Monday, April 6, 2009

[CR] FW: The Ukraine bicycle factory in Kharkov

I felt this fascinating post from framebuilder Doug Fattic was worthy of reposting.

Date: Sat, 04 Dec 2004 08:53:17 -0500
From: Doug Fattic
Subject: [CR]FW: The Ukraine bicycle factory in Kharkov (too long)

John Thompson wrote:

"That's cool. I remember when I was over there in the 70s the Russians had a big bike factory in Kharkov. I wonder if it's still working? Most of the output was awful Soviet copies of Western consumer-grade crap, but IIRC, they did have a hard-currency store where you could buy some decent stuff like tubular tires from Czechoslovakia and the GDR."

Toni Theilmeier wrote :

Dear John,

I think I need to comment on your remarks on Soviet cycles from Kharkov.

These generally were regarded as the better ones during Soviet times, opposed to those from Perm which really were horrible. I have had several Kharkov (XB3, G.I. Petrovski Cycle Works in Kharkov) cycles as well as some from Perm, inside as well as outside the SU, and I must say that I admire those people who had to make do with either.

I once met a chap who cycled all over Central Asia on his 1979 XB3 model 155-411 "Start-Chaussee" racer. I've had this very bike for ten years now, and it never fails to draw attention when there are visitors in my dungeon, especially when I mention it has seen the deserts of
Kazakhstan and the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, amongst other places. Also it has a big red decal on the seat tube showing the 1980 Moscow Olympics symbol.

I cannot agree with your idea of the cycles being just "consumer grade bleep". One thing which I find to be a nice touch is that they had "XB3" on most, if not all parts (racing models), meaning that every part of the
cycle, save chains, tyres and lights, were made in-house. Something else is that the Kharkov engineers copied only the nicer bits of western cycles, like Campag Gran Sport, MAFAC brakes and so on.

I do agree that most models were rather inferior in build quality to what we are used to. Why this is so is a political matter not to be discussed on-list, I guess.

Yes John, that factory is still working and I played a part in keeping it open too. And thank you Toni for keeping this thread alive so that I — the undisputed list authority on the bicycle factory in Kharkov, Ukraine (close the the Russian border) — can share some of my experiences of visiting there 7 or 8 times in the last 4 years. Toni, we have in common more than just the ownership of a Johnny Berry frame (who in my opinion was the best of the British builders before he died in '74) but a Kharkov bicycle as well. I wish I could also share in your ability to speak Russian. Of course this post might wander a bit off list subject (more likely a lot but never mind) but I am going to give it a shot anyway to see if I can slip it past that Soviet style censor. So understand that if you read, in the middle of a sentence, the words "my 1969 Hetchins" or "my 1972 Masi" and it makes no sense with the flow of thought around it, I am trying to trick the big boss in charge of keeping order (at the expense of freedom of expression) I'm on topic. If I get caught, I will plead that Ukraine is big in the news right now and that in free America, we want to get first hand inside information about our sport and how it might be affected by current events. Today (Friday), in the South Bend Tribune, there is an article about what impact the political situation in Ukraine has on local people connected to that country. My name is right there in the beginning of the article about our bicycle project and they quote an e-mail from the secretary of our project in Kiev — who, by the way, could ride most of you list members into the ground. Hold your breath, avoid eye contact with Dale, and here goes:

One of the goals for our Ukraine Bicycle Project was to spend as much of the money we had raised for the bicycles we need in the country itself. This meant purchasing bicycles made in Ukraine rather than buying them in boxes from China. Well this factory in Kharkov was established in the 1920's and at one time made most of the bicycles used in the former USSR. They claimed to have made over 1,000,000 units a year at the peak of there production. After the switch to capitalism, this company had become a shell of what is was before.

In June of 2000, our team went there to negotiate the possible purchase of 200 bicycles for our pastors. We were ushered into the president of the company's office and the various models are lined up for us to choose. Like Toni said, they made all of the parts for those bicycles right there. He was proud of the company and asked what I thought. This is where the challenge to my ethics began.

