Jansen Tan defied his parents to nurture a passion for bicycles. Now, he is ploughing that passion into a local bike brand that is winning awards.
Jansen Tan looks a great deal younger than his 35 years. The founder and CEO of bicycle company Coast Cycles confesses that one of his early challenges was getting manufac turers to take him seriously. “When I started, I was pretty young still and it took a while for me to convince the manufacturers that I was serious and I knew what I was doing,” he says.
Tan was 30 when he first bought a ticket to Taiwan, with the idea of persuading a factory to produce some bicycles based on a design he had drawn up. He did not know anyone in the industry and had never worked for a bicycling brand, so it is not hard to see why the manufacturers were afraid to work with him. They are not turning him away now.
In the past year, Coast Cycles’ cleanlooking designs with clever tweaks for their riders have begun to win awards and recog nition internationally. Its Quinn Cargo Bicycle bagged a Red Dot Award for Design Concept last year and an iF Design Award this year. A commuter bike, the Quinn has smaller wheels and also offers storage accessories. At the Taipei Cycle d&i awards 2016, both the Quinn and another bike, the Ruckus, received awards. The Ruckus sports wide handle bars like a Harley and has a long and broad seat. For the Quinn, Coast Cycles received a Gold Award — Young Enterprise.
The home-grown company is now receiving expressions of interest from companies that want to collaborate. And Tan hopes to use the international exposure to put more Coast Cycles bicycles in stores overseas. “With the three awards, it basically shows that we are serious. We are not just a fly-by-night company.” People are now noticing Coast Cycles because it can put its concepts into production.
Besides expanding outside Singapore, Tan also wants to expand Coast Cycles’ range. The company already has seven lines, some of which come in more than one variation. But Tan sees many more possibilities. “I want to come up with a bike for the moms and pops living in HDB flats [who] go to buy groceries. How are they going to carry their grandchild? Then there are the Asian ladies, who are not as tall as the Europeans. A lot of the big brands cater for the Europeans. [Bringing] those ladies’ bikes here to sell is not very ideal. That’s another problem for me to address,” he says. “We always have new designs. We never stop.”
Tan received his first proper bicycle at the age of 13 or 14: a yellow Cannondale mountain bike that was a gift from his father. “It was my ticket to freedom,” he says. He used it to explore the island, visiting purportedly haunted locations around Changi General Hospital, following the MRT tracks to new locations, and taking long rides from his home in the east to Sentosa. One day, he disappeared from home for several hours. “My dad got so mad at me he took the bike away and said: ‘If you’re not going to listen to me, you buy your own bike.’ So, that’s exactly what I did. I took all the money I had and bought a second bike — a simpler one that I could afford.”
He would ride from 10.30pm to 6.30 or seven in the morning. Much of his time in school, he admits, was spent catching up on sleep. “Once I came back so late because I had come from the west coast, my dad was going to work. As I was walking in I saw him coming out, so I made a U-turn. He asked where I was going. I said: ‘I woke up early for breakfast with my friend.’”
Eventually, however, his parents were persuaded by some media publicity to support his passion. Tan had been practising stunts with his friends, such as balancing on one wheel and jumping over obstacles. They learned their moves from instructional videos bought at bike shops. “They were in Japanese and we had to figure out what they were saying. We were trying skills but we didn’t know what they were for.”
It was only later that he discovered bike trials — a niche sport that involves navigating an obstacle course without setting foot on the ground. At the time, Tan says, the local bike trial community was very small and informal. But he and his friends did attract some media interest. “I started appearing in the papers,” he says. “We [took part in] some national compe titions and [began getting some coverage].” Eventually, the Singapore Sports Council agreed to partially sponsor his competitions overseas. And his dad finally gave him back his bike.
Joining the family business
Tan admits he has made many choices in life purely out of a desire to be different. He chose to get involved in bike trials mostly because it was a niche sport. After completing his first four years of secondary school, he qualified for junior college but chose to continue his education at Temasek Polytechnic. “I chose to go to poly and not JC because I didn’t need to wear a uniform. And design school [as] there are no exams,” he says. He opted to enrol in a diploma in industrial design. “My dad wanted me to do business. But it’s not fun. It’s what normal people would do. [Industrial design] is quite a niche subject.”
His one nod to conformity was to join the family business upon graduation. His father, Andrew Tan, is the founder of TAK Products & Services. The company owns and distributes its well-known brand of laminate called Lamitak, used for both furniture and floors. “I knew somehow after design school I would need to help out with the family business,” says Tan, whose older siblings, Alex and Geraldine, had done so too.
He was made to join the sales team because his father thought it would be the best way for him to understand the industry. “It was the most excruciating thing for me. I had to knock on doors and say, ‘Please, let me show you my new collection’. It was almost like selling vacuum cleaners door to door, but more targeted. I was terrible at it.”
