Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

Taiwan is now a mecca not just for bicycle importers but for enthusiasts as well.

“Ni Fengle!” (You’re crazy!)

I remember fondly those words, spoken by my Taiwanese landlady Ms. Yeh on hearing my plan to cycle to Taipei from our shared home in Shuangshi, a small town on the outskirts of the Hsinchu Science Park. She’d never seen a man clad head to toe in skin-tight spandex and apparently found my costume shocking.  But Ms. Yeh was not alone in thinking me mad. Ours was a small town, and as the strange foreign transplant I was often Shuangshi’s unofficial source of entertainment. Before I’d gotten past the betel nut stand marking the town’s edge, several neighbors had come out to wish me well on my journey, with more than a few casually dropping a derogatory comment about the helmet.

It was Spring 1995, and while Taiwan was being called The Bicycle Kingdom, this was a title earned strictly because of exports. Taiwan was renowned globally for pumping out billions of dollars worth of low- and medium-priced bicycles to be ridden on city streets, bike paths, and highways throughout the world – everywhere, it seemed, but on the island where they were made.

In Taiwan itself, bicycling was mostly the domain of school kids who, along with elderly men hauling cardboard strapped to squeaky steel one-speeds and a few eccentric hobbyists, constituted what might charitably be called Taiwan’s “cycling community.” Cycling lanes were unheard of, and spandex-clad riders like myself unseen – both figuratively (in that there were very few of us) and literally (as in the most common excuse made by a driver after hitting a cyclist was “I didn’t see him”).

Had I told my mocking neighbors then that in future decades long-distance cycling would become a popular hobby in Taiwan, and that Taiwan’s bike-friendly roads would draw visitors from around the world, they would have found the suggestion about as plausible as if I’d predicted that one day they’d be able to get fresh cappuccino night and day in Shuangshi.

Taipei City's YouBike system was used 60 million times in 2015. (Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown)
Taipei City’s YouBike system was used 60 million times in 2015. (Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown)

Fast forward, then, two decades. The once inhospitable-to-cyclists city of Taipei is ground zero for an amazingly successful bike-share program, and Taiwan has over 4,500 kilometers of dedicated bicycle paths well-ridden by local cycling enthusiasts. In addition, increasing numbers of foreign cyclists are coming to Taiwan to ride the island’s paths and roads alongside their local brethren, drawn together by a shared love of bicycles, cappuccino, and spandex.

If Taiwan has become a major nexus of all things cycling in the twenty-teens, then the annual Taipei Cycle Show is the bike industry’s Lollapalooza. The show is a massive gathering, drawing bike industry people from companies big and small, who meet to show their wares and rub elbows with racing circuit athletes, sports bloggers, journalists, and others who enjoy oohing and aahing over the latest and lightest in carbon-fiber creations (and occasionally slapping them up on Instagram and Twitter, #bikeporn).

A lively affair most years, the 2016 show (which welcomed 8,000 international visitors alone – according to TAITRA, which organized the event along with the Taiwan Bicycling Association – was especially so, coming like a groovy cycle industry after-party, hot on the heels of the 2016 Velo City International Cycling Conference. Velo City’s 2016 host city? You guessed it: Taipei.

But as always, the Cycle Show drew more than industry people and cycling enthusiasts. Headlining at the opening ceremony again this year amidst the usual fanfare (and security checks) was President Ma Ying-jeou. The outgoing president spoke on the impact of cycling on the overall health of Taiwanese society and the importance of Taiwan’s cycling industry in the global cycling market, before waxing nostalgic about his own efforts to create a more bike-friendly Taipei during his tenure as Taipei mayor. Though hardly groundbreaking, Ma’s speech (indeed, his presence) is indicative of the importance of cycling, and the cycling industry, in Taiwan.

King Liu’s contribution

While the value of Taiwan’s cycle exports (which came close to hitting US$3 billion last year, with parts and e-bike exports factored in) doesn’t quite put bicycles on Taiwan’s Top-10 exports list, it’s hard to imagine machine parts, organic chemicals or even electronic equipment (all of which did make the list) engendering quite the same passion among consumers. And it’s hard to imagine even serious consumers of plastics granting near rock-star status to the CEO of a company making molded plastic parts.

Giant Bicycles founder and chairman King Liu (Photo: CNA)
Giant Bicycles founder and chairman King Liu (Photo: CNA)

Which is more or less what’s happened in the case of Giant Bicycles founder and chairman King Liu.

As Steve Jobs did with Apple, so has King Liu elevated the products manufactured by his company from consumer product to lifestyle choice. The 15-day ride Liu made around Taiwan in 2007 – a journey undertaken when he was 72 and by his own admission hardly in a state of peak cycling fitness – has become the stuff of folklore. The journey led Liu to a series of profound personal epiphanies, turning the business executive, who was not previously a cyclist, into a champion of the cycling lifestyle. Liu has been a constant figure in promoting cycling in Taiwan, acting as special advisor to President Ma, advocating tirelessly for the expansion of bike lanes and bicycle services around the island, and – most significantly – bankrolling Taipei city’s YouBike bike-sharing system.

