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« Does the UCI stifle innovation? | Main | Whoops-a-Daisy »
Tuesday
Feb212012

Open secrets the major bike brands wish you didn’t know

An interesting article has appeared in Cycling IQ; it touches on the subject that is an open secret in the bike industry and among many cycling enthusiasts.

That is all the major brands of carbon fiber road bikes, the ones we see being ridden by the world’s best professional riders in races like the Tour de France, are all made in the same two or three factories mostly in China.

The author of the article asks why are cyclists so fascinated about who put the frame together anyway. I think the answer to that is because cyclists are enthusiasts; we are passionate about our pastime.

Most people’s smart phones are made in China too, and no one really cares. But for whatever reason the major bicycle brand name manufacturers feel obliged to keep the origins of manufacture a secret.

The writer of the article contacted all the major brand names like Specialized, Pinerello, Scott, Felt, and Kona; not one returned his call. He then contacted their respective OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers.) in China, Taiwan, and Cambodia, and found them more willing to talk, but only up to a point. They had all agreed to a certain level of confidentiality with their customers.

So why won’t these major brand name manufacturers "Come out of the closet?" Why do people by a brand name anyway? Is it about confidence in the product, and customer service; knowing that if it breaks it will be replaced? But if the customer knows all the different brands are made in the same place, why should the customer pay more for one brand over another?

Maybe he wants to pay more for the privilege of owning the more prestigious brand. People buy all kinds of designer stuff. Everyone knows that a Lexus is made by Toyota; why didn’t Toyota just make a luxury model with the Toyota name? Because by giving it a different name sets it apart and gives it a higher perceived prestige and value.

One aspect I notice; when I look at the geometry specs for all the different brands, they are all pretty much the same. Not surprising really if they are all coming out of the same mold. Many of the brand name companies boast of RD programs.

So what are these RD engineers doing for their money when today’s frames are basically the same geometry as those made back in the day when lugs somewhat limited the angles one could produce? They have a pool of professional riders to test these bikes. Why is one brand not trying to develope something that rides and handles better than everything else?

There is another take on this article on The Inner Ring. What do you think, or do you even care? Is the consumer being ripped off, or does mass production lead to a better bang for your buck?

 

                        

Reader Comments (20)

I have four bicycles - two have frames built in Taiwan - two have frames built in Eugene (that's in Oregon). Quality? Appears to be pretty much identical. I like the idea of keeping jobs in America but the world, truly, is a global marketplace.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber

The stigma attached to goods manufactured in China is understandable. China is, after all, still a Communist country and history tells us that Communist atrocities were no better than Nazi atrocities. China's human rights record is abysmal. Most of the western world's manufacturing jobs have gone to China due to their low wages. The manufacturing companies still remaining in North America are now surviving by sourcing parts from China just to stay competitive and keep their heads above water. While none of this bothers the "Walmart People", who are only too happy to buy more and more toys for less and less money, we cyclists are more aware of where things are manufactured, and it bothers us. At least that's how I see it.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

Isn't this due to the characteristic that drives 90% of American consumption.....Marketing?

Creating product differentiation, where there is relatively little, is a marketing excercise. And like it or not, the people running big bike companies are, first and foremost, businessmen. And business is driven by the bottom line.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBig Mikey

I don't think you can call it being ripped off. It is a personal choice to buy a bike after all. There is lots of choice in the bike world. I'd like to think that a $199 bike is not the same as $1999 bike, and there is definately a difference in quality. I once visited the Batavus factory in Holland. Their materials are made in China too but assembled in Holland. The manager showed us the difference between a cheap fender and a Batavus fender; he folded them both lenght wise and the Batuvus one simply folded back to its original shape. You don't see it when you see the two bikes next to eachother though...Ultimately, you get what you pay for. Higher end brands will likely have higher margins, but I do have a choice. If I find I get ripped off with a $1990 bike, I shouldn't buy it. That is why I don't have a cell phone either.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHans

"The fakes are being made in the same factory as the genuine products but on the sly, either by the factory owner for extra income or by employees when the boss isn’t looking". I suppose everyone has their own bottom line but too often money trumps pride and honesty.

