Thanks to years of dedication and a recent visit by a cycling legend, Saigon Cycles has helped bring both attention and equipment to the local bike community. Michael Tatarski talks to Rod Skeggs of Saigon Cycles and Gary Fisher, the inventor of the mountain bike. Photos by Alex McMillan and Saigon Cycles, video by AsiaLIFE INSIGHT.
Five years ago, foreigners would have had a hard time finding bikes in Ho Chi Minh City.
“At that time you couldn’t buy a decent bike in Vietnam,” says Rod Skeggs. “You could buy local bikes, but there weren’t any big enough for foreigners and the quality wasn’t what I was after.”
Skeggs and his friend Eugene Kee decided to change that. They met while working in construction in Taiwan, where they used to cycle to work every day.
So, after relocating to Vietnam, they opened Saigon Cycles in the Sky Garden complex in Phu My Hung in 2007.
A major challenge Skeggs and Kee faced at first was finding a bike company to provide gear. They went to a large Taipei bike convention in 2008 and talked to hundreds of representatives, but no one wanted to help. “They would tell us we could have something, but only with a $5,000 to $10,000 minimum order,” Skeggs says.
After the discouraging experience, the business partners decided simply to buy equipment on their own in Taiwan and ship it to Vietnam. They bought Giant bikes and sold them at their shop for a year.
In 2009 Skeggs and Kee returned to the Taipei bike show. They approached Giant and since they were selling its product in a new market, they asked the company if it would help support them. Giant agreed, and Saigon Cycles became their official retailer in the country.
The following year the regional representative from Trek, a major American bicycle company, visited the store and asked if they would be interested in selling their bikes instead of Giant’s. After six months of consideration Skeggs and Kee decided to make the move to Trek, which they both now consider the best decision they have made for the business.
Gary Fisher and Saigon Cycles
Last month, that changeover was handsomely rewarded when Gary Fisher came to visit. A legend in the international cycling community, Fisher helps develop bikes for Trek and is credited with inventing the modern mountain bike. He spent four days in Ho Chi Minh City with Skeggs and Kee acting as his hosts. Kee says that last year, while he was on a ride in the countryside south of the city, Trek’s regional head told him Fisher would love to cycle here. Three months ago Saigon Cycles was told he would be coming to town.
Skeggs was elated. He believes it was “a major show of confidence in our business and an understanding of the potential of the market here.” Fisher’s global reputation brought attention to both Saigon Cycles and Vietnam as a whole.
“The international publicity has put us on the map abroad, and we’ve been contacted by a number of people since the visit who now want to come to Vietnam,” Skeggs says.
Shortly after arriving, Gary Fisher sat down with AsiaLIFE for an interview at Saigon Cycles. I asked him whether recreational cycling could become popular in a place like Vietnam, where people flaunt new wealth through flashy cars and denigrate bikes as the poor man’s mode of transportation.
“It was the same way in the 60s and 70s in the US,” Fisher says. “People would see us riding and wonder why we were doing it. They would ask, ‘Are you poor or something?’ But it’s about quality of life. When I travel someplace, there’s no better way to see it than on a bike.”
Fisher also commented on the inherent advantages Vietnam possesses. “People already know how to handle two wheels,” he says. “There’s a pretty good flow but I understand that the average length of their trip isn’t that long. Why be a slave to a motorbike?”
The city’s heat, pollution and traffic congestion offer easy reasons not to cycle. Fisher advised that “the best thing you can do is join a group of like-minded people, they will have solutions to those problems.” He also argued that riding here is safer than in the United States, where people are able to drive cars very fast, get bored and lose focus.
Skeggs agrees that Vietnam has great cycling potential, thanks to the fact that the country was built around the bicycle. “Prior to all of these motos and cars, people walked or cyled. It’s really an ideal environment to get out and ride,” he says.
Fisher was given a first-hand view of this environment on a 64km-ride along the single-track concrete paths that snake through the hamlets and rice paddies outside of the city. When he left two days later, Fisher told Skeggs and Kee that it had been a “life-altering experience”.