How are bicycle frames made
Here in the north of Taiwan, bicycles of the extra class are made: In the factory hall of "Fairly Bike" blue racing bike frames from the Italian premium brand "Wilier" hang on a tape, they slowly dangle from station to station. The handlebar stem is used, then the handlebars. The conveyor belt is like a clothesline moving slowly forward. For the assembly of the smaller components, the carbon frames are then jacked up on a seat tube. With the fork pointing upwards, they chug on, one mechanic applies the brakes, one the gears, then the chain and finally the wheels. As in a car factory, any worker can stop the line at any time.
"It's not about speed, it's about quality," says Steven Tsai, the production manager. The future owners of these racing bikes, some of which cost more than 5000 euros, want to race down alpine passes at 80 kilometers per hour without any protection other than a crash helmet. To do this, they rely on the precision and care of Fairly Bike.
"They are waiting for the new Shimano catalog and build their bikes around it."
Fairly Bike is a company whose name most road bike owners have never heard of. As not many know, Taiwan has become the hub of the global bicycle industry. And this is not always evident from the expensive product for the buyer.
Fully assembled, every bike at Fairly Bike has to go through quality control. Then the front wheel and handlebars are removed again, all parts are padded with foam and the wheel is packed in a large cardboard box. This slides on a gently sloping slide to the container in which the bike travels to Italy. In Rossano Veneto, Wilier's headquarters north of Venice, it is repackaged and then sold somewhere around the world as an Italian racing bike.
On this mild Friday, Fairly Bike in New Taipei also assembles racing bikes for the American brand Felt and for Kona, an American-Canadian company. Then mountain bikes are on the program. The series are mostly small. The Koblenz-based company Canyon and Stöckli, a Swiss company, also have Fairly Bike bikes assembled. And the Swiss e-bike brand Stromer.
The factory in western Taipei is not far from the headquarters of Foxconn, the largest contract manufacturer for electronics in the world. The contract manufacturer for bicycles produces 450 to 550 products every day. But none of them say "Fairly Bike".
The company with around 400 people, which has existed for 40 years, is an OEM and ODM company at the same time, two terms that are common in the computer industry. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer, so an OEM company builds devices for a well-known brand, Foxconn, for example, all iPhones from Apple. ODM means Original Design Manufacturer, Fairly Bike then also contributes to the design of the products.
Four Taiwanese companies assemble 90 percent of all laptops, but their names are unknown outside of the industry. It's similar with quality bikes. The small island of Taiwan is the largest bicycle exporter in the world. And the third largest manufacturer after China and India. But the two billion people mainly produce cheap bikes for their home markets, at least so far. Taiwan dominates the quality segments.
However, apart from Giant, which is now the largest bicycle group in the world, the island has not produced its own brand that would be known beyond Taiwan. Fairly Bike only recently dared to take a half step to its own brand in cooperation with the Fürth electric bike company "eFlow". The partners in Franconia design the bikes with an electric auxiliary motor, Fairly Bike builds them.
The batteries of e-bikes are getting stronger and their electronics are becoming more sophisticated. Stromer installs a bike computer in the frame of its e-bikes, with which you can even lock the bike. And search via GPS if it is stolen. The market for e-bikes is currently growing by around 20 percent annually; last year more than 80 million were sold worldwide. Optimists in the industry expect that by 2050 there will be two billion e-bikes around the world.
Fairly Bike does not manufacture bicycle parts such as frames, forks, handlebars or brakes, they come from suppliers. The typical medium-sized company injects them at most. The components come from sub-suppliers, many from Shimano, the giant in the industry in Japan: "We receive a whole container from Shimano every week," says engineer Tsai: gears, brakes, rims, pedals and even racing bike shoes are sold under the Shimano brand.
The industry does not like this dominance of Shimano. "Some brands no longer develop their own ideas," scoffs a representative of Microshift, an up-and-coming manufacturer of gear shifts from Taiwan. "They are waiting for the new Shimano catalog and are building their bikes around it."
Shimano has 13,000 employees and manufactures in Japan, China, Malaysia and Singapore. Most of the other suppliers, on the other hand, are small and highly specialized. Jian Sheng, for example, a family business in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung that five brothers founded in the 1970s. With 28 employees, Jian Sheng only produces bicycle forks: 6000 pieces per month, including for Fairly Bike. Like Jian Sheng, most of the suppliers produce in Taichung, the "kingdom of mechanics", as Giant's hometown is also called: KT Quando, a company that only produces hubs, for example, or the brake specialist Tektro.
This makes Taichung the kingdom of anonymous small businesses that work for the big ones. Even Giant, a group with almost two billion euros in sales and its own stores in 50 countries, still produces 30 percent for other brands. For example for the American Trek.
Thomas Binggeli, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Swiss racing bike brand BMC and head of Stromer, his e-bike company, flies every year to Taipei for the Taipei Cycle, one of the largest bicycle fairs in the world. The farmer's son had once sold all the sheep as a schoolboy while his parents were on vacation in order to set up his "Veloshop" in the stable.