The thought running through my head at that moment was they are all just crap and the only reason we want to buy from them is because of obligations. That wasn't, however, what I finally was able to say. We chose a ten-speed model (rather than an eight) that was suitable for transportation and carrying lots of stuff. At the time, all the factory workers were home on a forced vacation because there wasn't anybody buying their bicycles. So we place our order and they ask for 70% of the final cost as a down payment. This was necessary they said because they had to negotiate with the government to turn on the electricity and gas. I was sitting there thinking, "this is crazy, what am I supposed to do? What is standard negotiating practice?" I am looking at the Ukrainian guy on our team and he is just looking back at me wondering what was my call. I pushed aside my instinct that 50% was more than enough and gave the approval. At the same time thinking that the committee back in the states that oversees the project will kill me for such a rash act with donated funds.

But my call turned out okay and a couple of months later, the bicycles were built and ready for distribution. The memory of watching those workers loading our bikes onto the truck really left a powerful impression on me. They are probably paid about $50 a month and really seemed in need (actually inbred West Virginians that have never left the holler was my first impression but don't quote me. In other words, a job that the many highly educated and talented Ukrainians don't apply for). I couldn't imagine how they could survive when they go on "vacation".

The next week, I traveled to different cities where we gave the bicycles to pastors or other church workers. I explained how to properly set the bicycle seat and handlebar height and do a little repair and maintenance. At one of the churches, there were a lot of pastors present and the women of the church fed us a very terrific meal. I thought this is great food and there is an abundance of bicycles around, throw in sleeping bags and this has all the makings of a bike tour. We just need to ride to the next church. That is how the idea of our fund raising bike ride got started. Our first one was in 2001 and we completed our 5th one week long tour in 2004. It is by far my favorite week of the year. It can be yours too. Our out-of-date- website is:

That was just the beginning of my experiences at the Kharkov factory. I wanted them to make more than just improvements to our bikes, but to the factory itself. It's kind of cool that they make all the parts there but that idea alone has no chance in today's world economy. What would you buy when looking for a bicycle? A frame with Shimano equipped parts or copies of 1950s parts? Well, list members are not a random sample of wants so never mind but no one would argue that a company dies when it doesn't keep pace with technology.

KLM stops in Holland on the way home from Kiev and I made a point of visiting Shimano Europe. I was fortunate that I had won the latest Shimano sponsored contest of best bike at their booth at Interbike and they knew who I was. I asked the big boys and they agreed to help me (I kept my personal Campy equipped bike out of sight) both with getting parts from them to put on Kharkov frames for our project and for them to visit the factory itself to explore marketing possibilities. They thought that Ukraine was not a market ready for them yet. I explained my experiences looking all around Kiev at almost every bicycle shop for our needs and had a reasonable understanding of the market and the situation at Kharkov. They agreed to go.

I timed my next visit to Ukraine to coincide with when the director of Shimano sales for all of Europe as well as the guy in charge of sales in Eastern Europe would visit Kharkov. This visit was a personal illustration of the differences between Western and old Eastern thinking. As luck would have it, I convinced a personal Russian friend of mine - that had inspired me to get involved in this project in the first place - to serve as my translator. He received his PhD at Andrews University (were I got my degrees) and now taught in Russia. His thesis was on a twenty year period of Czarist history in the 1500's when the Czar promoted a seventh-day Sabbath (of obvious interest to a Seventh-day Adventist). This idea went out when that Czar lost power but lets kinda get back to the subject (or at least pretend to) and not really, really annoy Dale.

His (my Russian friend's) hobby is making amateur films and I wanted some documentation of what we were doing. He agreed to come. Now the setting of the story is that we are waiting at the factory for the Shimano guys to show up and making small talk with the various department heads. Most of these guys are really good people but I just couldn't/can't stand the director in charge (a change of personnel from our first order). He's the boss from hell.

