Homage to Taiwan

August 10, 2014 § 56 Comments

I have always felt guilty about riding high-end carbon bikes. That’s because I rode handmade steel ones from 1982 until mid-2009, and the mystique of a lugged frame has never gone away. There is something mythical and appealing about the lone frame builder dedicated to his craft, perfecting his technique over decades as he builds each frame by hand.

One. By. One.

It’s this imagery that comports so well with cycling, which is essentially a solo experience. Moreover, the craft bike revival of the past decade has proven that you can race on a modern steel bike and the only limiter will be your legs and your smarts.

And for non-racing applications? A steel bike brings to the table durability and comfort that very few high-end carbon bikes have achieved.

Still, I ride a nice carbon bike, a Giant TCR in fact. It handles better and is stiffer than any bike I’ve ever ridden, and it is without question as comfortable — more comfortable? — than any of the lugged bikes I used to own. So why the guilt?

As with most things, it has to do with stereotypes, in this case the old canard about Asian mass manufacturing and how Asians, whatever their skill at making things in large numbers, could never equal the quality of the European or American craftsman.

I remember as a young kid in Houston how Toyotas and Hondas were derided as “rice rockets,” among other much nastier epithets. The Japanese might be able to make a cheap car, but they’d never make one as good as a Chrysler.

Same thing for cameras. Sure, Canon and Nikon were cheaper than Leica, but we all knew which one was the real camera: it was the one made by white people.

Much of that racial baggage has adhered naturally to carbon frames made in China and Taiwan. “They’re mass produced in China,” the purists have always sneered, as if that combination — mass production and China — by itself defined the thing as flimsy and inferior. We’ll forget for the moment all of those iPhones made in China, which are somehow different. They’re made in China but their “heart and soul” is American, made by a great American, Steve Jobs, who was actually of Syrian extraction. But that’s a different story.

More to the point, mega-bike companies like Cannondale and Specialized go out of their way to obfuscate that their bikes are mass produced in Asia and that the Toray carbon fiber used for every single one of their high-end bikes is produced in Japan.

No bike marketing campaign I’m aware of has ever put, front and center, HANDMADE IN TAIWAN BY TAIWANESE ASSEMBLY LINE WORKERS. Why not? Because the image of inferiority is overwhelming. MADE IN ITALY BY ITALIAN CRAFTSMEN? I’ll take a dozen please.

The closest to being open about its Asian roots is perhaps Giant. Unlike Specialized and Cannondale, American companies who used to make bikes in the USA, only later outsourcing their manufacturing to Asia, Giant is and has always been a Taiwanese company. And although Specialized and Cannondale hammer away at the European and American imagery of their company even though the product is almost 100% made in Asia, Giant has recently placed more emphasis on its Asian provenance.

Still, the bad rap lingers in the air, and it is infectious. You could have a really nice handmade American bike, or you could get one of those mass-produced Asian carbon things. If you’re like me, you will probably still get the Asian rig, but if you started riding bikes “back in the day,” in your heart of hearts you’d probably rather ride a lugged Gianni Motta, a Bottecchia, a Masi, an Eddy Merckx.

One day I was sitting on the bricks at the Center of the Known Universe and a nice fellow came up to me with a clipboard. He was doing a survey for the government of Taiwan, and did I have a few minutes?

“Minutes,” I said, “are all I do have.”

We started on the survey. Was I aware of any Taiwanese products? Did I own any? What did I think of them? What was the image I had of thingS that are made in Taiwan? How did I feel when I saw the phrase “Made in Taiwan”? If I had a positive experience with Taiwanese products, why did I think that “Made in Taiwan” wasn’t prominently displayed or used as a marketing tool in the same way that “Made in Germany” often is? Etc.

After thinking about it for a few days, I concluded that a lot of the problem, aside from the racial assumptions that Chinese/Taiwanese were people who only made cheap crap, I honed in on the phrase “mass produced.”

There’s something about “mass produced” that doesn’t feel as homey and quality as that imagery of the lone craftsman in his workshop, patiently lugging a steel frame amidst a shower of sparks and fire.