About seven or eight years ago, however, Alex decided that he wanted to start a vegetarian fast food joint. As he focused on opening VeganBurg, Tan was left with the responsibility of creating new products, and designing and marketing them. “That was the best thing ever,” he says. “I was in my element.”
A stroke of luck
Through his years of working in the family firm, Tan pursued various passions. He gave up bike trials, for instance, and began drift racing. In drifting competitions, drivers take corners at high speeds. But he remained interested in bicycles and built up a collection, including two he designed on his own. He had drawn the frame designs and given them to a manufacturer, then waited two years for each bike.
What happened next was more a stroke of luck than anything else, he says. “I chanced upon this show flat that was about to close at Siglap. They were stuck with mostly penthouse units.” Taking a loan from his father, Tan bought the property. When he took possession of it about a year later, he had a sinking feeling that he had made a big mistake. “It was a 3,000 sq ft unit and 1,500 sq ft of it was outdoors.” For almost a year, he looked for a buyer. “Nothing happened. Then one day, the agent who sold me the unit called.”
Tan made a windfall from the sale. “It will never happen again. At least not in the near future,” he says. Suddenly, he was in possession of a large sum of money, so he decided he would plough it into his own business — designing and selling his own brand of bicycles. Coast Cycles was born.
The company’s first product, the Coastliner, sported internal cable routing. This made for a clean-looking bicycle frame with no brake cables running across the bicycle tubes. Also unique was the choice of drive system: Tan opted for the Gates Carbon Drive Belt System, which uses stretch-free carbon fibre tensile cords instead of a metal chain and chain rings. Far more rust-resistant, the carbon fibre is also easier to clean.
Since then, Coast Cycles has released a smaller version of the Coastliner called the Coastliner Mini. It has several other new lines as well. Besides the Quinn and the Ruckus, there are the Goliath, the Juggernaut, the Axis and the Atom. Each has its own unique attributes and is designed for either the urban or suburban environment. The bicycles also have some customisable features, such as handlebars that rotate so they are parallel to the frame and a gear system with a graphical representation of a slope. Instead of choosing gear numbers, the rider turns a knob based on the steepness of the climb.
Today, about 90% of Coast Cycles’ sales are within the Singapore market. And, it remains a niche brand, popular with serious cyclists. Tan says most of his clients buy it as their second or third bicycle. He would like to see 50% of sales come from outside the country in time. He is currently working through the various logistics and supply chain issues to ship his bicycles to the US. “We have American customers who prefer to ship from China,” he says. The China-based manufacturers can assemble bikes for 15% to 20% cheaper than the Taiwanese, but Tan prefers to keep his production in Taiwan.
He is also planning to renovate the two-storey shop lot that Coast Cycles currently occupies on Siglap Drive. The space hosts a café downstairs with a workshop at the back. The showroom is upstairs, with a working office at the back. As the company’s product range has expanded, Tan says more space is needed to properly showcase the full range. After the renovation is complete, there will be room to display the bicycles downstairs too.
Given that Tan continues to work at TAK, it is a wonder he has time for expansion. But he says he enjoys having the ability to work two jobs. The Lamitak product range is only refreshed once every two years, which means there is a peak year and a lull year. In lull years, he has more time to work on Coast Cycles. More than anything, however, he likes having two different products to work on at once. “It’s a very good thing because it keeps my mind fresh. That’s very important. When you are always stuck at a certain place with a certain set of problems, you get consumed by the existing problems. You can’t think out of the box.”
After all, much like its youthful founder, Coast Cycles thrives on taking the unridden route.
A spin on the Quinn
The first thing I notice as I get on the Quinn, Coast Cycles’ commuter bicycle, is the wide bag storage area in the middle. Instead of the traditional triangular structure in the centre of the frame — with top tube, seat tube and down tube — the Quinn has an almost rectangular middle. There are two tubes running parallel to each other, forming a catchment area that fits a laptop bag or slim messenger. This bag carrier seems almost in the way and for the first minute or so, my legs do need to adjust as they pump up and down. Eventually, though, I forget it is there.
The basket affixed to the front of the bicycle is also unnerving. Most bicycle baskets are fastened to the handlebars, so turning the bars moves the basket too. On the Quinn, the basket is fixed to the head tube. This means whatever is inside does not get jerked around as you make turns. But it also means my mind is sometimes tricked into thinking that I haven’t turned my handlebars yet.
Once I get over those quirks, however, the Quinn is an enjoyable ride. The padded seat is comfortable and the fatter tyres absorb most of the shock. It is also remarkably quiet, thanks to the Gates carbon belt. And, although it weighs quite a bit more than my road bike at home, it feels light under my feet. I won’t attain racing speeds, but I can go fast enough and commute with very little effort. While very tall people might find the frame too small, I find it a perfect fit.
This article appeared in the Options of Issue 728 (May 16) of The Edge Singapore.