Something made people scatter from the director's office and while we are waiting in the hall, our translator overhears the director talking to someone on the phone. He is wanting to know who Shimano is and what is the value for them being there? I couldn't believe it?! Their very salvation is dependent on the negotiations about to take place and he is so uniformed and ill prepared! Of course bicycles may just not be what his responsibility is but just a cover but I didn't come to spy. We wait again in the office nibbling Russian chocolates and Ukrainian sweets.

Things get interesting when Shimano arrives and the meeting begins. The big boys gives the company guys the news first hand that over 90% of all bicycles made in the world are equipped with some Shimano parts. They explain that it is possible for them to order directly from them and save the middleman charges. Immediately the young Kharkov salesman asks how much of that saved money has to be kicked back to them under the table for the privilege. The Shimano guys smiled and assured them it was all theirs and they work above board. Shimano also wanted to know their marketing strategy and manufacturing abilities.

During this presentation I saw the need to give some advice as powerfully as I could. They needed to make what customers wanted and not what they wanted to make and hope it sells. I mean, this seemed too obvious to mention - the different approach to manufacturing between Capitalism and Communism. The head Shimano guy was really backing me up and saying "yea, you really need to do that". Everyone seemed to listen except Comrade Director who probably was wondering if the cost of those chocolates was a waste on these Shimano guys unless some were left to take home for himself.

Hmmm, I see that I have written too much and nobody will still be holding their breath. For the two of you left that have read this far (one of whom might actually speak English but hopefully does not have the first name of Dale) I will mercifully come to an intermission. The short version of the rest of the story is that the Director of the factory didn't want to bother with a new order for us once they started to get busy after equipping their bicycles with Shimano parts (you're welcome, thanks for remembering what I did for you).

Now we are going to make frames ourselves in Kiev. With some confidence in these readship numbers, I think it might be safe to make an offer. Like I mentioned, my Russian translator/inspirer made a video of our project including going to the factory and taking pictures inside their interesting museum. I was a little uncomfortable with it because it was a little too much about my efforts (I'm not kidding) but it's what we have. We also did a video of our bicycle ride. Copies of either of these can be made available. Contact me for more information (read: let me figure out how to do this in the meantime out of the 2 copies I have). Someone might be inspired to help with this project as well.

Doug "always give me the short version please" Fattic
Niles, Michigan

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Kevin T said...

Really cool story. Definitely worthy of the repost. Thanks.

Tim Little said...

I think you guys are really old school with the bikes from the old USSR days. I know park bike tool would have came in real handy during those days.

Max said...

Awesome ! I just bought a 1979 XB3, on EBay. It's got 8 gears, some aluminum parts, and I did notice a 'Shimano' branded wheel as part of the rear derailer. I was thinking that this may not be original, but it probably is! Thanks for your interesting contribution on what is an unusual topic.

Druid Cycles said...

Hello Toni, I have likes your story a lot. I have studied in Kiev in the 80's and have been back in the Ukraine twice, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I am myself from the former East Germany and can sing songs about comerade director. I approached them 6 months ago via a blog (the factory didnt have a website, asking, if they can assist me finding an old XB3 head badge. The answer was less than a one liner,"Sorry, we dont have."this was the sales manager. I am going to Kiev next months, searching for vintage XB3 frames. cant be bothered going to Charkov, the attitude is wrong. you made a lof of effort to help, withour getting anything in return. I sincerly think, that the workers at the factory were happy to have a job to do. Iam now running a bike repair shop in London, Druid Cycles. Would love to read more of your stories and if you have materials from your cycling trip, I am interested to watch everything. thank you and keep us updated about your cycle project in our out of Ukraine.

Druid Cycles said...

thor, Druid Cycles, London

Unknown said...

Hi, thanks for sharing. Excellent post. I like this. I was recently in Ukraine. Good young country. Tour bought here I wanted to buy a bicycle as a gift for my son, but I have not found anything suitable. I found just made in China :) So, I bought the embroidered shirt. Very beautiful traditional clothes.