So I wondered why it was that Giant’s TCR frame was equal to those crafted bikes in some ways and superior to them in others. What was it about mass production that was superior to what we all know to be true — that when it comes to bike frames, no assembly line can replicate the experience and skill of someone who has become a master frame builder.

The answer lay with Giant. I was surprised to learn that they never describe their high end road bikes as mass produced, and it’s not for marketing purposes. The bikes are simply not mass produced, nor are they produced on an assembly line, if your idea of an assembly line is one where most of the work is done by machines, and the people only stand there to make small adjustments/additions, or to perform minute actions that machines can’t (yet) replicate. (Think Willy Wonka’s father’s job screwing on toothpaste caps.)

The Giant TCR is made on an assembly in this key respect, however: the bike is made in stages and moves along, not a line, but a production facility. What’s special about the bike is that almost all of it is made by hand. The handwork is broken down into components, but by the time a TCR is completed it has been touched by no less than 48 pairs of hands.

These hands aren’t screwing on toothpaste caps, either. They are highly technical craftsmen and craftswomen who are expert at conforming a hard-to-work material to complex and challenging designs. It’s different from the lone frame builder concept of handmade, but it’s handmade through and through, and it’s done by people who have to constantly exercise skill, judgment, and experience as they construct the frame.

In other words, they aren’t widgets.

When I learned about the way my high-end bike was built, it made me feel better about owning it, and it made me admire and respect the skill that went into its construction. It also helped explain why the thing was so damned good: It was the product of numerous craftsmen and craftswomen bringing to bear their lifetime of experience in making the bike. Would I still like to own a lugged steel bike?

Of course. Who wouldn’t?

§ 56 Responses to Homage to Taiwan

  • Chris says:

    Pinarello Dogma 60.1! Dogdamn stronger than a MoFo, almost able to withstand a friggen sinkhole at 30 mph…..with carbon proudly produced in the far away exotic land of…..Taiwan!

  • Tom Byrnes says:

    Agree with Chris. Pinarello Dogma is finished and painstakingly painted in Treviso, Italy, but the Chinese-made frame is unbelievably solid and strong. The best of both worlds.

  • Jorge H Delgado says:

    Last year I bought a new bike to replace my old peugeot triathlon (purchased and ridden back when I lived in Houston). In the middle of my research I came across one of your blogs in which you talked about your new TCR. I don’t think I would have consider buying a Giant bike otherwise. A benefit of Taiwanese baggage is, of course, that one can pick up a new carbon frame for a lot less than a Pinarello Dogma.

  • Carlos Ovalle says:

    Those of us who started racing BITD (40 years ago) remember that those icons of our wet dreams such as Colnago, De Rosa, and similar were not all that great when it comes to the details. Gaps in the brazing, horrible paint jobs, occasionally misaligned frames, and super expensive components (Campagnolo) that were no better, and in some cases worse, than their much cheaper Japanese counterparts. I still own and ride a Gios Torino Super Record but my racing bike is a TIG-welded aluminum Giant, no carbon for this old-timer.

    • fsethd says:

      There’s some truth to this. One of my favorite bikes, a Picchio Rigida, cracked the rear dropout after only a few thousand miles. On the plus side, it was quickly and perfectly repaired by a local Austin frame builder whose name escapes me just now. Oh — it was Skip Hujsak.

  • debster822 says:

    I have a 2008 Orbea Diva (no longer available) and it’s the most amazing bike I’ve ever owned (custom Co-Motion tandem excluded). It’s stiff, it’s fast, it’s light, it’s the loveliest combination of exposed CF and pistachio green. Orbea touts that their bikes are “…from the heart of the Pyrenees.” But is it? I don’t know. I suspect it was fabbed in Taiwan. That said, it’s still a great bike, I’ve raced it in crits and road races, Merckx category TTs, centuries and many other rides. I cannot ride or love this bike any less regardless of its birthplace. Your post makes me wonder if I owe props to assembly workers in Taiwan or Spain. How would I find out?

    • Carlos Ovalle says:

      Debster, the important thing is that the bike works for you. Why would it matter whether it was Basque, Chinese, or Portuguese workers who built it? I’m not sure where your particular model was built during that particular year but Orbea has had production in China and Portugal for a while now. Design is still done in Spain as well as paint, decals, and assembly thereby allowing the “made in Spain” label.

