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Swiss bike industry faces uphill struggle

Cycle assembly at Villiger in central Switzerland (picture: Villiger) Cycle assembly at Villiger in central Switzerland (picture: Villiger)

As more cyclists snap up cheap imported bikes for their countryside jaunts or the commute to work, Switzerland's bicycle industry increasingly faces a tough fight for survival. A number of Swiss bicycle firms have stopped production because they were unable to match the low prices of imports.

Although the Swiss market appears healthy — some 350,000 to 400,000 new bikes are expected to be sold this year at an average price of SFr1,050 ($611) – producers face financial hurdles ranging from the country’s higher cost of salaries to transport taxes.

“The costs of production in Switzerland are much higher than for the importers. The average prices are coming down, so it’s very difficult for a Swiss producer to compete,” Reto Gisler, head of sales at Villiger, told swissinfo.

Villiger, based in Buttisholz in canton Lucerne, is the brand leader among the surviving handful of Swiss bicycle producers. In May, Villiger purchased Tigra, which had gone bankrupt. –a victim of the import trend.

Villiger produces some 40,000 bicycles a year, including models with hand-made steel frames. These fetch higher prices because of the higher quality.

Imported parts

A look around the Villiger factory shows a clear trend. While some of the frames are hand made, the remainder of the parts are imported. The name Shimano is widespread on warehouse boxes that have been delivered from Japan.

All Villiger’s bikes are destined for the Swiss market because customs duties make it impossible to export and still make money.

“We will concentrate on the Swiss market. We have a good chance with high quality bikes to also get high prices,” Gisler said.

For the time being, he added, the company will continue to make steel frames but it is not clear how long it can afford to keep that operation going.

“For the Swiss bike industry as a whole, I see a good future but increasingly Switzerland has to import bikes. The market is still strong for city/trekking or mountain bikes but it is not a growing market at present,” Gisler said.

Old brands, different products

In Gretzenbach, in canton Solothurn , craftsmen for another notable Swiss brand, Aarios, also continue to compete. With a staff of just 15, Aarios produces about 3,000 bikes annually.

Some prominent Swiss cycling firms, including Mondia, Allegro and Condor, have stopped production but continue to sell imports under their own brand names.

The fate of Cilo, known for its legendary racing bikes, remains unclear. Until recently, Cilo produced bikes near Lausanne. The company still has interested buyers from Italy and the Netherlands, but the remaining Cilo employees have made it clear they are not prepared to work for lower salaries if the company falls into foreign hands.

by Robert Brookes

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR