On a roll
Updated: 2012-02-10 15:38
By Zhang Lei (China Daily European Weekly)
Former German national gymnast Ines Brunn is now living her own dream by running a fixed-gear bike shop in Beijing. [Liu Xiaozhuo / China Daily]
German gives up high-paying job to ride on passion
When former German national gymnast Ines Brunn considered leaving her job to run a bicycle shop, a friend could not believe it. "Who wants to see an old woman do tricks on a bicycle?" her friend asked. But not only did Brunn leave her high-paying job in a major telecommunications company to do just that, she also chose to locate her bike shop in Beijing.
For the 35-year-old Brunn, it was actually a natural choice. "I love riding the bicycle every day, when it is cold or warm. It's my passion."
Brunn runs her fixed-gear bike shop "Natooke" in Wudaoying hutong, adjacent to the Lama Temple, a major tourist attraction in the Chinese capital.
She opened the shop in March 2009 after finding it hard to obtain parts for specialty fixed-gear bikes - which have wheels that are always in motion when the bikes are moving, as opposed to ordinary bikes that can coast - in the country.
Brunn had started a fixed-gear bike club with a friend two years before she opened her shop. In 2008, five other people took part in its activities as fixed gear cycling was still considered a niche sport in China,
"I thought it was really funny when a friend suggested that I start a shop," Brunn says. "But then I thought I might have more people riding because of the shop, and I could see the bike community grow.
"I could also be my own boss and schedule my own time."
Brunn previously worked for the US high-tech company JDSU from 2001, with six short stays in China each year. In 2004, she relocated to Beijing and was put in charge of the Asia-Pacific region.
The "kingdom of bicycles" left a good impression on Brunn when she set foot in China for the first time in 2001.
"It was how I pictured China should be," she says. "But over the years, fewer people rode bikes.
"Beijing has such great infrastructure for bikes. Bike lanes are everywhere and it has flat roads and wide streets. Look at those cites in the world that are trying to make way for the bikes."
Brunn's resignation letter was denied at first. Her boss agreed to keep the job for her for nine months and if her shop did not work out, she could return with the same salary, position and benefits.
Brunn never took up that offer and she is now living "her own dream".
"In a large corporation, great ideas have to go through many levels before they can be executed. But it is not easy being your own boss," she says.
"When I first started the shop, I had to talk to various factories to get the parts, but in China they are used to accepting bulk orders. What I needed was high quality stuff, but in small quantities.
"Over time, I found companies to work with, mainly in Taiwan and Shanghai. For the rims, we have three OEM factories to choose for our own brand, and six other choices for imported brands. Each bike has access to lots of options, with different colors."
Brunn's little shop is filled with frames, handles, pedals and hubs tightly arranged either on the ground or hung under the roof. One basic specialty bike set usually costs 2,000 yuan ($317, 242 euros) to 3,000 yuan.
"We have never made two identical bikes. Customers design the main items, picks the colors and parts, before combining them all altogether."
Now 70 percent of her customers are Chinese and the number is surging.
"We have sold more than 600 bikes altogether. In the first year, only a few were sold. mainly to expat buyers. But sales are picking up because the fixed-gear bike culture has been attracting more Chinese in the past two years," she says.
Advice to customers on the niche sport is a big part of the sales, Brunn says.
"They often search the Internet and come to us without any knowledge of fixed-gear bikes. Whether they want one for commuting or for practicing tricks, we spend a few hours giving out suggestions," she says. "We subsequently hired people to put the parts together for the customers. Now that we have more employees, we can get two bikes done a day."
Brunn's customers also form a major part of the fixed-gear bike community in Beijing. There are now 800 people on her mailing list, in which fixed-gear events are announced.
"We have four to five events a week when the weather is nice. We do fixed-gear rides and light rides as well as bike polo and trick sessions", she says.
Before she got her JDSU job and relocated to Beijing, Brunn was a researcher at a particle accelerator facility in Germany. She started to practice gymnastics on the bike when she was 13 and later became a member of Germany's national artistic cycling team.
Brunn also helped set up Smarter than Car (STC), a platform that aims to raise awareness of the benefits of cycling in China as a sport, hobby and daily commute to help minimize carbon emissions.
"We have several projects to make Beijing more bike-friendly with Friends of Nature, an NGO," she says.
Brunn has also helped issue reports on commutes. Currently, 18.1 percent of commuting in the capital is done by bike, compared with 30.3 percent in 2005, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport said on its website. The commission has plans to increase the percentage to 20 by 2015.
"Another task for the STC is to reach out to people who have been left out of the loop," she says.
"We organize rides for these people who think riding bikes to work is impossible since Beijing is huge, but when we invite them to ride, they are amazed by how fast the bikes are and the time saved compared to taking a car.
"We want people to have fun. What we can do at the very least is to get people to look at a bicycle, hop on and try it for themselves."