The bicycle maker Giant Manufacturing Co (巨大機械) was established amid green rice paddies and earth-god temples, a short ride from the roar of the South China Sea. But for years its founder, King Liu (劉金標), was never big on pedaling around to enjoy the scenery. The main reason he took one of his new products for a spin was to make sure everything worked.
After decades of struggles, it has. Giant is the world’s largest bike manufacturer by revenue. Its factories in Taiwan, China and the Netherlands churned out 6.3 million bicycles last year, generating revenue of US$1.8 billion. The company sells bikes under its own name and makes them for major brands like Trek, Scott and Colnago.
At 79, Liu still puts in 10-hour days as Giant’s chairman. However, after four decades of building bikes by the millions, he has finally started to enjoy them. Trim and tan from daily rides, with close-cropped gray hair and a heart rate monitor strapped to his wrist, he has become the public face of a cycling boom on Taiwan.
“I have a mission to make Taiwan a capital of cycling,” he said.
Since 2007, bicycle sales on Taiwan have surged, bike lanes and paths have been expanded, and the island’s two largest cities, Taipei and Greater Kaohsiung, have launched bike-share programs. At every step Liu has unflaggingly promoted the cause.
His evolution from a small-town tinkerer to an industry titan reflects greater shifts of Taiwan and its economy. Once a workshop to the world, anonymously churning out bikes, cellphones and computers for big-name foreign companies, Taiwanese firms like Giant, HTC Corp (宏達電) and Acer Inc (宏碁) have become global brands in their own right. With those successes come new questions about whether those businesses can continue to lead and innovate.
For Liu, the answer is not just selling more Giant products (though his cycling advocacy campaign certainly helps with that), but focusing on how bicycles can reduce pollution, make people healthier and help cities function better.
“It’s been amazingly successful PR for his company, but he’s not only doing it for that,” said Hochen Tan (賀陳旦), former chairman of Chunghwa Telecom Co (中華電信), and a regular cyclist.
“He’s showing that even people his age can do this. His encouragement and commitment is a driving force for people to follow,” Tan said.
Liu’s transformation, and that of many of his cycling compatriots, was motivated somewhat unexpectedly by a 2007 film, Island Etude, about a young man who bicycles around Taiwan.
“With some things, if you don’t do them now, you might never do them in your life,” was its most often repeated line.
“I saw the film and thought, that line, it’s criticizing me, isn’t it?” Liu said. “I was 73 and I thought, if I don’t ride now, I’ll never be able to do it.”
So he took up the film’s challenge, planning a circumnavigation of Taiwan.
He trained for six months, but admits that was not enough. Images of the 2007 ride show his round belly pressing against his jersey, his face locked in a scowl.
“Oh, that trip was really miserable,” he said. “I had back pain, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and so on. Old people’s problems.”
At one point he was knocked down by a car and scraped, but he persevered, finishing 575 miles in 15 days.
In business he has shown the same determination. After graduating from a technical high school, he cast about at several professions — transportation, chemicals, food imports, hardware — before deciding to build a bike factory with several friends in 1972. He was 38 and still reeling from the loss of his previous venture, a coastal eel farm that was destroyed in a typhoon.