"I became interested in the Avenger TM6 from the thread. The thread has a strong following, and the bike does actually look really sweet. I organized a group buy, which at the time may have been the first. November 7th, 2014, I placed an order."
So wrote Slowtwitch Forum User "user123" to me about a group buy arranged by users of the Slowtwitch Reader Forum. This user has since soured on the transaction.
After taking possession he was dismayed by, "how poorly the fork fit, as well as the lines were terribly crooked."
The fork seemed to be a recurring issue with owners. "I returned the fork because the front brake cover had cracks," said another HongFu TM6 purchaser, "the new one came with portions where the clear coat flaked off to reveal the gloss paint beneath."
The Slowtwitch Reader Forum became a nexus for triathletes looking for a strong value; who were not brand-motivated; and who were willing to take a risk on a purchase path more and more consumers are pursuing: buying direct from an Asian "open mold" manufacturer. An open mold is the term given to a bike model that a bike factory or middleman – usually Chinese or Taiwanese – creates on spec. This company then tries to sell this bike model to any number of established, usually small, bike brands, each brand bearing the headbadge and down tube decal of that bike company. Even retail stores that want their own house brand might order a number of open mold units.
But these open mold bike sellers often have their own house brands, and sell directly to the consumer. This is what appears to be the case with HongFu. There's another channel these factories use: team sales. This is a variation on the "group buy" that was executed on the Slowtwitch forum. "I have bought 10 frames from HongFu for various club members, the quality is excellent, they have assembled into bikes with no issues," said one forum member. The team or club deals like these seem most often to refer to road race bike frames, not tri or TT frames.
Two of the images below are of HongFu's Interbike trade show booth from 2013.
There seem to be about 2 dozen Slowtwitchers who bought the HongFu for triathlon, and the models purchased were the FMO86 back in 2013, and the TM6 AVENGER most recently, over this past winter. How did these transactions go? Well take a look. But first, what kind of savings are we talking about?
According to one user, the price for a TM6 was $1259. With brakes: $150 Shipping cost: $100. There was a 4 percent charge for the PayPal transaction: $60.36. The total price: $1569.30. However, the group buy – 4 customers buying at once – dropped the frameset charge down to about $950. This would make the entire cost, landed, more like $1,250. Plus, of course, the rest of the groupkit, but you can subtract from this the aerobar, stem and seat post. If you were a cost-conscious shopper, also buying your groupkit overseas, and your wheels, you might be into an electronic (Ultegra) TT bike for under $4000.
The risk is that everything must show up, must fit, parts and frameset must be compatible, all cables route, and if it doesn't and you take it into your LBS, what kind of reception are you going to get? "We have two ways of approaching service," one LBS owner told me. "If the bike is purchased from us, every corner we can cut, every benefit of the doubt, goes to the consumer. If it's a bike purchased consumer direct, sure we'll work on it, but the service charge, every cable, every ferrule, is full-boat retail."
What if you are "that guy" who ends up with a bum transaction?
"I just thought that anyone looking into buying one of these frames might want to read this first," said another user, who wrote of his problem with a HongFu FM086. "This is obviously not the average situation – most reviews are great. You'd never expect to be 'that guy' with the faulty frame, but it can happen." One of his numerous problems was, yet again, the fork. "I couldn't roll the bike on the ground. I checked the rear wheel, and it was spinning fine. Then I checked the front. The fork is too short, and so the tire is almost completely stuck to the fork." This, although the bike's owner maintains it's a standard 23mm, 700c tire.
How can this happen in a molded process? Won't the same product, same dimension, pop out of the mold every time? So says one Slowtwitcher, who wrote, "I've never seen anything like the OP's experience ... despite thousands of users." But another writes, "The short fork thing is actually surprisingly common. Have seen it happen many times, especially on the open mold-type frames."
The expectations when buying an open mold direct from the manufacturer varies greatly. Here are two experiences, pretty similar, but with very different expectations:
"I bought one of the open mold TT frames and the structural integrity wasn't an issue to me it was just the fit and finish: The seat post had to be sanded so I could adjust it; The paint chipped very easily; The internal cable routing collapsed making the rear derailleur shifting problematic."
Here's a counterpoint from someone whose experience was probably similar, but who was nevertheless satisfied: "I had a few minor issues during the build, but nothing I couldn't deal with easily. Sanding a bit to fit. I worked in a bike shop in high school and college, so I may have a bit more knowledge than average consumer. The bike was great, served me well. There were a few design issues, horizontal dropouts without a set screw, bad bolt placement on seatpost. Overall the quality was good and it held up well."
