Is luxury missing out on China’s cycling boom?

    Gen Z is continuing China’s historic cycling craze with premium styling inspiration on Xiaohongshu, as Western players bet big on the market.
    Palace Skateboards' collaboration with Cannondale in 2021. Photo: Palace Skateboards
      Published   in Lifestyle

    Thanks to Kim Kardashian’s cycling short phenomenon in 2018, the thriving wellness industry, increased environmental awareness, and high-tech sports infiltrating fashion, cyclists have become universal streetwear players in 2024.

    While Oakley’s signature cycling sunglasses are more often seen being donned by gorpcore enthusiasts than anyone else, skate favorite Palace has co-designed Rapha and Canondale collections, and most recently a bike with British manufacturer Brompton.

    Along with these, a surge of chic cyclist apparel brands like Pas Normal Studios, Maap, and Café Du Cycliste are feeding the sport’s reputation for elegance.

    It’s unsurprising therefore that the hashtag “long distance ride” (#长途骑行) on Chinese Instagram Xiaohongshu (8.3 million reads) does not reference survival tips but a plethora of styling inspiration for the activity.

    Young Chinese cyclists take to social media to show off their gear. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Young Chinese cyclists take to social media to show off their gear. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    Similarly, scroll through the photos tagged “my cycling log” (#我的騎乘日誌), and you are met with 1.17 billion photos starring millions of outfit posts, from women in scuba-crop top and short combos, to couples matching their looks, accessorizing with high-tech mirrored shades and branded helmets.

    China has historically been known as the “kingdom of bicycles.” It’s not unusual to spot a bike traffic jam across major cities, such as on Beijing’s Chang’an Street.

    The country is home to over 400 million bike-owners and around 300 million e-bike owners, according to research supported by Burohappold Engineering.

    The new wave#

    Avid Beijing-born millennial cyclist Chang Liu says that cycling is more popular now in China than ever. “There are now many contributing factors, such as young people having more disposable income and wanting to align their spending habits with healthier lifestyles,” he says.

    “Social media platforms like Xiaohongshu and Douyin intensify existing trends. But also cycling apparel [with the rise of brands like Rapha], which has made it appealing to the fashion conscious,” he adds.

    Despite Chang frequently spotting Rapha apparel on group rides, and the brand already at 9.8 million views on Xiaohongshu and over a million on Weibo, it was not selling directly in China until 2024. But as of last month, Rapha is available to Chinese fans through partnered retailers in the mainland as well as a Tmall flagship store.

    The company has set up cycling clubs in 22 key cities around the world, including Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul, with a keen eye on the development of China’s cycling culture.

    “The factor that it has to watch out for is that trends in China come and go far faster than in Western markets,” Chang says. “Rapha has to stay on top of innovation and design to stay competitive. Resting on your laurels is not an option.”

    Rapha joins Western businesses like UK brand Brompton, which opened its 12th flagship worldwide in Shanghai in 2016 at K11 — a good move to follow as China was named the company’s largest consumer market as of 2023.

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    Italian bicycle manufacturer Pinarello is also recognized widely among Chinese cyclists, with the brand’s hashtag boasting 44 million reads on Xiaohongshu. In fact, it is so sought-after in China that the phrase “Chinarello” was coined a few years ago, due to the proliferation of cheap counterfeit designs.

    Back in 2018, it was reported that Pinarello’s official IP agent had blocked tens of thousands of listings of the counterfeit products and managed to force the closure of more than 3,000 online storefronts, including HK FeiFan Trading. As popularity entices counterfeiters, engaging the market directly is the only way for brands to take control. Otherwise, consumers are left to the likes of YouTube to test product validity.

    According to Chang, the most popular domestic bike brands in China are Seka, VFV, Magene, and Winspace sub-brand Hyper. Though Seka has just 4,884 followers on Instagram, its hashtag has 3.6 million reads on Xiaohongshu with the bikes’ bold colorways a common accessory in cyclist outfit photos.

    Shandong-based Magene is making global movements as a go-to for tech like bike computers tracking details such as heart rate, surrounding traffic, and speed.

    In terms of cyclist fashion in China, alongside worldwide favorites such as Rapha and Pas Normal Studios, brands like Neza, EVR, and MBO catering to fashion-conscious Gen Z riders are rising on Xiaohongshu. Helmets from Shenzhen-born Sunrimoon are also popping up as a common accessory among some of the most immaculate riders on the app, with #sunrimoon clocking in at 6 million reads on Xiaohongshu at the time of writing.

    Luxury’s opportunity#

    Due to the power of brands specifically dedicated to cyclists, luxury brands have yet to offer a best-selling line to cater to the bike craze. Instead, leading houses such as Fendi, Gucci, and Prada simply offer styles that resemble cycling gear but are marketed as for fashion purposes, indicating how far the movement has come. Biking is now not just a sport but an aesthetic, too.

    From Fendi’s electric Mate.Bike in 2023 and the Titici x Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli bike of 2021, to Dior’s 70 co-designed BMX bikes, which each sold for $3,200 in 2017, novelty designer bikes are another area that brands have been exploring.

    Fendi’s electric Mate.Bike. Photo: Fendi
    Fendi’s electric Mate.Bike. Photo: Fendi

    Like running or lifting weights in the gym, cycling is another hobby for consumers that is not just a sport but a lifestyle. The opportunity to connect with Chinese luxury fans through bike collabs or performance-ready pieces is ripe.

    Moreover, the majority of cycling enthusiasts are young shoppers, with travel platform Mafengwo reporting that users born after 1990 generate approximately 55.6 percent of cycling-related content on social media in China.

    Through effective collaboration, cycling brands can be a vehicle for fashion to cater to young demographics, tapping the rising wellness industry, connecting with Gen Z interests, and marketing their own sportswear offerings in the process.

    • China is historically known as the “kingdom of bicycles,” with young people carrying on the movement as streetwear infiltrates the space and brands amp up the elegance of their offerings to cater to this new more fashion-conscious demographic.
    • On Xiaohongshu, the hashtag “my cycling log” (#我的騎乘日誌) takes you to 1.17 billion photos, starring millions of outfit posts by Gen Z cycling fanatics.
    • While specialized brands thrive, luxury houses should look to the space for collaboration opportunities, whether through ambassador partnerships with established domestic cyclists or clothing capsules to cater to the major trend in China.
    • For brands looking to enter new markets like China, leveraging existing fanbases, as seen with Rapha’s recent entry, can instill confidence; however, ensuring long-term success requires strategic planning for maintaining engagement and relevance.
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