By Randall Shirley
On the other side of the planet some guy is putting your bike together. His buddy is slapping on a Jamis decal. Somebody else is cramming it into a box with that conspicuous Made In Taiwan stamp. Is this what you want?
Peeking into the back room of my hometown bike shop, I was floored. Box after box after box had the stamp in huge, blue letters: Made in Taiwan. I called around to the other local shops, and everyone I asked said they sell around 90 percent Made in Taiwan product.
Judging by the volume of bikes they make, somebody in Taiwan is doing something right. Back in the days when Taiwan was king of the cheap plastic alarm clock, who would have imagined that one day the country would produce technically advanced, top-quality bicycles? Who would have thought that thousands of us would cruise along on bikes from a small island near the China coast? Looking back at those cheapo alarm clocks, who'd have thought we'd dare?
Should you care where your bike was made? Does it really matter when you just want a great bike, the best bike you can get for the few bucks you have? Of course. When you're plowing downhill at 40 mph, it's too late to worry about the bike underneath you. You need to be sure beforehand that it can handle the rocks, the shrubs, the mud, the holes, the slope, and your weight. You need more than a prayer that the people who made your bike care as much about safety and quality as profit.
To get the answers about Taiwan's bike industry, I decided to go for a first-hand look. (Ok, I was craving some real Taiwanese food, too.) I called China Airlines, the national carrier, and after 15 hours on a 747 I stepped out into the damp chill of Taiwan's tropical winter.
Not many years ago, pedal power was the primary transportation for the Taiwanese, but in the mid 80s motorbikes practically ran the bicycle off the road. After the government lifted martial law and freed the economy in 1987, wild economic growth turned much of the island's limited road system into virtual gridlock. Taiwan's streets are no place to ride a bike anymore. Other than Mormon missionaries, only a crazy few brave the roads by bicycle. Where the bells of clunky, one-speed bikes once warned pedestrians, the horns of Mercedes and BMWs now blare day and night.
After a big bowl of noodles and a chance to catch my breath, I boarded a non-stop coach bound for southern Taiwan with two destinations: the Hodaka factory in Tainan, Taiwan's oldest city, and the MT Racing factory near Taichung. My goal was to see how the Taiwanese are handling the demand for mid- and high-end bikes.
Hodaka currently makes 250,000 bikes a year for GT, Jamis, Kona, Bianchi, Joe Breeze, and Pro Flex. It is one of the world's leading makers of suspension frames. The 144,000 bikes made at MT Racing each year include models for Scott, Troger, Villiger, K2, Peugot, and Head.
I intentionally gave the folks at Hodaka's Taipei office short notice because I wanted to see the factory without a PR flak tagging along. It was a breach of Chinese etiquette to not allow them to drive me the four hours to Tainan, but my plan allowed me to spend my time with the people who actually make bikes.
Paul Cheng picked me up outside my Tainan hotel. The Hodaka factory manager made bike small talk in Chinese and English all the way across town. Mostly he wondered why an American journalist was so interested in seeing Taiwanese bike factories. I explained that the average rider has little idea how a bike is made or what a factory is like. Few people realize the product quality and pride of workmanship that exist in Taiwan today. Western consumers have seen plenty of "Made in Taiwan" stickers, but most couldn't find the place on a map.
Pulling into the Hodaka plant, Cheng excitedly pointed out that Hodaka has two factories on their property--an older, original plant and a sparkling new facility where they build only high-end bikes. The new plant is something of a gamble since many Taiwanese companies have grabbed their profits and run to Mainland China, where labor's cheap and the quality...well, don't expect high-end Made in China bikes any time soon. With its new, modern facility, Hodaka is rolling the dice that its quality in mid- and high-end bikes will give it an edge over the cheap Mainland Chinese models. Hodaka doesn't have much of a choice: With Taiwan no longer home to a cheap-labor pool (the cost of living is quickly catching up to Japan), it has to compete on quality or join the exodus to the Mainland.
