When you’re fondling tyre treads in your local bike shop, contemplating how spending a day or two’s pay might transform your ride, you probably don’t think too hard about where the object in front of you came from. The modern bicycle tyre is ostensibly a simple thing, but it’s the product of more than a century of development and refinement, not to mention the sweat of real people.
Taiwanese company Kenda has been in the tyre business for over 50 years, making products for everything from earth movers to motocross bikes; and bicycles, of course. BikeRadar got the chance to visit Kenda's factory in Yunlin (one of five in Asia), and the experience was certainly eye-opening.
We all know that advances in rubber technology mean tyres are now better than ever at combining performance, durability, and low weight. You might therefore assume that tyre manufacturing would be terribly hi-tech, but the reality is that the process still relies heavily on workers performing highly repetitive tasks, and the environment in which they labour isn’t exactly a pleasant one; tyre manufacturing is hot, smelly, and loud, and I for one am honestly quite glad I don’t have to work in a tyre factory.
BikeRadar towers never looked so cushy
That’s not to say that Kenda’s employees are being exploited, but in a country where labour is comparatively cheap, it’s naturally more cost effective to pay people to do the dirty work than it is to replace them with machines. (Although our visit to component manufacturer Marwi suggests that this isn’t the favoured approach for all companies.) People do of course need jobs, it’s just that from the perspective of a westerner who’s led a relatively sheltered life, the reality of doing something essentially mindless for nine hours a day, every day, in a hot and smelly factory in a hot and humid country is difficult to imagine.
Have a look at the gallery above to get a taste of what goes on in a tyre factory. And next time you’re screaming down a hill, kissing guardrails at 40mph on your road bike, or throwing roost on the trail like it ain’t no thang, spare a thought for the people behind the rubber that keeps you upright.