Sun, Jul 03, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Raising the bar for bikes

As Taiwan's bicycle industry slowly shifts its focus from quantity to quality, independent bicycle maker Chang Sheng-kai has forged ahead to produce some of the world's best bicycles

By Meredith Dodge  /  STAFF REPORTER

In places like France or Beijing bikes are an important part of life and culture, but in Taiwan a bicycle is more often seen as a slower alternative to the scooter. It's easy to forget that Taiwan's bicycle industry leads the world in size.

Taiwan's bicycle industry was built on entrepreneurship rather than on a strong cycling tradition. Up until the end of World War II, the only bicycles in Taiwan were Japanese imports.

Since individual parts were unavailable, fixing broken bikes was a matter of resorting to whatever might be lying around: a bundle of cords for a tire, wooden blocks for pedals. After the war ended, a few businessmen began importing parts from abroad, and eventually Taiwan began to produce its own bicycle parts. In 1951 the government imposed controls on bicycle imports to foster Taiwan's growing industry.

But the nascent bicycle business was dealt a blow with the mass importation of 49cc Japanese motor scooters starting in 1968, and bicycles faded from importance in the local market.

The energy crisis of 1973 fueled demand for bicycles around the world and Taiwan's entrepreneurs leaped into action. Taiwanese bikes hit US markets for the first time, setting off an export boom that has remained strong, hitting a peak in the 1990s when Taiwan became the world's largest exporter of bicycles.

However, with China's emergence as the center of the universe in terms of cheap manufacturing, sheer production power is no longer enough to keep Taiwan on top.

In an industry traditionally dominated by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), a few larger firms such as Giant and Merida have shifted their focus to developing their own brands.

At a stockholders' meeting on June 16, Giant's CEO King Liu (劉金標) expressed his vision for the future: "Giant is already the world's largest bicycle company; however, Giant's goal is not to be No. 1, but rather be the only one. We must adopt unique management strategies and methods to create one-of-a-kind value."

The company's focus on brand consciousness and research and development has paid off with a gross take of NT$8.8 billion last year. However, as for "one-of-a-kind value," another Taiwanese bicycle maker has beaten them to the punch.

Chang Sheng-kai (張勝凱), entrepreneur, bike designer, artist and former champion cyclist, doesn't see his CSK brand of bikes becoming profitable for a number of years. But profitable or not, his bikes are making an impression around Asia and the rest of the world: The national teams of Australia, Japan, most of Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and South Africa all ride CSK bikes.

Chang's 20 years of cycling experience and an Asia championship crown puts credibility behind his brand. "I entered the cycling world in 1979 and my record of success was the best in Taiwan, so I got to know a lot of people," Chang said. "They trust my knowledge and they know that my designs will be correct," he said.

Chang decided to launch his own brand five years ago after the 921 earthquake destroyed his bike shop. "I turned a crisis into an opportunity," he said. His personal experience with 50 different brands had left him unsatisfied. "Each brand had its strengths and weaknesses: Some bicycles are very fast but heavy, so you can't ride them up Alishan; some bicycles are lighter but they won't go as fast when you get to the level roads because they're too soft," said Chang. He was confident he could design bicycles whose strengths were maximized and whose weaknesses were kept to an absolute minimum. However, he knew this could not be accomplished by coming up with one perfect design. Each cyclist is built differently and so must each bike.

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