Photo of cyclists in Chengdu circa 1988 by ZedZAP
The great “Bicycle Boom” of the 1890s, when Euorpeans and Americans of all ages, classes, and genders took to the roads in the millions on their “safety” bikes, was quickly followed by a bust. By the close of the 19th century, a variety of factors (overproduction and the rise of the automobile among them), had brought the American bicycle industry to its knees, and demand was down in Europe, too.
But while cycle markets crashed in the West, manufacturers saw an impressive upswing in bike trade in Asia. Japan was one of the first countries where the bike caught on, but China followed quickly after. Savvy bike makers from countries like Britain and Germany turned their sights on selling two wheelers to China’s millions, and the hard work they invested in building the market certainly paid off, though perhaps not as they had expected. For most of the 20th century, the bicycle remained one of the key modes of transport in China and supply struggled to keep pace with demand. However, from the 1950s onwards, Mao’s nationalized cycle industry left no place for the clever free marketeers who had been largely responsible for sparking China’s bike craze.