The author thought he was getting a deal on this modern carbon gravel frame. But there was more than meets the eye. Photo: AJ Powell
On December 1, I sent an email to Adam. Everyone on the "weightweenie" forums had suggested he was the person — or at minimum the alias — that I should reach out to. Three days later, I received a PayPal invoice from 钟柱 (Zhōng Zhù) — or according to a Facebook page of the same name, Adam. Proof enough, I guess? Two weeks and a payment of $642 later I was standing in my Brooklyn apartment, holding a carbon fiber gravel bike frame, custom-painted in Pantone 441 C.
I had, against my better judgment, and the judgment of bike shops, friends and the traditional cycling media, bought an open-mold carbon fiber frame from China. It was my magnum opus in a long series of attempts to beat the system and pull one over on the cycling industry, until it wasn't.
The author's open mold bike, in happier times. Photo: AJ Powell
Choosing a Chinese open-mold frame manufacturer
Open-mold frames have fascinated me ever since my dad bought one from eBay in the early aughts. For the unfamiliar, these are frames that are effectively open-source — no one owns the geometry or frame shape, so anyone can use the same mold to stamp out frames of their own. (“Open-mold” is actually a bit of a misnomer. The more accurate term is "open design" or "public mold," but for the sake of this story I'll stick with the popular terminology.)
There was something about the risk of buying an open-mold frame, the unknown and the very real possibility of landing a solidly performing carbon frame for veritable pennies compared to a name brand that lured me in — not unlike a moth to one of those zappers you'd find in your grandparents' backyard. On paper, the risks were more or less the same: Shiny glowing orb; could lead to untimely demise. In my head, however, they were non-existent.
My search, long before I sent Adam an email, started in the depths of the internet's many cycling forums. Filled with pages upon pages of dubious-at-best information, a search for "open-mold carbon frame" yielded fewer results than I would have hoped. Most threads concerned "group buys" — where groups of cyclists had gotten together to meet the minimums required for ordering frames from China. And there was, of course, the chorus of naysayers urging prospective open-molders to throw in the towel and head to the local bike shop.
But after sifting through the noise, there were a handful of threads dedicated to people's positive experiences with open-mold frames. As I pored over them, working my way to the bottom of a glass of whisky, three names kept appearing with favorable reviews: Hongfu, Workswell and Carbonda.
Each frame was quoted to me within $100 of each other. Each factory's website looked like it was built to run on Windows 98.
After narrowing my search to these three providers, it was time to look at the available frames. My inspiration for the build was an Open WI.DE (perhaps an ironic name given the topic), a frame that at $3,200 was well out of my price range. Each factory seemed to make a comparable gravel frame — options to run 650b or 700c, plenty of rack and fender mounts and geometry that was close enough to the real thing.
At the time, I was on the hunt for a bike to race the Barry-Roubaix 100, a 100-mile gravel race in the hills around Barry County, Michigan. It was my motivation to stay in shape through the winter: Long enough to force me to train, close enough to a friend's house, who I could visit for a few days, and different enough that I'd have to build a new bike for it. Ah, there’s the real motivator.
So what's left to split the difference when choosing an open-mold frame that you can't ride before you buy? In my experience, not much. Each frame was quoted to me within $100 of each other. Each factory's website looked like it was built to run on Windows 98. What was left? The email addresses I'd been corresponding with: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Seemed like an easy enough choice.
The paper trail. Photo: AJ Powell
Building and riding my open-mold carbon frame
So there I was in my living room, 30 days later, holding a bike the cycling industry had told me I shouldn't ride. There were times throughout the process, of course, that I worried I'd never see the fruits of my funds, that I'd sent my money off to someone somewhere that had nothing to do with bikes. But all the while, Adam remained responsive; sending me wiring charts, periodic updates and even a photo once my frame had been painted.
As I went through the meditative process of building the bike, torquing each bolt, routing Di2 cables and wrapping then rewrapping my bar tape, everything checked out. The headset, thru-axles, brakes and bottom bracket all fit. The cables snaked through the frame with what I can only describe as the typical frustrations. To my largely untrained eye, things looked straight and smooth. Granted, I don't have the engineering prowess of a certain YouTuber fond of taking down questionable engineering across the cycling industry.
The performance of the frame checked out as well. Was it supple enough for ripping through rough singletrack? Certainly not. But for the chunky, undulating gravel roads I aimed to grind, it would do nicely. It was stiff, responsive, and at times a bit uncomfortable. In my opinion, everything a race bike should be.
