Sorry, the World’s Biggest Bike Maker Can’t Help You Buy a Bike Right Now

TAICHUNG, Taiwan — Because gyms are closed and we could all use a little more exercise; because we are avoiding buses and trains; because we are in need of outdoor group activities; or perhaps just because the pandemic has made us crave simple pleasures like the wind against our faces, bicycle sales are soaring around the world.

The result has been an international bike shortage. And the world’s largest bike maker, Giant, expects its supplies to remain tight for some time to come.

After President Trump started his trade war with China in 2018, Giant moved some of its manufacturing for the American market from China to the company’s home base in Taiwan to avoid the added tariffs. The next year, the European Union imposed antidumping duties on electric bikes from China, so Giant began making those in Taiwan, too.

But when the pandemic caused demand for bikes to jump, Giant needed to reverse course. With its Taiwan facility already under strain, the company had little choice but to crank up production in China, even if it meant bearing the extra cost of tariffs.

“Every boom ends someday,” she said. “It’s just a question of whether it ends quickly or slowly.”

Ms. Tu’s careful ways in business are belied by her carefree manner in person. At 70, she exudes energy and high spirits. She cycles three times a week and has completed four loops around the island of Taiwan. She says proudly that she completed her first triathlon in her 60s.

Ms. Tu said she found it hard to understand why Chinese business owners seemed to believe their customers cared only about price, not quality. “They are willing to spend tens of thousands of euros to drink a bottle of red wine,” she said. “Why do they think other people are willing to ride a $60 bicycle?”

Her concern, when it comes to China, is maintaining Giant’s work force there. Young people’s interest in factory jobs is declining. Hiring in China still seems tough at the moment, despite widespread layoffs.

“Before, if we wanted to hire one worker in China, there would be three people lining up,” Ms. Tu said. “Now, if you are looking for three people, it’s nice if you have even one person lined up.”

Giant, she said, is trying to figure out how best to use its China resources amid the geopolitical turbulence. What if Mr. Trump canceled his trade war tomorrow?

“Of course we would return to China,” she said, laughing. “That’s for sure.”

Business ties are strong between Taiwan and China, even if much else about their relationship is tense. China claims the self-governing democracy as part of its territory, and it has not ruled out using force to bring the island to heel.

Giant recently opened a factory in Hungary and aims to produce 300,000 bikes there next year. Many manufacturers have set up in Vietnam, but Southeast Asia doesn’t make sense for Giant, Ms. Tu said. Not enough of a local market for its bikes.

Might Giant manufacture in the United States someday?

“I think you shouldn’t say there isn’t this possibility,” Ms. Tu said, a little cryptically. Ever since the trade war began, she said, “I’ve thought that everything is possible.”

Still, it would be “very, very tough,” she said. What would help, she said, are robots.

“If we can do more automation, then there will be a greater opportunity,” she said. “Under today’s automation, I think there’s absolutely no opportunity.”

Even the most humdrum corners of Taiwan abound with astonishing natural beauty: indigo mountains, the glittering sea, greenery in a multitude of eye-popping shades. Taiwan has had very few coronavirus deaths and no mass lockdown.

Ms. Tu has much to be exuberant about as she powers up a hill on a bright-blue electric bike.

“Yes!” she shouts. “OK!”