Taiwan bike pioneer, 82, on pedal power mission
King Liu, chairman of the world's biggest bicycle maker Giant Manufacturing Co. (AFP PHOTO / Sam Yeh )
Published Sunday, March 6, 2016 2:55PM EST
An 82-year-old might be an unlikely poster boy for Taiwan's flourishing cycling scene, but King Liu has never been afraid to go against convention.
The Taiwanese founder of the world's biggest bicycle maker Giant Manufacturing Co. only got seriously into the sport at the age of 73, after years out of the saddle.
And he did not do it by halves, taking on a 927-kilometre ride around the island's rugged coastline as his first major ride.
That epic journey took 15 days. Liu did the same loop again to celebrate turning 80, this time in just 12 days.
"I was an old man contemplating retirement, but funnily enough, I instead discovered a brand-new me," Liu said of the first trip.
"It boosted my self-confidence, my health, and I became more willing to learn new things, to take on new challenges."
The inspiration he felt from the ride -- which takes in rice paddies, tough mountain climbs, aboriginal communities and Taiwan's scenic Pacific east coast -- is now being experienced by a growing numbers of cyclists from around the world.
Bike fans are increasingly attracted by Taiwan's pristine landscape and remote corners, and cycling is fast becoming a key element in the island's push to attract more international visitors.
King has been part of that push -- after his first round-the-island ride he started Giant's travel branch in 2009, one of Taiwan's first dedicated cycle tour operators.
Thousands of cyclists now ride the loop each year, either through tour operators or independently.
The government officially named it "Cycle Route Number One" at the end of last year, linking its paths and marking the route with signs for the first time.
"Driving is too fast, walking is too slow. By riding a bike, you can deeply immerse in Taiwan and appreciate the land," said Liu, who fuels his rides with coffee and local snacks.
With Giant pulling in $2 billion a year in sales and churning out millions of bikes annually, Liu says he sees himself as a "missionary" spreading cycle culture.
Lean with a spring in his step, he is quick to rattle off the sport's virtues -- a low-impact cardio exercise, emission-free, fostering social harmony.
"Even as an old man, I still get decked out in full gear if I'm going for a ride," said Liu, who cycles 30 kilometres at least three times a week.
Born into a well-off family in central Taiwan, Liu worked briefly in his father's trading and food manufacturing company, but was soon itching to branch out on his own.
He dabbled in a range of businesses, including trucking cargo, importing fish feed, and even farming eels. His venture into cycling came at a friend's suggestion during a brainstorming session to tap the US market.
They started Giant in 1972 with 38 workers in Liu's hometown of Taichung, manufacturing bikes for overseas brands including Schwinn from the US.
To better understand the product, Liu biked to work during Giant's first few years, but the habit fell by the wayside as the company grew -- his island circuit came decades later inspired by Taiwan cycle movie "Island Etude".
Giant only formed its own bike brand in 1981, a time when the label "Made in Taiwan" bore the stigma of cheap low-quality goods and cycling was still seen locally as a poor man's mode of transport.
Over the years it has shifted to higher-end production and promotes cycling as a leisure sport, with all the associated trappings.
"In Europe they might see it as just a sport, but in Taiwan cycling has become a trendy lifestyle," Liu said, adding Taiwanese enjoy accessorising themselves in the latest cycling fashion.
Taipei this year became the first Asian city to host the Velo-city cycling forum, organised by the European Cyclists' Federation (ECF) which draws visitors from across the cycle world.
The city also hosts an international cycle trade show and professional race Tour de Taiwan this month, with riders from 30 countries competing.
Cycling is booming domestically -- more than half of Giant's cycle tour customers are Taiwanese -- and the firm operates popular shared public rental "YouBikes" across several cities in Taiwan, used more than 60 million times since they were first launched in Taipei in 2012.
There are still concerns about the safety of cyclists on Taiwan's busy roads, often clogged with cars and scooters in urban areas. And less than 10 percent of commuters ride to work -- compared with over 40 percent in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
But Liu remains determined to push his mission, with his love of cycling propelling him.
"There will be one day when I can't pedal my bike anymore," he said.
"I hope that day will keep getting pushed back again and again."