By Scott Rapoport & Josh “Stugg” Zhang
Decades ago, before it industrialized, before it became one of the largest economies in the world, before it filled with cars, skyscrapers and the most modern of technologies, China was known as the Kingdom of Bicycles. Combine this with a presently exploding middle class, landscapes that are often stunning, mountainous terrain, and you get an idea of the Chinese mountain bike community today: a huge and constantly expanding scene.
In Yunnan, one of China’s most rural, diverse and mountainous provinces, riders can enjoy an enormous variety of terrain. Bordered by Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, southern Yunnan is rolling hills, tea fields and jungle. Yunnan’s northern and western reaches, toward the borders of Tibet and Sichuan, are the Himalayas—the famous and magnificent scenery of areas like Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-La. At its heart is the province’s largest city and capital, Kunming. Go anywhere in the mountains surrounding the city, and you are bound to see XC and road riders. But unlike these disciplines, downhill is not an Olympic sport, and so garners significantly less attention in China. Sponsorships are far and few between, especially in Yunnan, and so the downhill community here is maintained by a smaller, dedicated group of riders.
Tell your friends you are going mountain biking in southwest China and they might ask something like, “what are you going to ride, old goat paths?” Come here and you will find, firstly, that old goat paths absolutely rip, and secondly, that one of the steepest and most well-built downhill trails in Asia is actually called the Goat House. Until only a few years ago, the trail really was a goat path. In 2013 the film Where the Trail Ends, which featured a segment filmed in China, was released and had an immediate influence on Chinese mountain bikers. It not only showed what was possible on a mountain bike, but what was possible on a mountain bike in China. In Kunming, many of the downhill riders say the film was at least partially responsible for getting them into the sport. So they picked up shovels and started digging. They built berms, jumps and drops, going off only what they had seen in videos. Today, only a few years later, on the mountain called Bao Zhu that dominates much of Kunming’s western skyline, there are a number of purpose-built mountain bike trails, a jump park and a proper downhill racetrack.The Teacher
Josh Zhang is a local rider from up in Chongqing, Sichuan. After moving to Kunming some ten years ago, he was introduced to mountain biking and immediately became infatuated with the sport. Most riders simply call him the English teacher; he runs his own school and is as good at speaking English as he is at mountain biking, which is to say, really freaking good. Meet him and you will instantly recognize his passion for this sport. He is a dreamer who believes in the amazing possibilities for mountain biking in Yunnan, of Himalayan descents, ancient paths, and the thousands of trails here yet to be conquered by the mountain bike. The Organizer
Mr. Lee is the man largely responsible for this downhill community. Most riders call him Lao Lee Ge, meaning big brother Lee. The 62-year-old—a veteran soldier of the China Vietnam War—still rides the downhill trails regularly. In 2015 Mr. Lee’s youngest son, like so many of us, became addicted to downhill mountain biking. Having been an XC rider for many years, Lee took a test ride on a big bike and was instantly hooked. The father-son team began to organize an effort to build proper mountain bike trails at Bao Zhu. Getting permission to build trails, especially ones with jumps, is no easy feat in China—this is a country where all land is owned by the government, and so buying a plot to build on was not an option. Mr. Lee was able to overcome this by, simply put, knowing a lot of people. He has put a tremendous amount of time, money and build hours into this project, all for the love of the sport. His efforts, with the help of others, have allowed for the downhill community in Kunming to flourish. It is certainly a story of, “if you build it, they will come.” His trails have attracted a huge number of young Chinese riders to the sport, many of whom are now ridiculously talented. Lao Lee Ge is a testament to the influence that a single trail system can have on a community. The Rider
Every trail system has a local badass—that guy who rides fast, sends it big, and makes you realize that you’re a complete amateur. At Bao Zhu that man is Lee Song Ren, one of Yunnan’s fastest downhill racers. Quiet and humble, he lets his riding speak for itself. When he was twelve, Song Ren saw a picture of Redbull Rampage, became captivated by mountain biking, saved money for months, bought a cheap, Walmartesque full suspension, took said bike off a five-foot drop, and immediately destroyed it.