On dirt, the open mold Carbonda frame seemed to deliver on its promise of affordable performance. Photo: AJ Powell
The problem with Chinese open-mold carbon frames
If this is the result of sourcing a frame direct from the factory in China, why is it such a faux-pas? What's the big deal? In my experience, the stigma around open-mold frames comes from questions of quality control, R&D, and material sourcing. In a lot of cases, that stigma is founded. But the cycling industry’s dirty secret is that many "brand name" companies actually source from the providers I've named here — yet no one questions the integrity, R&D legitimacy or quality control of a frame with a name brand behind it. But maybe they should.
For Brady Kappius of Broken Carbon, it comes down to the fact that you never really know what you're getting when you purchase a frame directly from an overseas factory. "It might have the same geometry, tube shapes and from the outside look identical, but they might be manufacturing in a totally different facility that has totally different standards," said Kappius on a call late last month. "The layup schedule might be totally different. They might be using different fiber types, too."
"It might have the same geometry, tube shapes and from the outside look identical, but they might be manufacturing in a totally different facility that has totally different standards." — Brady Kappius, Broken Carbon
At the time of publication, there are at least 10 brands currently selling the exact same frame shape and geometry that I purchased direct from China, with prices ranging from $2,350 to $5,960 for complete bikes — two brands even list the frame alone for as much as $1,795. A far cry from the $642 it took for me to acquire the same frame. "There are lots of intermediaries that, you know, say that they make this bike, but now they're going to their buddy down the street, and acting like they're the manufacturer, but they're not really," says Kappius of the often secretive relationship of bike manufacturers to factories overseas.
In other words, some of these brands may claim to make the frame, but in reality they are just a middleman. Even in the world of open-mold frames, you have entities that purport themselves to be manufacturers, but they are actually sourcing frames from yet another factory — effectively acting as middlemen themselves.
The end of my open-mold frame experiment
So, how did my frame fare? Did it prove the stigma, naysayers and tales of caution right? Or did I beat the system and score the deal of a lifetime?
After only a few hundred miles of riding, the open mold carbon frame had a hairline crack. Photo: AJ Powell
In less than 500 miles of riding, I had a crack in the drive-side rear dropout. And I'm glad I found it; even hairline cracks in a carbon frame compromise its integrity and pose serious risk to the rider. My habit of exhaustive winter maintenance on my bikes paid off yet again. A full drivetrain teardown revealed the crack, which extended from the dropout toward the front of the bike along the chain stay. The sleek Pantone 441 C frame never even got the chance to glide over the pea-sized-gravel roads of Barry County, Michigan (anyway, the race was cancelled due to COVID-19).
Surely a hairline crack in such a short time and limited mileage would be covered under the two-year warranty that Carbonda claims to offer, right? In 25 emails, only three of which were responded to, I was offered no recourse. Lesson learned.
But there will always be those looking for a great deal on a high-end bike — myself included. What options are we left with? For Kappius, there is really only one option. "Really the only option there that makes any sense is to buy used," he said. "It's just not worth the risk of going directly to a manufacturer and getting a frame."
As attractive as open-mold frames are for cyclists on a budget, you just never know what you're getting. On top of the 10 companies selling branded versions of the exact frame I bought, there are a further four (at least) claiming to be factories making that frame — one of which is even available through Walmart.com. (We won't even count the options on Alibaba and AliExpress.)
"It's just not worth the risk of going directly to a manufacturer and getting a frame." — Kappius
While frame tube shape plays a part, the biggest determining factor in the quality of a carbon bicycle frame is the layup schedule, and for an amateur bike mechanic in the market for a frame, there's just no way to know whether or not that's up to snuff in the open-mold market. In fairness, there isn't an easy way to determine that from a known U.S.-based bicycle brand either, but at least you know there is rigorous QC, the brand (if big enough) probably owns its own factory and at minimum, there will be someone ready to answer your email should you have a problem.
My research and experience is by no means exhaustive — for as many stories as you read like mine, you'll probably read the story of a lucky internet sleuth who had no problems with their open-mold frame. But is it really worth the risk? The 50-50 toss up? I'll leave you with my takeaway, which is this: Next time, ditch the mold and just get the Open. You'll be better off.
Editor's Note: AJ Powell is a freelance writer and the opinions expressed here are his own. Many riders have good and bad experiences with open-mold frames, YMMV. Certified Pre-Owned bikes are not covered by factory warranty, but are inspected by expert mechanics to confirm they are free of damage. Damaged frames are professionally repaired by Broken Carbon with a 5 year warranty on repair work.