      We live in a globalized world where raw product comes from various countries, manufactured parts are sourced from various other countries, partially assembled in others, and final assembly in others. That’s the new reality.

      • fsethd says:

        I think the idea is that we’re quick to point to European craftsmanship and origins as a sign of quality, but not as enthused with the idea of the skilled Chinese or Taiwanese worker who makes a better bicycle — or who is the core element of the bike’s production — than the small craftsman in Italy/Spain/France/USA who carefully builds each frame by hand.

    • channel_zero says:

      FYI, Orbea has a plant in China and is run by Basque Orbea management to the point of having Basque meals. That’s about as hands-on as a bicycle manufacturing in China can be.

      I don’t see another way around manufacturing in China. Their currency is artifically low and as this drives manufacturing to their shores. Obviously, it’s not a simple question. Can you blame the country for wanting to raise their standard of living? No.

      • fsethd says:

        I don’t think anyone seriously questions the wisdom of building bikes in China or Taiwan. What’s interesting is that the overlay claims to be European, but the core production and the actual construction of the bikes is done by Asian hands and Asian minds. There’s a cultural bias there that is a core piece of bike marketing. Specialized and Cannondale don’t have much Asian imagery associated with their marketing materials in terms of quality of construction. That’s why the street survey was so interesting to me.

      • channel_zero says:

        I totally agree that Taiwan is long overdue for some recognition regarding their manufacturing prowess. Also understand their labour conditions are excellent, almost comparable to G7. Not a bad way to spend your money.

    • fsethd says:

      Orbea bikes are designed in Spain and the molds are made in Spain. But the bikes themselves are made in China.

  • billdsd says:

    I’m riding a TCR Advanced 0. It was a 2012 but due to a crash, the frame is now a 2013. I had always ridden steel before that and had heard about how harsh the ride of carbon was. Still, I decided to test ride one and I instantly loved it. It’s as comfortable as any steel bike I’ve ridden, if not more comfortable.

    I still have a couple of steel bikes but even in situations where they make more sense to ride than the TCR, I find myself making excuses to ride the TCR anyway.

    • fsethd says:

      Yep. I cracked my TCR 2013 seat post a month or so ago and Giant had a new replacement warranty frame to the shop (RIDE Cyclery in Encinitas) in seven days. You can talk about the comfort and performance of that frame all you want, but until you ride it, it’s hard to believe the hype. Only after a few rides do you start to believe that the hype is under-selling it, if anything.

  • Morgan says:

    Love my TCR! My 95 DeRosa Primato currently collects dust, but can’t seem to part with it.

    Here is video of the build process for the TCR http://youtu.be/wSUKM3bvcyk

  • Erik MacDonald says:

    Bikes, especially frames, are commodities (especially today when you can ‘acquire’ a Dogma for $$$$ from your bike shop or buy a dog/ma from Aliexpress (at your own risk) for $). So why stress about it? If you buy a bespoke frame, you’re buying a piece of craft and technical expertise. If you buy a TCR you’re buying a piece of technical expertise and craft. The difference is in the tools, not in the outcome, unless you’re going for truly custom configurations. Technology has moved far beyond the old dichotomy of craft vs. mass production, its really a naive argument to think otherwise. Personally, i love hand built things, but if I want something that’s technically advanced, I don’t try to do it myself.

    But I digress. Nice post, Seth.

  • TPC says:

    I ride a 33 year old lugged frame. That doesn’t make me special, but I also drive A 30 year old truck. Both are made of steel, and both are still here, alive and well and doing daily service. (One of them was made in Japan, BTW.)

    I wonder what a thirty-year-old carbon frame will look like….there is the Heirloom Factor to consider, I suppose. And while I ponder the future, I further wonder what bicycles will look like in thirty years. I look forward to finding out. I’ll only be 89 in 2044 and hopefully I will still be riding.

    Probably a lugged frame bicycle.

