Rare are the Asians who compete in the Tour de France, and yet within a few decades they have actually become the kings of the little queen. Brussels tried to thwart them from 1993* by levying anti-dumping taxes on bicycles made in China. The ace. The EU has only partially succeeded in curbing the dominance of the former Middle Kingdom in this market.
In fact, the vast majority (90%) of bicycle components assembled in the old continent still come from the country of Xi Jinping or its immediate neighbors. Not just the braking systems, derailleurs, wheels and tires, but also the frame, the heart of the bicycle industry, onto which everything else is grafted. The current enthusiasm for two-wheelers, if it is good for the climate, will primarily benefit Asian manufacturers.
A death? Not so sure. The pandemic and its consequences could reshuffle the cards within the industry. Illustration by French e-bike specialist Easybike. The group, formed in 2005, didn’t wait for the coronavirus to cure their addiction to the world’s factory. After purchasing the Solex and Matra brands, he distinguished himself in 2015 by returning the assembly of these Chinese- and Taiwan-made bicycles to his Saint-Lô factory. Inaugurated the same year by the former Minister of Productive Recreation, Arnaud Montebourg, Cantor of Made in France.
The wheel turns
Since then, the founder has strived to go further with the ambition to at least partially liberate himself from his dependence on Asian components. ” We were pioneers, we want to stay that way “, he explains. The dizzying increase in transport costs multiplied by seven ’ and the disorganization of Chinese production caused by the coronavirus are forcing Gregory Trebaol to speed up… out of conviction as well as out of obligation. Because this new situation puts pressure on their work.
” Since the factories there had been closed for four months, they were overwhelmed when operations resumed. Shimano, for example, takes over 450 days to deliver a derailleur compared to 120 before “, he says.
In order to avoid production interruptions, Easybike has completely revised its supply doctrine. After the group reduced the number of its suppliers in the early 2010s, it went in exactly the opposite direction. It has grown from around 30 service providers to 110 by adding new device manufacturers in Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Germany. To achieve this, the company has strengthened its purchasing department, taking inspiration from methods used in the automotive industry. The driving has been entrusted to a former Stellantis, his number 1 coming directly from Renault. ” We have doubled the work of the supply chain and invested in people. Where the team consisted of suppliers, we now have experienced managers “, We were told.
To offset the increased costs resulting from this new approach, management has eased current spending. Less communication and prudent investments. ” We’re more like ants than cicadas.»
When is the escape?
But it’s a radical shift in gear that Gregory Trebaol has undertaken to perfect this weaning. With the support of Arnaud Montebourg, he takes a year to set up a production facility for composite frames in France. His goal ? Replace the aluminum from the other end of the world that comes with the bikes in the Matra range. The prototype is ready and the business model is working, he says. ” It takes three hours to weld a metal frame, while compound injection molding the same takes two minutes. Even if the investment in an injection line is higher, the substitution is worthwhile when manufacturing large quantities ‘. While waiting for the project to be launched into orbit, the composite frames have been ordered from a German industrialist. They are scheduled to hit the market in the second half of this year.
The frames of the Solex brand are also to be changed at short notice. The group plans to approach the Fonderie du Midi (Bouches-du-Rhône), which has already provided them with a first magnesium prototype. Historically specialized in railways, the Vitrolles foundry is beginning to make a name for itself in the bicycle industry, which today accounts for 30% of its activity. ” It’s a market where opportunity is plentiful, but rarely do manufacturers’ demands stem from a desire to relocate. ‘ says Guillaume Bouton, its manager.
For his part, Gregory Trebaol believes that the price difference (approx. 20%) can be compensated for with Asia. ” With the current transport costs, the difference is reduced to 4 or 5%. This is the price to pay to be provided on time. And being able to sell bikes when the customer needs them “. With these two solutions, the prospect hopes to be able to replace at least half of the imported executives within two years. ” Abolishing it completely is not utopian “, he adds.
The Portuguese example seems to confirm this analysis. Joining forces and mutual support from Chinese joint ventures and European aid, manufacturers in the Aguada region (south of Porto) have managed to produce components and assemble bikes that can compete with the Asian two-wheelers.
*As of 2013, seven other countries are subject to these taxes: Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Cambodia, Pakistan and the Philippines. A decision made on the basis of an investigation that proved Chinese goods were being transported through them to circumvent European regulations.