To China, or not to China…

A spoiled racer recounts his experiences with Chinese brokered kit

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • Unless you’re sponsored, the cost of your kit is important to you
  • If you know how to judge quality vs. crap, buying direct from the far-east can work
  • Always use the right kit for the job. This may require investing in name-brand kit.
  • The biggest tradeoff? Durability. Be prepared to do more maintenance.
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]I am extremely fortunate[/dropcap]

in that, for the most part, I have some of the best equipment and kit any road racer of any level might want. For example, I have a Stages power meter. A Garmin 810. A late-model Pinarello frame dripping with Dura Ace 9000 components. I have Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels with ceramic bearings, as well as handbuilt November rims with custom White Industries hubs. (If the house was on fire, God forbid, those Novembers would be some of the first things I’d grab.) The wheels I use for training are high level Mavic Kysriums that many racers would love to have as their race only wheels.

IMG_4275

2010 Pinarello FP7. This one is wearing a Chinese carbon bar. It used to have a Chinese carbon stem, until I adjusted my position, necessitating a much longer length. I went with a Thomson aluminum.

 

So why am I writing a blog about “cheap Chinese components”?

Because I use and race several of them, have had good purchase experiences, would recommend them (to anyone who knows what to look for when shopping) and will probably purchase more in the future. Additionally, if you’re on a super-tight budget, my experience has shown that it can all work out quite nicely.

For the record, I am dedicated to the concept of using the right tool for the job. For example, for my upcoming trip to Europe to ride in the Dolomite mountains, I will be purchasing a set of Shimano C35’s. I came to that conclusion only after speaking with a custom wheel builder about carbon rims, and came away believing that an ultra-stiff set of race wheels with an alloy brake track was the way to go. Therefore, no inexpensive Chinese carbon for me while hurtling down the backside of the Furkapass. At least not until they’ve earned my trust quite a bit more.

[callout]Some might ask if I feel that I am being unpatriotic. Absolutely not. Why? Because aren’t capitalism and the rules of supply and demand an American hallmark? If someone produces a product that does what I need it to do for an excellent price, then they win.[/callout]

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My first tubulars were these upgraded 50mm’s. Lightweight, easy to service. Durable? Well — the first season was pretty good, and since they were previously raced by a much heavier racer than me, I’m hopeful for a few more seasons.

My virgin experience with Chinese components started with a local classified ad for a set of “cheap carbon tubulars.” For $150 I got a complete pair of 50mm carbon tubulars equipped with Taiwanese Novatec hubs and bladed spokes. I knew I wanted a set of deep section carbon wheels, but at the time didn’t have the money for a two green and set of the usual suspects. Plus, I was on the fence about clincher or tubular if I was going to spend that kind of money. So when I saw this ad, I made the appointment to meet the owner and check the rims out.

Despite being a rider for decades, I had never ridden, much less built up a pair of tubulars. I figured if I was going to make the plunge, it would make sense to do it on a “practice pair.”

I met the owner, who admitted to having raced on these wheels. Compared to me, he was a beefy guy. I was shocked at how light they were, as well as how true they were. He said when he bought them from eBay the first thing he did was take them to a shop that he trusted. The shop owner retentioned the wheels just for safety’s sake, and off he raced.

The tires that were on them were worn beyond belief. So I knew I was going to have to learn to strip them off, clean the rims, and put on a new pair. I opted for Conti Gator Skins, because I was somewhat petrified of tubular flats and new these tires had a legendary reputation for being tough.

The bearings in these wheels were also worn until they were sandy and gritty. (No fault of Novatec.) I had them professionally replaced, but have since purchased my own Novatec hub bearing press kit from a Taiwanese Novatec dealer who provides expeditious and personal service via email. He even guides me through rebuilds through mail.

The only trouble I ever had with those hubs came as a result of my own newbie ham fisted attempt to knock out one of the old bearings. Ever since, they have spun like glass.

$150 for the rims, another $150 for new tires. About $100 for ceramic hybrid bearings. Throw in some glue and a weekend spent stripping and stretching, and I had myself a set of deep section carbon tubulars to race for under $500.

I completed a full season of roadracing on them, including a couple of crits. They were also the wheels I used to set my personal time trial best. They have since become my girlfriend’s race weapon of choice. Still smooth. Still true. Still shod with the Conti’s.

We have nicknamed them “Lil Wangs.”

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88mm tubular purchased after numerous direct correspondences with a Chinese reseller. Build is beautiful. Price was — insane.

 

 

I have since purchased multiple carbon stems, carbon bars, and additional wheels direct from Chinese sellers. My most recent purchase came after numerous one on one emails with a single Chinese representative for Taiwanese products. (For the record, some of the world’s best carbon comes from Taiwanese manufacturers. Generally speaking, Chinese manufacturer’s quality tends to be much more dicey.) His dedication to service, speed, accuracy, and earnest attempts to make sure that he was getting my order right would put many American and European vendors to shame. When I was specific about the specifications I wanted, he would research and send me drawings, and spec sheets with detailed numbers. I ultimately got exactly what I wanted, shipped quickly, at a price that I still shake my head at. The US Postal Service has an agreement with EMS China Post, and packages have arrived generally within a 2 week time frame.

Some might ask if I feel that I am being unpatriotic. Absolutely not. Why? Because aren’t capitalism and the rules of supply and demand an American hallmark? If someone produces a product that does what I need it to do for an excellent price, then they win.

IMG_4338

I had the chose of uni-directional carbon (which I chose because it’s generally stiffer) or a 3k gloss weave (which, although prettier, is heavier). Anodized nipples and aero spokes. All lacked up on a smooth Novatec hub — also anodized in red.

 

 

So what is the trade off? Ultimately, it’s durability. Although I enjoy my multiple sets of Novatec hubs and how easy and cheap they are to service, I know that they do not have the long-lasting, bulletproof durability of my Fulcrum, Shimano, or certainly White Industries T11 hubs. However, as a 164 pound racer, I don’t have any trouble with wheels staying true, or any difficulty with braking. I have a truing stand and know how to use it. Fresh bearings and new pads now and again is the price of any wheelset.

As for the stems and bars, I’ve taken my share of tumbles, and they’ve held up beautifully. They are comfortable, soak up road vibration, and hold torque when properly tightened. (Full disclosure: I do use a drop of blue Loctite when I set up these cockpits. Carbon threads are easy to strip — voice of experience there.)

I can’t guarantee that everyone who purchases from a Chinese vendor or eBay Store will come away with as happy a set of circumstances as I have. But I have been very fortunate. I’ve enjoyed the cost savings, I’ve enjoyed the workmanship, and if I was a young racer on a very strict budget, with a little guidance to know what to look for and what to ask for when dealing with a Chinese vendor, I wouldn’t hesitate.

See you on the road!

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Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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