Dubbed ‘the most powerful woman in cycling’ Bonnie Tu, chairwoman of the Giant Bicycle Group and founder of Liv Cycling, knows the trade inside out. BikeBiz editor Alex Ballinger hears how Tu has helped grow women’s cycling
This piece first appeared in the April edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
There are a handful of interviews from my time in journalism that have stuck with me long after leaving the room or hanging up the phone – my recent 30-minute video chat with Bonnie Tu is one of those interviews.
Tu, chairperson for the Giant Bicycle Group and founder of the leading women’s bike brand Liv, has more than 50 years of experience in our trade, making her the perfect person to ask about the development of women’s cycling, and the role of women in the cycling industry.
The most powerful woman in cycling
Quickly after joining the call, I was struck by Tu’s infectious enthusiasm for all things cycling, from developments in triathlon technology, through to her own beginnings as a Giant shareholder in the late 1970s.
In 2020, cycling journalist Wade Wallace called Tu “the most powerful woman in cycling,” and first on my interview agenda was to ask Tu how she had received that particular moniker.Speaking from her quarantine hotel in Taiwan, following a recent trip to Vietnam, she said: “I think I definitely can bring some change to the industry, because this industry is dominated by men.
“And as you know, I have been a very strong personality. So anything I think that’s unfair or not right, then definitely I want to change it. I wouldn’t say I’m very powerful. Simply things need to be changed to adjust to the modern age.”
Tu was one of the original founders of Giant and has sat on the board since then, but she has also held a number of roles with the company, including as chief financial officer. But it was in 2007, after agreeing to take on a monster 900km ride with former Giant chairman King Lui, and struggling to find comfortable kit to ride in, that Tu became inspired to build a women’s specific division of Giant – and in 2008, Liv Cycling was born.
On the philosophy that underpins the Liv brand, Tu said: “When the bike industry started everything was designed for men, so of course women did not feel that comfortable and they cannot perform that well. We thought it was high time for us to change that, so we started to design bikes for women. And as you can see now I think more women, especially in Taiwan, are starting to ride bicycles.”
The idea of women’s specific bikes can still divide the industry, as many brands are now shifting towards unisex bike-building, but with a wider range of sizes.
Tu, on the contrary, believes there is still a place for women’s specific geometry: “Many of my competitors say women don’t need a women’s specific bikes, they say they can perform as well on the men’s bike just with some adjustments – change the saddle, change the handlebar and that’s all. That was because before women had Liv, they were so used to the men’s bike, they trained themselves to fit on the men’s bike.
“But if you take a woman not familiar with the men’s bike and ask her, she certainly will tell you that she feels much more comfortable on a Liv bike… or a women’s specific bike (let’s take the Liv brand name away and just talk about women’s specific bikes). She definitely will feel much more comfortable. So why do women need to compromise?”
The Giant Bicycle Group has made major waves in women’s cycling thanks to Liv, but the Taiwan-based bike-builder also lifts women up at a corporate level. Within Giant UK, women represent 40% of the office team and 44% of the senior management.
Tu added: “I think people should look at Giant. We have senior positions held by women. I still remember years ago a colleague in the UK made a joke about females working in the industry. But I think the latest gender equality movements, such as Me Too, have made women more confident that you can work in any industry, not just bicycles.
“But I always told women ‘don’t question yourself if you are offered a position or offered a job. That means you are overqualified for that job, so just take it and work on it and do not have any doubt about your abilities or about yourself.’”
Cause for concern
While the Giant umbrella saw an enormous boost in revenue during the pandemic (up 55% in Q1/2021), Tu said she has serious concerns about the future, owing to the astronomical lead times caused by the coronavirus pandemic and, in the UK, a shortage of lorry drivers exacerbated by Brexit.
She said: “I think cycling is such a good sport for mankind, so I think cycling will flourish for the rest of the world. But I am very cautious about some of the numbers. If we don’t change the business model, nobody can afford to operate in this business.”
Tu’s concerns centre around the enormous delivery times from factories in Asia to the European and US markets, which mean money is not changing hands at the usual rate, forcing up the cost of bikes.
She added: “The longer the times, you will require more cash, more cash means more interest, so nobody can afford it. So we’ve got to change this business model in order to be able to give the consumer affordable bicycles.”
But Tu said she wouldn’t like to guess when we may see normality return to the trade without the benefit of a crystal ball. While she does think the end is in sight for eye-watering shipping costs, the congestion at ports and the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK are not so simple to solve.
The future for Giant
Despite the uncertainty, Tu says Giant has plenty in the pipeline for the coming year. Alongside the continued focus on e-bikes, Giant has also carried out its own research into the human physiology, with designs to make the traditional bike as efficient as science can make it.
“Besides the e-bike and e-cargo,” Tu said, “I still want to develop the traditional bike. We have been studying how people function on the bike itself, how we can combine the manpower and the machine more efficiently. This at Giant we call ‘cycling science.’
“We think we will work even harder, try to recruit more people because more younger talent makes cycling more enjoyable to the consumer.” This will include the release of a new and long-awaited Giant bike (which we can’t yet reveal any more details about).
‘You can ride anywhere’
At the end of our conversation, we returned to talk about women’s cycling, and the message Tu tries to share with her staff: “I’ve seen the sales revenue for Liv actually increase more than three times, so that means Liv is very well accepted by the women and I’m very glad that Liv can bring the joy to the female consumer.
“Hopefully we can start to continue this trend and make women more feel more comfortable, not only comfortable, but more confident on the bike.
“I think confidence is far more important than being comfortable. Maybe somebody will tell me that riding a bicycle is not that comfortable to them, but for me, of course, riding a bicycle is very comfortable. But I also want them to feel not only comfortable, but more confident to ride as far as you want. You can ride anywhere you want to go – that is the most important thing.”