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TechInsider: Bikechina 2014

I have been thinking for a long time how to actually write this article. There were different suggestions for clickbait as a super high tech post with shown production processes, then a hate speech that your bike isn’t really as much “green” because of how many fumes are produced, etc. Finally, I decided to a photo-editorial without borders. For decency, I just don’t want to publish names, info and photos of the people I traveled with.

In April 2014, I was given the opportunity to travel to China for a longer period of time with my former employer in the cycling industry, where I was employed in a higher position in technical management. It was quite a quest for me, because I had never flown before, I was panic about air travel, and all of this as the first trip to the other side of the world was a bold decision.

The first hitch was with a visa to China. The whole trip was arranged quite quick, according to the conditions of the Czech authorities. And to get a passport in normal time, with which I neede to go to Prague at the Chinese embassy, ​​which had a month to decide, I really had to hurry up. After picking up a new passport, it was necessary to send its ID number to Emirates for airline tickets and fill out the embassy papers. I also had to go to the bank for a account info, because for China visa you need to confirm that you have at least 2000 euros on your account and that you will not be there as a “John Doe”. After this paperwork circus I jumped into the car the next morning and drove to the embassy in Prague.
 It was just the end of February and what the devil would not want, Czech road builders again surprised by the snow did not manage to clear the highway and I stayed in several traffic jams. After getting to Prague at the speed of the snail at 1:50 pm, after five hours of travel, I found that they only work at the embassy until 2:00 pm, and ten minutes before closing they wont help me. Quick google search revealed that there are agencies in Prague, which mediate visas to China within two weeks for a few euros. Well, I have to fly, 600 euro tickets are already bought, and the trip plan arranged.

We departed from Vienna around midnight, so I am short on photos, because in the halls I could not shoot a big camera and the windows were already dark. I am pleased that the first flight trip took place with Emirates because the service was really on the top. Good food, great seats in economy, calm flight to Dubai for a short break and then we took another plane to Shanghai. It took us almost 45 minutes to get off the plane and move to the other side of the hall 30 terminals away in Dubai. On the way back I found out that there are more halls there and there is a subway between them. Fortunately, we landed in the morning, so I nailed a pic at least through the window. The flight to Shanghai was fine, I slept almost the whole way there.

Shanghai itself is a huge city, basically in size as such an urban Czech Republic, and it keeps growing every single minute. Where was a ground construction site on our arrival, there was already a high building, just before finishing touches. Just as a 24/7/365 functioning anthill.

The goal of the whole trip to China was to visit our current and future business partners and to look at the factories how it is all done. I’m not going to talk about meetings, lifestyle, midnight visits to a 24-hour supermarket outside the hotel, and similar food-games. There are enough travel blogs and youtubers on the internet. This blog is about the trip and tech.

Use the subway! It is basically the only way of transport, where you will not stay in a multiple traffic jams, and a 50 kilometer subway trip through the city will save you an hour than the other ways of travel. You can travel by airplanes and high-speed trains between cities, which, unlike in Czech Republic and Slovakia, are going up to 300kmph in all directions. The service onboard train is like on an airplane. You will get food, drink, blanket, and there is a full size restaurant. I need to mention also their seating comfort and leg room.

We tried both variants. We went on a plane from Shanghai to Tianjin in less than an hour, and back to Shanghai by train a three-and-a-half hour through the beautiful coastal landscape. I need to mention that it is about 1150 kilometers from Shaghai to Tianjin.

Speaking of Tianjin, does that name ring a bell? I’ll remind you. Tianjin is a city where they stored chemicals, ammunition and other volatile substances next to each other and in 2015 it was pretty banged there.

You can see the massive explosion the best on 0:28

I was quite scared to see these photos and videos from where I was the year before. In total, about a thousand wounded were reported, less than 200 dead and 8 people never found. The explosion force was calculated to be equivalent to 28 tonnes of TNT. Their luck was that it was just a “warehouse” on the edge and not a residential zone. The Chinese government deserved quite ridicule, as they immediately deleted dozens of sites linking to photos, videos, and various details of the disaster.

Credit: independent.co.uk, foreignpolicy.com, businessinsider.com, gfmzambia.com, nytimes.com

Back to 2014. Tianjin impressed me already quite well. On a plane from Shanghai, I thought there was a heavy storm down because we were flying over a black-gray, several hundred kilometers large, cloud. There was absolutely nothing out of the window, except we were above the runway and right away on the ground. Already in the airport lobby, I noticed that everyone was wearing masks and I couldn’t understand why. After getting out of the airport the message was clear.

