“Japanese customers are very well educated in terms of bike engineering”

Ahead of the pack

The enduring popularity of European bicycles in Japan


Text by Gordon Knight


Japan’s love affair with high-end European bikes seems to be unquenchable. The market, once dominated by Italian steeds Colnago, Bianchi and Pinarello, expanded in the 1990s to include French offerings such as Time and Look, and has widened again to make room for German and Swiss brands.

A report from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the first three quarters of 2015 shows that, although the number of bikes being imported fell, import value increased by 10.7%, the highest in 15 years. And the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute says that in the second quarter of 2017 ended in June, high-end imported bicycles — a category that includes such bicycles as the Colnago C60, which retails at ¥1,245,000, and Pinarello’s Dogma F10 (¥1,290,000) — comprised 35% of imports, accounting for 42% of import value. All this means Japanese are happily handing over their hard-earned cash for high-priced imports.

A survey in the March issue of Japanese cycling magazine Funride reveals the esteem Japan holds for bikes from Italy and France. For the question, “What is your dream bicycle?”, Italian-made bikes took the top three spots: Pinarello, De Rosa and Colnago. Then came the French, Time and Look. Bianchi came 10th.

Funride readers said they love Pinarello because of its cool design and the fact that it’s ridden by Team Sky, which scored its fifth Tour de France win in six starts this year. De Rosa scored high marks with riders who saw the bikes ridden to European victories in their youth. The fact that five Japanese pros now race on De Rosa further bolsters its profile. Of the French bikes, readers said Time looks smart and exudes luxury. And Look won points for its unique design — a radically reshaped frame — and its Piet Mondrian-inspired colour palette.

“Colnago is a very strong brand here,” says Taku Tsushima, who heads Colnago in Japan. “Its name has been known for decades by many cyclists.”

Tsushima also notes that Trifoglio, the club of Colnago owners in Japan, has some 2,500 members.

“Colnago [represents the] image of good bikes for Japanese people,” says Japanese professional cyclist Mayuko Hagiwara, who won the Japanese championship on her prized machine in 2014 and 2015. “It’s about status to own one, like having a top-brand car.”

Well-known manga artist Wataru Watanabe has helped to popularise brands such as Pinarello and Bianchi through his cycling cartoon series Yowamushi Pedal. But Sam Takahashi, who heads Bianchi in Japan, says increased brand awareness has come at a cost. He notes that cycling cartoons drove sales in 2014 and 2015 more effectively than the brand’s own efforts, but also pushed the brand toward entry-level machines.

“Bianchi’s heritage has not been recognised correctly in Japan,” he states. “So, it has changed its strategies to sell more high-end bikes.”

 

This will hopefully address its cartoon-led image problem. Bianchi chairman Salvatore Grimaldi says a recently inked agreement with Ferrari will see a “Bianchi for Scuderia Ferrari” line that reflects the heritage and R&D of both firms later this year.

It is undeniable that all of these brands make exceptional bikes. They are created by master craftsmen and incorporate decades of professional rider feedback. Saddle up on each marque’s flagship model and they reveal their unique strengths: Colnago is sure-footed, great for long rides; Bianchi loves unforgiving roads; Pinarello offers a bike that is both aerodynamic and a pared-down hill-climber; and De Rosa boasts an oversized downtube, which transfers power to the road. Of the French vélos de course, Time, one of only two makers to weave its frames from raw carbon thread, creates bikes with an emphasis on handling — perfect for a day in the peloton; and Look heads the other way, with frame shapes that are radically aerodynamic and proprietary components designed to assist the breakaway rider in cutting through the wind.

Although there is a long-standing admiration in Japan for Italian and French brands, a threat is emerging from European countries with comparatively little cycle-making pedigree.

The Swiss brand BMC Switzerland has been a Tour de France force in recent years under riders such as 2011 winner Cadel Evans.

BMC began in 1994 in the watch-making town of Grenchen where it still creates part of its range.

“We refuse to compromise on ride quality, no matter what the frame size or material,” says Marcel Emmenegger, BMC’s director of sales. “Japanese customers are very well-educated in terms of bike engineering and the impact a well-engineered bike has on ride quality. Japanese customers are also, for the most part, aware of our key values: Swiss, premium, performance.”

From Germany comes Canyon.

“Japan is a massively important market for Canyon,” says Matthew Heitmann, chief marketing officer. “It’s immediately clear how much passion the Japanese people have for riding.”

Canyon marketing manager Yukikaze Ishiyama reports growing sales since the introduction of an office in Kyoto and a Japanese-language support centre, both of which have addressed concerns around Canyon’s factory-to-consumer sales method. The Koblenz-based firm’s range includes two models with smaller 650B wheels — ideal for Japan’s slightly shorter average height — and has worked with leading designer Christian Smolik on weight-saving ideas.

Fellow German firm Focus operates in the old-fashioned way, having found over 200 retailers in Japan to stock its products, and sponsoring Japan’s 2017-season-conquering Matrix Powertag team. Its entire range is race-proven, and the firm has tapped the knowledge of Swiss aerodynamics expert Andreas Walser. Focus’ flagship Izalco Max bike, created using computer modelling, tips the scales at an extremely light 6.4kg.

BMC, Canyon and Focus bring with them none of the decades of heritage that the Italians boast: cyclists’ hearts skip a beat at the sight of a Colnago, not a Canyon. But will the Germans — led by engineers and designers with innovative ideas — be the winning brands of the future in Japan, or do the Italians still have one more attack in their legs that will keep them ahead of the pack? 

Japanese are happily handing over their hard-earned cash for high-priced imports

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