I love to ride bikes. When work took me to China for 3 weeks, I was hoping for the opportunity to keep riding. In reality, I was concerned I would lose all my riding fitness. That’s what happens when you are OCD and need to workout everyday. My first visit to China over twenty years ago, I couldn’t fall asleep because of all the bicycle bells ringing in the night. Stop lights and intersections were merely suggestions as bicycles flowed along the road like a river, finding the path of least resistance. When crossing the street, you were more concerned with getting hit by a bike than a car. Fast forward 15 years, when I last visited, and bikes on the streets were an oddity. They were replaced with cars driven by people who thought they were still riding bikes. Scary. Injury and dismemberment was real every time you crossed the street. Would biking in China be a reality or fantasy on my latest trip?
Upon arrival in Guangzhou, I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear the resurgence of bikes. What happened in those 5 years to bring about the resurgence of biking in China? I’d have to figure that out later. At that moment I didn’t care. There were bikes everywhere-and I knew I was going to ride. I just didn’t realize how challenging it would be.
My brother joined me on the trip and wanted to ride as well. With him living in Asia for the last twenty years, we should not have any problem getting a few bikes. Right? I mean-they are everywhere. Finding bikes that foreigners could ride however is a different story. We looked at three tactics.
- Rent from the bike share. The bikes that everyone rode were either an orange and a yellow brand. It became obvious that these were from a bike share program as every corner had these bikes parked in sometimes obvious and sometimes not so obvious locations.
- Buying a bike. If we couldn’t rent, it should be very easy to buy a bike. As we soon found out, the country where 60 percent of the worlds bikes are made, it wasn’t so easy to buy a regular bike.
- Secretly “borrow” a bike. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Follow along and you’ll see why we seriously entertained the idea of stealing bikes!
Renting Bikes in China
It was pretty obvious that the resurgence of bikes was driven by these new bike share companies. With the help of the government, they have overtaken the roads and walking paths to help people with meaningful last mile transportation. Crammed chest to chest on the subway and is obvious to recognize the transportation problems in China. With a biking history and culture it is easy to see why the bike shares rose in popularity.
Ofo (Yellow bike) and MoBike (Orange bike) were the two primary bike share companies. Using a dockless system, each bike could be left anywhere. An app unlocked the bike and started tracking your time. You rode to your destination and locked the bike, stopping the fare. At the rate of 1 RMB (15 cents) per half hour, rentals were cheap.
To use the rental system you needed:
- A mobile internet connection on your phone.
- A form of payment through WeChat Pay or AliPay-the equivalent of Pay Pal.
Okay-easy enough. Without a Chinese SIM card, we tried using wifi hotspots with the apps. While hotspots were prevalent, it didn’t work so well outdoors at the bike locations. So we went SIM shopping.The first few attempts to get a SIM, we were rejected with the excuse foreigners weren’t allowed a SIM (not true). We eventually found a China Unicom store (equivalent to a T-Mobile) and paid 200 RMB (33 dollars) for service and 1gb of data.
With the app loaded, we tried to check out a bike. It appeared that they payment system required a link to a Chinese Bank account? What? We even tried to open a Chinese Bank account, but the banks we talked to wouldn’t open a temporary one for us. Oh well-looks like plan B.
Buying a bike in China
Before I continue on with the story, I have to remind you that half of the bikes we saw were from bike shares. The other half were personal bikes. Specifically–e-bikes. The bike shares were great for last mile commutes after getting off a bus or subway. Other people commuted their entire journey via a personal e-bike which made riding a bike effortless. We saw a number of e-bikes with the chain dragging on the ground-a vestigial appendage.
You probably see where this is heading. We hit 7 bike dealers, and none of them sold regular, human powered bikes. They were all e-bikes. It reminded me a scenes from Blade Runner. Here were 7 various greasy and disheveled stores, selling advanced high tech products that would only be found in the future in the US. Or today, in China.
We had set out looking for cheapo bikes for 10-20 USD and instead found brand new electric bikes for 200-300 USD. Insane. Keep in mind that 200-300 dollars for an ebike is a steal compared to the US, but we were going to only use them for 2 weeks. My brother reminded me that pedaling a 50 pound ebike would give me a better workout. Hmm, I passed.
On desperate tip, the e-bike dealers told of us a used bike repair shop 7 blocks away. And that is where I found this beauty.
My blue beauty was 80 RMB (12 USD). She came equipped with a coaster brake and a bald rear tire. I tried the coaster brake but just couldn’t track stand properly. I asked if they had a free wheel, and the co-owner said yes-they could do that for free. Sweet! Could I also get a a new brake and tire? No problem-35 RMB (5 USD) each. So for 150 RMB (24USD) I had a sweet single speed rig with pegs!
My brother ended up getting a comfy cruiser bike with springy seats and a handle bar basket for 200 RMB.
As we were about to complete the exchange the other co-owner came out with a free hub looking grumpy. Uhhh . . where’s the fully assembled free wheel? He took the coaster brake rear wheel and started to remove the spokes. One by one. Are you kidding me? He was going to rebuild my wheel on the spot!?! No wonder why he looked so grumpy. So-after another 30 minutes, I had a brand new rebuilt wheel. Sure, it wasn’t completely trued, but I could now track stand. Eric and I took the opportunity to double check our bikes and tighten everything down. I even helped install the rear brake on my bike.
An interesting cultural note, the owner was hesitant in giving me cutting pliers. Apparently they don’t trim their brake lines, but simply leave the internal cables at full length.
With bikes in tow-we were ready to hit the streets of Guangzhou! See my next post on how we dodged cars, buses, and people!
Post Script: “Temporarily Borrowing” or Stealing bikes
Along our journey to buy bikes, Eric and I noticed piles of abandoned bikes every other street. It turns out these were from defunct bike sharing companies that didn’t have the money to collect the bikes. Since people were unable to unlock them, they ended up trashed on the streets.
As a bike enthusiasts, this made me sad. Here were perfectly good machines sitting out as garbage and a nuisance. Eric and I looked these bikes over a number of times and saw that it was simply 3/8″ bolt of steel that locked the rear wheel. A cheap hacksaw blade would set these bikes “free”. Unfortunately, everyone would know these bikes were “off limits” as we saw no one riding them, despite their presence in piles all over the city. Plus, is it really stealing if they were thrown away? We ended up finding and buying bikes before we started a life of crime ;-).