31 July 2002
31 July 2002
Taiwanese factories are known for making affordable bikes for tooling around the neighborhood -- not the two-wheeled steeds that the world's best cyclists pedal through the Pyrenees mountains in the Tour de France.
But Taiwan's Giant Bicycles is proving its bikes can sprint and climb with the best in the grueling three-week Tour, which ends Sunday in Paris. They are used by the Spanish team Once, whose riders control three of the top five spots behind race favorite American Lance Armstrong.
Giant -- the No. 3 brand in America and Europe -- is the first Asian company to have a bike in the race that for decades has been dominated by small European companies like Colnago, Pinarrello and De Rosa. In Giant's yellow brick headquarters in Tachia, a town in central Taiwan, the bike builder's president, Antony Lo, said Giant got the prestigious sponsorship by doing two things most Taiwanese companies fail to do: creating a global brand name and establishing a reputation for innovation.
Founded in 1972, Giant originally churned out cheap steel-framed 10-speed bikes for other companies that provided the design and slapped on their own brand name on the final product.
The company -- with 2001 sales revenue of U.S. $433 million -- still makes bikes for American brands like Trek and Specialized. But years ago, Giant began selling its own line of bikes, and now 70 percent of them are made under its own label, Lo said.
The firm cashed in on the mountain bike craze in the 1990s and later earned a reputation for innovation by tweaking the frame of road bikes so that the top tube sloped down, making the frame smaller, stiffer and lighter.
Bike expert Pascal Petrau said the new Giant frame, called ``compact road,'' had many detractors who complained the bike didn't meet the norms of racing.
``They tried to get the Giant bike banned. But now almost all the bikes have the sloping form,'' said Petrau of the National Professional Center for Sports Commerce, which trains technicians working in sports. Lo says Giant linked up with Once five years ago because the company thought the sponsorship would prove its passion for the sport.
``Five years ago, consumers looked at the Giant brand and said, 'Yeah, it's a good product, very reliable, very nice,''' Lo said. ``But now they look upon Giant and know that we're in the top racing scene. We have a lot of innovation and, of course, if you're in the Tour de France, you are very, very reliable.'' He said Once became interested in Giant because of its expertise in making super-light bikes from carbon fiber. Giant has been building carbon fiber bikes since 1985.
The frames are made from carbon threads that are put into a mold, mixed with epoxy and cured. The material is tougher than steel and lighter than aluminum. The bike Once is using weighs just 14.3 pounds. It's also more comfortable to ride. Hitting a bump on a carbon fiber bike feels like a dull thud, not the rump-numbing twang felt on a metal bike. This is a key selling point for Tour de France racers, who spend most of the day in the saddle covering a total of 2,034 miles.
Giant provides Once with about 100 bikes each racing season, and the sponsorship deal costs the company $1.2 million a year, including equipment and service. Last year, the team signed a new four-year contract. Some skeptics might argue that professionals will ride anyone's bike as long as they're paid enough. Plus, they can custom design the frame, so the bike they ride isn't representative of the company's real product. But Lo said that the ``TCR Composite'' frame ridden by Once is the same one that's sold in stores. The only difference is that the frame's geometry -- or the angles of the frame tubes -- are custom-fitted for each rider's body.
Once's coach, Manolo Saiz, said he's been pleased by the quality of the cycles. ``It's a company that invests a lot and brings good material in,'' Saiz said as he followed his team through the Pyrenees. ``For me, without a doubt, they're the best bikes in the Tour de France.''