Bike to basics

By Matt Hodges (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-06 09:53
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Bike to basics
Cycling enthusiasts gather at a Shanghai basketball court before
 an alleycat race. Provided to China Daily

A grassroots movement to rediscover the bicycle has spawned alleycat racing in China, which dovetails neatly with Shanghai's plan to green the city for Expo 2010 and promote bike use, Matt Hodges reports from Shanghai

Tyler Bowa moved to Shanghai last year to teach English, not spark a revolution or redesign the social fabric of a hyperactive youth culture that is starting to go nuts for bikes.

Things just panned out that way.

The company he founded, People's Bike, has evolved into a community of cycling enthusiasts, a grassroots movement that dovetails with the municipal government's push to build a greener city for Expo 2010, where bike rental depots are commonplace.

"Next year China is going to become the cultural hub of fixed-gear biking," says Bowa, fully bearded but barely out of university. "When I moved here 12 months ago I couldn't find one shop selling these kinds of bikes (in Shanghai). Now there are six or seven. It's becoming much more affordable."

With China's increasingly fashionable and bike-friendly youth warming to the idea of new sports like "bike polo" and alleycat racing, Bowa predicts the number of riders nationwide will triple by next March, led by progenitors in Guangzhou who pick up trends from nearby Hong Kong.

"In the past 12 months everything has skyrocketed out of nowhere," Bowa says. "Maybe, what we are seeing now is the start of a professional alleycat circuit in China."

Alleycat racing has riders plot the fastest way around a city by navigating their way from checkpoint to checkpoint. There are usually 10-15 racers spanning a distance of roughly 30 km. It's been around for some 20 years but has been big business in the United States and Japan for the past four or five years.

Bowa, the foreign figurehead of the sport here, began by sending out tweets last year looking for other bored biking enthusiasts. Then he organized "bike polo" matches on Saturday afternoons among friends.

These quickly blossomed into BBQs and social events, with more than 100 Chinese and expats turning up to hammer homemade mallets through traffic cones and drink beer.

Together with his business partner Karl Ke, Bowa organized Shanghai's first-ever alleycat race, in November, taking their cue from alleycat's China debut six months earlier in Beijing.

"Alleycat is usually an underground sport restricted to fixed-gear bikes, but we opened it up to all models and all ages," the 22-year-old says at a coffee shop in Tianzifang, a labyrinth of Bohemian cafes and shops in downtown Shanghai.

"We got some critiques afterward from big websites around the world that we went overboard, but then people started coming to us for advice saying they wanted to copy our model in other cities.

"I guarantee there will be two more cities (joining the circuit) this year."

Meanwhile, a sports media company that is big in Asia made an offer to buy People's Bike last week and hire the Canadian to apply his management model to a dozen websites it owns, spanning everything from skateboarding to marathon running. Bowa declined.

The speed with which the activity is catching on in southern China, where electric and pedal-powered bicycles are increasingly giving way to cars, has left most of the embryonic fixed-gear biking industry shell-shocked.

"It's still relatively small in China compared to other cities worldwide, but it's growing fast," says local enthusiast Mattias Erlandsson.

Racers at the Shanghai event included one 55-year-old French lady, who finished runner-up in the women's category. Highlighting its sub-culture appeal, the "track" wound its way from a famous graffiti wall in Moganshan Road to a tattoo shop near the Bund.

It is this kind of broad appeal and growing demographic that is making sports brands like Puma and Adidas vie to sponsor future races, of which there will be at least a handful nationwide this year, including in Hangzhou and Guangzhou.

"Fixed-gear culture aligns with youth values of freedom, self-expression and simplicity," says John Soloman, director at design firm Enovate, which targets China's youth market.

"As the government and organizations continue to focus on the environment, we believe biking will become an important way for youth to take action."

A raft of new measures has been introduced in recent months to promote the culture of cycling and the ecological advantages it brings to the city, which used to play home to the world's largest bicycle industry.

The "Good to Shanghai - 01Cool Bike" program has installed vast tracts of new bike lanes in the city, while the Shanghai Forever Bicycle Company plans to rent bikes out during the six-month Expo.

Local companies have picked up the thread and built sightseeing trips around two-wheeled entertainment. China Outside Adventure organizes tours of neighboring cities; while Shanghai Sideways provides historic tours of the city from the comfort of a vintage 1930s-style motorbike sidecar.

While older Chinese are glad to ditch their bikes and wash their hands of what for many symbolizes centuries of poverty, "a lot of people in their 20s are organizing trips by themselves, riding from city to city or going mountain biking up in the hills", says Fiona Li, owner of China Outside Adventure.

Bike to basics

"What people soon realize about fixed-gear biking is that it's not just fashionable, fun to customize, a little bit edgy and dangerous, or even healthy," Bowa says.

"It's also the most practical way of getting around. For example, I can get from the French Concession to the Bund, or anywhere within the inner ring road, in less than 10 minutes. Try doing that in a taxi."