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Bootleg kit versus the real thing: How to spot the fakes

How to tell the authentic from the fraud — and should you care?

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Cycling is an expensive sport and as a result, riders without unlimited budgets (like me) choose where to get spendy, and clothing is one area where we are faced with the choice to splurge or save some cash. Initially, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the cost of cycling kits, which led me to this life of kit evaluation. I searched eBay, Sierra Trading, and other sale sites for jerseys and initially tried bootleg AliExpress kit. I will tell you why I may, or may not, still buy from that platform and similar online outlets.

Also read: Custom Tour de France skinsuits

As my miles in the saddle added up and my kit collection ballooned, I learned where I could skimp and where I should not. There is very little AliExpress kit I’d buy at this point — I can say the same for Wish, Amazon, and any other platform where imitations are sold. But, one or two trying-to-not-be-obvious bootleg jerseys I’ll admit are decent, especially for permanently altering them, like adding patches or lapel pins.

The Rapha knockoff is on the left, and the authentic item is on the right. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Of the AliExpress/Amazon brands, I’ve tried Spexcel, Runchita, YKYWBike, Jiashuo, Teleyi, Darevie, and an unnamed Alé PR imitation. To each rider their own (kit), and I don’t begrudge anyone their purchasing choices. I can’t speak for another person’s wallet or their body. My opinions are formed based on how long I ride in a kit and how many times I’m going to throw it into the wash. An item I will use infrequently or on short rides, or that I’m washing by hand, might have a different value than something I will use often. These days I grab cycling kits I know will fit properly, feel comfortable on long rides, and survive more than one trip cycle the washing machine.

Bootleg kits are theft

First, the baseline that applies to both bootleg jerseys and bibs: bootleg kit is stolen intellectual property. And frequently, attempted duplications usually fail in either subtle or cringingly obvious ways. Bootleg kits are usually missing one or more key elements found in the original authentic item. This could be lesser-quality materials, or inaccurate patterns, or construction elements like pockets or zipper garages. Differences vary by item, but zipper pockets are often missing, reinforcements for the regular pockets are lacking or sub-par; stuffing the pockets can result in pull-holes in the material, and the material itself is a different makeup.

I’ve learned the hard way that quality does matter for items you intend to wear during strenuous physical activity. Even if it looks the same at a glance (it rarely does), it almost never feels the same as the authentic item, nor can the bootleg tolerate the same abuse. For example, if the fabric didn’t breathe, I became a puddle by the time I warmed up, even on cooler days. In most cases, my initial AliExpress jerseys didn’t breathe as well as jerseys that use more expensive fabric.

Zippered pockets, a poor cut, and inferior materials are hallmarks of a knock-off kit.
How to spot knock-off kit: look for details in the sleeves, finishing at the zipper garage, and of course price. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)
Zippered pockets, a poor cut, and inferior materials are hallmarks of a knock-off kit.
Zippered pockets, a poor cut, and inferior materials are hallmarks of a knock-off kit. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

I have a Rapha knockoff from Spexcel, an AliExpress seller that a lot of cyclists swear by. It’s perfectly fine – it even has a zipper pocket, which most bootlegs omit entirely – but it does not have the same quality of fabric or attention to detail as my authentic Rapha jerseys. In each case of Spexcel’s summer jerseys, I’ve had to get out a needle and thread to restitch that zipper pocket after about 10 wears. I don’t want to have gear altered to fit (as some folks suggest) or get out the needle and thread the moment an item arrives. I don’t want to buy disposable fashion! It’s bad enough that the manufacturing processes used to make the fabrics are likely not as environmentally conscious as those implemented by many of the brands we are familiar with like MAAP, Isadore, Ornot, etc., but the fact that the bootleg jerseys so easily come apart turned me off entirely.

I do have a winter jersey-jacket from Spexcel that is still going strong after quite a few wears and washes. Even the zipper pocket is still intact. This is one case where I’d make an exception, and in the interest of honesty, I admit I might order another. The fit happens to be spot on for me (long in the arm, short and fitted in the torso, and I wear an XS), and I can’t wrap my head around paying over $150 for something I might only wear a few times in a year, especially when I often have fit issues with long-sleeve women’s kit.

Bootleg kits chamois are ok for shorter rides, but for longer days in the saddle: expect chafe.
Bootleg kits chamois are ok for shorter rides, but for longer days in the saddle: expect chafe. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)
Imposter cycling kit may not last through more than a few washing cycles.
Imposter cycling kit may not last through more than a few washing cycles. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

I can compare the Spexcel to YWKYWBike jerseys, which appear to be bootlegs of La Passione. While La Passione is reasonably priced, the only thing that kept me from buying directly from them is the sizing. At the time, they didn’t have the jersey I was looking for — a plain mesh navy ultralight — in a women’s cut, and their men’s sizing was too big for me. Duplicates of this nature are often cut smaller than the originals, and that turned out to be the case with the YWKYWBike dupe of the Ultralight – but it was still not correctly designed. The elements that are reflective on the La Passione are merely printed on the bootleg; the collar was standard instead of low-cut, and the sleeves were solid fabric where the authentic La Passione is full mesh. That said, the YWKYW jersey was sewn well, and only gave up the ghost in a crash that put a hole in the shoulder.

