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Folding bikes eclipse standard cycles as China opts for portability

Environmental, health and traffic issues are all inspiring a new generation of mainland cyclists to opt for the folding variety, while new high tech-powered variants are also beginning to make significant inroads in the sector.

Photo: Cycle of change: an electrically-powered folding bike.
Cycle of change: an electrically-powered folding bike.

As in many of the developed markets, folding bikes are now increasingly appealing to affluent consumers across the mainland. Their allure is said to lie in a combination of portability, potential health benefits and the sense of a certain style that they impart to their owners.

According to sales staff at one branded bicycle outlet near Beijing South Railway Station, sales of conventional cycles have declined over recent years, with consumers increasingly opting for the folding variety. Typically, consumers cite portability as the key element in their decision, with many opting to drive out to more rural areas before taking to their bikes.

The folding bike phenomenon first appeared in Europe at the end of the 19th century, but it was not until 50 years ago that consumers really began to take notice. The Alex Moulton folding bicycle became an immediate hit when it was launched in 1962, with dozens of manufacturers soon keen to capitalise on its success. Today, there are more than 100 folding bike manufacturers around the world, with the number growing every year.

Of late, environmental, health and traffic concerns have driven the growth of folding bike use in Europe, with many high-profile figures only too happy to endorse them. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, for instance, is known to be an enthusiast. In light of the worldwide uptake of folding bikes, the mainland market is now seen as ripe for both high-end and low- and medium-range products.

50:50 share of local and imported brands

According to a "Mr Gu" a Beijing-based bicycle enthusiast, there is currently a huge variety of local and imported folding bike brands available on the mainland, with prices varying dramatically. While many entry-level cyclists are opting for the local brands, more affluent consumers prefer the pricier imported brands.

For many folding-bike enthusiasts, Dahon, a US brand, is seen as the manufacturer of choice. Widely-praised for their performance, Dahon models, of course come at a premium, with most of the company's bikes said to be priced in the Rmb2,000-plus bracket.

Dahon was an early arrival into the mainland market. Its founder, Dr David Hon, a Chinese American, set up a production base in Macau in 1988. He then opened additional facilities in Guangzhou in 1996. Today, the company has production bases in Shenzhen, Tianjin, Hebei and a number of other mainland locations.

One of Dahon's key challengers is Strida, originally a UK brand but owned by Taiwan's Ming Cycle Industrial Co Ltd since 2007. Unlike Dahon, which majors on its quality and performance attributes, Strida forefronts its design and stylish looks in order to appeal to young city dwellers. It also helps that its models are, typically, priced at around half the level of the Dahon equivalents. As a sign of the company's penetration into the more style-conscious sector of the market, Shanghai's Lane Crawford department store now sells Strida bikes.

According to Gu, Strida bikes are most commonly sought after by young people, especially women. In line with this, the company launches new models every year in order to keep up with the fashion trends of each new season, something that may lessen their appeal for older consumers.

The company also emphasises the convenience of its range, with the Strida 5 model said to be foldable in just seven seconds. With a body made of aluminium and steel-reinforced plastic, the model weighs less than 10 kg and was hailed as the most successful design of the year by Fortune magazine.

Photo: Dahon: the market leader.
Dahon: the market leader.
Photo: A Dahon ladies bike.
A Dahon ladies bike.

Away from the imported models, most of the folding bikes actually made in China are priced at under Rmb700. Forever, one of the mainland's most well-known conventional cycling brands is also a market leader in this category, with the company launching several folding bike models over recent years. They mostly weigh in at around 15 kg and are available in chalk white, blue-white and green-white. Supposedly designed in Korea, the bikes are clearly targetted at female consumers.

Forever aside, a number of relatively-unknown brands are also producing mass-market folding bikes, with a price tag of around Rmb300. According to a "Mr Wang", who uses his own folding bike to travel to work, he and many of his friends have opted for the cheaper domestic models more because of concerns over possible theft than through a lack of disposable income.

Multiple functions boost sale of folding bikes

Following interviews with a number of bike owners, HKTDC Research has determined that portability remains the key reason why consumers are now opting for folding bikes. Wang, one of the interviewees, said that he owns several folding bicycles and, frequently, stows them in his car boot prior to driving out and taking his family cycling in the countryside. Typically, he says, folding bikes take up very little space, with the boot of a sedan having the capacity for 1-2 bikes, while an SUV can carry three or more. He also rides his folding bike to work to avoid traffic congestion, even carrying it on the metro when required.

According to staff at the Beijing South Railway Station bike shop, keeping a folding bike in the boot of the car may become a Beijing norm in the future. In line with this, it is now common for car companies to buy folding bikes as part of their promotional/incentive drives.

A few years ago, Mercedes-Benz began the practice of giving away Rmb33,000 worth of premium folding bikes and accessories to its customers. Honda has also been offering gifts of folding bikes for some time. This underlines the clear appeal that folding bikes now have for more affluent consumers.

In truth, for high-income earners, folding bikes are bought just as much as a cultural and fashion statement as they are for actual use. One beneficiary of this particular trend has been Shanghai's Brompton Junction, a specialist store selling high-end folding bikes. The outlet was singled out for a visit by David Cameron when he visited the city in September last year.

Brompton is now well-established as a luxury brand, with unit prices well in excess of Rmb20,000. It also offers a wide range of peripheral products, such as riding outfits, water bottles and gloves, all priced at the high-end of the market.

As a recent development, one distinct trend that is now emerging is a move towards electric folding bikes. These offer owners extended choices, as they can be pedaled or run off a battery. While they may weigh a little more, they are similar in size to conventional folding bikes. Typically, such models adopt a highly-stylish look and usually run on rechargeable lithium batteries. They can travel up to 20 km between charges and can reach a maximum speed of 24 kph. Their weight is said to be still quite light when compared with conventional electric bikes.

Photo: Compact folding bikes: a must for future urban-dwellers?
Compact folding bikes: a must for future urban-dwellers?

This new generation of powered folding bikes is taking the industry in a whole new direction. Not only are they high-tech in look, they also possess a number of surprisingly cutting-edge functions – notably mobile phone charging capabilities, GPS and a smartphone-operated remote locking system.

Jiang Wu, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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