  • Chris Bonner says:

    I’m hoping to get my hands on a 90’s carbon frame that’s sitting in the back of my LBS. It’ll be my first non-steel bike, and I’m quite excited for it. But I won’t be getting rid of my 1973 Raleigh Grand Prix. A nice pair of porteur bars will round her out as my commuter-slash-tourer extraordinaire. One’s for hauling groceries, the other’s for haulin’ ass.

  • 900aero says:

    Wasn’t it Charlies’ dad who worked in the toothpaste factory? And careful calling Taiwan Chinese; folks there don’t quite see it that way as far as I know.

    Whatever the case, this is a nice outline of some phobias that we all have in one way or another. Perhaps bikes should be considered like surgeons: if you want a good one, get one from someone who does them all the time and is acknowledged by their peers as being the best around. The location of the factory is not as important as the know-how thats being being used.

    Speaking of Pinarello, isn’t the carbon used from a Japanese company (Toraya) – albeit assembled in a Taiwanese factory and finished in an Italian one?

    • sibex9591 says:

      I will answer the Taiwan/Chinese point in the post. When Chang Kai Shek was driven out of mainland China to Taiwan, there were in fact native Taiwanese who already lived there. They were overwhelmed and driven to the fringes by the “mainlanders”, so of the way in which indigenous folks in every land invaded by outsiders usually are.

      As for most of my Taiwan co-workers over the years, they were all descended from those who fled the communists, and all of them associate themselves as Chinese. Taiwan Chinese to be specific. Most of them did make me aware of native Taiwanese who have managed, like many indigenous folks throughout the world, to gain back some of the rights, and cultures and carve out an existence in their land.

      Just for the record, I am not referring to simply a few co-workers. I was one of about 20-30 non-Chinese whites in a department that numbered close to 200 people at AT&T. 90% of the Chinese in that department were from Taiwan and none of them were native Taiwanese.

    • fsethd says:

      You are right about Charlie’s father. My memory is hazy!

      I was referring to China and Taiwan. Although Taiwanese read and write Chinese, and speak a dialect of Putonghua, you are right that they refer to themselves as Taiwanese. Hope I didn’t come across as suggesting that they were the same.

      The location of the factory is very important, however, so much so that the origin of manufacture is subject to numerous labeling laws. What’s interesting to me is that the emphasis of most companies is on their European roots rather than their Chinese/Taiwanese production. There’s a cultural bias working there, and I’m not convinced it’s a particularly good one.

      The company is Japanese, Toray Kabushiki Kaisha, and I’m pretty sure that they are the sole source for all carbon fiber used in the highest-end bikes. Giant TCR and TCX stand for “Toray Carbon Road” and “Toray Carbon ‘Cross,” respectively.

  • I ride metal because tears melt carbon.

  • channel_zero says:

    There’s a big disconnect between the brand on the sticker and who made it. At most price points, you are probably looking at a bike from one factory with different stickers.

    Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions on the very high end. Orbea, Time are two worldwide brands. Below that are the countless small builders doing the work themselves.

  • kcornell7 says:

    When I raced my Ciocc in the early eighties, I dreamed of a custom steel frame. Now I own and ride a custom lugged steel frame made by Peter Mooney. At 19lbs it is not the lightest in the group but neither am I. I love the way it looks, the way it rides, how it responds and the attention that it brings. Taiwan has come a long way since the eighties but I like having met and conversed with the man who made my frame.

    • fsethd says:

      Appearance/ride/cool factor + personal connection with a great builder are things that only this type of bike can bring.

  • No one of consequence says:

    The idea of craftsmanship can be inherently flawed. I’d rather trust the hands of a worker that moved from the first floor assembling Huffys up thru the ranks of thousands of employees to make to the Tarmac floor. Than trust the Imaginary Italian kid cuz he learned it from his dad, who learned it from his dad, who… Progress seldom succumbs in the long run.

  • vladluskin says:

    Then there are some top of the line BMC bikes that the manufacturer advertises as built completely by machines….

  • Tom says:

    Taiwan has some of the best & most advanced manufacturing technology in the world, in many fields.
    When I bought a Specialized frame few years ago, there were no attempts to mislead or conceal country of origin on the shipping box — it was plain to see.

