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Sport Cycling Growing in China

The growing Chinese middle class is getting into sports cycling and other outdoor endeavors. To tap into the profit, many companies, including Trek, Pearl Izumi and Look are setting up shop there other than to build bikes.

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Mostly known as a place to manufacture bicycles, China is fast becoming a place to sell them, according to an article by the Associated Press.

Seems the growing Chinese middle – or consuming – class, which depending on who is doing the estimating is 100 to 125 million people, loves to get out and play. “Adventure” sports – cycling, Nordic skiing and ultra-marathons – are booming in China. To tap into the profit, many companies, including Trek, Pearl Izumi and Look have or are setting up shop in the country.

Here’s an abridged version of the AP story:

“When the organizers of the North Face 100 began accepting applications for China’s first large-scale ultramarathon last year, they thought that most runners would opt for the 6.2-mile fun-run option, said Julia Cui, director of sports events at Octagon, the marketing company that promoted the event.

Only 100 slots were available for runners who wanted to do the grueling 62.14-mile race, which started at the Great Wall and went through the Ming Tombs outside Beijing last April, Cui said.

The organizers were stunned when 300 people tried to sign up and had to be turned away from the race sponsored by American outdoor gear company The North Face. “We didn’t realize that this would be so popular,” Cui said.

Octagon has seen a big spike in interest in other endurance events it organizes in China, like the marathon in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

“From 2006, there were only 5,000 people attending the race, but in 2009, there were 14,000,” Cui said. “So the increase was huge.”

China’s new middle class continues to swell. More people have the time and money for recreation, and leisure sports serve as a good “filtering system” for companies who are trying to reach consumers with money to spend, said Chris Renner, president for China of sports marketing agency Helios Partners.

The Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report last October that China’s sports sponsorship market is worth about $1.5 billion to $2 billion — just a fraction of the global market of $60 billion. Although the state still dominates sports, the report said, commercialization is taking root. But much more development at the grass-roots level is needed, it added.

Daimon Ling is among the new class of white-collar fitness fanatics. The 31-year-old deputy general manager at a records management company in the southern city of Guangzhou said that traditionally his peers liked to spend their leisure time playing mahjong. But more of them are getting into mountain biking and cycling on the roads.

“Ten years ago, there were no Web sites in China about cycling that we could go to for information,” said Ling, who rides an expensive carbon-fiber model produced by famed Italian bike maker Tommasini. “But now, there are about 10 of them that I check.”

Ling is the ideal customer for many outdoor gear companies that are aggressively moving into the market. In Guangzhou, the Columbia Sportswear Company runs infomercials on small flat-screen televisions in taxi cabs. One ad features a young man who works in an airline company but has a passion for hiking in Tibet. He’s shown wearing a floppy hat and fancy hiking boots, trekking among snowcapped mountains and bright blue lakes.

Trek Bicycle Corp. is another company that’s focusing on China’s growing masses of weekend warriors. The American company — which already has 250 dealers across the China — recently moved its Asia director, Philip McGlade, from Japan to Beijing.

“The potential here is massive,” McGlade said.

He added that another factor that makes the Chinese market so attractive is that it’s relatively easy to reach great places to ride because suburban sprawl is rare in China.

“Even in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the two largest cities, the ability to access the outdoors is actually really good,” McGlade said.

One of the pioneers in introducing mass athletic events to the Chinese is the Swedish company Nordic Ways Group, which for 11 years has been organizing Scandanavian-style sporting events in China. The firm known for organizing the Vassalopet cross-country ski festival started out in China in 1998 by promoting orienteering.

Now, Nordic Ways has branched out into mountain biking in Inner Mongolia, grassland marathons and Nordic skiing. It organizes between 20 to 25 events each year, said Niclas Hellqvist, the group’s Beijing-based managing director.

The company strives to replicate famous Swedish athletic events in China. Last September, Nordic Ways organized a 110-mile road cycling race around Fuxian Lake in Yuxi in southwestern China. The inaugural event, which attracted 300 cyclists, was modeled after the annual Vatternrundan in Sweden, billed as the world’s largest recreational cycling event.

The race’s sponsor list included the makers of PowerBar energy snacks, Pearl Izumi sportswear and Look bicycle components. Most of the participants were local Chinese.

Hellqvist said that the Beijing Olympics in 2008 helped get more people interested in sports. It also got more local officials interested in hosting events, he added. More of them are viewing sports as a good way to highlight their cities and attract investment.