The frame and fork of the Specialized S-Works Tarmac bike that Contador has ridden on most stages at this year’s Tour have a list price of $4,000. Adding on the wheels and components similar to those that Contador uses bumps the final price to nearly $10,000.
Fake versions of Contador’s bike, or others now being ridden at the Tour, are about half that price on Chinese websites like DHGate and AliExpress, the consumer site of Alibaba, and they can be as little as $500.
Counterfeits of prestigious bike brands have a long history. But in the era of steel or aluminum frames, the deception was usually obvious even to an unskilled eye. The frames were usually substantially heavier than those they were imitating, the workmanship immediately obvious as inferior.
As their name might suggest, carbon fiber bicycles have almost as much to do with textiles as with traditional bike building. They are made of upward of 500 pieces of fabric woven from carbon fibers — a material pioneered by the aerospace industry — which are carefully built up in molds, impregnated with epoxy resins and then cured, usually with a combination of heat and pressure.
The complexity of their assembly gives counterfeiters a variety of ways to cut corners while still producing a bike that, from the outside at least, looks like the real thing.
The high-strength carbon fiber that legitimate manufacturers use allows them to produce a strong bike while using less material to save weight; high-end frames typically weigh less than two pounds. Forgers, on the other hand, use weaker, less expensive grades of carbon fiber, Love said, and they also use far less of the material than safety and performance standards would dictate. Inadequate epoxy and improper curing can also be problems.
Moore, the global brand manager for Mavic, said that the differences between proper and improper techniques could largely be invisible.
“With carbon, a lot of it is how you build the products, whether it is a frame or a wheel,” Moore said, adding, “When you take a deep-dish carbon wheel, put a sticker on it and put it on a website, it’s hard for a consumer to tell.”
Maria Adams, the brand protection manager for SRAM, a bicycle-parts maker based in Chicago, said that initially counterfeiters did not, or could not, include the distinctive golf-ball-like surface dimples of her company’s Zipp carbon wheels on their knockoffs. But now, she said, “they’re getting better; they’re getting the dimpling down.”
There are no statistics on injuries related to counterfeit bikes and wheels. But this spring, Velo, an American cycling magazine, had an engineering lab compare fake and genuine versions of a Specialized S-Works Tarmac frame. While the magazine said that the two frames were difficult to distinguish from the outside, the testing showed that the counterfeit varied in dimensions from the real bike — which can substantially affect handling — and had as little as one-quarter of the genuine frame’s strength.
To make high-end racing helmets, the authentic versions of which can cost nearly $300, companies like the California-based Specialized and Giro mold some of their helmets around expensive composite roll cages to reduce weight without compromising strength. Because the roll cage is invisible to buyers, counterfeiters simply omit it, resulting in a substantial price difference: Knockoffs of the Giro Aeon helmet, which sells for about $200, can be found online for $50.
“It’s unfortunate that helmets are put out there that bear only surface similarities without offering adequate protection,” said Martin H. Nguyen, general counsel for BRG Sports, the parent company of the helmet brands Giro and Bell. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Nguyen is one of several lawyers in the bicycle industry whose departments are trying to shut down makers and sellers of counterfeits, a process he compared to the game Whac-a-Mole.
The identity of the knockoff manufacturers is, not surprisingly, murky. Production may involve the theft of tools and materials by employees at contract bicycle manufacturers in Asia, and some in the industry believe that some bicycle industry contractors may produce black-market goods on the side. And it is also believed that some makers of other carbon fiber products, like auto parts and tennis rackets, are in on the trade.
To avoid counterfeiting problems with subcontractors, Mavic moved all of its carbon production back to Europe. Zipp has always made the carbon rims for its wheels in Indianapolis.
Specialized and SRAM have been working with the Homeland Security Department to block fakes, and Adams, the brand protection manager for SRAM, said that some overseas customs services, particularly in Belgium, regularly stopped the fakes at their borders.
Love, the head of brand protection at Specialized, has become arguably the industry’s leading anticounterfeit crusader. His approach has involved working with the federal authorities to shut down counterfeiters by tracing their finances and seizing their money.
Still, many prestigious bikes come from relatively small companies that lack Specialized’s legal resources.
For Adams, part of the solution should be buyers’ accepting reality.
“There’s such a big gap — $400 a pair compared to $2,000 a pair for wheels — I’d be surprised if buyers didn’t know that they’re counterfeit,” she said. “I would hope that the more educated ones would realize that the quality is not the same.”