The story behind the five-month SpeedX investigation

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I didn’t set out to write this story – I want to be clear about that. I didn’t expect SpeedX to end up leading me into a tangled web of secret police and tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Then again, neither did they.

From 2016, though, I had a kind of morbid curiosity about the brand. SpeedX was an overnight success story – a company that came out of nowhere, gained widespread media coverage and set a new Kickstarter record. And then, as fast as its rise, it seemed to disappear.

I wouldn’t say SpeedX’s absence kept me up at night, but every so often over the past couple of years, I’d find myself wondering about the brand. I wondered whether they were still going, and whether they’d delivered on any of that early promise.

One day, way back at the start of February, I decided to find out. I was a little burnt out from a hectic end to 2018, and wanted to write something that was a bit left-field and quirky. So I fired off some emails, thinking that it would take a couple of days’ digging and writing to tell the story of SpeedX. The result, I imagined, would be a light and fluffy thousand-word curiosity.

I was very wrong.

Back into the deep

The last big investigative feature I’d worked on was Finding Mr X – a collaboration with my colleague and friend, Matt de Neef. That article was – and sorry, I don’t really have another word for it – a total mindfuck. We went deep down a particularly toxic rabbit hole, and we were both pretty relieved to emerge back into the light at the end of it. It was chilling, thrilling and hugely rewarding – and I think it shaped us both to some degree or another – but it took several months before I felt ready to go that deep again.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to February 16. I was home looking after my daughter and we were out on a walk around the block when I felt the buzz on my wrist of an incoming email. It was the first communication of many that I’d receive from someone inside SpeedX. They said they’d talk, but only on the condition of anonymity, and only via email.

When I got that email, I felt a familiar prickling that I’d last felt looking into Mr X: maybe there was something here.

Fleshing out a feeling

The SpeedX article did not have an easy gestation. An initial flurry of inquiries, interviews and investigation gave me a 20 page working document, but more questions than answers. There were tantalising threads that I wanted to pick at – early indications of things like the Tiananmen Square marketing promotion, and the scale of the bikeshare boom – but there were other articles and tasks that needed more urgent attention.

So I shelved the whole thing. And there it sat, on the backburner, for several weeks, marinating in its juices until I could find the time to unfold it further.

In mid-April, I got an email from Chandler Xu – SpeedX’s former operations manager, and arguably the human heart of the story. Up to that point, there had been a temptation to take the easy way out and treat the entire thing as a mere case study of a failed business, but Chandler’s raw honesty in sharing the devastating personal impact of the company’s collapse realigned the article’s trajectory.

I worry sometimes that there’s a lack of willingness as western consumers to engage with the human side of Asian manufacturing. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable to consider the reality of actual people with hopes and dreams and feelings working to create our consumer goods – as if they spring out of thin air, fully formed, into our lives.

I was anxious to avoid falling into that trap. SpeedX and Bluegogo were not nebulous, faceless entities. They were companies made up of people. And as I picked away at the story of their demise, as the scale blew out to millions of bikes and billions of dollars, it simultaneously contracted to a human level.

The company’s collapse wasn’t just numbers on a balance sheet. To fail to recognise that would be to dishonour the hundreds of people it directly impacted.

Text and context

One of the most unexpected challenges of the story was in reconciling the conflicting narratives about Tiananmen Square. I met opposition from some of my Chinese sources when discussing this topic, underlining the need to be considerate of the cultural sensitivities attached.

As the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approached, emails out of China became increasingly cryptic to avoid getting flagged by censors. I figured there was a potential readership for the article there, so tried to exercise as much caution with my final wording as possible to avoid getting any of my sources in trouble.

The fact that the majority of them preferred to remain anonymous is a testament to the caution that needs to be exercised in digital dealings in China.

In early June, I finished the first draft of the piece, having built it out from a rough outline I’d had in place since March. In the end, the writing of it turned out to be pretty linear – the first line of the piece now was the first line I wrote way back then. The final change I made, in the minutes before hitting publish last week, was to the last line.

As a writer, I gravitate toward detail – the way people say things, their body language, the environment that surrounds them. None of my interviews for the piece were conducted face-to-face, and they were usually through a language barrier, so at times it felt like I was writing with one hand tied behind my back.

By the end, I’d also spent so many months thinking about this story – often with little to show for it – that I was left second-guessing myself. Was it too long? Was it too boring? Would anyone care to read it? It wasn’t until I handed the entire story over to Matt for the edit that I felt like I might have pulled this thing off.

The response

It’s my name at the top of the story as both the writer and producer, but to say it was a solo endeavour is not truly reflective of the effort that went into it. Throughout the months I was working on it, there was nothing less than encouragement from the entire team. And in the final week before it came out, pretty much everyone at CyclingTips pitched in, in some way or another – whether in video production, editing, SEO assistance, social media or newsletters, to support its release and ensure it reached the audience it deserved.

It made me very grateful, and very proud, to work for a publication that allows its writers to invest time in investigative features like this and Finding Mr X.

In the article, Chandler Xu says of the company he once worked for: “we can’t just disappear as if nothing happened”. In the telling of two years of all those people’s lives, I felt a certain burden – like the baton had been passed on. To eulogise the brand and its successes and failures. To prove to the people who were involved that what they did mattered.

SpeedX’s collapse still haunts those involved, but in sharing that story, I hope that I’ve been able to help lay some ghosts to rest.

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