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I bought an open mold carbon frame from China. I wouldn’t do it again.

By AJ Powell

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Open mold bike frame made in China
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.

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Open mold carbon gravel bike
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: info@workswell.com, hongfubikes@126.com and adam@carbonda.com. Seemed like an easy enough choice.

Invoice for open mold carbon frame
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.  

Open mold gravel bike on the trails
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?

Cracked open mold carbon frame
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. 

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34 comments


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  • Carbonda makes the frames for the OB1 bike by the American company Thesis. (See https://cyclingtips.com/2019/08/thesis-ob1-long-term-review-good-performance-lots-of-custom-options/) You are unlucky to have a negative experience with Carbonda. Direct to consumer purchases from China can be quite enjoyable and empowering.

    Mat Hayashi on

  • The Pros Closet has a vested interest in people buying used bikes, so please excuse my reluctance to believe that it anything more than a crack in the paint.

    Ryan on

  • It seems a little disingenuous to publish this article, whose author documents a possible crack in the carbon structure (versus a cosmetic crack in the paint job, as others have pointed out, and the truth of which is unknown to the reader), for a sample size of 1, and who ultimately concludes that buying a used name-brand bicycle or frame (that may also be subject to failure, as supported by the link within the article) may be more reliable than buying an “open mold” frame direct from a vendor representing an Asian factory.

    But for anyone who may be new to cycling or unfamiliar with the discussion of Chinese “open mold” carbon frames and components, there are hundreds if not thousands of web pages written over the past 10+ years discussing this in mind numbing detail on a multitude of online forums. So it’s simply a matter of digging around online to find reports from users whose consensus for a given frameset is favorable.

    And if you talk to enough cyclists or read enough discussion boards, then you’ll also hear or read firsthand accounts from those who were “just riding along”, when model X frameset from name brand Y failed after Z period; and you’ll also hear or read how well or poorly brand Y addressed the issue to the consumer’s liking.

    The point is that buying an “open mold” frame does not automatically doom one to a lemon that is certain to fail, the same as buying a frame from a name brand automatically guarantees against such failure.

    Ultimately, some prioritize paying a premium for the peace of mind that a name brand may provide (whether actual or merely perceived), while others prioritize saving hundreds of dollars while accepting potentially increased risk.

    Personally, I think risk can be mitigated to some extent by digging around online to see what others’ firsthand experience is for a specific frameset sold by a specific vendor, regardless of whether it’s for a name brand frame or a generic “open mold” frame.

    another dave on

  • If the carbon was going to crack, it wouldn’t crack there as a large amount of material will be piled into the dropouts. You can buy direct from manufacturers, but don’t expect the warranty to be honoured easily. All three factories you’ve mentioned set up their business to produce solutions to small bike brands and shops buying in quantity, and it’s up to them to provide the aftercare, which is what you pay for in any brand. Your paint probably didn’t have enough cure time before building and riding it which is why it will have cracked, plus, the standard of factory painting isn’t typically very high. Better to buy from a brand if you value customer support, whether that’s built from an open mould or not.

    Tim on

  • Is there a dedicated Trek carbon frame factory in China or Taiwan or are they using multiple CF frame suppliers? Are they taking the highest bid? Are they 100% inspecting every Frame or Fork?
    I know someone who was failing so many Trek fat bike frames they switched back to A-Loo-meany-um for daily use. I bet Trek likes to maximize profits.

    Ben on

  • as others have pointed out, this is almost definitely a crack in the paint but not the carbon.

    if you had a new trek, specialied, etc. and tried to warranty it for this they would laugh in your face.

    dave on

  • Part of the the enjoyment I get out of cycling comes from appreciating and admiring the bikes that I ride. Hence, I like metal bikes that were designed and made by a craftsman. I suppose the same appreciaion is possible with carbon frames— the engineering of them really is admirable— but they just don’t do it for me…even the ones from “proprietary molds” (or whatever the correct term may be). And an “open mold” frame just seems to reduce everything down to a “commodity”. That’s fine for many but…No Thanks. It is interesting that the conclusion here is to “buy used” if you want “a deal”. Well under that scenario, in many cases, not only will you not know much about how the carbon frame as original made but you also won’t know what abuse it has taken.

    Hoogle Da Boogle on

  • You say that the frame is cracked, but did you try removing the paint to see if it’s actually a crack in the carbon and not just the finish?
    Did you try screwing the thru-axle in from the outside and using it as a lever to see if the crack will open?
    I’m not defending Carbonda, but based on what’s in the article, it seems that perhaps you’re skewering them before you fully investigated the issue.

    Brian Nystrom on

  • It has been asked here already, but I will ask again. How do you know the crack isn’t just in the paint? Have you actually sanded it down and inspected the carbon?

    Rod on

  • Now my adherence to 2000-era Scandium and Ti doesn’t seem so Luddite, does it? X-D

    I have lurked for quite some time in the Cheap Chinese Carbon forums, and done prelim investigation. Never pulled the trigger, but like many, I have been drawn to this intriguing gamble. Like most of life, expectation management will go a long way toward determining how this works out for you.

    Mike on

  • You get what you pay for. China can pump cheap and bootlegged products: between ignoring I.P.,using slave labor and cutting corners it is much easier. Have a friend whose bike’s fork just failed without warning. He woke up later that day in the hospital follow the face plant at 20mph.

    Gordon on

  • Sorry to hear of your less than stellar experience with “Andy”.
    Even the big name manufacturers can have problems with carbon fiber. I purchased a Look 675 Light in 2012 which cracked at the headset/down tube juncture after only about 300 (road only) miles. Look representatives denied my request to warranty the damaged frame- it was less than 8 months old. I had registered the warranty immediately after my purchase and had the dealers statements concerning the damage, but no results. As the bike was quite pricey, and a new frame set was quoted in the $1100 range, I had an attorney contact the rep. A couple of weeks later a new shiny frameset arrived at my dealer’s door- much to my surprise as the outcome of the attorney’s conversation with the Look rep was not promising. Apparently the attorney was $75 well spent and I have had no further issues with the replacement. It now wears full Shimano 9100 drivetrain, weighs in at a respectable 14lbs 5+oz and rides like a dream. I probably will never buy another Look due to this past experience, but have been quite satisfied once the frameset was replaced and have ridden at lest 2k miles / year on road, and about the same on the trainer through the winter with regular maintenance tear downs snd professional inspections.

    Gunny1951 on

  • It’s a shame about the crack, but I’ve been very happy with my Carbonda cfr696 frame that I bought in June. I’ve put almost 2K miles on it, and it’s a pure joy. Just ordered one for my wife. Open mold prices are so low that poor warranty service shouldn’t be a deal-breaker; you could buy two frames to have one as a backup and still spend less than you would for a frame with fancy branding stickers from the same factory. Open-mold carbon is a disruptive threat to the bike industry that will grow as more people realize how much they’re paying for big-brand stickers to impress their riding buddies.

    Dan N on

  • This is definitely an unbiased report (and an N of 1) from a website/company that profits from selling used bikes at exorbitant prices (please note the sarcasm). What do we suggest?! Buying a used bike–of course!

    Brian on

  • I rode an open mold road frame and fork for over two years. It was clearly a copy of a Kuota (Kredo if I am not mistaken). I had no problems whatsoever and it still hangs in my garage with 1st gen SRAM Force group and Mavic Elites. It wasn’t an off road bike so it didn’t take a beating . I have several pairs of Farsports wheels that have been bombproof. I can afford brand names now but that bike road amazingly and the 3k weave is still beautiful.

    Stpehen D'amico on

  • “Buy used” is the best alternative recommendation in this article. That comes with risks as well (factory warranties don’t extend beyond the original purchaser). The Felt CX bike I bought here a few years back has been to the carbon repair shop three times for three separate cracks. Some have advised me, “you should just replace that fragile Felt frame with a Chinese open-mold”

    Mike Schrankel on

  • The gist of the article is to buy a used bike if you want to save money. To me it doesn’t make sense to buy used if the bike is only 10-20% cheaper than new. Then you may as well suck it up and save for a little longer or else pay the bike off in installments.

    Ed on

  • Strange how the conclusion is to buy a used bike. Should it be certified by an online seller too?

    My own antidotiaI experience is, not surprisingly, different. I purchased a road bike as part of a group buy circa 2007-8 from a reseller I think was trying to start a business (Pedal Force).

    I equipped it with modern for the time Campagnolo Record and have had no problems since. Done. Not very exciting and I didn’t have to take up 3 pages writing my experience.

    Tom on

  • can we see the photo of the whole crack CS, from drop out to the BB?

    Ves on

  • A used bike sale organization with an article telling you open mold carbon is dangerous! Seem like a conflict of interest to me, I guess I should not buy new open mold frame and instead over pay on a used bike from the proscloset that is perfect!

    Jon on

  • Fact is, any carbon frame can crack. Buying used carbon frames that aren’t warrantied is probably just as much a risk as buying “open mold”.

    Chris on

  • I know Boltcutter is a re-seller of these frames. Are you also saying Viathon is? Blink twice.

    Anthony Lane on

  • I’m on my fourth chinese carbon frame, and overall Ive had very good luck, as have most of the people that keep buying them. Ive had a few warranty issues, some of which have been repeat, and some have even required me to engineer my own homebrew fix, but Ive never had a problem with a warranty issue, theyve always come through, albeit slowly. I guess that stresses the importance of buying from a reputable vendor as opposed to the lowest bidder.

    Still, I have to suspect that your bread and butter comes from name brand North American based retailers, and thus I have to eye your review with a bit of suspicion. Had things come up rosy, I doubt this article would be published so prominently. And without knowing the details of the 28 emails sent back and forth, we cant ascertain how reasonable either party’s requests were. It would be all too convenient to blame the reseller, when really maybe they were waiting on you to sand down a bit to see if the crack was merely the paint, or perhaps they asked you to cover shipping and you refused to strike a compromise. But assuming everything on your side was still on the up and up, there’s still a bit of “lost in translation” that takes some familiarity to overcome. And lastly, it comes back to dealing with a reputable vendor. The sellers Ive purchased from have a good history of after sales support. Some are easier to deal with than others, but in the even, I’ve never been left hanging.

    Tony on

  • I was in fact one of the many middleman about 12-15 years ago. Lots of good stories, trial & error, fake American easy to pronounce names… it proved successful and profitable for about 7 years and then life happened for us. Got married, had kids and moved away. Honestly, we did due diligence and never had any faulty frames or rims. We also sourced from Taiwan and visited in person. Thanks for sharing this it really brought back some memories.

    Carroll Composites might still live online somewhere…

    Ben on


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