My journey into the world of China’s exercise apps

Rohan Malhotra

Since living in Beijing, I haven’t done much cycling, largely due to the fact that they have really cheap e-bikes here. Initially, I fell in love with the Vespa scooter copies you see whizzing by everywhere, the so-called ‘King Turtle’ scooters.

Now don’t get me wrong, these things are awesome. Mine goes up to about 70km/h and I bought it second-hand for only about AU $500. However, the one great drawback to these machines is the enormously heavy car-sized batteries needed to power them, and the necessity of having to remove them wherever you take your bike, for fear of them getting stolen.

My bike had two such batteries – totaling in at 42kg – and after lugging them around for the better part of a year, I decided I needed a change.

Did I mention I used to be a passionate cyclist?

After much dithering and a brief experiment with an illegal form of getting around (Motorbikes :D), I decided I would do the sensible thing and untether myself from my dependence on powered two-wheelers.

All 42kgs of ’em.

Cue my new fixie!

Now I know many of you more dedicated cyclists look down on fixed-gear bicycles as some kind of trendy fashion accessory, and there’s definitely much truth in that characterization, but the truth of the matter is: Beijing is flat, and I happened to get my fixie cheap :D!

Continuing on…

Over on Youtube, my bodybuilding friend put me on to the crazy hardcore fruitarian evangelist Durianrider. In addition to being a proponent of a radical food programme, Durianrider is also a distance athlete with cycling and running being his sports of choice.

Watching his videos I had heard him make passing references to something called Strava. For those of you who don’t know what Strava is, Strava is the ultimate gamification tool for exercise. It goes beyond the other apps that do ‘old-school’ stuff like: track calories, total mileage and route tracking, and offers a really great thing in the form of its segments feature.

Beijing on a bargain!

The segment feature of Strava essentially breaks up a city into an unlimited number of user allocated race tracks. In my opinion this sounds cool in and of itself, but in case you need more convincing, all you need to do in order to participate in any one of these ongoing races is simply turn Strava on and log your journey.

Strava will determine whether you pass through any of the race tracks, it automatically knows when you both begin a track and end a track. Now of course, when you conclude a ride, Strava automatically ranks you according to your performance against everybody else who has completed the same segment. When you get first place you accrue the infamous and much coveted ‘King of the Mountain’ title.

Unfortunately in China Strava does not seem to be nearly as big and there are perhaps a few reasons I could attribute as to why.

Segments on the left, my first King of the Mountain on the right.

Firstly, Strava does not have a locally translated version for the Chinese market.

Secondly, when using Strava in China one must use Google Maps, which, apart from not working reliably in China, unfortunately does not seem to line up accurately with the GPS data inputted from Strava.

My hope was that if I used a local equivalent of Strava, the mapping issues would be taken care of and given the significant amount of people who ride cycles in China, maybe there’d be a local app that’d be more popular and relevant to the Chinese market.

Enter: Xingzhe/行者 (walker/pedestrian)

With many popular apps overseas there can be found local equivalents. Youtube/Youku, Facebook/Wechat, Twitter/Weibo the list goes on. To the credit of the Chinese operators, I have found, especially in the case of Wechat and Youku, that these equivalents are excellent if not better than their foreign counterparts.

After searching and searching and finding step counters and running apps, I chanced upon a posting from one of my friends in a local bicycling chat group I belong to on Wechat. What she posted was very close to the kind of summary page that you see with Strava and so seeing this, I became highly excited and very quickly downloaded the new app Xingzhe.

This morning I fired up both Strava and Xingzhe and traced my route across the northern second ring road.

Where Xingzhe goes right:

Both apps get the basics right: total distance, speed, route tracing and elevation, with very similar readings. Xingzhe importantly gets the map lined up accurately and it uses Baidu maps instead of Google, so VPNs are not required. Xingzhe appears to have more local users and it offers exporting routes to gpx format, so that you can retrace your route with a standalone gps module guiding you along, or through another program later on.

Where Xingzhe needs improvement:

Xingzhe doesn’t seem to have too many local features. There’s a discover feature with a table listing top riders according to the mileage they’ve done, there’s clubs, there’s challenges, but none of this seems overly concerned with your specific location. For example, the top performers list includes riders ranked from throughout the whole of China! There’s challenges but it doesn’t seem to be the case that I can actually join any of them. Importantly the one killer feature that I had hoped for that was painfully absent was the lack of a segment feature.

Strava on the left with Google maps nowhere to be seen, Xingzhe on the right with Baidu getting it right.

My verdict:

Xingzhe seems promising. There’s a decent sized community growing with the app but what it needs is more localised and social features. Distance based competition is kind of fun, but it’s more weight-loss, general exercise promoting-focused, and is not as fun as racing. Challenges should be joinable and should automatically determine whether you’re meeting their milestones or not.

In short Xingzhe needs to be more like WeChat and Taobao as far as localization and value-add are concerned. The app-assisted exercise phenomenon in China has seen great traction – I constantly see people posting images of their total steps, trip total or total km’s for the week – but what is still needed is more gamey elements and more exciting forms of competition to make applications stand out from the pack.

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