Whether or not you’ve been paying attention, bikes are back.
In the material-deprived seventies in China, owning a bicycle was a clear wealth indicator, the equivalent of owning an apartment in Beijing today (okay, not THAT wealthy). After being dubbed “the kingdom of bicycles”, the last two decades have for the most part been a demise of these two wheelers, but that trend is fast turning around, the recent bike-sharing mania standing testament to this retro fad.
As part of the smattering of bike-sharing related news that hits Chinese startups and VC circles weekly, a gallery of so-called “Webikes” went viral last week, evoking rumors that WeChat would be the next mammoth player, stirring up the already choppy waters.
Today, Zhang Xiangdong, founder of 700 Bike, a maker of high-end urban bikes, has explicitly explained that the bikes are not a display of WeChat’s ambitions to cross into bike sharing, but are rather a customized service by his company.
“Some have spotted the foldable clasps in the bike, which is our patent, so to clarify, we are the ones behind WeChat’s project, it’s part of our initiative called ‘Cool Companies’, where we customize a solution for companies with large campuses like WeChat or Mafengwo, mostly by providing a uniform coating, parking, network, anti-theft and management add-on services,” said Zhang at TechCrunch Beijing’s conference on Monday.
For now there’s no sharing element involved, but their expertise in bike making has put them in demand. “More than 10 bike sharing companies have courted us recently, seeking cooperation. Everyone is in full pursuit of this market.”
Despite all the attention, Zhang is reluctant to swerve from what he set out to do, which is forging a brand of high end road bikes with artisan design and technology and selling those bicycles at a profit.
Bike sharing,a capital intensive sector as with all sharing economies that must be kept afloat at the beginning with an unfailing supply of cash, is a risky business, said 700 Bike’s Zhang.
“It has a propensity to end up a highly regional or local business, though it’s easy to take down a single city, its nearly impossible to call the entire nation your market. Even with a DAU of millions you only have a municipal market. The best companies can do is win a regional market, and hope that the eventual survivor will buy you out. ”
So bikes are supposed to be back, perhaps signifying that a sustainability minded China might be walking in the steps of cities on wheels like Amsterdam, London and Copenhagen. However as a prerequisite for that to happen, Zhang says that companies and governments need to shoulder the responsibility of turning congested cities into bike-friendly ones.