From Flying Pigeons to Phoenixes: Practical Biking Tips in China

From Flying Pigeons to Phoenixes: Practical Biking Tips in China
Sep 07, 2013 By Matt Poulter ,

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is responsible for many changes and transformations in China, but one thing it is not often credited for is the role it played in introducing the bicycle as a widespread and popular means of travel in the country. 

The first bicycle, or ‘running machine’ as it was initially called, is credited to the German Baron Karl von Draiswho patented a two-wheeled design in 1817. Although the popularity of bicycles quickly spread throughout Western Europe and America in the 19th Century, it was not until the mid 20th Century and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that they became a commonly used means of transportation in China. The CCP merged smaller manufacturers, gave preferential allowances and quotas of rationed materials, incorporated cycling lanes and pathways into urban street planning and gave workers financial subsidies in order to purchase their bicycles. By 1958 there were over 1 million bicycles being produced annually in China and the rest, as they say, is history. Today China accounts for 66% of the 130 million bicycles that are sold every year and there are over half a billion Chinese cyclists.

biking tips in China

If you’re a Western cyclist newly arrived in China, this can seem a daunting figure, especially to one who has seen the two wheeled hordes streaming through the cycle lanes of any of China’s cities during rush hour (a far cry from quiet Cambridge backstreets or leafy Amsterdam canal paths!). And even if you are unfazed by such numbers, cycling in China is liable to be very different from what you are used to in your home country. This article will offer up some thoughts and nuggets of wisdom that have been learnt, often painfully, over many years biking in China as a Westerner.

What brand of bike should I buy?

So you don’t know your Forever from your Flying Pigeon, or your Flying Pigeon from your Phoenix? Don’t worry. Unless you’re planning on doing some serious off- road cycling, what Chinese brand of bike you buy doesn’t really matter. In our experience there is very little to differentiate in quality between Chinese urban road bikes. Having said that, where you buy your bike can seem to make a difference in terms of quality.

A specialised bike shop will generally stock better quality bikes compared to the Western supermarkets in China, which for some reason sell spectacularly bad quality bikes that are best avoided. Bike shop owners in China, as in the rest of the world, always seem to be particularly nice human beings and will probably be more than happy to give you some advice. If you’re only staying short term in China, you might also be able to negotiate a buy-back arrangement for when you leave. If you are set on buying a well known Western brand bike in China, generally expect to pay far more than you would at home, although there are a few exceptions to this rule as will be mentioned later.   

What style of bike should I buy?

Question: How do you spot a newly arrived Western laowai in China? Answer: They’ll be on a tiema or “iron-horse” old style Chinese bike. While these retro looking bikes may look great, you’d be better off just walking. Really. Even if you’re lucky enough to find one in a market in reasonably good condition and which doesn’t require constant mechanical tinkering, they weigh an absolute ton. Imagine wading through treacle with a canon ball tied to each foot and you’re somewhere close to the sensation of riding one of these two wheeled tanks.
Our far better and more boring advice is to buy a generic, modern Chinese bicycle (which in light of all the mechanical repair fees and taxi fares you’d pay owning a tiema, won’t cost that much more!). It will also be easier to pass on or sell when the time comes to leave.

What type of bike should I buy?

Obviously the type of bike you buy should reflect the type of riding you will mostly be doing and is no different a consideration than it would be in your home country. There’s not much point owning a mountain bike in Shanghai or Beijing unless you regularly take weekend biking trips into the countryside off-road. However, deciding whether to buy a normal road bike or a foldable version can be a more difficult decision.

While most apartment complexes in China will provide bicycle parking space, many do not, or do so at an inflated fee to a temporarily resident foreigner. A foldable bike which can be taken up to your apartment circumnavigates this problem. Dahon, a well respected American foldable bike brand, have an excellent range of lightweight bikes available in China at a significantly reduced rate compared to their rather high overseas cost. Another advantage of owning a foldable bike is that it is far less likely to be stolen, which leads us into our next topic.

