How collaboration made Portugal Europe’s largest bike maker

No country in Europe produces more bicycles than Portugal. But why is the bike industry so strong here? A search for clues on-site leads to the region of Águeda – better known as Portugal’s bike valley.

 

Every move is precise to the millimetre, so perfectly rehearsed that even complex tasks are completed in the shortest possible time. If you follow the journey of a bicycle frame along one of the production lines in the new factory of InCycles in Águeda, Portugal, it only takes a few minutes for a complete eBike to roll off the assembly line. Around 20 employees are working on one production line, each making sure that all the components are in the right place: the drivetrain, the brake cables, the wheels, the tyres.


“If we add up the output of all the production lines, we manufacture several hundred bicycles a day,” Filipe Mota says proudly. Mota works as an export manager for InCycles and leads us through the light-flooded plant, which was opened only two years ago and is bustling with activity. At another station, wheels are automatically spoked in a machine, and at a workstation a few metres further, an employee sticks labels on freshly painted frames. Everything looks new—and yet the factory, which has only just been set up, already seems too small in some parts.


“It’s true, things are going very well for us at the moment,” says Mota, “which is why we are already expanding our space again. There is no other way we can handle the number of orders,” he adds. The sound of screwdriver machines unmistakably fills the huge hall in the background, there is a smell of processed metal and fresh rubber. InCycles’ order books for 2023, Mota emphasises, are already completely filled.

The demand for bicycles has skyrocketed worldwide in recent years. However, examples like InCycles’ show that it has literally exploded in Portuguese bicycle factories. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that this state in the westernmost part of the Iberian Peninsula now occupies the top position of an entire continent. According to the latest data from Eurostat, Portugal is the largest bicycle manufacturer in Europe with a total production of 2.6 million bicycles in 2020—ahead of former market leaders like Italy and Germany. For comparison: up to 20 years ago, just 400,000 bikes had been produced here. Today, the country, which accounts for only two per cent of the EU population, is responsible for one-fifth of all bicycles produced in Europe.


“This development is certainly the result of various factors, such as the European Union’s anti-dumping measures and global developments like the current supply chain issues. But above all, it is the continuous investments which have been made here by the local companies,” says Filipe Mota. He has been working in the Portuguese bicycle industry for 22 years—and has therefore experienced Portugal’s rise to becoming Europe’s number-one bicycle manufacturing country first-hand.


A location with a long tradition

The Portuguese bicycle industry has taken a long time to reach the top, a way that coincidentally began exactly 100 years ago. In 1922, the country’s first bicycle factory, the “Fábrica Nacional de Bicicletas”, was opened in Porto. It was the beginning of a success story. There were already many skilled workers based in the region. Águeda especially, located about 80 kilometres south of Porto, was considered a centre for metalworking, and it didn’t take long until more and more companies began to specialise in the production of bicycles and bicycle components.


After World War II, the “Bike Valley”, as the region around Águeda was soon called, also became interesting for international companies. In particular, British brands appreciated the available know-how and the favourable production conditions they found here. “That went well until the eighties. But then many companies migrated to Asia to save costs, and many of our factories got into trouble,” Gil Nadais says. He is the General Secretary of Abimota (Associacao Nacional das Industrias de Duas Rodas), the Portuguese two-wheel association. We meet him at the Abimota headquarters, just a ten-minute drive from the InCycles factory.


Nadais guides us through the multi-storey building, which contains, among other things, numerous testing facilities for a wide variety of bicycle products. Most local bicycle producers have their own quality controls, but they still use the Abimota facilities extensively to have their products tested according to European standards. Today there are about 60 companies in the region around Águeda that can be classified as belonging to the bicycle industry. About 8,000 people are employed by them—or about 25,000, if you also count the local supplier companies.


Portugal is particularly strong in the production of components, Nadais reports, but there are also accomplished bicycle manufacturers. “In the 2000s—especially after the financial crisis in 2008—the negative trend reversed again,” he says. Like InCycles expert Filipe Mota, he points to the anti-dumping measures of the European Union as well as the greater focus of Portuguese companies on the production of high-quality parts since the 2000s. “Many international manufacturers subsequently recognised the potential of Portugal. After all, the local companies here in the region have plenty of know-how because of our long history,” he adds.


One of these local companies is Rodi. About 20 minutes northwest of Abimota’s headquarters, right in the southern part of Águeda, around 400 employees make wheels and rims—and sinks. “This is a result of our now 70-year-long history,” sales manager Duarte Bernardo tells us as he leads us through the 60,000-square-metre factory. “The machines for making kitchen sinks and wheels used to be similar, so we started producing wheels and rims in the seventies,” he says. Today, four million rims and about 400,000 wheels come off the production lines every year, mainly made of aluminium. Most of the production is done by hand, b