BigM's point that it's all about "marketing"(PR) is too true.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

My salary comes from the electronics industry, where we have more or less the same thing - most of your consumer electronics, from the iPhone, to an HP laptop to a Sony reader are made by one of three major manfacturers in China. What differentiates the products is design - the iPhone is a very different product from a 'Droid, not because they were made in different factories, but because they were designed by people with different design philosophies.
Bicycle enthusiasts have deprived themselves of being able to benefit from the same sort of choice by having most manufacturers adhere rigidly to UCI requirements, which are irrelevant to the vast majority of bicycle riders. We could easily design racing bikes that would be faster than the ones ridden in the major tours, but we don't because the average Fred wants to buy the same bike that Floyd, Alberto, Lance or some other doper rides - I say that the fact that all these bikes are all the same is our own fault.

I proudly ride a steel frame, made to fit my body and riding style, by a craftsman who lived in the same town as I did when I bought the bike.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Dave, you of all people should know why the geometry on race bikes is so similar. The diamond frame bike has been around for about 130 years with different steering and other geometries for at least 60 of those years before the UCI stepped in and rigidly defined what a "bicycle" was. Once they did that there were only a few combinations of rake, head angle, and fork length that would result in stable, predictable handling with the wheel size in the UCI spec.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOpus the Poet

I find the whole bicycling marketing schtick pretty interesting, especially since most - if not all - of the bigger companies produce their frames off-shore in a few factories - as you mentioned. A few hours of Google searching will get you factory names and info on who has what built where. The links in your post are interesting as well.

You're also correct that most cycling enthusiasts are passionate about their sport or lifestyle. With that, seems to be the illusion or hope that dedicated craftsman with a deep cycling interest are magically and artfully constructing your very frame. For most bikes for sale on the shop floor, not really the case. Especially since carbon fiber frames have become the standard. Sure, the design is important. But the info is now probably emailed over to the factory in China or Taiwan.

Is there anything wrong with this? For the most part, not really. Production bikes ride better then ever. Even for old school "steel is real" me, I still grab my made in China carbon Ibis when heading out for a ride. Why? It rides fantastic and I laugh every time I pull it off the ceiling hook. How can something this light ride so well?

The cool thing is you can have it both ways or just choose a side and still be happy. Since production carbon bikes have become so cookie cutter, the growth of small builders - usually in steel - is super cool to witness. Options and choices abound.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan O

Some clarification on UCI regulations. They do not specify rigid specs and frame tube angles, but give parameters within which certain measurements need to be. This is done to ensure the rider does not end up in a reclining position with an aero advantage.
Within these parameters there is plenty of scope for the frame builder/designer to make variations that can affect the way the bike rides and handles. Frames I built did not have the same specs as those from every other builder, but they were still within UCI regulations.
I do not have a current copy of the UCI frame specs, but I am pretty confident frames I built back in the 1980s would still be within those regs. Most of the recent changes to the UCI frame specs regard frame tube cross sections, and have been brought about to ensure a level playing field regarding aerodynamics.
Dave

February 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

How much difference is there between having an OEM manufacture carbon tubes and parts, and in having Reynolds or Columbus manufacture your steel tubes? I may be showing my naivete' here, but would be interested in knowing.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskylab

Skylab,
I don’t have exact figures for you but a small independent framebuilder will buy a few boxed sets of Columbus tubes along with the required lugs and other parts from a distributer and pay several hundred dollars before he has even started to put the frame together.
I used to buy between 300 and 500 sets of tubes shipped direct to me from Columbus in Italy; (In bulk, not in boxed sets.) then I would buy BB shells and fork crowns direct from Cinelli in similar amounts. This gave me a huge saving. Had I been an operation like Trek for example, I could have bought these by the 1,000s of sets and saved even more.
These factories in China are producing frames by the tens, if not hundreds of thousands; their material cost per frame must be tiny in comparison to that of a small independent builder. The cost of a mold would be high initially, but when spread over the number of frames produced, the per frame cost of the tooling also would be low.
The larger profits generated go into marketing and supporting pro teams in events like the TDF.
Dave