On the other hand, the bootleg Alé kit that copied the unique zebra print and recognizable branding are generally terrible across the board, from fabric, to cut, to construction. This particular knockoff is old, but I recently saw a Chaise CC copy and it made all the same mistakes. As a general rule, the more blatant the intellectual property theft (e.g., copying design, colors, and patterns), the lower the quality. Usually, companies that steal a unique print, have no qualms about producing literal garbage that’s likely as bad for the environment as it is for your body.

The material is generic no-stretch poly, and it’s missing all the design features of the Alé PR line: the rubber PR patches, the sleeve cuffs, the drop-tail race cut, the flat seams, and the reflective-lined zipper pocket. Fair warning: it’s usually the cuffs and leg bands that give bootlegs away at a glance, but in this case, it’s not even the same pattern: the bootleg is a club cut with a raglan sleeve, while the original is a race cut with a regular set-in sleeve.

The Jiashuo and Teleyi were similarly cheap and terrible, featuring heavy, stretch-less polyester, and unmatched zippers. They are polyester t-shirts with pockets on the back and a zipper on the front. They made me look like a hotdog in a bun.

This brings me to Runchita, an AliExpress seller that has created its own designs. They are basic jerseys made with generous stretch, mesh side panels, and set-in sleeves of a reasonable length. They have no zipper pocket, but they worked fine and haven’t fallen apart through a couple of seasons of washing and riding. They also make a Rapha short sleeve dupe that seems higher quality than the Spexcel copy. I just wanted a plain black jersey without spending a fortune, so I could slap a patch on it. I wasn’t looking for a Rapha clone — just a black jersey with stretch in a reasonably modern cut. I achieved mission success, and the jersey is still intact through several seasons of wear, including the zipper pocket.

Beware bootleg bibs

Even if you want to save a few dollars on cycling kit, expect it to not be as comfortable or as durable as the authentic item. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)
Bootleg cycling kits material is frequently not breathable, and lacks a proper fit. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Regarding bootleg bibs: the chamois and fit determine whether or not I will wear a bib. AliExpress chamois are usually several steps down from chamois made by every mid-range company I’ve found, but I’m sure some people will argue this point. There are a few companies that use decent quality chamois, but for me, I need fine seams around a multi-density foam chamois with a smooth fabric top layer. I have one heavy, DWR-treated bib from Spexcel that I wear in the fall for short rides with a chamois that looks good. It is holding up fine, but anything more than 30 miles and I chafe. I don’t buy bootleg bibs anymore, period. More power to you if you’ve found one that’s not uncomfortable.

If you have and you swear by off-brand bibs, make sure they’re not trying to copy another company: It’s usually easy to detect bootleg bibs by the leg grippers – companies stealing IP rarely get the grippers right. And other riders may recognize this detail, in case you care about that sort of thing.

When I was ordering shorts for a non-profit cycling program and our stateside supplier pulled out at the last second, I scrambled to bulk order shorts from Darevie. I got to pick the chamois — the best they had — which still had furrows and a gel core. The chamois wasn’t bad, and they had wide leg bands. The kids preferred these shorts to 123mm hand-me-down saddles with gel seat covers. It was a desperate choice, but they worked for that season, and for the budget we had. For many people budget — not function — determines fashion. People want to be as comfortable as possible without forking over a fortune and eating ramen for the month.

When people buy a $500 kit in solid colors they are buying the “story” behind the brand — the associated marketing mythos associated with the brand symbols. For example, Pas Normal Studios is essentially Rapha but with the added exclusivity achieved by the pricing. That is not to discount the difference in fit and materials — there are differences between PNS (or PAS) and the top of the Rapha line. Are the differences worth the cost? The answer is relative to the individual. Pas Normal Studios kit is more than $500 for a bib and jersey.

Knock-off cycling accessories hit-or-miss

With regards to accessories: I admit to still wearing windproof arm warmers that look like Rapha. They seem to be tough as nails, and have so far survived several seasons. Fake sunglasses are the hottest debated purchase, with some riders insisting fake lenses could shatter into your eye. I would suggest getting the bootleg frame and putting real lenses in. Having had an expensive legitimate frame break after swapping the lens once, I will likely never splurge on a real frame, but real lenses are infinitely better and worth the money.

Fake brands tell a story, and it may not be a good one: it’s a story of poisoned landscapes, terrible working conditions, and underpaid workers. It’s an ugly tale about the capitalistic rat race we’re all running. That said, people can’t always care more about the story of a brand than the function of the item. Will an item tear easily, or shatter into your eye, or take the skin off of your butt? These are the important questions.

My recommendation to roadies who are looking for inexpensive cycling kits: keep an eye on local shops, local buy-sell groups, and friends’ social media feeds; watch eBay, Wiggle, Sierra Trading, Chain Reaction, Competitive Cyclist, Bike Inn, and the local swap meet for good deals. Don’t immediately cave in and go AliExpress/Wish unless you have no other option. There are few sweeter moments than saving money on legit kits, but you get what you pay for.

If you have questions about fake kit, email me at tyusbarnwell at gmail dot com.