When he’s not riding, Song Ren runs a small bike shop. When riders in the area need their suspension serviced, unable to send it around the world to the likes of Fox or Rockshox, they come to Song Ren. He is completely self-taught, learning to fix suspension simply by opening it up and tinkering. He is also an expert trail builder, and designed and helped build all of the trails at Bao Zhu, relying only on what he had seen from videos posted on the Chinese version of Youtube, Youku.
Song Ren has garnered a few sponsorships here and there, but nothing lasting, and certainly not enough to travel and race around China—this just isn’t in the cards for downhill riders in Yunnan. He is a dedicated, self-supported downhiller who rides and races purely out of passion. The Mechanic
Mr. King owns the bike shop at the base of Bao Zhu, which serves as the central hub and meeting point for the Kunming downhill community. The shop stocks Kona bikes—from the Honzo to the Operator—and a great selection of downhill apparel, as well as other bike brands. Mr. King was born and raised in Kunming, and began mountain biking here in the early 90s, when a Diamondback shop opened in the city. He spent $120 dollars on his first mountain bike, while earning just $7 a month—a true enthusiast. He has witnessed China’s mountain bike scene from its beginning, when few even knew the sport existed. He is a tremendously friendly person, always willing to answer questions and help fix your bike.
There are two ways to access these trails: climb or shuttle. The road (Bao Hua) up the mountain is paved, twisty and steep. Its start point is accessible by bike from nearly anywhere in the city. It begins at a turnoff from a major road in an area that is rapidly developing. New buildings seem to pop up every day; construction vehicles and workers populate the streets. It is certainly a place pulled between the old and the new, between rickshaws and BMWs, villages and high rises. But turn onto Bao Hua and you are taken to another China. The mountain, Bao Zhu, which literally translates to “precious”, begins to climb right out of the western edge of the city. Some of the mountain is farmland; cascading vegetable crops and small farmhouses can be seen around many corners. Most of the trails, and a large portion of the Goat House itself, are lined with graves. Ranging from the Ming Dynasty to more recently, the tombs are large stone structures, often decorated with flowers and traditional art. The mountain’s slopes are covered in Eucalyptus, Spruce and Pine. In the dry season the dirt is dusty, gravelly and loose. The summer rains bring tackiness to some trails, and unforgiving, grease-like, slipperiness of death to others. It’s all good fun.
Downhill races are held regularly at Bao Zhu, usually down the Goat House, and attract a number of top riders from both in and outside the province. The most recent race, which took place a few weeks ago, was down the Jade Dragon trail, which had been newly renovated. Over fifty racers participated, divided into open and 40+ categories. Jade Dragon trail is, well, like a dragon—long, twisty and mean as hell. More pedally than Goat House, the trail features a number of jumps, drops and steeps throughout its 2.5-mile length. Some fun post-race activities
Mountain biking has created a sort of horizontal comradeship across this world, often recognized by a particular style, which may include something by Fox, or Troy Lee, or Shimano, and realized most instantly, and purely, by the greatest thing ever—the mountain bike. This is certainly true in China. In the West, so much of our gear—bikes, bike parts, clothing—is manufactured in this country, and yet we hear so little about the actual riders and trails in China. So why is this? It probably has something to do with the inaccessibility of the Chinese language to English speakers, and vice-versa. Or that China’s Internet is significantly different from our own, both due to the language barrier and The Great Firewall. Maybe it has to do with the notion that for some, the word China solely conjures up images of massive, crowded cities. While this is true for some areas, the reality is that China’s vastness allows for an incredible amount of untamed wilderness. Whether jungles, deserts or the high Himalayas, China is a country of extraordinary natural beauty. The potential for mountain biking in the Middle Kingdom is matched by few, if any, and considering millions of its people love this sport, it’s safe to say China will play a large part in mountain biking’s future, whatever that may be.