This article was produced in association with Pas Normal Studios
Seoul is a city with a history of fulfilling big ambitions through sheer determination. In the 1990s, for example, it pumped millions of dollars into film, television, and Korean popular music (K-pop) which became successful across Asia and all over the globe. In recent years, the city has set its sights on cycling, aiming to increase the number of residents using two wheels to get around urban areas and beyond. With a 400 kilometre network of bike paths, the last decade has seen a sort of cycling revolution in the mighty South Korean city. Erica Kwihyun Kim, who runs bike shop Bike Makes Me Happy in Sangsu-dong with her husband, is at the heart of the burgeoning cycling community in Seoul.
“I grew up in South Korea but was in the US studying to be a designer in New York,” Kwihyun Kim says. “I met my husband as he’d been riding fixed gear for a long time. He introduced me to some good kit brands at the time, like Team Dream Bicycling Team, which is a California based brand. We spoke about how they don’t have a Korean dealer or distributor, so I thought, why don’t we start?”
From then, Bike Makes Me Happy was born, with Kwihyun Kim and husband at the helm. With South Korea being a fashion hotspot, the appetite for custom bikes and luxury cycling apparel is rife, too.
“At the time, I didn't ride that seriously but I just started from fixed gear and then I came back to Korea and began our bike shop online, then it grew from there,” Kwihyun Kim explains.At their shop, Kwihyun Kim and her husband sell mostly handmade bikes, with brands like Dario Pegoretti from Italy and Number 22 from New York all available to purchase through Bike Makes Me Happy. Kwihyun Kim explains that these smaller brands have become more popular in South Korea in recent years, with consumers preferring an option that is customised to their needs and unique in a world full of mass-produced frames.
“We are getting more famous online so now more people are getting to know about handmade bikes, steel bikes and titanium bikes which is really good for us. It is a steady growth,” she says. “Some people start from scratch with a handmade bicycle but others try different brands and then realise that they want something handmade and unique.”
Kwihyun Kim explains that road cycling is the biggest discipline currently in Seoul, but more and more people are beginning to dabble in gravel riding too. “There’s lots of group riding and we now have two gravel races in Korea, but no cyclo-cross racing yet,” she says.
There is one route in Seoul that is the most popular amongst cyclists in the area named Namsan-Bukak. Around 50 kilometres long and with 500 metres of elevation gain, the route takes in two of Seoul’s key climbs and traverses into the countryside as well as through the ‘Metropolitan Seoul'. Namsan is a climb that is uniquely situated right in the middle of Seoul and from there to ride to the Bukak climb the riders pass through the Old Palace. The River Han that runs straight through the city has bike paths alongside it and on all of the adjoining streams which makes riding through the city safer and more convenient for cyclists.
“It’s really good we have this bike path,” Kwihyun Kim says. “We can go from Seoul to Busan which is over 500 kilometres all on a bike path.”
The Seorak Granfondo with over 4000 participants is perhaps South Korea’s most famous cycling event and Kwihyun Kim believes this number will only get bigger in future years as more and more young people are beginning to get into cycling.
“Young people especially care about their mental and physical health, they want to stay strong and have a healthier lifestyle so people are starting to exercise a lot,” she says. “People also start because friends and family do it and people think it's really cool to ride with a jersey because it looks so professional even though you’re just a normal rider.”
“The biggest thing is you can ride by yourself or you can go into a big group. You can just ride whenever you want and you don't need to go to the gym or make an appointment with someone.”
Jeju Island to ride, traversing 200km around the volcanic island earlier this year to complete Pas Normal Studios' Midsummer Challenge. Jeju Island is a short 1hour flight from Seoul, and is actually the busiest flight route in the world.
Kwihyun Kim does admit that perhaps the biggest obstacle to riding in Korea is the inclement weather that can frequent the area. She’s speaking to me in the midst of a hot and humid summer, but in the winter Seoul faces freezing temperatures too.
“If it's too hot, I can go to the mountains and if it's too cold I can go indoors and train, or just ride along the Han River which has a bike lane,” Kwihyun Kim says.
The Korean rider recently experienced her first taste of the European gravel racing scene by taking part in The Rift, an event in the 2023 Gravel Earth Series. Although the 200 kilometre route around the Icelandic flatlands was a challenge, Kwihyun Kim says it is an experience she will never forget.
“It was beautiful, even through jetlagged eyes, the landscape is really beautiful. It was hard to get there because it was 23 hours of flying and I actually didn’t know if I could do it because I’m not the strongest rider or a pro cyclist – I’ve never ridden seriously before,” she explains. “I was so nervous in the morning but I did it, I cried after because I was so happy. It was 12 hours of riding but I still finished safely and had time to drink a beer.”
Aside from the gruelling distance of The Rift, Kwihyun Kim explains that the event had a different feel to gravel events she has done in Korea before. “In Korea we have very hilly landscapes and many trees in the mountains. I cannot really see the flat landscape in Korea, but there are no trees really in Iceland, so it's a totally different view.”
“I think in The Rift there were a few pro cyclists in the race so it is a bit more competitive. I feel like it's more serious,” Kwihyun Kim says. “In Korea it is more like just having fun and it’s more chill, even if it’s a race it’s not as much about the winner.”
Riding The Rift has given Kwihyun Kim a taste of the gravel scene across the pond and she explains she is keen to do more trips to race in Europe, despite the “annoying” travel and downsides of lugging a bike bag around the airport. What’s more, Kwihyun Kim is keen to bring a taste of what she experienced in The Rift back to Seoul too, a country where cycling culture is only growing by the day.