a group of people riding bikes down a street: Production and exports of bikes in China have risen during the pandemic. Photo: AFP

Production and exports of bikes in China have risen during the pandemic. Photo: AFP

The last time Alan Du used a bicycle as a means of transport was 20 years ago, when he was still at high school.

He returned to the habit a few weeks ago by buying a new bicycle for himself to commute between his home and office in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.

“The main purpose is to exercise – I can’t find enough time for workouts in my spare time,” the software engineer said. “Of course, keeping clear of infection during this pandemic is a bonus.”

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More than 9,000km (5,600 miles) away in Rome, Wu Yue said he had not ridden a bicycle for years either, but now he would consider it when needed.

The Italian government has introduced financial incentives and built bike lanes to encourage cycling since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, making regular bikes and e-bikes a common sight on the streets.

“Cycling used to be unsafe on the road, and bikes could often be stolen … now these problems no longer exist,” said the Chinese businessman, who immigrated to the city two decades ago.

The growing popularity of two-wheelers has been one of the lifestyle changes as the coronavirus has continued spreading around the world.

The bicycle industry in China, where the disease was first reported, has had an unexpected boom, while more people around the globe are acknowledging cycling’s convenience, eco-friendliness and scope to maintain social distancing.

Once dubbed “the kingdom of bicycles”, China today makes half of the world’s bikes, according to the China Bicycle Association.

Phoenix, one of the oldest Chinese manufacturers, said sales in the first half of 2020 had increased by more than 50 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Domestically, school reopening was delayed, and as a result, demand for children’s bikes soared as parents tried to keep kids active, Jerry Xu, brand director of Phoenix, said.

“Since May, lockdowns in overseas markets have been gradually lifted, and we then saw a surge in overseas orders because people wanted to exercise while preventing infection,” he said.

The company’s production bases were operating at full capacity, with bicycles becoming an increasingly important mode of public transport, he added.

China exported more than 60 million bicycles – 84 per cent of its total production – in 2018, according to government data.

Production and exports both slumped last year, amid the US-China trade war and the bursting of the bike-sharing bubble within China.

“Global demand for bicycles has soared this year as Western countries encourage people to travel by bike, some of them offering subsidies for buyers,” said Wang Qinglin, analyst at Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research.

“China-made bicycles have attracted more consumers around the world for their good quality and low price.”

The British government recently promised to spend GBP2 billion (US$2.6 billion) on a walking and cycling health drive to tackle health and environmental challenges, including offering bike repair vouchers and building thousands of miles of protected bike routes.

In France, a similar bike repair scheme has been offered, and people who cycle to work can get Euro400 (US$474) of travel costs subsidised.

Wu, the Chinese man in Rome, said the local government there had offered subsidies to bike buyers, but there had been a price surge as demand grew, because domestic production was lagging.

“Bicycle makers in China that export most of their products may be the biggest winner,” Wu said.

In Shanghai’s Xuhui district, sales so far this year at a bicycle shop called Xili have more than doubled from the same period last year.

The increase came mainly from Chinese people who were heading abroad, said shop owner Li Jun.

“They were not sure about (availability and safety of) public transport there, so bicycles were a good option,” Li said. “They bought them here because it’s much cheaper, and it’s not too much trouble taking them abroad – you can consign them with your flight.”

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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