Fifty years after Mao unleashed his big idea, China has embraced the motorbike and is heading for two-wheeled world domination. Tim Luckhurst reports

In the Konrad Adenauer suite at Cologne's vast exhibition centre, Frank Savage of Harley Davidson was suppressing tears of joy. His baby, a prototype dirt-track racer - the XR1200 - was meeting the press for the first time. For Frank, this modern take on the iconic XR750 has been a labour of love. His team appears to have done a fine job of bringing the 1970s machine's DNA into the modern era. But assembled hacks were sceptical.

First up was a German who pointed out that dirt-track racing is not a European sport. To put it bluntly - and he did - we do not do it and never have. A senior colleague stepped in to help Frank. "We realise that the history of dirt-track racing in Europe has been virtually none," he said. "It starts today," chipped in a sycophant. "Well, one day wouldn't it be cool to have a dirt-track race in Europe," improvised the big cheese before moving on to explain that HD does not usually unveil prototypes. "This is something different. We want a clear read on how people feel about it." Only if the reaction is positive will the XR1200 enter production.

If a high-performance clone of a 35-year-old American legend sounds like a niche product, Harley Davidson is not alone in believing such things are the future of motorcycling. Over at the Triumph stand, marketing director Tue Mantoni said: "The motorcycle market is under pressure. It is easier for a niche player to swim against the tide." He attributes Triumph's continuing growth to early adoption of the niche philosophy.

At Intermot 2006, the world's largest motorcycle trade fair, it was nigh universal among mainstream European manufacturers. Their view is that motorcycling as a means of transport is all but dead. One executive said: "These days, the bike market is all about leisure. Riding a motorcycle is about risk and excitement, not commuting to work." Hence the range of new sport, adventure and touring models unveiled at Intermot.

BMW revealed a new family of three lightweight, single-cylinder machines - the G650 Xchallenge, G650 Xmoto and G650 Xcountry (for X, say cross) - together with a new addition to its high-performance, four-cylinder K1200 series, the K1200R Sport, and a naked boxer, the R1200R. Triumph brought the new Tiger, a totally revamped, three-cylinder, 1,050cc version of the cult adventure bike. Kawasaki tantalised us with a prototype 1,400cc shaft-drive, luxury sports tourer, the 1400 GTR.

KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Ducati all brought intriguing new models to the show but the theme seemed consistent. Motorcycles are no longer to be viewed as practical tools. They sell better when depicted as heritage or high-technology toys designed to excite and impress; not simply to serve. Unless, that is, you are a Chinese manufacturer. In which case, the economics of mass production in a low-wage economy make churning out basic, mass-market two-wheelers very realistic.

The Chinese were the spectres at the feast in Cologne. Walking among stalls displaying the wares of companies including Jiangsu Xinling Motorcycles, Baotian Motorcycle (slogan "Other Go Where They Went"), Jianshe Industries and Wuxi Jinbawang Motorcycle Manufacturing Company, I pondered exactly how many motorcycles China now makes. Pawky Cui, the deputy general manager of the China International Motorcycle Trade Exhibition, had the answer.

In 2005, the Communist superpower produced 17,745,051 motorcycles. Of these, 7,226,627 were exported. A Chinese government leaflet headlined "Booming Chinese Motorcycle" helpfully confirms that there are now more than 500 motorcycle manufacturers in China. A massive 53 per cent of their turnout consists of 125cc machines, such as the Jianshe 125-28 Knight Spirit I watched being lethargically polished by an apparently jet-lagged employee of Chongqing Jianshe Industries.

Chinese bikes account for 12 per cent of the UK road-bike market and 25 per cent of new registrations up to 125cc. Some established manufacturers believe they encourage young riders to acquire the motorcycling habit, but insist that their owners will trade up. Triumph's Mantoni says that is complacent. "When the Japanese first began exporting motorcycles to Britain, there were traditionalists who thought nobody could really want some cheap, garish thing with plastic accessories," he says. "But the Japanese learnt fast. Soon their machines did not leak oil, went fast and offered excellent value. The Chinese will learn as quickly."

For Mantoni, the solution is to concentrate on the niche products that have seen Triumph exceed previous records to sell 40,000 motorcycles in 2006. But there was another threat looming over the manufacturers gathered in Cologne. As Honda demonstrated motorcycle airbag technology for the first time, muttered conversations about legislative threats brought European and Japanese executives together in mutual concern. "Some countries and cities are thinking about cracking down on large-capacity motorcycles," said one. "Paris is contemplating a complete ban."

A leading European designer says: "Motorcycles are dangerous in a world increasingly averse to risk and rebellion at a time when conformity is dominant. I fear it is only a matter of time before the European Union starts to attack us legislatively. Licence restrictions have been imposed. The momentum is against us and it needs to be reversed." One way to achieve that may be to promote the virtues the niche approach overlooks.

Motorcycles are fuel-efficient and congestion-busting. Dealers and manufacturers congregating in Cologne were delighted by German market statistics for 2006, showing sales of 50cc mopeds up 19 per cent and those of 125cc scooters up 8.5 per cent. Yamaha drew attention to the trend while unveiling its new moped, the funky-looking Giggle that comes with a vast 33-litre, under-seat storage space.

Japanese manufacturers have seen the dramatic impact of Chinese competition in markets including India and Vietnam, where small motorcycles are ubiquitous. But it would be naive to assume Chinese ambitions are confined to the small motorcycle sector. As Triumph unveiled the new Tiger, a team of Chinese photographers moved in to take close up shots of engines, brakes, suspension systems and styling details. I watched as they repeated their efforts at other stands. It was the most blatant example I have witnessed of legal industrial espionage.

But Chinese ambitions are not restricted to copying. At Britain's International Motorcycle and Scooter Show (from Thursday to 5 November at the NEC in Birmingham), the Chinese Wuyang brand will mark a UK first by launching a new model over here. Established manufacturers are innovating to stay ahead. But with Chinese competitors now expanding fast, intrusive regulation would inflict serious pain on Europe's dynamic niche producers.

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