Bikes on a roll again

Hum­ble per­sonal ve­hi­cle, lifted by green touch, be­comes trendy


Only three decades ago, Bei­jing was known world­wide for its large traf­fic dom­i­nated by mil­lions of bi­cy­cles. The two-wheeler was then the pri­mary mode of per­sonal trans­port.

In re­cent years, the num­ber of bi­cy­cles in China’s main cities has grad­u­ally de­creased as Chi­nese con­sumers grew af­flu­ent enough to be able to af­ford cars.

The num­ber of bi­cy­cles in China is ex­pected to de­crease to 350 mil­lion in the next three years from 370 mil­lion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm Frost & Sullivan.

Yet, the introduction of in­no­va­tive, pre­mium twowheel­ers is help­ing the per­sonal ve­hi­cle in­dus­try to stay prof­itable, de­spite the grad­ual de­crease in the num­ber of bi­cy­cles.

Mar­ket con­sul­tancy Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional es­ti­mates that the mar­ket size of the bi­cy­cle in­dus­try in China will in­crease to 78.34 bil­lion yuan in 2020 from 57 bil­lion yuan in 2015.

So, to make the Chi­nese pedal again and to ride the ex­pected boom in sales, a group of for­eign en­trepreneurs has in­tro­duced in­no­va­tive bikes.

Its story be­gan in 2009, when Ger­man-born Ines Brunn de­cided to quit a high-pay­ing job in Bei­jing to fo­cus on her true pas­sion — bi­cy­cles.

She wanted to show the lo­cals that bi­cy­cles could be trendy. She opened her own bike store Na­tooke in a tra­di­tional hu­tong (nar­row lanes) in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal.

“Back then, I got the feel­ing that Chi­nese peo­ple were try­ing to be modern and push away the past,” said Brunn, CEO of Na­tooke. “So, any­one who had re­ceived an ed­u­ca­tion or earned a rea­son­able salary did not want to be as­so­ci­ated with a bi­cy­cle.”

At that time, fixed-gear bikes were pop­ping up in large cities like New York, Tokyo and Lon­don but were miss­ing in the streets and bi­cy­cle shops of China.

Na­tooke claims to be the first store to have in­tro­duced fixed-gear mod­els in Bei­jing. It also said it pi­o­neered bike cus­tomiza­tion.

In her store, cus­tomers can cre­ate their own bikes from­scratch to suit their per­son­al­ity, tastes and needs.

Na­tooke’s fixed-gear bikes re­tail from 2,900 yuan ($430). The firm also of­fers a wide va­ri­ety of cy­cling ac­ces­sories such as smog pro­tec­tion masks.

Other ser­vices in­clude cy­cling events to pro­mote the use of clean trans­porta­tion.

Al­though Na­tooke re­fuses to dis­close rev­enue fig­ures, it said that sales have kept grow­ing as more Bei­jing res­i­dents are grad­u­ally dis­cov­er­ing the benefits of cy­cling.

The store’s suc­cess was such that other in­vestors wanted to adopt the Na­tooke cus­tomiza­tion con­cept in other cities in China, to profit from the fresh pop­u­lar­ity of bi­cy­cles.

“There was one year in the past when at least two peo­ple would visit the store ev­ery week to dis­cuss our ex­pan­sion plans,” said Brunn. “How­ever, most of them have no back­ground in cy­cling. They just want to do it (en­ter in­no­va­tive bike busi­ness) for the money.”

Fi­nally, in 2012, two Amer­i­cans who shared her pas­sion con­vinced her to take the brand to Chengdu, in Sichuan prov­ince.

Al­though her busi­ness is pro­gress­ing well, she said that online com­pe­ti­tion is cur­rently very strong, of­fer­ing cheaper prices for lower qual­ity prod­ucts.

“I do be­lieve changes in con­sumer tastes and pref­er­ences will shape new think­ing on bikes and that the Chi­nese will be will­ing to buy more ex­pen­sive and bet­ter bikes,” said Brunn.

Neil Wang, global part­ner and China pres­i­dent of Frost & Sullivan, agreed. “Highend elec­tric scoot­ers and high-end bi­cy­cles are be­com­ing trendy in big cities in China.”

Like Brunn, US-born David Wang left his job in 2014 as a mar­ket re­searcher in China to fo­cus on his pas­sion — bikes. The dif­fer­ence is, he cre­ated Bam­boo Bi­cy­cle Bei­jing, a com­pany that teaches lo­cals to build their own sus­tain­able bikes us­ing bam­boo.

“I thought that I could add more cul­tural value by help­ing peo­ple to build their own bike in­stead of just sell­ing them,” said Wang. ‘Young peo­ple in China don’t just want to con­sume a new prod­uct, they want to experience new things.”

So far, the com­pany has taught more than 400 peo­ple to cre­ate their own green bikes and notes that the com­mu­nity in­ter­ested in tak­ing part in its work­shop and ac­tiv­i­ties keeps grow­ing.

The com­pany charges 2,000 yuan to par­tic­i­pate in its all-in­cluded do-it-your­self work­shops. An av­er­age of 4-6 peo­ple learn ev­ery week how to build their own bikes at work­shops in a tra­di­tional hu­tong.

Al­though the firm’s prof­its are still slim, Wang hopes its rev­enue will grow on the back of col­lab­o­ra­tions with schools and com­pa­nies.

Young peo­ple in China don’t just want to con­sume a new prod­uct, they want to experience new things.”

David Wang, founder of Bam­boo Bi­cy­cle Bei­jing, a com­pany that teaches peo­ple to build sus­tain­able bam­boo bikes

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