Backward progress

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Backward progress

In the corner of a small workshop the size of a two-story townhouse, about 10 bicycles are neatly arranged in a line. It's a weekday at this shop in Paju, Gyeonggi province, but nobody's working and dust covers all the equipment. In the middle of the space stands one special bicycle.

"There she is," says Heo Hyun-gang, 49. His expression and tone of voice convey how much he loves this bike. At first sight, the bicycle does not seem much different from the others.

"Go on, try it," urges Mr. Heo.

Riding the bike out the shop door, the reporter pedals gingerly about 50 meters down a road splitting rice paddies beside the factory. Then he loses his fear and tries to push the pedals harder. He can't get over his surprise that the bicycle is moving forward even though he is pedaling backward.

Mr. Heo calls his invention the Spiritual Gear Bicycle. When you ride it, you can pedal either forward or backward and the bike will carry you forward. Mr. Heo claims the bidirectional pedaling helps the development of the left side of the brain and helps muscles develop in a more balanced way.

Only two people on earth ride this type of bike: Mr. Heo's daughter Heo Le Si Da, 20, a college student, and his son Heo Di Le Ha, 16, a middle school student. The next people to test-ride the invention will probably be Chinese; Mr. Heo is planning to take his idea to China, the No. 1 bicycle market in the world. "In order to catch a tiger you must go into the tigers' den," he says, referring to an old proverb. "You know? Millions of people will ride this."

Suk Jong-hyun, a sales manager at Samchuly, the biggest bicycle manufacturer in Korea, says the chances of success for such a bicycle are 50-50. "A couple of years ago our company tried to bring this sort of bicycle to the market," Mr. Suk said. "But after some research we scrapped the plan because the reaction wasn't that favorable. But in China, things might be different. If the production price is low, who knows?"

It makes sense to move a bicycle company to China, where tens of millions of riders are. But Mr. Heo did try to start the business here in Korea. After succeeding at developing the gear that makes the mechanism possible and getting a patent for it in November 1999, he continued to make changes to make the gear smaller and fit for commercial use. In March of this year he brought his idea to Corex, a local bicycle producer, but was turned down. Then he tried to get a loan from the bank to build the right facilities. But without a good credit history or steady income, he was turned down.

Originally, Mr. Heo had made a living by operating a motorized bicycle shop. In 1992, his business was going so well that he was able to build a five-story building. But while overseeing its construction he got into an accident that resulted in a spinal injury that put him in the hospital for the next three years. As the bills piled up Mr. Heo's accumulated wealth melted away, including his building. His wife, Cho Sung-sook, 44, took matters into her own hands by opening a photo studio in 1994 to support the family. Meanwhile, Mr. Heo started to get serious with the real love of his life, and the reason he wants to start a business and get rich: studying hanhak, an accumulation of Chinese teachings and literature.

Mr. Heo's fascination with Chinese literature dates back to his graduation from middle school in 1969, when he refused to enter a conventional high school. Instead he opted to study at a Seodang, a traditional school for Chinese literature. Then in November 1980, he heard about a person called "Dorang" who was living in the Jiri mountains and was learned in ancient Chinese teachings and oriental ideology. Riding on a bike, he went to see Dorang and became his student, learning hanhak under Dorang until 1993 when the master passed away.

Mr. Heo says that the further study of hanhak and teaching it to other people is his ultimate goal, and that his entrepreneurial activities are just a means to that end. He plans to build a learning institution of hanhak in Paju. He has already founded an organization called the Imjin River Culture Research Institute, which he hopes will become a center of hanhak scholarship.

To meet his ambitious plans he needs money. That's where the Spiritual Gear Bicycle comes in. "Everything that I developed has at its heart the teachings of hanhak," he says. "Oriental ideology is very scientific, and if used properly it can solve a lot of today's problems."

In April 2001, he founded the company under which he plans to produce and launch his bicycle, and gave it a bombastic name ?Ilkwang Human Cosmism Creationism. In contrast to the negative reaction about the bicycle in Korea, reactions overseas have been great, Mr. Heo says. In April of this year, he went to the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain to meet potential buyers, and he also participated in a trade exhibition in Koln, Germany.

Buyers in Europe wanted to place orders on the spot, but Mr. Heo could not answer the requests because of a shortage of money, Mr. Heo says. At the start of the year he employed seven people at his shop, but he has had to lay off three since then.

The plan to go to China took off in September, when he was invited to Shanghai by businessmen there. He met Chinese government officials who had heard about his bicycle. Talks are now under way to open up a factory in China and produce the bicycle there. Mr. Heo is planning to go to China early next year to get things rolling.

Whether we will see people backpedaling in Tiananmen Square remains to be seen. But if you do, they'll probably be riding one of Mr. Heo's bikes.

by Brian Lee

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