Saskia Rock reports on whirring wheels, toned legs and entrepreneurial spirit.
From Flandrien heritage to bicycle mechanic entrepreneur class
I cannot deny I was born in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium that is historically part of ‘the low countries’, a rather flat territory with many small roads just inviting you to hop on your bicycle and go for a spin. We are a nation of cyclists; everyone has at least one bicycle and almost to a one we get passionate about watching if not always the local bicycle races from the side of the road then certainly we are glued to the Tour of Flanders or Tour de France images on television, often with a locally brewn beer in one hand.
This passion for cycling in Flanders grew out of a rather dismal economic situation in the late 19th and early 20th century, during which cycling became the entertainment of the poor masses and becoming a ‘broodrenner’ (literally cyclist for bread) the only means to escape often dire living circumstances. Being a cyclist in those early days was a hard job; riding on bicycles weighing often up to 28 kilograms on cobblestoned roads was definitely a test of extreme endurance. Flemish cyclists became known as ‘Flandriens’, because of their continual attacking spirit and dogged determination to finish a race whatever was thrown at them. Even today, the much coveted Flandrien Trophy is rewarded every year to a professional cyclist who fits these criteria.
Inspired by this heritage, many Belgian people cycle for fun in the weekends, many even join a semi-pro cycling team and ride around in colorful outfits on local roads and of course use their hobby to relax and connect. I never joined a team because my strength lies in distance rather than speed, but I was crazy enough about cycling (and fed up with the bad service at my local bike shop) to want to build my own bicycle, so I took a bicycle mechanic entrepreneur course at evening school. My class mates were all men and semi-pro cyclers, but I gained their respect with my nimble fingers, my knowledge of Japanese bicycle parts, and the fact that I regularly clocked 100 km on a good riding day.
I decided not to become an entrepreneur in bicycle business, but I did start my own company later on and I do attribute that fact in part to doing these studies. The enthusiasm of my fellow classmates, some of whom did go on to open their own bicycle shop, was infectious. They also raved about ‘bicycle networking’, throwing ideas at each other for many different types of business not only during riding but of course mostly during the post-ride shared beers. Me, I get inspiration while riding. Even more than getting fit that is the reason why I like cycling; it relaxes my brain and brings forth creativity. What better activity for an entrepreneur to engage in?
The future of pro and semi-pro cycling in Japan
What about Japan then? I did some research and found out that the first full cycling championships were held in Osaka in 1931, and Japan became a UCI member in 1936. Although not as venerable as Belgium or France there is certainly quite a bit of history there, but still Japan is not one of the leading countries in the professional cycling world. Looking back at the Flandrien history, I certainly see the same kind of experience with hardship and determination that could make Japanese pro riders a force to be reckoned with, so why are they not more prominent on the European podia?
When riding out in Tokyo on the weekend, I do see some kitted-out cyclists on ultra light roadbikes whizzing along the fabulous Arakawa river path, but nowhere near the number I’m used to encounter in Belgium. Most people seem to be using the bicycle as a mode of transportation only, not for recreation or training. I first thought this might be due to a lack of role models, but when I actively looked for pro cycling inside Japan I found a vibrant calendar full of local races and many teams competing. I also learned however, that not many individuals or teams compete abroad and there, I think, lies the secret to inspiring more people to start riding.
This is the 2014 World Cup season, and seeing how the Japanese root for the Samurai Blue team and how this helps soccer become more popular in Japan, I think a Japanese cycling team competing on the international stage might be the answer. With me on this idea is Shinichi Fukushima, veteran pro cycler Champion of the Tour of Japan and also competing successfully in France and Belgium. He questions the lack of motivation of racers to go compete outside Asia, and dreams of bringing the first East Asia team to the Tour de France.
Cycling and entrepreneurship
Why is this so important, what can cycling do for entrepreneurship in Japan?
Of course there’s the obvious conclusion that more people cycling will mean more business for local cycle shops, not only in sales of more expensive roadbikes but also in the regular maintenance these and other regularly intensively ridden bicycles require. Like me, people might get inspired by their love for cycling to study bicycle mechanics and open up their own shop as well.
For example, in Belgium the total number of bicycle shops has increased from 814 in 2009 to close to 900 in 2013, a rise with 8.4% compared to a rise of only 3% between 2004 and 2009. This phenomenon is attributed to cycling becoming more popular both as a hobby and as a means of transportation. If this can happen in bicycle happy Belgium there is certainly even more room for growth in Japan.
Cycling is the new golf
Another opportunity lies in networking, instead of the eternal golf meetings why not go cycling and discuss business during and after a good ride. Cycling is much easier to master than golf, and the bicycle and gear are a onetime investment after which taking to the road is basically free. A reduction in golf course fees and a rise in healthy employees, seems like a win-win situation to me. There are many articles on the web on why ‘cycling is the new golf’, and I was happy to note that they agree that cycling might be a better way to build lasting business relationships. While golf is ultimately about competing and you might be in a quandary whether or not to let your client win in order to win their business, cycling is a shared experience that promotes working together and helping each other out. Whether it is helping a fellow rider fix a burst tube or riding up front and taking the headwind for the group, riding induces generosity towards others. Helping others makes you feel good as well as inspiring others to do something kind for you in return. This is a state of mind that helps business relations become friends and thus do better business.
On a personal level, I decided during a long distance bicycle ride to start my own company. Unhindered by e-mail and mobile phone, I was able to weigh the pros and cons and decided to go for my dream. I wasn’t riding that fast, but when I took the decision I felt like I was flying.