Back to the user123. He feels his HongFu is unusable, requiring a warranty replacement. "I should clarify that I fully understood the risks of buying a Hong Fu. I admit I may have been naïve to how poor the customer service was going to be. Once I began to build the bike, there were some minor QC issues, as to be expected with a bike like this. Minor issues included screws on the side of brake cover not fitting really nice and most notably it took literally days to fish my rear derailleur cable, there was some sort of blockage."
But minor problems eventually became major, reports the customer, rendering, from his perspective, the bike unusable. No problem, just contact the credit card company or PayPal. That was not an option, since he did not finally assemble all the parts, build the bike, and ride it outside until months after the frame purchase.
"After my first real ride, I noticed a strange circular crack appeared on the drive side, under the seat post. You can feel a protrusion sticking out, and you can feel the crack with your finger nail." HongFu replied to user123, writing, "It is the problem with the flat, when you paint, not paint flat it is not the carbon quality problem." The reaction from user123 to Slowtwitch, was, "I am still trying to decode this email."
User123 deals with Nancy, who wrote, "'If you need refund, please ship the frame back to me first, please tell me how much will cost for the shipping (cheapest).' I shopped around for shipping rates," he says, "Turns out it is cheap to ship from China to North America, not so much the other way around."
User123 is still in a stand-off with HongFu. He says he can ship the frame back to HongFu at which point HongFu promises to ship him a new frame. But shipping back to China is $500 for him, which user123 is loathe to spend after his experience so far. The language barrier also makes it unclear whether the shipping back to HongFu will be refunded to the customer. It seems a refund of the entire transaction, that is, money back for what was spent on the frame, is not an option.
I've tried to contact HongFu a number of times over the past couple of weeks, asking the following questions, so far no reply:
1. What is your warranty on the bikes you sell?
2. What is your warranty on the bike parts you provide, such as wheels?
3. If there is a failure, do bikes need to be shipped back to you? If so, who pays for the shipping?
4. How do you determine if a frame is subject to warranty replacement or refund?
5. What is the responsibility of the consumer in case of replacement or refund?
6. Under what conditions will you issue a refund, if the consumer asks for this?
What have been the reactions from those who purchased the HongFu TM6?
"Delivery time was a big issue for me. I had to keep pestering them via email really annoying, the bike ended up being delivered way later then promised," said one owner.
"Overall the process of ordering and receiving the frame from them was easy, I had no issues. You just had to stay on them about shipping it," said one buyer. Delivery time was a common complaint. And, again with the fork for this owner: "The fork is probably designed a little half-assed." Still, "Overall my experience was good and I would recommend it to anyone."
Some had no problems at all: "I absolutely love the bike. Setup was relatively easy and I required no additional changes to the bars or pads."
With some customers the process was okay until it came time to ride the bike. "Second ride this morning and yes the steering feels wrong. I'm kind of scared of my first downhill."
And, "The ride is very good, but I need to still get used to the handling; initially I wasn't able to go around corners; the steering is very sensitive to weight/center of gravity changes." From another: "Steering for this bike does not feel natural." But that same owner reports, "Once you get used to it, it works very well."
One owner reports: "Long delivery and missing parts for the wheels; lack of instruction," nevertheless, "Neat, great quality frame, and fast."
Themes start to emerge when you read enough of these consumer responses. For example, the very same product can be shipped to two different customers, and the response from each customer will vary widely. It all depends on your expectations. If you expect the finish, the detail, alignment, assembly instructions, ease of cable routing, to be on par with Cervelo, Trek, and other "Western" brands, you'll likely be disappointed.
"There are no instructions," wrote an owner, "Videos on Facebook are terrible... The part that would have been nice to have was longer bolts for the aero bars. They give you about 10 extra bolts and extra parts to raise the aero bars but good luck getting those longer bolts. I had a hard time with the brakes. Lots of fiddling around and not the easiest to work with. No torque info. I've heard many people ask for it but have yet to see a response."
One rule of thumb is that the more complex the frame, the greater the likelihood of a problem. There seem to be a lot of people who were very satisfied with their HongFu road bike purchases. More problems seem to crop up with the TM6 because it's a complicated bike. To be sure, this is also the case with big brands that have North American and European presences. The difference is in how these problems are handled. Some readers point to recalls as evidence that known brands also suffer from problems. Others point to the same recall process, asking what happens when an Asian open mold bike ought to be the subject of a recall.
