Episode 4: Why Taiwan is Important

Episode 4: Why Taiwan is Important

We're into Time Traveller 05: The Tech. Granted there are lots of areas of tech in cycling, this week we're focussing on the bike, and one brand in particular that I've had an affinity with since stopping racing. Here's the story of Factor, and my relationship with them. This is the fourth of five journals about bikes, and in particular, Factor.

I think it is worth bringing in a brief history of Taiwan… Well, I was going to attempt that then I realised it was far too complicated, so instead I will write a brief history of the cycling industry in Taiwan.


Taiwan on the world map...

Between 1971-74 there was a massive demand surge from the USA for bicycles and parts, Taiwan was the quickest to respond to this and outcompeted all others through its ability to act rapidly in terms of production capability and entrepreneurship. The reason they could do this was because they already had favourable factors in place going back years at an industrial level in Taiwan. Taiwan had already built itself a stable industrial economy and so was able to, and remains able to, react quickly to surges in demand in numerous different manufacturing fields.

Taiwan 1970's...

Taiwan in the 1970's...

It was the 1970’s US cycling boom that positioned Taiwan so dominantly, yet it began to lose its foothold when the demand for bikes under 100USD increased dramatically, from 1991 to 2003 Taiwan saw bicycle exports plummet from 10 million units to 3.9 million. The cause for this was a shift to China where, for the first time, Taiwan found itself outcompeted. Instead of engaging in a race to the bottom Taiwan’s biggest bike manufacturers made an agreement to shift their focus to mid and high-end bikes.

Fast forward to the end of 1997 and this is the new world of Taiwan bicycle and part manufacturing that we find Rob walking into. As Chang Shen Kai had presciently remarked, Rob Gitelis ended up embedded in Taiwan. He was offered a job at the first factory to be making full carbon fibre bikes, they needed somebody to test the bikes on the road, and the winner of the recent Tour of Taiwan was the obvious choice to them. Little did they know he also had a degree in chemical engineering and was looking to move on from being a bike racer.

From there he went to work for Profile, a company that had been one of the leaders in technical innovation in cycling the previous ten years, this was 1998. In 1999 he created his own company making aluminium products, his clients included Cinelli, 3T, Columbus, Zipp, amongst others. Shortly afterwards he moved from components to frames, one of the earliest and most successful of these being Cervelo for whom he made their aluminium frames, the iconic Soloist in fact, and the only reason Cervelo chose Rob was because he promised he could deliver them a full carbon frame within five months.

Logo Mashup
This is where things get interesting. The first step was for Rob to deliver a bike asap, this was the P3 in 2002, at the time CSC were sponsored by LOOK, but Rob's ability to deliver the P3 in time for the 2002 TdF showed Riis that Cervelo were up to the task for sponsoring the team in 2003.  The team were so pleased with that original P3 that they painted it up as LOOK and Laurent Jalabert used it in the 2002 Tour.  

The next year saw Rob developing and delivering the Cervelo R2.5, the bike Tyler Hamilton rode with his broken collarbone in the 2003 Tour de France. The rest is history, Cervelo went from being the smallest bike manufacturer in the pro-peloton to one of the most successful and respected bicycle racing brands in the world in just a few short years. Rob and his factory in Taiwan was making them.

The carbon boom in bicycle manufacturing, according to Rob, took place between 2007-2010, that’s when things went mad for him, he was making frames for the majority of big brands you’ve heard of, and many small boutique companies you haven’t, or if you own one, don’t ask. At this point he had a factory in China with over 1000 people working there. Rob Gitelis became the person you went to if you wanted the best carbon fibre bicycles and parts manufactured.

At that point in time there were only three big brands on the road scene who owned their factories, Giant, Merida and Trek. So Rob, with the impetus of Baden Cooke, decided to create another, FACTOR… Which I’ll now explain in Episode Five.