Originally published in Optimise Magazine, July 2015. http://optimise.kiatnakinphatra.com/
As riding a bike in Bangkok reaches mainstream appeal, the most passionate cyclists are turning to highly-specialized professionals for that extra edge.
Cycling in Bangkok is red hot. Cafes devoted to the self-powered vehicles are constantly popping up in the trendiest neighborhoods. The metropolitan administration is rolling out trails, lanes, sharing schemes and events to trumpet its support. And you have to book two weeks in advance for Jumm Bike Studio to service your bicycle — a waiting list packed with top-level executives and heirs to industrial families. How did a sport better known for unsightly spandex outfits and unflattering tan lines become the new golf for Bangkok’s elites? Personalization is the buzz word you’ll hear among cycling’s most esteemed professionals. In the highest spheres of the bicycle industry, there is no one-size-fits-all service. Expert workshops like the aforementioned Jumm Bike Studio, Cuca and Cog n’ Roll have made bicycle ownership a completely unique and handcrafted experience, one that has affluent hobbyists hooked on the amount of bespoke attention this new breed of bicycle shops lavish upon them.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in 2008, Arnusan Paojinda, Jumm Bike Studio’s founder, was running a small bicycle shop out of a room in his family’s home to supplement his day job as a tour guide. He would find clients online and travel to their houses to repair high-end road bicycles costing hundreds of thousands of baht but the market was minuscule compared to today. “At that time, there were very few people cycling. I had only two or three clients a month,” he says.
Despite slow business, Arnusan had the vision and passion to hang on. “People were starting to buy things online and researching products,” he says. “I had a feeling it was going to get big. It was a small market but people were spending big money.”
Meanwhile, the fixed gear bicycle scene was about to blow up, too. Except while Arnusan catered to a very high-end market, “fixies,” beautifully minimal bicycles that have no brakes, speed gears or freewheel (meaning the rider must continually pedal), were fast becoming popular with the young, trendy set. In 2010, both Cuca’s Vissaves Kumpanthong, and Cog n’ Roll’s Thisan Amornwithyarak, entered the market. Within a couple years, you could see entire packs of graphic designers, university students and ad agency first-jobbers gather at Ekkamai with their “fixies”.
What both ends of the fast-growing bicycles market had in common was a taste for personalization and imported gear. As a result, Vissaves, of Cuca, says the market was soon flooded with cheap and fake parts from China and Thailand. “Things got tough,” Thisan adds. “You had all these big, inexpensive brands coming in.”
“A few years ago, if you didn’t know what to do in life, you’d open up a coffee shop,” says Vissaves. “Now it’s ‘if you don’t know what to do in life, open a bike shop.’” Arnusan concurs, and estimates there are some 300 bike shops now in Bangkok.
As a result, two distinct strategies have emerged. “There are so many bike shops competing now, and that can only mean one thing: price wars,” Arnusan says. “With so many people just getting into the business, there’s very little experience backing the shops, so no one differentiates themselves. They turn to price and margins.”
Another strategy would soon emerge though, as the fixie hipsters matured and an increasing number of affluent, middle-aged men began to embrace cycling as the new golf: a sport that is as much about the experience itself, as it is about the paraphernalia that surrounds it, and how it allows one to express their status.
BREAKING FROM THE PELOTON
Not all cyclists are necessarily looking for a good deal. Instead, they want something special. “All the guys on the mid- and high-end road bikes you see now started on fixies five years ago. They were teenagers and had less money back then, but now they can afford the good stuff,” says Vissaves. ““Anyone with money can buy the best bicycle now, but the problem with that is exactly that — anyone can buy anything. Thai people like to have something different.”
“People would come in to look at our bikes and they’d always want to change the color of the frames,” says Cog n’ Roll’s Thisan. “I would have green and they would want blue.”
Jumm Bike Studio, Cog n’ Roll and Cuca figured the way out of the price wars was to double down on offering something exclusive. Arnusan gradually expanded his skillset from installing fancy gear on other people’s bikes to fully customized services. Today, Jumm’s Studio is a high-tech bicycle shop in Hua Mark. It can source any product a client wants, fit a bike specifically to the rider’s geometry and perform custom builds.
