Urban elite go in search of "pedal chic"

PARIS (Agence France-Presse) - Bikes with alligator skin saddles, frames adorned with 24 carat gold leaf, or just two wheels designed to your very own personal specifications.

From Paris to Tokyo via Milan, designer and customised bikes costing thousands of dollars are the latest must-have luxury item coveted by urban elites in search of "pedal chic".

A world away from the bland utilitarianism of self-service bikes, these top-end cycles are becoming as much a status symbol as the car ever was.

And whether they be trendy young professionals or big names in the business world, designers are competing to woo potential customers with their sleek, luxury models.

Luxury firm Hermes, which specialises in leather goods, is one of the market's leading players. Its Flaneur model comes with a price tag of 9,000 euros (S$14,500).

For that, deep-pocketed cyclists get a designer name, eight gears, a carbon monobloc frame and water-resistant taurillon leather saddle and handlebar grips.

"This bike is very successful both with regular Hermes customers... but also with cycling enthusiasts, who find something new in it," Francois Dore, director general of Hermes Horizons, told AFP.

"We wanted to set out our vision of cycling as the favourite means of transport for the modern citizen," Dore said.

On the other side of the Alps, bespoke bike company 43 Milano turned to Pininfarina - the Italian car design and coachbuilding firm - for its "Fuoriserie" model.

The chrome steel bike, priced at 8,400 euros, is equipped with a discreet electric motor on the back wheel and inspired by one of the firm's 1930s cars designs.

"The braided leather of the saddle and the handlebar is inspired by the interior of the car," Paolo Pininfarina, president of the business founded by his grandfather, said.

With just a limited edition of 30, it is aimed at "bosses who live in city centres", he said.

The bike is said to have been invented in 1817 by the German Karl von Drais and by the middle of the 20th century it had become a cheap and easy means of transport for the masses all over the world.

Today it is also a luxury accessory with carmakers Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari all coming out with their own top-of-the-range bikes.

"With bikes, people rediscover the independence that they had with the car, but without any of the inconvenience of traffic.

"They can exercise, they can breathe and rediscover their freedom," Bruno Urvoy, a marketing expert who has also opened his own bike shop in Paris, En Selle Marcel (On Saddle Marcel).

Specialising in luxury bikes, the shop sells models made by Italian, British and German manufacturers And although they may be expensive compared with other bikes, not all designer models require a second mortgage.

For 1,450 euros, you could acquire a Siegfried from Schindelhauer which has a sleek aluminium look. Or, for around double, that you could purchase a Ludwig 18 that can be customised according to your individual preference.

These bikes have little in common with their more functional forerunners, which were produced in their hundreds of millions.

But for Urvoy "the real luxury is customisation". Customers can take him their favourite all-time bike - perhaps one they had as a teenager or the one their grandfather had - and ask him to replace certain parts, accessorise it or paint it.

"Before, the car it was very much a sign of social status. Now the bike is taking on this role," Urvoy said.

"It allows people to say to others 'that's my lifestyle and my image'. For some, it's as important as the type of shoes they wear."

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