    “Mainland” China OTOH — it’s “buyer beware”, unless like Orbea mentioned above, you have ex-pat managers running things, or onsite QA managers closely watching the operation.

    • fsethd says:

      It’s illegal to misrepresent the origin of the product on a shipping label. The question is how up front and proud is Specialized of its Taiwanese origin in marketing and promotional materials? Not picking on Specialized; it’s common for all the big makers with high-end product to avoid marketing the China/Taiwan connection.

      • Tom says:

        Also not well known is, Taiwanese manufacturer Merida was (maybe still is) a significant part owner of Specialized. Wikipedia states Merida bought 49% of Specialized in 2001.

        Recently we’ve seem Merida more aggresively promote their own brand, much like Giant, including as a title sponsor of Lampre-Merida Pro Tour team.

      • fsethd says:

        Had no idea …

  • EA says:

    Here’s another take on the European versus Asian manufacturing comparison. The evolution to Asian manufacturing for high end bikes was due in part to changes in technology. When an industry undergoes fundamental changes such as the move from steel to carbon frames there is a reset. Proprietary technologies developed by the European manufacturers to build high quality steel frames had been a barrier to entry for Asian firms as had the lack of reputation for quality construction. With the move to carbon all frame builders had to start over again. Asian firms, in large part because of their experience carbon manufacturing of other products and lower labor costs were able to quickly capitalize on the opportunity to build carbon bikes that were as good as or better than the Europeans. The Asian reputation for not building great bikes is a legacy that is quickly eroding.

    We have seen similar things play out in other industries. Think about the changes in technology that allowed the Prius to take such a dominant spot in compact cars or the emergence of Tesla. The adoption of a reliable mass produced hybrid design or an all electric vehicle with meaningful acceleration and cruising range represent large leaps forward.

    • fsethd says:

      Agreed. However, Japanese steel bikes (San Rensho comes to mind) as well as a large number of small frame makers who specialized in track bikes for keirin racing represent a long and successful legacy of beautiful handmade, lugged frames that are as good or better than anything made in Europe. Nakagawa, etc.

      The bigger question isn’t about the shift in manufacturing, but the lack of shift in marketing to reflect where and how these bikes are really made.

      • Rob says:

        I still have my Team Miyata steel bike from 1986. I got it from a guy that was on the Avocet-Miyata team. Still a nice ride. I crashed it at least five times back in those days. Like a Timex, it keeps ticking. The ride was just as good as any SLX or Prestige Tange framed bike.

      • fsethd says:

        I won’t even mention my Nishiki International. The only thing it lacked was an Italian sticker.

  • Darwin says:

    San Rensho were some great bikes built like tanks. I saw them when I was in Okinawa in the Marines in the 80’s. Really sad what happened to the builder.

  • Matt McPhail says:

    Ok Seth, how much is Giant paying you? I had my heart set on a Specialized or a Cervelo, now because you are one of the smartest people that I know (don’t let that go to your head. I don’t know very many people) I have to reevaluate everything. Thanks a lot.
    Not one of your blogger buddies mentioned the finest Italian steel frame manufacturer there is, Rossin, which of course is what I ride. So shame on all of you!

  • Rob says:

    For those of us that are 40 or older, we have all pretty much done the steel, alloy, carbon route. All three are excellent. The best bike you can have is the one that you use. Go out and ride.

  • Gary Cziko says:

    I’m still riding the Peugeot PX-10 I bought new in 1969. It was designed as a race bike, but I used it on transcontinenal bike camping trips (North America and Europe) and it’s still going strong today as an urban hipster fixie!

    I’ve never had a non-metallic bike. But that may change when electronic shifting with disk brakes have been perfected.

  • jprumm says:

    I ride many Asian made bikes but lately I have been feeling a bit guilty about it. I have decided to make an effort to buy more products, cycling and non cycling that are “Made in America”. Not because I have anything against products made overseas but because I want to support american manufacturing more. Paying a bit more for local products is worth the cost. It would be cool to be able to assemble a bike with 100% american made products but I know that is impossible.

    • fsethd says:

      That’s how I feel about using my local bike shops rather than shopping on the Internet. Keep it local if you can.

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