15-11-2019 - Blog

China and the amateur cycling market: Opportunities and challenges


Dramatic urbanisation in China has seen many people discard their two-wheeled form of transport in favour of cars or scooters. A recent resurgence of bikes for A to B commuting has proven popular with the shared bike schemes, but what about bicycles for sport? With a younger Chinese generation who are interested in health and well being, and a growth in the middle class coming to the fore, Beth Hodge, Asia-Pacific Strategic Development Manager at OC Sport, believes that China has the potential to become a profitable and large scale cycling market– for brands willing to play the long game.

Beth has spent much of the past two years in China, and specifically in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where she has been working to establish the first Haute Route multi-day cycling event in the country. Since 2011, the Haute Route Cycling Series, which is owned and organised by international event organisers OC Sport, has been dedicated to providing amateur cyclists from around the world with an unparalleled experience on and off the bike.

The inaugural Chinese event, which took place two weeks ago, saw almost 200 riders follow the mountainous roads outside the World Heritage Site of Dujiangyan and take in the Daoist temple-studded Qingcheng mountain, across two long stages and a time trial.

“I first experienced cycling in China two years ago”, Beth explains. “That was as a participant in an event and I had no particular goals in mind. That event was closer to a European event than I expected in terms of the set up and the overall experience. So that provided us with a lot of faith that an event like the Haute Route could be successful in China.”

While there are numerous one-day road cycling events in China, there are very few multi-day events. With many of these events selling out, it is widely recognised there is a growing amateur cycling market in China, but the challenge, as Beth explains, is there is currently there is no solid data to back up the claims. “For us, where you’re missing that reliable data, we have to look at other similar sectors. What we do have is good statistics on spend on travel, on experiences, spend on sport, and so we can use those trends to look at what might happen. We also look at what bike brands are doing in China, how successful they are they, how long have they been there, and how long does it take their efforts to come to fruition.”

Beth says the Haute Route’s position as a ‘global brand/ premium experience on the bike for amateur riders’ means it really has very little competition in the country, and this has boded well with local authorities. “Last year we organised a test event. From a host city and government perspective it was very positive. The local government had never seen an amateur cycling event before, and with the strength of the strong western brand, that made it even more attractive to them.

“The same can be said of our sponsors. They want to be on board because they want to be linked to brand that is strong outside of China, but equally a brand that wants to make headway in China, and more importantly, that wants to work within the differences that exist within the Chinese market. So we’re all pretty aligned.”

But as Beth explains, relying on the western brand to reach potential riders within China was a whole new challenge. “I think we were a little overly optimistic that our brand would have the same attractive quality for riders. We assumed people might have heard of it and that they would pay for a better experience, which isn’t necessarily the case. We learnt a lot. The B2B market is fairly accessible, it’s the B2C stuff that is tricky in China- not just the brand awareness but how to actually reach them. Marketing here is a whole different ball game. It’s fair to say riders wait to see how things unfold before they are willing to jump in and spend money on it.”

Despite these challenges, Beth explains that this year’s Haute Route Qingcheng has attracted a younger demographic compared to it’s European counterparts, which take place across some of the most famous climbs of the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. “A large segment of our rider profiles mirrors everything we are learning about China and the younger generation with more disposable income, in the 25-40 age bracket, who are proudly Chinese but who have a different way of thinking. They are more interested in health and well being, or sport, or pushing themselves through the purchase of experiences alongside the purchase of items. It’s not to say the standard 40+ demographic doesn’t exist- it absolutely does- but we have to reach these riders in different ways with more offerings in support and training.”

Working alongside local partners Exploring Xingzhi, the Haute Route team have had to educate themselves quickly on this new customer base. By her own admission, Beth says it hasn’t been a straight forward path to get to this point. “When we first started working in China, we thought we knew what was best. And we were wrong. We have as much to learn from China as they have to learn from us and I believe understanding and patience is key to success.

“Everyone thinks China is the golden ticket but it takes times. It’s about relationships, culture, education, dedication; it’s not a flash in the pan. There is no cookie cutter approach. You can’t just lift something that is successful in Europe and put it into China and expect it to work. It doesn’t work like that. So it takes hard work on both sides.”

While cycling may be at the relative beginning of its journey in terms of potential growth in China, one sport which has already experienced a well documented boom is endurance running. Over 1,500 trail running events now exist in Mainland China alone according to the International Trail Running Association, where six years ago there were none, and international brands such as UTMB, the ‘world summit of trail running’ have quickly established themselves in the country with sell-out events under their UTMB International brand. While cycling is somewhat flying under the radar in comparison, there is a lot to be learned.

“The running boom has been incredible in China, and it definitely shows there is a real appetite not only for events in the country, but also for Chinese participants to travel to compete in other events,” explains Beth. “The number of Chinese who are travelling for sport and adventure is definitely increasing, and I do anticipate that our riders of the future will be Chinese, whether at home or away.

“What UTMB has achieved in such a short space of time is incredible. That said, cycling needs a bit more thinking about than running. It’s a bigger decision for participants. We’re tapping into a very new concept; cycling on the road and cycling as a professional sport isn’t very big in China. There is the potential there, but we need to be realistic now we understand the market.”

The million-dollar question of how to tap into the potential in the market is one Beth has had two years to consider.

“Firstly, companies trying to crack China need to realise it is fundamentally different to the rest of the world. You can’t just whitewash your global marketing plan and put that into China, it won’t work. I think you have to get your feet wet to really understand that. It comes back to the dedication.

“Linked to that, I think it’s about the willingness to learn, and not assuming we know best. I think that is a trap many international brands fall into. Yes, you can stand out with a strong western brand, but consumers want to understand “what’s in it for them” and that takes time to educate people. We also have the challenge of needing to grow the pool of people we can sell too, and to do that is a long-term game.

“And thirdly, I’m a firm believer that we are stronger together. There are a lot of international brands in the industry that are all trying to do similar things in China, and even if our objectives might not align, I’ve generally found that between brands that are trying to break new ground, there are a lot of insights and knowledge that could be shared. That type of professional networking doesn’t really exist in China, so for me, I’d like to move into that space to see how we can bring these brands together in a forum to see what the trends are, and discuss the future of cycling in China. It’s something we’re working on now and are aiming to launch in the new year.”

As a new generation of Chinese cyclists take to the roads, looking to escape the norm and lead a healthier, more active life, there is no doubt that opportunities exist for brands who are willing to go the extra mile to reach this influential audience. Details of the first OC Sport-hosted ‘Chinese cycling industry forum’ will be announced soon. In the meantime, brands interested in the development of the cycling market in China can email beth.hodge@ocsport.com.

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