The Trade Numerologist: Where Bicycles Come From
It’s hard to think of a traded good more ubiquitous and consistent than the bicycle. Since the invention of the modern bicycle in France, Germany and the U.S. in the 19th century, manufacturers have cranked out billions of two-wheeled pedalers, several times the number of cars that have been made.
You can’t really improve on the invention. It’s efficient. It’s fun. It doesn’t need fuel. That’s why, as the world, gradually but inevitably, weans itself from fossil fuels, the bicycle market will keep growing. Global annual bicycle sales are expected to increase to $62 billion in 2024, from around $45 billion today, with plenty of opportunity for shipping and logistics companies to grab a piece of that market.
The expansion of global trade has reshaped in the bicycle industry. In the last 20 years, production has shifted to Asia, away from the U.S. and Europe. Over 90% of the 18 million or so bicycles sold in the U.S. every year are imported, almost always packed tightly in shipping containers. Some niche companies still make high-end bikes in their home markets, but most makers have outsourced. For example, Taiwan-based Giant, the world’s top manufacturer, which sells over five millions bikes a year, also has factories in China and the Netherlands.
Top bicycle exporters, first 10 months of 2017
China $2.6 billion (-3.2%)
Taiwan $1.1 billion (-13.1%)
Netherlands $675.4 million (+0.5%)
Germany $570.5 million (+3.7%)
Portugal $208.8 million (-4.1%)
Hungary $194.1 million (+10.4%)
Italy $181.9 million (+14.6%)
Belgium $130.1 million (+0.8%)
Poland $118.2 million (+21.9%)
Spain $107 million (+10%)
Companies based in Europe and the Americas routinely manufacture in Asia. Cannondale, for example, is the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian company, which makes aluminum road bikes in China and Taiwan. (Full disclosure: I ride, and adore, a Cannondale Caad-10.)
To be sure, Italy’s prestigious bike makers Colnago, Bianchi and Pinarello still crank out sleek racers. Two Dutch companies, Pon Holdings and Accell Group, have been aggressively ramping up production and sales, and Poland’s Kross and Arkus & Romet are driving that country’s exports. Which markets should they be chasing? The U.S. is the world’s top import market for bicycles, followed by Germany and Japan.
Top bicycle importers, first 10 months of 2017
U.S $1.1 billion (-4%)
Germany $588 million (-1.2%)
Japan $565 million (-5.5%)
Netherlands $497 million (+40.2%)
UK $401.8 million (-4.2%)
France $351.4 million (+12.2%)
Belgium $224.4 million (-2.1%)
Spain $222.1 million (+0%)
Canada $190.6 million (+0.2%)
Switzerland $147.3 million (-0.5%)
It might seem obvious that the U.S. is the world’s biggest bicycle market, but it hasn’t always been so. In the first half of the 20th century, bicycles declined in popularity as the U.S. got addicted to cars. The bicycle, it was said, was a child’s toy.
That changed with a bicycle boom in the 1970s, followed by the rise of Lance Armstrong, the popularity of the Tour de France, and the evolution of cycling into a principal way of American exercise. The top four suppliers to the U.S. market are Asian.
Top sources of U.S. bicycles, first 10 months of 2017
China $746.9 million (-4.3%)
Taiwan $326.4 million (-0.5%)
Cambodia $19.4 million (-8%)
Indonesia $9 million (+137.2%)
Canada $8.4 million (+12%)
Germany $4.8 million (-8.3%)
Hong Kong $4.4 million (-76%)
Spain $4.3 million (+3.8%)
UK $3.8 million (+14.2%)
Italy $1.8 million (-34.3%)
With tariffs expected to increase around the world, and bicycles easy to assemble once you have the necessary parts, companies are favoring a model where they ship the parts and put together the bike closer to the market. For example, Kent International recently built a factory in South Carolina. That’s why the global parts market is growing. The three biggest suppliers, no surprise, are all in Asia.
Top bicycle parts exporters, first 10 months of 2017
China $4.4 billion (-1.4%)
Taiwan $2.1 billion (+12.4%)
Japan $1.3 billion (-4.5%)
Italy $962.9 million (+4%)
Germany $644.7 million (+2.8%)
Singapore $626.4 million (-5.6%)
U.S. $590.7 million (-2.8%)
Indonesia $492.7 million (+21.3%)
Thailand $456.5 million (+6.7%)
Netherlands $382.9 million (+36.4%)
Initially, in the years before and after 1900, the same firms made, or tinkered with, cars, bicycles and airplanes. The industrial revolution had fostered the mass production of steel and, increasingly, aluminum, followed by the development of mass-market consumer goods.
These days, bicycle makers tend to be specialized companies and not part of transportation conglomerates, but their future seems strong. Although low gas prices and the Trump-led withdrawal from policies that limit fossil fuels in order to limit climate change suggest cars are here to stay, long-term trends point to a world that needs machines that take you places without having to gas them up.
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