As for Cuca’s Vissaves, he completely shifted gears. “I’ve decided to stop selling bikes and concentrate on simply painting them. The industry has changed and I’d rather focus on keeping my operation small and be the best at it,” Vissaves says, without nostalgia for his defunct shop-cum-bar which played host to raging fixie subculture parties for five years.
“I’ve had a customer bring a bicycle frame worth 600,000THB at three in the morning to have the paint job touched up. He wanted to keep the bike a secret until it was fully restored before showing his friends,” says Vissaves. “People aren’t just spending money on getting the best gear, they’re spending money on something that no one else has.”
Cog n’ Roll went down the same path. In 2012, Thissan abandoned his cute little shop house off Surawong and moved to Raminthra, where he now paints and powder coats bicycle and motorcycle parts. “We get people with old bikes who want to change the color of the frame, or even people with new bikes. They don’t just want the normal color scheme. Some even bring in their own design. They ask, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’”
Jumm Bike Studio, Cuca and Cog n’ Roll aren’t alone. Narongsak Prommala founded Plus one1company to produce custom cycling caps. They’re already a hit with the hipster fixed gear riders who populate the cafés of Thong Lor. The standard hat rings in at 500 baht, but the much more desirable option of creating your own hat is 850 baht. Likewise, Bico is importing bikes from Japan from the brand Araya but promises its clients to “match the bike to your body.”
“Now, there are people making custom frames, bespoke stuff. Really tailor-made. First, it’s about the fit. The frame is made exactly to your size. That’s the main thing. But the other thing is the decoration. The steel you want. The colors. People want a unique bike with a unique look,” says Thissan.
“Everything must be handmade or limited edition,” Vissaves adds. “It’s about being the coolest guy on the road, and parts at this level can cost five to six figures.” As a case in point, Jumm’s cycling analysis program includes such esoteric sounding features as a “dartfish video analysis,” “guru DFU” and “gebiomized pressure mapping” — and costs B6,500. “There are hundreds of bicycle shops in Bangkok, but I can count the number of shops that are actually run by mechanics on my hands. There are less than ten,” Arnusan says.
THE NEXT CYCLE
From his home shop, Cuca’s Vissaves is now a cycling royalty. But rather than rest on his laurels, he’s taking on new challenges by organizing events and capitalizing on the reputation he’s built up as the king of the fixed gear scene. Currently, he’s putting together the Bangkok Criterium, set to take place in November 2015, a three-race series that tours Thailand, backed by the beer giant Singha. “Biking in Thailand is so popular now, and there are enough people here into that we can attract foreigners to come and race here and make it a bicycle destination,” he says.
Arnusan, of Jumm Bike Studio, is using his unique position to focus on making the industry more sustainable. His mechanic roots show through: “I’d like to find a way to bring biking to the masses — not just to the privileged — by training people how to work on bikes themselves. I don’t think it will take away from my business, I think it will grow the industry.”
While the most visible aspect of Bangkok’s newfound bicycle culture has been the scores of trendy bike cafes popping up all over town, the most exciting legacy of the scene’s past five years are the expert professionals that rose to the occasion and went beyond the trends to offer an unparalleled level of service. In all likelihood, they are the ones who will still be around in five years time, long after most of the cafes have closed.
Cog n Roll
Service starts from B500 while bike frame powder coating starts from B2,500.
6, Nuan Chan, Bueng Kum, 087–711–3543, Open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm
Service from B100 while colour coating starts from B3,000
1, Soi 5 Yaek 28, Ramkhamhaeng 24, 083–019–1999, Open Tue-Sun 12pm-9pm
Jumm Bike Studio
Dartfish video analysis, Guru DFU, Gebiomized pressure mapping: B6,500
32, Ramkhamheang 24, 087–813–7117, Open Mon-Sat 12pm-8pm