Tianjin is one of the most industrially polluted areas in China. It is foggy all year round, the air smells like you are standing next to a burning dump, your eyes are pinching and you breathe very hard. It looked like it was snowing, but the sky was dropping ash produced by massive heavy industry around.

On my way further inland to visit the first factory I was surprised that there was no greenery. No grass, no trees, just a wasteland and oddly colored clay. We were already in the countryside, and the view corresponded to the surroundings, transport and residents.

In this province, we visited quite a number of factories for plastic parts and various screen printing machines. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures and I have only one picture of this, let say say poorer, safety hazzard. I am amused that the dude does not wear eye protection at all, the smart woman has at least worn sunglasses. They probably never heard that the heat treatment of aluminum releases into the air heavily carcinogenic substances. But we are still talking about factory of the very cheapest frames that you buy at Aliexpres for few bucks. The production cost simply has to be lowered somehow, if you know what I mean.

After returning back to the Shanghai, it looked much better in the local bicycle frame factories. Separated cubicles, air conditioning for everyone, masks, proper gloves, work clothes and firefighters where you look. EU legislation would clearly go green there.

Cubicles for welders in the frame factory already on the top.
Professionalism is recognized. With quality equipment the work goes wll and it is a pleasure to watch the workers.
In most quality companies the frames are hand welded, where its often a better quality than machine welding.
They handweld everything – from frames to forks.

It was great to see the complete production process of bicycle frames from milling head and center tubes to forming the bottom and top tubes under a huge press, straightening for quality control and subsequent painting in standard tanks and powder paint. I cannot disclose the painting process because of the copyright of all the premium brands of bicycles that have frames made in this factory, and there were logos and specific ready-made models everywhere.

Molding and cuting the top and bottom frame tubes before welding.
Machining the headtubes.
Left: QC and straightening of frames after the weldiing. | Right: Degreasing before paint job.

After visit on this great factory, for both solid and full suspension frames of the world’s premium brands of bicycles, we moved a hundred kilometers further to the bicycle parts factory.

As in the case of the previous factory I do not publish photos that contain logos or other copywrite of other brands. But you would wonder how many top-brands components are made on the same machine line as the one which are tagged as “low end”. Everything is made on the same machine, by the same workers, the production process has the same quality, and the product differs just in shape and branding.

Casting molds and the products which can be made by casting.
Freshly casted lower legs of front suspension fork and 1″ stems.
Heat threating oven and cooling line.
A lot of products are made from these pre-shaped profiles. On the photo you can see the seat clamps…
…which are cutted in this automated saw.

Some parts are produced by the above-mentioned dividing of long profiles in the rough shape of the final product and subsequently milling on CNC. Other parts, such as the stem, are cast in rough form. They are then “forged” under a huge cold press into a mold for greater strength.

Stem pressing.
Forged stems are then processed on CNC machines into their final form.

An interesting part is the production of handlebars. Long tubes arrive at the factory, which are then stretched on a special machine for a thicker handlebar wall around the stem sleeve and a thin wall at the end of the handlebar, where the driving forces are weaker and so high strength is not required. This makes the handlebars lighter than if the wall of the tube were equally thick over its entire length.

Handlebar stretchening before final bend.
Left: Handlebar bending. | Right: Handlebars after the bending.

All better factories also have their own testing center, where they test not only prototypes, but mainly randomly selected pieces from the production to achieve the highest quality of the final product. Parts are exposed to the same environment and movements as in subsequent use by the end customer. The only difference is that the test is subjected to several times longer and more intensive use than an ordinary consumer can made over the period of time using the bicycle.

One of the test facilities. On the pics you can see disk brake and handbar testing.
Testing of mountain bike frame and BMX handlebars.

I am extremely grateful that I got to the main bicycle production center – China – after a decade of riding and building special custom bikes in Europe. For me, cycling means the vast majority of my youth, and just being able to work for one of the biggest domestic cycling brands means a lot to me. This trip to the “Joy Factory” just culminated. I mean the joy every bike rider has. Whether it is a small child on the first bumper, students on their way to school, adults to work, a racer, or indeed anyone just on a trip with friends or family. There is basically nothing better than to look at the complete production process of a bicycle, which you then assemble and go with it to the mountains for a ride.

Finally, I would like to thank all those persons involved and responsible for this great life experience. They know who I mean, though. Thanks, F.