Can Hipster Youth Reinvigorate Bike Culture in China ?

This post was originally submitted to ‘ All Roads Lead to China ‘ by enoVate. enoVate is an insights and design firm based in shanghai. we publish daily insights and develop creative solutions for China’s youth market. visit enoVate’s website for more information.

The fixed gear bike movement has hit the streets of China. Just three years ago, you could count the number of fixed gear bikes here on your fingers (and maybe toes). But spend an afternoon strolling Shanghai’s French Concession, and your sure to see various youth — Chinese and Foreign — riding fixies. What’s more, this movement is not limited to the Big Two (Shanghai and Beijing). Tyler Bowa, founder of People’s Bike, states China’s biggest fixed gear scenes are actually in Shenzhen and Dalian, where 7 months ago there were no such bikes. This movement is spreading to cities nationwide: Suzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, Wuhan, the list goes on. But why? The fixed gear industry has done little-to-nothing to popularize this product in China. Besides a handful of local companies, like airwalk (link), fixed gear brands have mostly neglected their relationship with the Chinese consumer. This, of course, will change very soon.

Crucial to the rise of fixies in China has been the internet. For one, the fixed gear scene has become increasingly well-documented. Videos and photos litter the online world. These bikes are popping up on popular websites, blogs, and video sharing websites. Chinese youth can watch popular fixie movies, such as MashSF, on youku. Secondly, the internet has provided a place for riders to organize communities. Threemin, China’s first fixed gear website has an active forum, with roughly 4,000 members for its Southern China forum alone.

Also worth mentioning is the sometimes subliminal cultural magnetism of China’s neighbors — Japan, Korea, and Taiwan — where fixed gears have an already long-established tradition. But Karl Ke, co-founder ofPeople’s Bike, notes that beyond just fixed gears, bicycle culture is experiencing a resurgence in China.

“Basically, I think people more and more fancy riding a bike, based on four key areas: 1) the government began extensive promotion of environmental protection concepts. 2) More and more Western media are promoting the concept of bike riding and healthy living. 3) More people want to escape from depression and immerse themselves in city life. Cycling is one of the most effective and easy ways to escape and control things in one’s daily life. 4) Fixed gear is simple and close to the concept of extreme sports, but has its own unparalleled noble temperament.”

For many young Chinese today, the bicycle stands for much more than just a means of transportation. It is now a fast-growing culture, that consists of a large community dispersed throughout China. This is especially the case for fixed gears. Websites like People’s Bike and Threemin keep riders all over connected, while events like Alleycat (video here) have united riders from all over for races in BeijingShanghai, and this weekend Guangzhou. This community will continue to grow. The second half of 2009 saw a real explosion in China’s fixed gear scene, but that was just a taste of things to come as we enter a new decade.

We expect to see brands hoping on the bandwagon in the immediate future. Brands like Puma and Thule have already associated themselves with local bike culture by sponsoring the Shanghai Alleycat. Expect more of this, but also expect the fixed gear industry to open its eyes to the China market. It’s an open playing field. Giant will be entering the fixed gear market soon with a new brand called Momentum. This is smart. Fixed gear aficionados tend to stay away from mega-brands when building their cycle. This demographic seeks a personal relationship with their bike. A Giant branded bike would ultimately fail. As Tyler Bowa states, “we don’t want to walk into a big store and pick something off the wall, that’s why small bike companies thrive throughout the world.”

For some great Shanghai fixie photos, check out Tyler Bowa’s portraits on flickr: All photos are from Tyler Bowa and People’s Bike.