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Mountain Biking China
A decade ago, mountain bikers who visited China told stories of huge throngs of
local riding bikes. These locals, though, were not fellow bikers. In china, the pervasive opinion was that a bicycle was simply a better means of getting around the walking but not by much. To the Chinese, riding heavy black contraptions with single gears and solid linkage brakes, the idea of the bicycle as a means of adventure, excitement sad fun was as alien as the visions with their lightweight, aerodynamic, multi-gear machines.
Since then, much has changed. China has continued to open up to foreign influence and investment, and in Kunming, capital of mountainous Yunnan Province, recreational biking has caught on. What seemed impossible ten stars ago is now a reality. Due to concerted promotional efforts, superb riding conditions and an increasing availability of well priced, performance-level bikes, what began as a fad has become a thriving scene. In fact, Kunming now boasts more mountain bikes per capita than any other city in China.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Kunming (“Spring City”) has a year round balmy climate, and the easily accessible surrounding mountains provide an exciting variety of terrain to suit every type of rider. For the good riders, harrowing mountain paths offer endless challenges and thrills; while secluded reservoirs with grassy banks are within easy reach of city dwellers, who ride out to swim and picnic away from the crowds. Dozens of diverse, colourful ethnic groups reside in the province, offering a powerful attraction to those looking to get out and explore.
It all began in 1992, when 22-year-old Yan Xia struck out from Kunming on an adventure to see the world. One year, 30,000kms and three mountain bikes later, she returned to a hero’s welcome. Sadly, she was frustrated by the reluctance of her friends and family to share her enthusiasm for exotic places and experiences.
But three years later, she had her chance again in what proved a seminal event. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sino-American cooperation during World War II, Yan, with the encouragement of two American mountain bikers, led a group of 50 cyclists over 1000kms along the old Burma Road. China Bicycle Company donated 50 mountain bikes and a local travel company produced the event. In all the ensuing fanfare and media coverage, mountain bike sales rocketed, and virtually overnight Kunming became China’s mountain biking capital. Then, when the streets became too crowded, bikers started heading for the hills and trails of Yunnan.
In 1996, to give some focus to the burgeoning biking population, the Fat Tire Fun bike club was established. Led by foreign enthusiasts, the club organized trail rides, video parties, midnight city rides, as well as demonstrations and clinics covering riding skills and bike maintenance. A newsletter, aimed at introducing new riders and getting the sport on track, was published. The bike scene was here to stay.
As the top riders started riding on their own or in small groups, longer tours and races were organized. Interested in this developing scene, international and local sponsors offered impressive prizes, including money, tools and components. The only problem seemed to be cost of decent gear for example, hard to find helmets cost rmb 800 (US$100) and more.
But the potential market for quality gear did not go unnoticed, and several small specialty shops sprang up in the area. Shrewd business people with industry connections quickly jumped on the trend. Today, the shops stock a range of high-quality frames and components, build bikes to order and provide premium service.
Yet, while the quality of bikes and service soars, prices have plummeted. An entry-level bike, though most avid locals spend at least twice as much on better quality models. At the top end, a carbon fibre (or dual suspension) frame, fitted with Marzocchi forks and a Shimano Deore XT component set costs about rmb 6000 (US$725) half the Hong Kong or USA price.
These small retailers have now also became local rider hangouts, as well as a lure for other riding groups. Indeed, Kunming is almost as popular with visiting bikers as it is with locals and affordable quality gear is one reason.
Comfortable climate, spectacular terrain, quality gear and hordes of fellow enthusiasts. To the huge throngs of locals riding bikes in Yunnan, the idea of biking being adventurous and exciting is far from alien.
Yunnan offers a wide range of riding environments. Here, bikers ride through one of its many rural villages.