By Doyin Oyeniyi
When Ines Brunn first opened up Natooke, her fixed-gear bike shop in Beijing in 2009, it took a while for the idea of fixed-gear bikes to catch on with Chinese cyclists.
Fixed-gear bikes are so named because they have only one gear on the back wheel that’s directly connected to the pedals, so the pedals and the back wheel are always moving in the same direction. This means that the biker is always pedaling while riding, but it allows her or him to brake or ride backward by pedaling backward. The challenge of riding a fixed-gear bike is part of its novelty.
“It requires a lot of strength to stop or to ride,” said Natooke customer Wang Hui, 33. “It’s quite like a bike in a gym, so it’s good for your health. By riding this kind of bike, you will become stronger.”
Popularity hasn’t come easy for this challenging bike. Brunn, a native of Germany, found that Chinese customers struggled with the idea of having to customize their own bike after being used to bikes that usually came with a standard design. Rarely does a fixed-gear bike come out of the factory already built. Instead, the buyer must decide on every piece, from the size and color of the frame down to the color of the chain, so that no two fixed gear bikes are exactly the same.
“We have some pictures from the beginning and some people flip through the pictures and say ‘I want this bike,’” Brunn said.
However, little things like changing suppliers for specific pieces prevent making exact copies of bikes. Brunn added: “So then when we start saying ‘We don’t have this, so you need to choose’ and already it’s going to be a different bike.”
But now fixed-gear bikes have gained popularity among the wealthier youth of China. At Natooke, located near Beijing’s Lama Temple Subway Station, a bike with simpler features starts at 2,900 RMB (around $480).
Even though the cost of fixed-gear bikes tend to limit their purchase to a wealthier clientele, Brunn, who’s also active in groups such as Smarter Than Car and Friends of Nature, which works to put more bikes back on Chinese roads, is grateful that fixed-gear bikers are make biking cool again for the Chinese youth.
“Because they’re slightly richer and slightly more successful people, other young people look at them as what they would like to be. So the students who want to look cool are now getting fixed-gear bikes,” she said, adding: “It’s a very nice way to change the perception of the bike. Two years ago if you’d asked those people, they would say ‘Of course, I don’t get a bike. That’s what the poor people do.’”
Xia Jiao Yang, a 37-year-old Beijing businessman, bought his bike from Natooke over a year ago as a response to the traffic problems in Beijing. However, instead of looking for a regular bike, he wanted something different. “Our generation is quite familiar with bikes,” he said. “And after driving cars for a lot of years, we have to find something new. This kind of bike is quite interesting and can give you some fresh feelings.”
Brunn’s love for fixed gear bikes began at the age of 13 in her native Germany. She’d just quit gymnastics and was looking for something to fill up her free time, when she agreed to accompany a friend to a unicycle performance. It was there she encountered a woman from Northern Germany performing tricks on a fixed-gear bike. The sport appealed to the gymnast in Brunn, and soon she was performing with the national German Artistic Bicycling team.
“These small little things change the whole course of your life,” Brunn said about that fateful unicycle performance.
When Brunn quit her job with a German-based telecommunications company in Beijing, a series of other little things led to the creation of Natooke. In fact, Natooke may have never existed if not for the casual suggestion of a friend.
“If my friend had not said it, I would not, by myself, have thought ‘Yes, I will open a bike shop,’” Brunn said. “Even though I love bikes, I would have never thought about it.”