Smooth ride

Updated: 2013-08-06 06:48

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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 Smooth ride

The 221 Riders' Bar is benefiting from a booming market in bicycle rentals in Qinghai province as the popularity of cycling around Qinghai Lake has grown in recent years. photos by Sun Xiaochen / China Daily

Smooth ride

An enterprising couple who have faced more than their fair share of hardship are turning their fortunes around with a bicycle rental business that has not only transformed their lives, but the former nuclear base where they live. Sun Xiaochen reports in Xihai, Qinghai province.

A couple's bike-rental venture has helped their small town transit from a nuclear base to a cycling Mecca.

The transformation of Xihai, a small town in northeast Qinghai province, from an abandoned atomic bomb development base to a cycling hub welcoming about 30,000 amateurs to tour Qinghai Lake every year, didn't happen overnight.

Governmental push aside, it was the new migrants' foresight and dedication that turned the rundown factories into bicycle garages while renovating the empty barracks into club receptions and hostels. Once known as No 221 factory (the base's name in the 1960s), the town has embraced a new era, thanks to trailblazers such as couple Wu Weimin and An Fang.

Walking into the 221 Riders' Bar, which Wu and An founded at the former base's radio management office in 2011, a row of bicycles extends from the doorway to the corridor along a wall filled with sticky notes from guests, who rented bikes and left encouraging feedback.

Inside the 170-square-meter clubrooms, the reception desk fights for space with helmets and gloves. Spare tires and tools are stacked in a corner. Hanging on the roof are banners of riding clubs from across the country, while group photos taken during tours dominate another wall.

A crowded but lively club, it was built upon the couple's belief in cycling tourism, and their hard work is finally paying off.

"When we started, we had no clue how to run the venture, not enough funds to make it big. We only had a passion for amateur cycling and confidence in the market potential," An says after leading club members to cheer for riders at the second stage of the 2013 Tour of Qinghai Lake in Guide county.

The couple lost their jobs at a thermal power plant in 2000, and opened a motorcycle repair shop. They ran into trouble in 2004 when Wu was diagnosed with chronic nephropathy. The shop's entire profits of 50,000 yuan ($8,179) was spent on treatment, forcing the couple to quit the business before moving to Xihai in 2010.

Wu then worked at the Qinghai-Tibet Railway maintenance project as a driver for a year, during which the couple noticed the popularity of cycling around the lake.

"Interest in touring the lake started to grow then. We thought we were in an era of change," says 46-year-old An.

Selling their only asset, a second-hand pickup truck to raise a startup funds of about 40,000 yuan, the couple opened the club with 15 bikes. Their annual rent is 20,000 yuan.

Despite the scant facilities, the club provides many free additional services to customers when they hire a bike, including route design, hotel booking, riding guidance and logistic support. The cost of renting bikes varies from 50 yuan to 100 yuan per day depending on the standard of the bike.

"Our key to compete against others is to offer the best service. We control the scale (of the club) as we have to make sure every guest is well taken care of," says 43-year-old Wu, who still repairs bikes despite his poor health.

The hard work soon paid off and the couple started turning a profit and enjoying recommendations from happy customers.

The club served almost 2,000 cycling enthusiasts during peak season (from June to August) and totaled net benefits of 50,000 yuan last year. Its bicycle fleet has expanded to 140, and the club has eight accommodation partners that offer discounts to its guests even in busy months.

"221 (club) is very famous among the grassroots riding groups," says Liu Kefu, a cycling enthusiast from Sichuan province who stopped by for assistance.

Battered by rains and strong winds, Liu's friends halted their cycling trip midway, and the club sent a minivan to bring them back in two hours.

"Its service and support stood out. That's why 221 can lure guests back," Liu adds.

Still, Wu remains extremely rigorous about maintaining his bikes, examining every bolt and gear before and after use.

"I was born with an interest in fixing things and I am proud that none of our bikes has ever been stuck by mechanical breakdowns during tours."

An says it's tough to see her husband working overtime in spite of his illness so she tries to take on more of the field operations like organizing activities and tour guiding.

"In our family, the woman works outside while the man stays at home, which is opposite of the Chinese tradition," An jokes.

With more than 20 clubs established in recent years, the market in Xihai is becoming saturated. Wu and An decided to expand by opening a branch in Guide county earlier this year but business is sluggish with a shortage of funds and local protectionism.

Smooth ride

Zhang Jianmin, vice-governor of Qinghai province visited their club last November and helped work out policies to offer two-year subsidized loans of 100,000 yuan to the couple.

"It's such timely help," Wu says. "The government's support boosted our confidence to further develop the business."

With 400,000 yuan in hand, the couple opened another club and a hostel in Guide county in May, hoping to trigger another boom.

"Our ultimate goal is making the area the home for amateur cyclists worldwide," An says.

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(China Daily USA 08/06/2013 page10)