So, you’ve been surfing eBay looking at new bikes, and you keep seeing carbon frames at ridiculously low prices offered by sellers in China. There has to be a catch, right? Either the Chinese carbon frame must be crap, or you’ll plunk down your hard-earned cash and nothing will ever show up. Here’s the story of my personal quest to find out.
High-end bike prices have exploded over the last 30 years
When it comes to riding and the bikes I ride, I’m conflicted when it comes to quality vs. price. That’s because I worked for over ten years in a bike shop with a generous employee discount and got used to riding the very best of everything. However, when I first got serious about road cycling in the late 80s, you could buy a top-of-the-line bike for about two thousand bucks. That’s an Italian frame like a Colnago or Cinelli equipped with a Dura-Ace or Campagnolo groupset – basically the equivalent of what any pro team was riding at the time. Today, it’s not uncommon to spend ten thousand or more.
Let’s dig into that for a second. If you plug the numbers into the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, something that cost a dollar in 1990 would cost you almost two dollars today. Over 30 years, prices have doubled. So, if our top-of-the-line bike from 1990 would cost you in the neighborhood of $4,000 today, it’s a giant leap to the ten grand or more demanded for today’s high-end bikes.
Yes, I know. Carbon was in its infancy in 1990, and all you have to do is pick up a vintage bike from those days to be astonished at how light today’s bikes are – not to mention new gadgets like hydraulic disk brakes and electronic shifting. Still, apart from raw materials, I’m not sure I believe R&D and manufacturing costs have exploded by another 200 percent. Maybe they have.
Yes, I’m cheap
Anyway, while I love all the new technology invented over the past few decades, I can’t bring myself to shell out tens of thousands on a new ride. For one thing, I frankly don’t have the wallet, but mostly, it’s because I know my “racing” days are long over, and I think cycling equipment is incredibly overpriced. I understand that manufacturers are dealing with lower sales volumes than, say, car makers, and that drives up costs, but I still think Shimano charging nearly $200 for a replacement Dura-Ace cassette is nuts – even if it’s supposedly made of “unobtainium.” The list of overpriced bike gadgets goes on and on. My attitude has meant that I’ve been a relatively slow adopter of new technology.
He’s gotta have it
Several years ago, I just had to have a new mountain bike. I was still riding a 26-incher with rim brakes, and I was in love with both 29ers and tired of rebuilding wheel sets when I had ground the brake channels on rims down to a dangerous paper thickness riding in muddy conditions. Being the cheapskate that I am, instead of buying a whole new bike I decided to upgrade what I had with a new frame, wheels, and brakes. This is always the point that my bike snobbery gets me into trouble. I never want to ride a brand that everyone else has. Companies like Trek or Specialized make great products, but they all say Trek or Specialized on them. Even for an expert like me, it’s hard to tell a $1,500 bike from $10,000 one unless I carefully study the components.
Yes, I know how pathetically shallow this sounds, but deep down I tend to think riding something more exotic quickly sets you apart and makes a statement about your personality and sense of style. So, looking for a new frame, my need for something “stylish and unique” quickly collided head-first with my unwillingness to plunk down great wads of dollars. That’s when I started cruising eBay like a John looking for a cheap hookup along skid row.
What if I buy a Chinese carbon frame?
When you start perusing bike frames for sale on eBay, you’re quickly inundated with listings for generic carbon fiber frames shipping from China that cost a fraction of name-brand products for sale here in the U.S. At first, my instinct was “if it’s too good to be true then it probably is,” but then I was tempted. Like everyone confronted with this conundrum, I struggled with “How stupid is it to buy a Chinese carbon frame?” There’s every chance you’re sending money overseas for an inferior product that may not even ever arrive with no effective way to go after the person who scammed you other than to ask for a refund and hope eBay gives it to you.
The rationale that I finally used to talk myself into it ran something like “a new high-end name-brand carbon frame costs $1,500. Even if I break this $400 Chinese knockoff in 6 months, I could replace it almost four times for the same price.” So, I held my breath and ordered a carbon hardtail mountain bike frame from Hong Kong.
The first thing that surprised me was how quickly it arrived. It was waiting on my doorstep in under two weeks. The next was how clean the product manufacturing was. I was expecting to have to deal with sketchy cable routing and difficulties getting parts to bolt on, but there was none of that. One issue I did encounter was the lack of a detailed description in the product listing. It’s a problem I often see for these types of eBay frames. I had to wait for it actually to arrive and I could take measurements before ordering parts like a seat clamp and front derailleur.
The most fun part for me was that the frame was a blank canvas ready for my own “branding.” I found a company online that sells custom sticker lettering and used their choice of fonts to make my own “Slacker” brand. After that, the assembly was easy, and I was ready to hit the trails.
So, after riding the bike now for a few years, I’m ready to talk about the experience. First of all, the frame has not broken, and I’m not a light guy (200lbs). There has been one issue. Being an old school bike mechanic, any kind of noise drives me nuts and invokes an almost primal need to track it down and fix it. In my mind, squeaks and clicks equate to something that’s about to break. I’ve come to realize that carbon bikes just naturally make a lot of unnatural noises, but almost right away with my hardtail the bike produced a cracking/creaking sound from the integrated headset area that no amount of trying solutions like putting carbon paste or grease in there seemed to help longer than just briefly.
Interestingly, the bike came with a seller-provided sealed bearing headset. About a month ago, I rode the bike in the rain and came back to it in my garage a couple of days later to find both the upper and lower headset bearings had rusted solid. Replacing them has not only freed up the headset but now the creaking is gone too. All I can figure is the original headset was crap, but because it was turning freely before, it never occurred to me to replace it as a possible noise solution.
Buy Chinese carbon frame part deux
After so much success with the mountain bike, I wanted to go disk on the road too and sold my old Merlin titanium in favor of another generic Chinese carbon frame. I got a cyclocross model and two wheelsets so I can either use it on the road or gravel.
This time I also bought the wheelsets and some other parts direct from China, and so I have a wide range of experiences with the process. For one thing, the shipping times can be all over the place. The second frame arrived in under a week – less time than it takes to get a package via UPS from California to the East Coast. A set of Shimano brake rotors ordered the same day took three weeks.
Again, I’ve been very happy with the manufacturing and quality of the frame. I will admit to being a little more nervous about this one because I’m putting my life in the hands of a no-name Chinese carbon fork instead of the trusty Fox fork I installed on my MTB, but so far nothing has broken.
Overall, I’d call the purchases very positive experiences. Having my very own “Slacker” brand bikes strokes my vanity of course, but they’ve been very dependable bikes that are incredibly light yet durable.
In closing, I’d like to say please don’t take this as a blanket endorsement for buying generic frames from China.
While some sellers offer a “warranty,” I personally would assume there’s no warranty – period. What are you going to do? Try to contact the seller in two years and then ship the frame back to China? The cost of that makes it prohibitive even if you really could find the seller.
You should especially not fall for the high number of supposedly name brand bikes for sale from China. There are many reports of knockoff Pinarellos spectacularly breaking in half because of shoddy construction.
Moreover, not only are there plenty of potential pitfalls for dealing with sellers that might rob you blind or send you an inferior product, but you also need to be very knowledgeable about what you’re getting yourself into and have the required mechanical experience to build up your own bike. Ordering something cheap and then showing up at your local bike shop to bail you out because you’re out of your depth technically is NOT cool, and they’re very likely to tell you so. If you don’t have the knowledge, pay your local bike shop for for one of their bikes and the proper setup. It’ll be worth it in the end.