Will China’s War on Fixie Bikes Slam Brakes on Growing Hipster Culture?

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Beijing’s ban on fixed gear bicycles or “fixies” was dismissed on local English language blogs as an April Fool’s gag. But then China’s state-run media carried another report that Fujian, a southeast province outside of Shanghai, had also banned fixies. It followed numerous late March anti-fixie stories in the Chinese press.

China’s brewing war on fixies, the ubiquitous accessory of US hipster culture and an increasingly popular creative outlet for free expression for China’s similarly hip youth, is very real. And further actions like those in Fujian and Beijing could turn out to be a blow to a market that is just beginning to blossom.

“If the ‘fixie’ has no brakes, it cannot be ridden on the road and the police will punish riders according to the law,” read the March 26 declaration from the Beijing Morning Post. The Post had noted that in Fujian’s Zhangzhou city, a 13 year-old girl riding a fixie without brakes was recently killed in a traffic accident.[more]

On April 1, the same day the foreigner blog posted its April Fool’s joke about a fixie ban, Xinhua reported that Zhangzhou had banned fixies and The Fujian Provincial Educational Department was calling for an educational campaign that, amongst other things, included ten minutes at the end of the school day to “warn students about fixed-gear bikes and other unsafe transport means.”

The report noted that schools across the province planned to focus on “brakeless bikes” in the coming days. A ban on brakeless bikes is not unheard of; in fact, Japan banned brakeless bikes in 2011, while a year earlier, Australia clamped down on shops selling brakeless bikes.

Ironically, fixies are known in China as 死飞 (sǐfēi) bikes, or, literally, “death flight” bikes, which, unfortunately for fixie fans, makes it easier for outlets like Xinhua and city officials to classify them as a public safety menace. In its “What is a “fixie” bicycle” section, Xinhua reported it “allows for the demonstration of colorful personality and riding techniques and it’s popular with students. However great safety risks come with riding this kind of bike and riders need professional training and long-term practice.”

Fixie culture was brought to China by enterprising westerners. Beijing’s Natooke Cycles, founded by German bicycle acrobat Inea Brunn, was China’s first retailer to specialize in fixed gear bikes and merited a mention a recent New York Times piece about the rise of hipster culture in China, “A Streak of Brooklyn in Beijing.”

Fixie bikes abound on China’s eBay, Taobao. Sites like FixedChina.com promote fixie culture. Shanghai’s Factory Five “boutique bike workshop” does a brisk customized fixie business. Like Natooke, it also hosts night rides and other events focused around fixie culture. More shops open all the time. Chengdu is also home to the Tanker Fixed Gear Shop while Beijing has Beijing死飞. Recently, China’s larger sporting goods stores like Decathlon have begun offering “fixis.”

“We don’t sell bikes without brakes,” Brunn told brandchannel. “You’ll get a bike with a brake or you won’t get a bike from us.”

Brunn says that the idea of “fixie” is hugely misunderstood in China with people understanding “fixed gear” to mean “brakeless.” “It’s always been our mission to get people straight about what a fixed gear bike is,” she says. Brunn thinks there is a “cool” factor with riding brakeless and it stems from Chinese youths seeing videos online of riders with decades of experience riding brakeless and doing tricks. Experience none of China’s kids have.

This problem was recent thrown into severe relief when Natooke opened its first brand store in China’s western city of Chengdu. During a recent visit for a promotional group ride, Brunn was horrified to find so many young kids riding brakeless. “Our guys were known as ‘The Safety Guys’,” she explains. “Because they were the ones riding with brakes and helmets.”

It’s noteworthy that on Match 19, Xinwen quoted the three specific, official new rules from the Chengdu authorities regarding “死飞” bicycles and safety.

The exact size or value of the fixie market in China, or globally, is nearly impossible to nail down. While many brands service the market—such as Retrospec, Pure Fix Bikes, Vilano, Focale 44, Dawes, Windsor Clockwork, State Bicycle Co., Birzman, BAMF, Gravity Swift and Schwinn—many others are customized in small shops. Luxury brands are also aware of the quiet rise of fixie subculture (for more, check out this Vimeo video).

Xinhua’s report on the Chengdu fixie scene noted that one dealer, Chen Junhan, had sold more than 1,000 fixies in just the last two years. In China, fixie bikes range in price from a couple hundred dollars to well over a thousand. The customizability of the fixie is a major draw for Chinese youth looking to demonstrate unique style and individual creativity in a consumer culture that traditionally has valued conformity. In this, the popular rise of fixie culture in China shares a great deal in common with China’s rise of skater culture.

Mary Bergstrom, author of All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth and founder of the The Bergstrom Group, told us that “Being active in fixie culture means having style, trying new things, being playful, confident, and creative. For younger generations of Chinese, these values are more relevant than following a prescribed path to success.” She says that fixie culture in China allows youths to “be recognized for personal knowledge and style.” She adds that it’s still a young subculture grounded in fashion where “DIY colors” is still a major draw.

Brunn echoes the observation, saying that, in the beginning, her customers would balk at personally picking colors for their own bikes, instead asking her for pictures or suggestions. But now, she says, customers slam together a pile of colors to customize their bikes in what might appear to be clashing, but “they tell me it’s what they want and so that’s that.”

Tapping into these subcultures is a major goal of brands big and small, domestic and foreign. In 2011, Natooke partnered with Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning for the Bike Boy Alleycat Fixed Gear Bike Race. (Not that this differs from the west, where brands like Levi’s have aggressively courted customized bike and fixie culture.) Last year, Hong Kong-based luxury brand Shanghai Tang released a $1,300-plus special edition fixie.

So far, reaction online to potential fixie bans has been disbelief and anger. User 一勺好壳 called the Fujian ban “incompetent,” pointing out that knives are also dangerous but not banned. User Leo丶王凌轩 posted a picture of himself on his fixie and wrote that he would never give it up. He added “Fixie is a way of way of life” (“死飞是一种生活方式”).

On one hand, Brunn sees China’s recent anti-fixie wave having potentially harmful effects on the growth of the culture, and her business. But at the same time, she says she is “a little happy” because it may finally provide the opportunity to differentiate fixed gear and brakeless. In fact, if China were to make specific laws about brake requirements, she says it would be “fine with me.”

Image at top:2012 Quicksilver-sponsored 死飞 bike event in Qingdao; below, Chinese authorities with fixies via Fuzhou web.

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