February 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

The thing that always irks me about people running down the "branded Chinese stuff churned out by a couple places!" path is assuming a false equivalancy in construction based on material alone: just as steel isn't just steel, carbon isn't just carbon. If it were, we'd all eBay that budget off-brand carbon frame and it wouldn't be stupid heavy nor ride as lively as a 2x4. Layup and fabrication choices are key to a quality, satisfying carbon frame. Design and engineering are the name of the game, and that's a big part of what you're paying for in a name-brand bike.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterN.I.K.

"China is, after all, still a Communist country and history tells us that Communist atrocities were no better than Nazi atrocities. China's human rights record is abysmal."

Wow! Really?! It's funny how a little bit of information can mislead people into thinking that they are more expert than they really are.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBBQ

Clearly, you have been brainwashed, grasshopper. ;)

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

You took the words right out of my mouth. =)

Here is an interesting read; especially the comment section. http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011/11/where-was-your-bicycle-made-and-does-it.html#comment-form

Anyway, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. John B....let's both agree to disagree. =)

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBBQ

That's a very interesting link, BBQ, and merely reinforces what I wrote. I was just explaining that goods made in China were not necessarily substandard; just that the history and politics of that country makes them suspect in the eyes of the western world.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

BBQ,
Thanks for the link to the "lovelybike" article. I don't think anyone questions the quality of CF frames coming out of the best plants in Tiawan and China. It seems we have no choice anyway as there are no other facilities with the capacity, which is a damn shame.
The issue it seems is the various top of the line brands who use these manufactures then appear ashamed to admit it. It gives the impression that they are trying to hide something or palm off some substandard product on the consumer, when that is probably far from the truth. Lets just have a little transparentcy here.
Dave

February 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

LOL! I'm glad you guys enjoyed the link. I totally agree with what you're saying in your article Dave.

I didn't mean to call you out John B. After reading your latest post and re-reading your first post I see your point now. I misunderstood. Sorry about that.

Anyway, my apologies to everyone for hijacking the comment section and not contributing anything useful to it. I hope I didn't put a weird vibe here. =/

February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBBQ

OEMs in China build to spec for each customer. When you buy a Felt you are getting a far different frame than when you buy a Cervelo made in the same factory. The customer specifies geometry, CF type, wall thicknesses, layup protocol, etc. Interior bladder types, design, and use will greatly affect manufacturing cost and final customer cost, for instance. Molds are proprietary and not shared between "Brands". Manufacturing techniques and specs between "brands" made in the same factory are not shared by the OEMs with their various "brand" customers.
Interestingly, if a brand customer is unprepared or insecure about producing design geometry or manufacturing protocol for a model, the Chinese OEMs can provide the "RD" design work. But, major bike brands do have their own RD staffs who do produce their own design work, and they speicfy that to the spec OEM suppliers.
FYI.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSenior Engineer

Trek manufactures a few thousand bikes, hand built in the USA..
Thousands of different custom paint options (project one).
25 years strait of carbon fiber manufacturing In the patented OCLV process.
To say all carbon is equal is stupid..
The USA models use Canadian or American Carbon fiber materials (for 30 years strait). They too import carbon fiber bikes at lower price points, From China, NO.
Carbon imports are from Taiwan (better)
Hand built in Wisconsin, $4,000 and up (best)
Cust satisfaction. Pride of ownership. Residual value when you choose to upgrade or quit.
Their R & D, engineers, Product department managers must number over 100.
They are involved in advocacy ( over $1 million ) keeping bike paths and mtn trails open.. on the cutting edge of safety, performance.. They only have excellent dealers who properly fit, build and service. I'm proud am proud to be one of them.
You probably think a Hundai Solantra, equals a Camry or and Accord..
Real bike shop brands (and good bike shops) are totally different then the Cheapest imported Carbon.

Peace

June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEddy

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