In Paris, streams of bikes flow across the Seine and down Haussmannian boulevards; in London, a web of new cycle lanes and car-free zones is set to make pedal-powered commuting a breeze; and in Cologne, children’s bicycles are in short supply, while adults surge to shops and repair stores.
Across Europe, Covid-19 has fuelled a boom in bicycle sales. Families love the chance to exercise together; commuters want to avoid the infection risks of crowded public transport; and many are desperate to regain their fitness after a long lockdown. The UK’s biggest bicycle retailer has seen sales double from their normal levels; bike sales in France increased by 117% in the month following the easing of lockdown; and some German stores have reported sales volumes reaching triple their normal levels.
Yet surprisingly, a significant proportion of the equipment helping Europeans stay active is made thousands of kilometres away – in Taiwan. Taiwanese companies produce 38% of bicycles sold in the European Union, according to market analyst Euromonitor, and are the source of major fitness and workout equipment brands including Matrix and Strength Master.
A compact island, with around 24 million people spread over an area slightly larger than Belgium, Taiwan’s economy has long been geared towards exports due to its small domestic market. Yet over the generations, Taiwan’s flexible and resilient manufacturers progressed from producing for overseas companies to creating their own respected, high-quality brands.
More than 800 Taiwanese companies focus on bicycle-related industries, from complete bicycles and e-bikes through to lights, chains and parts. “Taiwan has been leading bicycle production at the global stage,” Euromonitor analyst Jane Zhang said. “Its strengths lie in their established supply chain, which makes them much more ready than other countries to push forward new product development, especially electric bicycles.”
Founded in 1972, Taiwan’s Giant Manufacturing Co is the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, with 2019 revenues of over US$2 billion (NT$63.45 billion). Its brands include Giant, Liv, Momentum and CADEX. Racers particularly value the company’s aerodynamic TCR series, with champions such as Greg Van Avermaet riding to victory in the 2019 Grand Prix Cycliste Montréal on a pre-production model of the TCR Advanced SL Disc.
The Reign E+ Pro by Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer Giant
For Giant Group Chairperson Bonnie Tu, the spike in global demand for bicycles was a huge opportunity. “We saw what happened and then we reacted quickly,” she said. “We mobilised our companies, including our factories and sales company, in order to meet consumer demand.”
While businesses around the world were impacted by the coronavirus, businesses in Taiwan managed to control the spread of infection and keep production lines rolling.
And Giant is just one of many Taiwan businesses driving the flourishing e-bike industry, where year-on-year exports doubled between 2018 and 2019. Innovative components from Taiwanese companies, such as Novatec’s fully recyclable e-mountain bike wheelset, or KMC’s long-lasting e-bike chain – both recipients of the Taiwan Excellence Award – mean that many European e-bike brands actually have Taiwanese design and manufacture at their core.
The TCR Advanced SL Disc by Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer Giant
Beyond the gym
With gyms across Europe shuttered and many residents confined entirely to their homes for months, finding new ways to exercise indoors became a priority for many. Although the average Italian has gained 2kg, and Germans have coined the term coronaspeck (corona fat) to describe the lockdown spare tyre, many Europeans have made an effort to compensate for their sedentary lifestyles.
Technology has helped many turn their living room into a gym as well as an office. Britain’s popular “PE with Joe” YouTube workout series drew a record-breaking livestream audience of almost a million, while yoga studios, Pilates teachers and personal trainers are offering live-streamed, interactive and on-demand classes.
The T600 treadmill by Vision Fitness, a subsidiary of Johnson Health Tech
And, just as with bicycles, many of the more high-tech products finding their way into European homes originate in Taiwan. Johnson Health Tech, which began life as a metal foundry in 1975, is one of the world’s largest gym equipment manufacturers. Its range includes health club staple brands Vision and Horizon, and innovative products such as the arm-powered Krankcycle.
The onset of coronavirus lockdowns saw consumers rush for all forms of home fitness, even investing in treadmills, cycles and ellipticals designed for commercial use. “The demand for home fitness kit has significantly increased,” said Julian Taylor, commercial director of Johnson Health Tech’s UK arm. “In the UK, retailers sold through stock faster than they could keep up with demand. Things like bikes, home weights, benches – consumers were keen to purchase all of those very early on in lockdown.”
The Matrix S-Force Performance Trainer, a low-impact gym machine for HIIT workouts, by Johnson Health Tech
Even as pandemic restrictions ease, the demand for home fitness is likely here to stay. “There’s going to be a continued requirement for home fitness,” Taylor argued. “For example, a health club, to try and maintain relationships with members who’ve been used to exercising at home, might produce online content, so that the club engages with members at home, not just at the facility.”
Between cycling and home fitness, it’s likely that independent exercise will become a greater part of many European lives due to Covid-19. And as our preferred methods of keeping fit and commuting change as part of the new normal, shipping container after shipping container of bicycles and fitness equipment will continue to sail from Taiwan’s ports to Europe’s shores.