This initiative was considered a risky venture for Giant, which is still the only bicycle maker in the world to run an entire city’s bike-share program. For one thing, since Taipei is hardly up there with Portland or Amsterdam on the global bike-commuter friendliness scale, some felt the city would not prove fertile ground for a massive bike-share program. And even in more traditionally bike-friendly cities, bike-share programs have not always met with success (Seattle’s, notably, is currently floundering).

But the YouBike program has exceeded all expectations, and is not merely breaking even early in the game, with sustainable profit forecast for the future, but is considered a model for other bike-sharing programs to follow. And it’s fairly safe to say that without King Liu’s advocacy (and Giant’s funding), the YouBike system would not exist. It is thus hardly surprising that Liu is considered a hero in the cycling world.

But King Liu isn’t the only one spreading the cycling gospel. His right-hand man, Giant CEO Tony Lo, may not have had folk-hero status bestowed upon him, but has the same evangelical enthusiasm for cycling. Delivering a speech on the first day of the show (as both Giant CEO and chairman of the Taiwan Bicycle Exporters Association), Tony Lo displayed near-religious enthusiasm about the role played by cycling in the betterment of overall quality of life in Taiwan and around the world. His speech wasn’t confined just to Taiwan; Lo also noted that governments throughout the world are promoting cycling as an integral part of improving life for their citizens.

That Taiwan’s cycling culture has been given an amazing boost from both the cycling industry and the government is clear. Having the heads of the world’s top-ranked bicycle manufacturing companies motivated not just by profit but also from personal belief that their products bring good to society at large certainly doesn’t hurt.

The world's largest bicycle manufacturer, Giant makes bikes in Taiwan, China, and the Netherlands and last year had global sales worth US$1.8 billion. (Photo: Tobie Openshaw)
The world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, Giant makes bikes in Taiwan, China, and the Netherlands and last year had global sales worth US$1.8 billion. (Photo: Tobie Openshaw)

But this situation wasn’t always the case, and Taiwan’s cycling scene looked far different in the mid-90’s (when an afternoon’s spandex-clad intercity ride by yours truly was the stuff of small-town gossip). During a chat at the recent Taipei Cycle show, Phil Latz, editor of Australia’s Bicycling Trade Magazine, described the event in that era. “The show was dominated by suit-and-tie wearing chain smokers,” he recalled. “The hall was filled with smoke, and the people in Taiwan’s cycling industry…well, they didn’t seem like the sort of people who cared much about cyclists.”

In an interview with Taiwan Business TOPICS, Giant’s Tony Lo also looked back on the changes a few decades have brought. “For the first 25 years that Giant made bikes, bicycles were considered something for school kids in Taiwan,” he says. “Most Taiwanese believed Taiwan wasn’t a very good place to ride bicycles – too hot, too many mountains. But now people in Taiwan want road bikes, mountain bikes, quality bikes in general. For us at Giant, it’s been a great experience to watch Taiwan mature as a cycling society. We feel that we’re not just selling bicycles, but promoting cycling as a lifestyle.”

Phil Latz considers King Liu’s personal journey from sedentary businessman to athlete to be more than just a poetic analogy for the transformation of Taiwan itself. Indeed, the Giant chairman’s advocacy of the cycling lifestyle may have been the single most important factor in Taiwan’s becoming not just a bicycle exporter but a cyclist’s paradise.

But Latz says he could see the change coming even before Liu’s 2007 ride. “For years I ran a section in Bicycling Trade called ‘What Were They Thinking?’ dedicated to the worst designs I’d spotted any given year. I used to see some of the most awful bikes, shockingly bad designs, impossible-to-ride geometries, solutions looking for a problem, and so forth. But I stopped running ‘What Were They Thinking?’ at least a decade ago. Not enough material.”

Giant Bicycles president and cycling evangelist Tony Lo. (Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown)
Giant Bicycles president and cycling evangelist Tony Lo. (Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown)

So what happened? Says Latz: “People in Taiwan’s cycling industry decided to actually start riding their own products, which led to a massive improvement in quality.”

The rest, it seems, is history in progress. Whereas not long ago urban cycle-commuters consisted of old men in straw hats and teenagers who’d lost their scooter privileges, today in Taipei bankers and accountants ride YouBikes to work, weaving around pedestrians on the city’s partial pavement-based cycle lanes (willed into existence on busy sidewalks through the clever application of white lines and bike logos). This unique and slightly unwieldy system is testament to Taipei’s acceptance of cyclists as an integral part of the cultural landscape.

As goes Taipei, so goes Taichung, with other cities around Taiwan following suit. And as go the big cities, so go the smaller towns around Taiwan, thousands of them connected by bicycle-friendly roads, and in many cases dedicated cycling paths.

Even Shuangshi, where cyclists like myself are finally free to ride through town wearing spandex without having the guy making our cappuccino question our sanity.