Bicycle Security

If you’re like us, you become unreasonably attached to any bike you own. There’s no use telling us it’s just a tubular structure of metal welded together; we dote on our bikes as if they were our children! It is therefore a traumatic experience when a bike is stolen, and unfortunately this is likely to happen in China unless you take careful precautions.

Don’t buy a bicycle lock from a repair shop on the street or the roadside. Many of these will have common keys or will be such poor quality that they can actually be pulled opened. The best course of action is to invest in a good quality lock from a specialised bike shop or import store. If your bike is expensive, or is a well known brand, it’s probably safest to invest in two locks: a chain and a D-lock. Many bicycle thieves have chain cutting tools but the D-lock should make them consider carefully before attempting to make-off with your bike. If you’re not concerned about looks, it might also be worth taping up some of the bars of your bike with duck tape as a form of camouflage. As a final point of advice, always make sure you lock your bike to something secure. It is not uncommon to see bicycle thieves simply pick up a locked bike and transport it away in the back of a motorised tricycle or mianbaoche (minivan).

Cycling Safety

We’ve saved the most important till last. It needs no saying that China’s volume of road traffic is significant or that its motorists through ignorance or carelessness are much more lax about road regulations than Western drivers. Both of these facts sometimes make life difficult and dangerous for the cyclist in China.

Obviously the first piece of advice is to invest in a helmet. There are plenty of cheap polystyrene helmets lurking in the shops so be careful that you buy one that will actually do the job should it need to. As in your home country, at night wear a fluorescent jacket but also make sure electric lights are attached to your bike. These are especially important as it’s not uncommon to see cars driving with their lights off, which quite obviously won’t be highlighting your fluorescent clothing!

One thing you might notice in China is that despite the huge number of cyclists racing inches away from each other down city roads, no one seems to indicate with their arms when they turn. Turning is seemingly communicated through some highly unreliable common telepathy, which is constantly leading to accidents. It’s tempting to get into this habit of not indicating but sooner or later this will lead to disaster. Retain your old Western ways, at least in this respect, and firmly and clearly indicate with your arm whenever you make a turn. Although people often might look at you strangely (hey, this probably happens everyday anyway!), your intention is unmistakable and it will make you safer.

In the 60 odd years since the CCP popularised bicycles, China has changed a lot. However, with appropriate caution and common sense, in our opinion cycling is still easily the best way to explore and travel around the country. We wish you happy self vertical, linear movement and a “shunlu” (顺路, smooth riding)! 

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Keywords: Chinese bikes biking in China Biking Tips in China


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My 'iron horses' in order of appearance have been 2 Yongjius, 1 Jinlu and 1 Fenghuang. The first two have been stolen and o, how I cried. They were terrific, heavy to lift but smooth on the road. The third one is in a constant state of repair, and the fourth nowadays makes me leave most electric bikes behind me. Usually I'm making a better time than when taking the bus. All of them were/are 28 inch bikes like the ones you see farmers use (but I raised the saddle quite a bit). All of them 20th century, probably 80's. All of them 200 yuan or less. All of them needed a new saddle, new pedals, one or two new tyres so add another 50 yuan. Fresh grease in the bearings after some serious cleaning, so add a few hours work as well. The result is a true friend that will last forever (sometimes with somebody else though). The remark about cannon balls tied to your feet is complete nonsense. Remarks about theft are not. I find it hard to understand that people really spend some thousands on a brand new non-electric bike here in China. Thanks to the condition of the bicycle paths and the pedestrians meandering there you won't be able to use it at it's maximum speed anyway, and they are more tempting to those inclined to steal them. Well, whatever you buy, chain it to a fence or tree or something - that's one I had to learn the hard way, obviously. And ride it as agressively as you can but be prepared for the unexpected.

Sep 11, 2013 11:30 Report Abuse