“For the first four years we had no orders,” he said. “The image of products from Taiwan was very poor.”
Having learned to speak Japanese as a child while Taiwan was under Japanese occupation, he traveled to Japan and studied what was then the premier bike manufacturing economy. A major breakthrough came in 1977, when Giant chief executive Anthony Lo (羅祥安) negotiated a deal with Schwinn to begin manufacturing bikes for the iconic American brand.
Schwinn became both Giant’s strength and weakness. Bike sales leapt in the US during the oil crisis, and after workers at the Schwinn plant in Chicago went on strike in 1980, Giant became an important supplier, producing more than two-thirds of Schwinn’s bikes by the mid-1980s.
Then Schwinn decided to find a new source, and in 1987 signed a contract with China Bicycle Co (中華自行車公司) to make bikes in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
“We were terrified,” Liu said.
Giant relied on Schwinn for 75 percent of its orders, and its survival was at risk.
Giant began focusing on building its own brand, setting up operations in Europe and the US. Gradually sales of Giant-brand bicycles grew. At the same time Schwinn’s fortunes declined, and it filed for bankruptcy in 1992. The US company was never able to get cheaper production from its China Bicycle investment, said Jay Townley, an industry consultant who was an executive at Schwinn and later Giant’s US arm.
Townley, who has known Liu since the early 1980s, said in that era most bike executives weren’t interested in fitness.
“Everybody smoked, everybody drank,” he said. “There were some cyclists, but rarely like what you see today.”
Liu, he said, was better known as a ballroom dancer.
Now Liu focuses on his bike. He racks up about 40km a day, riding in the early morning around Giant’s headquarters in Greater Taichung. He feels depressed when he cannot train because of rain or work trips.
“I can’t stop riding,” he said.
In 2009, he followed up his trip around Taiwan with a 1,609km ride to Shanghai from Beijing. It was a logical next step. Giant’s manufacturing is now largely based in China, where it has six factories. China dominates global bicycle production, but Taiwanese companies either own or operate the factories that produce about 80 percent of China’s bicycle exports, industry analysts say.
While China’s legions of bike commuters have declined in recent decades, the number of recreational cyclists is growing, making it a crucial market. Giant is one of the most popular brands in China, thanks to a strategy focusing on higher quality, more expensive bikes.
However, while recreational cycling is rising in China, it has taken off in Taiwan.
Bike sales hovered around 600,000 annually for most of the 2000s before surging to 1.3 million in 2008. Taiwanese now buy about 900,000 bikes a year.
Liu believes that Taipei, with its car and motorbike-clogged streets, is the biggest obstacle to making Taiwan a “cycling island.” The city’s government is trying to make it more inviting for cyclists, widening sidewalks to make room for bikes and expanding its bike share program.