"China is one of our biggest challenges," Cheng says. "The labor costs there are so low." In fact, it costs 10 times more to make a frame in Taiwan than in China. But China doesn't have the experience or product understanding to make top-end bikes. Thirty years of experience exporting bikes, say the Taiwanese, is what will keep their island in the business.
Factories that want to stay alive realize that the only answer is to build a solid presence in the upper markets. Smaller manufacturers like Hodaka and MT Racing have recently pumped millions of dollars into upgrading product quality. Only Giant, Taiwan's bike mega-company, has the automation and resources to continue making low-end models in Taiwan for years to come.
Taiwan's competition in the top-end markets mostly comes from nearby Japan and the United States. "Made in U.S.A." is definitely a bonus for marketing high-end bikes--America invented mountain bikes and perhaps still builds them best. The "Made in Japan" label sends a message of technical expertise. But while there are still scores who look down on Taiwanese bikes, many, including a product rep at a major U.S. bike company I spoke with, feel the Taiwanese are matching the Japanese standard and are close to matching the U.S. standard as well.
Paul Cheng led me through both Hodaka's mid-and high-end plants; Sammy Pai gave me a similar tour at MT Racing. I was surprised by the clean, efficient work areas in the plants. While I'm sure OSHA would have a field day pointing out safety hazards and other problems, for a country that was a backwater until the 1980s, the factories appear first-rate.
First stop was a large open area where frames are built. Workers cut and miter aluminum tubing to the proper specs; others weld it together by hand. Along one side were rows and rows of raw, finished frames. After the frames are built, they go through chemical and heat treatments to temper the metal. At this point, the frames bear little resemblance to the toys they become.
We passed from the frame area into a component assembly area--a real eye opener. I expected that Shimano components arrived from Japan ready to be put right on the bikes. In reality, they arrive mostly unassembled. Taiwanese workers then handle the detailed task of cutting cables to length and assembling what looks like hundreds of tiny washers, joints, rivets, and assorted gizmos. It looks like the job from hell.
In another area I watched with amazement as workers put each spoke into wheel hubs by hand. In the next room the rims were attached, and the finished wheel ran into a special truing machine. Even with this fancy piece of equipment, many of the wheels are hand checked to assure perfect tension in every spoke before the finished wheel joins thousands of others on a rack.
It was in the painting and decal area, however, that the bike began to look like what we see in the showroom. Frames for a particular model come into the paint area suspended on hooks of an overhead conveyor. The snake their way into super-clean, enclosed paint bays where recycled water constantly flows down the walls, keeping the air dust free. Huge paint-gun columns spray as the frames slowly circle past.
Each frame gets inspected a couple of times before leaving the paint bay, and paint is hand-sprayed on any areas in need. After passing through heated areas for drying, the painted frames move on for hand-application of decals and decorations before returning for a coat or two of clear finish.
Finally the frames move along the overhead conveyor to a final assembly area, where in a great, long line components are added one by one--forks, sprockets, shifting units, pedals. Then the mostly assembled bike goes into the familiar "Made in Taiwan" box. Next stop: American or European customs.
I'm no Lee Iococca of the bike industry, but I left Taiwan with the feeling the people who build bikes there really do know what they're doing (and it had nothing to do with the massive portions of moo goo gai pan served to me)--many of Hodaka and MT Racing's employees have been with the companies for over 10 years, a rarity in Taiwan. "The workers know their jobs and their bikes very well," Cheng pointed out. "QC is extremely high."
Sammy Pai explained that he encourages MT Racing employees to ride--they've even formed a company riding club. Pai gives employees deals on bikes and a generous annual allowance for component upgrades. "We try to help our employees understand the industry," Pai says. "They are proud of our product, and every employee at every level knows what they're part of."
Will efforts like these maintain quality control at Taiwanese companies? Will the competition from China tempt anyone to cut corners? Hard to say. But seeing the Taiwanese make a bike from start to finish convinced me that they know what they're doing and expelled any worries I had about my Made in Taiwan bike. I'm newly confident in riding it through the rocks and ruts of nearby hills. But it's strange--'ve noticed that I ride a hell of a lot better after a big plate of kung pao shrimp.