No, he hasn't been there, say the people at the Fairly Bike booth in Taipei. The 53-year-old is currently negotiating with Jin Hengtong, a carbon frame manufacturer from Tianjin in China who, in addition to BMC, also produces frames for the traditional Italian brand Bianchi and for Specialized. He works with six to seven permanent partners, says Binggeli: "But I always scan others too." Taiwan has been the most important bicycle manufacturer in the world for several decades. Once just a network of OEM companies, almost all family businesses, "Taiwan is now the hub," said Binggeli.
The military regime forbids the import of bicycles and enforces its own industry
However, production is now also taking place in Vietnam and, above all, in China. On the one hand, even tiny family companies from Taiwan operate their own plants in Tianjin, Shanghai or Chengdu. On the other hand, Chinese start-ups that have emerged without help from Taiwan are entering the market. Especially for the production of carbon frames and bikes. At the same time, more and more accessory companies have been founded in China for bicycle handles and saddles, lamps and bags, pumps and locks. Most of them also work as OEM companies for established brands. The trade fair in Taipei offers them and suppliers from other countries a forum to find OEM customers: Kapur, for example, a family company in Sialkot in Pakistan that also sews boxing and goalkeeper gloves. And sports balls.
"We produce two thirds of our cycling gloves as an OEM," says Fezan Kapur, the founder's grandson. 22 percent of all sports gloves in the world are made in Pakistan (and almost half of all soccer balls in Sialkot). The bicycle industry with its small and medium-sized companies is a model of globalization. Taiwan is no longer just a manufacturer, it is the center of the industry. This can also be seen in the fact that machines for making bicycles now also come from Taichung. And recently even industrial robots.
The beginnings of Taiwan's bicycle industry date back to after World War II. It brought Taiwan liberation from the Japanese colonial power, but in 1949 a military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.
The regime sought to develop the island according to the Japanese pattern. In order to save foreign currency, it enacted import substitution. The import of many goods was banned, including bicycles (from Japan). In doing so, the regime forced the creation of its own bicycle industry, which in 1954 already comprised 2,700 small businesses. They only produced for the home market. It wasn't until the late 1960s that some began exporting to the United States. At the time, they treated Taiwan as a bulwark against communist China and therefore opened its markets to it.
In Taiwan, for many people, it is simply too hot to cycle from May to November. And often too wet
But the quality of the wheels from Taiwan was poor, and many American dealers refused to sell or repair them. This alarmed the government in Taipei, they introduced quality standards. And later even built an institute for bicycle development in Taichung. In the late 1960s, demand for bicycles increased in the United States. At the same time, bicycle imports from Japan became more expensive because the yen strengthened. American dealers were looking for new suppliers. They came to Taiwan, where the small and agile light industry could produce cheaply and react quickly. It is said that the Taiwanese would rather exploit themselves than work for a boss.
That creates competition, curbs costs, accelerates processes and innovations. In retrospect, the process that Taiwan's bicycle industry went through is called "learning by exporting". The island became America's bicycle factory. The next leap came in 1977, when a manager of Giant, a bicycle factory that was only five years old at the time, was able to convince the bosses of Schwinn, the leading brand in the USA, to entrust him with OEM orders. With the first bicycles leaving the Giant factory in Taichung bearing Schwinn's logo, the OEM system was introduced into the bicycle industry. Globalization had started.
Taiwan is the hub of the global bicycle industry, but the island is not (yet) a bicycle country.
With industrialization and growing prosperity in the 1980s, the motor scooter from Japan has become the most important status symbol. Inexpensive and flexible enough to get through the narrow streets of its cities, it is still the most popular means of transport, especially for young people. There are separate waiting areas for scooters at large crossroads. In contrast, bike paths were hardly known in Taiwan until recently. The government is now changing that, it has declared Taiwan a bicycle island: no longer just as an industrial location, but also for cycle tourists.
The almost 83-year-old Giant founder King Liu, who previously did not ride his bike, circled the island in 15 days on a Giant racing bike. At that time he was already 73 years old. Two years ago, Taiwan made its approximate route from then the number one bike path. And Liu repeated the 968-kilometer tour for his 80th birthday, this time in twelve days. Under the name "Formosa 900" it will now be organized as a people's bike tour in November.
Giant's entire island network of stores rents touring bikes, and some major cities have introduced rental bike systems. In Taipei alone, 200 bicycle kiosks have sprung up. Nevertheless, the bicycle cannot displace the scooter. The popularity of cycling tends to decline after an initial boom, say bicycle dealers. The owner of a racing bike shop in northern Taipei says half of his customers are foreigners who live in Taipei. Even the "Tour de Taiwan" founded by Liu, a five-day stage race for professionals, has not been able to change that. For many people it is just too hot to cycle from May to November. And often too wet. In addition, if they leave cycle path one, cyclists will soon find themselves on multi-lane, heavily traveled country roads without clearly delimited cycle lanes, especially along the coast.
For experienced cyclists, on the other hand, the island offers challenging routes through rice fields and past rocky cliffs, with long, steep climbs on good roads through the rainforest, right behind Taipei. On a wet spring day, warm wafts of mist hang over the treetops, it is drizzling. The calls of exotic birds accompany the sweating cyclist uphill, a family of macaques scurries through the undergrowth.
It smells of camphor and vanilla, and fruits are sold on the roadside in the villages. In the evenings, Taiwanese cuisine beckons. What more could a cyclist want.
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