One question comes up repeatedly on these forum discussions, and it's about quality control. In some cases the very company offering these open mold frames to the public does contract work, very successfully, for brand manufacturers. If there are no QC complaints when that manufacturer builds for a large brand, why are there complaints on smaller runs of open mold bikes? "I deal with crappy Chinese QC on a daily basis," wrote a Slowtwitcher who maintains, "I've been there countless times and been working with them for 20+ years. Unless you are on top of them on a daily basis with ruthless (and I mean RUTHLESS) local-speaking Chinese guys that you really trust...you are going to get crap shipped to you."
Said another, "Though I don't have 20 years of experience working with the Chinese factories, I do have 6... Just as you stated here, even when you ARE watching them like a hawk they'll try to cut corners. Once the oversight is removed, all bets are off. You couldn't pay me to ride an open-mold bike."
Still, what we don't see are reams of complaints from people whose open mold direct-purchase bikes are breaking. It's clear that the process works for a lot of people. The transaction appears safer if it's a "commodity" bike, such as a road race bike. Or wheels. Said one Slowtwitcher: "I have purchased rims from them with no issues. I've also known guys who place mass orders from them to do wheel builds for the team. Again, no issues. I've also had luck ordering through Dengfu and Light Bicycle."
But wheels can also be an issue. Said yet another: "The wheels are shocking. I'm 77kg and the first outing on the bike 2 spokes went on the front wheel, so Nancy from HongFu sent 2 spokes and nipples out. As I didn't want to just use one wheel when I was waiting for them to arrive I had to use the rear and, boom, 4 spokes went. I contacted Nancy from HongFu and she said the spokes and nipples only have a 3-month warranty, but there is nowhere on the site that states this. But she said that this was a common thing with their wheels."
Customers for these transactions are always happier if their expectations are scaled to anticipate the kinds of issues described above. Ship times are often much longer than promised. Assembly help is deficient.
But the savings can be substantial. There are enough satisfied customers to validate the idea, in theory, of open mold-direct purchasing. And, these bikes can look exceptional when built, as noted in these two images above of Slowtwitchers who bought the TM6. However, it's clear that these transactions are only for the right kind of customer.
One thing I have yet to get to the bottom of is whether HongFu is actually a factory or simply a middleman. One bike brand familiar with the company insists HongFu is an office, not a factory. Rather, says this bike company executive, HongFu finds and aggregates frames and sub-assemblies from other factories, presenting them to customers without disclosing they're not a factory. Does HongFu have a factory? Is it a partner in a factory? I don't know. When we reported on the HongFu booth at Interbike in 2013, here's what our reporter wrote: "Two very nice ladies told me about their products and how they do business. According to them, they own their own factory (they are the factory – e.g. are not outsourcing their labor to someone else)."
To me, this is a minor detail, except if HongFu is representing itself as something it is not. I do not know the truth of it, and my outreach to HongFu has not yielded any response. What I can say is that if you set your browser to search HongFu and FlyBike, you'll see a lot of citations referring to HongFu as a distributor and FlyBike as a small, 20,000-unit-a-year, carbon bike and accessory factory that seems to have a close relationship with HongFu.
To that point, I should mention the relationship that Slowtwitch has with HongFu. None. As noted above, I asked a number of warranty and customer service questions. I asked these via email, and I emailed to email@example.com on the 28th and 30th of May, and to firstname.lastname@example.org on the 10th of June. No reply to any of these so far.
While HongFu did not answer these emails, they continued to post on our reader forum, including a number of times on the 11th of June. Once, the post read, "Who is ready for some TM6 or 2016 AERO road?" along with a referring link to a Youtube channel owned by Jenny Liu. Another post, same day, same AVENGER account, consisted of: "Anyone have questions for TM6?" A third post announced, "a few photos from the FM109 in the wind tunnel as well. the analyze is very good!!" with a referral to a Facebook page.
On May 28, just over two weeks ago, I began soliciting feedback into how this group purchase went, in a thread entitled, "HongFu (how did it go?)" A reply to that thread from user123 on May 28 read, "Purchased a Hong Fu Avenger TM6, not happy with bike. At all."
User123 reported to me that on the day he wrote that post Nancy emailed him and "... asked me to 'remove the text in the forum'."
I have disabled the AVENGER account, and will not enable it until, at a minimum, my emails with my questions are answered to some degree of (my) satisfaction. Depending on the denouement of the user123 transaction, and what might bubble up in response to this article, and what HongFu replies to me if a reply is received, a follow-up to this article might be forthcoming.