50cycles in Shanghai Part One

You have a lot of time to think on a flight to Shanghai. I chose instead to watch as many movies as possible before falling asleep.
I sat through Red Road, was wound up by Crank and suffered Severance. Finally as my Airbus roared out tonnes of CO2 thousands of metres above a million square kilometres of rapidly-thawing Siberian tundra, I decided to take in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Of the many cases put forward for global warming, An Inconvenient Truth is one of the most persuasive and best known. It’s hard climatic evidence, unnerving footage of floods, droughts and gravel wastes where once were glaciers will soon be compulsory viewing in British schools.

And of the many reasons to buy and use an electric bike, helping to stabilise the level of atmospheric CO2 must be one of the best. My trip to Shanghai was partly about seeing what’s new for eZee and electric bikes, partly a chance to catch up with the people that run the company and make our stock. But it was also a great opportunity to see how this city-of-the-moment compares to London, take a trip on the world’s fastest train, check out some skyscrapers and enjoy lots of local food.

Descent into Shanghai
Everywhere in Shanghai is 10 or 15 miles from anywhere else. Except the airport, which is 30 miles from anywhere else, waaaay to the east of the city centre, at the edge of Pudong, right by the sea. Any journey from the airport will take you through the early 21st century’s Workshop of the World, thousands of Shanghai Essential Widget Co., Ltds, mostly low, sand-coloured factories strung out along newly built roads. Bicycles and tricycles are used everywhere, around half of them electrically powered. More on the species of bikes roaming Shanghai’s roads later.

Approaches to the Huangpu river are very much motor vehicle territory though. The monolithic Nanpu bridge takes six lanes of solid traffic (no bikes) up and over the river, feeding a vast spiral ramp that descends to street level. This is how you enter Shanghai, on a slingshot, slung from the 21st century into a 19th century street pattern of crumbling old warehouses, bicycle repair workshops, restaurants and apartment blocks hung with laundry and power lines. No tree-lined boulevards. Everything looks a little grey and washed out with weak sunlight barely penetrating an ever-present fog that refuses to lift throughout my stay.

So I was grateful to step inside a warm and welcoming Brazilian restaurant with the boss of eZee, Wai Won Ching. We were in Xintiandi, one of the smartest areas in the city centre, a few neat and compact city blocks that combine the sheen of Bond Street with the hubbub of Covent Garden and the buzz of China Town. It’s a chic, up and coming sort of place.

I hadn’t seen Ching since his visit to the UK last August and we spent the meal (made up of perfectly roasted slices of every kind of meat… plus some salad) catching up . It was good of eZee to pick me up from the airport and set me down in such fine surroundings. I was beginning to feel at home already.

The eZee Factory
eZee have moved to larger premises since 50cycles first visit back in 2003 and they plan to move to an even larger site in an upcoming area later this year. But I was impressed by their current base, two large buildings for storage and fabrication plus an office block and gatehouse, all arranged round a couple of large yards. There’s also an unusual pond containing a gnarled ornamental rock, bridge and concrete pagoda that I wish I had taken a snap of now.

Stores selling 8-foot-high gnarled rocks, stone lions and pagodas (pond sold separately) are a regular sight along the highways of Pudong. It’s clearly a big business here. If you’re reading this and you’re looking to transform your garden with that sort of thing, Shanghai is the place to come.

The eZee factory is located in Nan Hui, a busy district criss-crossed by canals and studded with newly-minted industrial units. A few people here can definitely remember when “it were all fields round here”, less than two decades ago.

If you ignore the frenzied industry, exotic traffic and distinctive architecture, it’s not unlike the English Fens, especially when seen through a cold mist. But incredibly, bicycles are even more popular out here on the Chinese fens, along with 1950s vintage heavy goods tricycles, weird Mad Max agricultural contrivances and countless, countless VW Santanas taxis. Volkswagen are evidently doing very well out here. Shame about the pollution.

After meeting Ching’s son and wife who also work here, my tour of the factory began. I was very pleased to see that each bike is hand-made and thoroughly checked by an experienced team. Ching says that most of the staff have been with eZee since the earliest days, which is unusual in a city with a very high turnover of workers who come from miles around Shanghai to work. On the day of my visit, about a dozen men and women were quietly transforming the surrounding racks of gleaming frames, motors and wheels into Torqs and Sprints destined for the Northern European market.

I was shown the various calibration and rigs their designers use to test the bikes before, during and after production. eZee have invested heavily in this area and it was encouraging to see that each bike wheel, for example, is hand-trued and carefully adjusted for balance by the chap pictured above.

Next picture in my slideshow is one of the mechanical rigs eZee have bought to test the strength of frames. It’s a sort of robotic bike rider with the annoying habit of jumping up and down incessantly, thereby pushing the frame to its physical limit. It’s sole purpose in life is to try to break all the innocent eZee frames it is fed by tiring them out and causing metal fatigue. However, it doesn’t have much success.

Usual testing regulations demand each frame survive a mere 50,000 revolutions before a structural failure is allowed to happen. The frame you see here had reached 95,782 revolutions after more than 7 hours of being jiggled up and down and in and out. I think it went on to about 125,000 before everyone got bored and had to go home.

This apparatus (left) is a jig used to measure individual frames and costs thousands of US dollars. It’s important for ensuring that every delivery of frames meets the strict engineering tolerances demanded by eZee’s designers.

Those red tubes you can see arcing out apparently feed air to pneumatic counterweights or something. Ching did explain it to me a couple of times – maybe it was the jetlag or the cold, but it didn’t go in.

After showing me round the site for the first time, Ching revealed that he had just completed work on his lastest bike, the eZee Liv.

We stocked a small number of the first generation of this bike that went by this name back in 2005. But there have been a number of vital, major improvements since then those early days.

Most obvious is the frame, it’s a new geometry for eZee, and features a low crossbar, rather than the step-through design we’d seen before. It gives the bike a nice, discreet look.

Next up is the addition of a Shimano Nexus Inter-3 hub gear in the rear wheel. This proved very popular in the Sprint between 2004 and 2006. It’s reliable, mostly maintenance free and gives the rider to drop gears when forced to stop at lights or a junction, ready for a quick, efficient get-away.

Finally, the motor is the same as that used in the Rider, eZee’s first bike. This is very much a road-tested, reliable motor. Not quite as efficient as the brushless motor used in the Sprint but it works well with the Liv’s 36V 9A NiMH battery (the previous Liv battery was somewhat less powerful).

Ching is determined that this bike will take a significant share of the less expensive end of the electric bike market. He says he is sick and tired of seeing such a lot of crap masquerading as viable electric bikes and wants to shake things up with a practical, powerful machine. Priced aggressively at £545 including delivery it will give all those underpowered bikes in this price bracket a kick up the backside!

And so ends the first installment of my contribution to the 50cycles blog. Next time I’ll take you on a tour of the wintry streets of Shanghai and describe how no amount of sleet, fog or mortal danger puts off the city’s courageous cyclists.

Tim Snaith
© 50cycles Ltd, February 2007