Bonnie Tu is a woman at the very top of the bike industry; chief financial officer at Giant Bicycles, the founder of Liv Cycling, now chairperson for Giant Global Group, advocate for and ardent supporter of women's cycling. She wields significant influence and has undisputed business nous, so if she says women's cycling is on the up, you'd better sit up and listen.
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You may not have encountered Bonnie Tu yet, but if you're interested in women's cycling it's a name you need to get to know. Plus, if you are interested in women's cycling you've probably either seen, ridden or even own a bike from the brand she created back in 2008, Liv Cycling.
Liv started out as the women's specific bike category in the Giant Bicycles range, and Tu was the driving force behind it.
"Liv was born from a need," Tu tells BikeRadar Women. "I was about to ride the Tour of Taiwan and while I was the CFO of Giant, I couldn’t seem to find a bike or gear that I felt comfortable using. It just wasn’t quite right for me, which made me think, 'if I can’t find the right gear and bikes for myself, how do we expect other women to find cycling?' We are not making it easy for them to enjoy this beautiful sport.
"From this question, Liv was born, a brand made for women to encourage them to find cycling with product and a message specifically for them," she continues.
The range went from strength to strength, and in 2014 was launched as its own independent entity with branding and identity to match.
A whole stand was dedicated to it at Eurobike, the huge European cycle trade show where cycling companies, media, retailers, distributors and more gather to showcase and ogle the latest goods. Where most stands only have a few bikes or a section dedicated to their women's offering, this stand stood proudly at the front of one of the massive exhibition halls and showcased bikes of all types with the kit and clothing to match. It was a strong statement of intent.
Representing the brand
The range today is expansive, with headline items such as top-spec long travel mountain bikes and lightweight carbon race machines — used by the likes of multiple world champion Marianne Vos, who helped develop the Envie (although she no longer rides for Liv).
The company is involved with numerous athletes, sponsoring Enduro World Series athlete Rae Morrison, mountain bike world champion and skills coach Leigh Donovan, and the Liv Sunweb team whose roster includes Ellen Van Dijk and Leah Kirchmann.
These athletes also form a group of expert product testers. Riding 'test mules' — early versions of a bike that are still being honed and developed — they'll try them out in different conditions and provide feedback and advice directly to the designers at Liv.
Liv has also recently expanded its ambassador program in the US, with women across the country primed to lead rides, run clinics and act as both a source of cycling information and a hub for women's cycling in their local area.
The grass roots movement is key in the growth of women's cycling, as it's word of mouth and person-to-person encouragement that increases the accessibility of the sport and forms communities based around it.
But which is more important from the brand's point of view: the inspiration and high-level endorsement that comes with athletes or the direct community-based contact that comes with ambassadors?
"Both are important," Tu states firmly. "Our ambassadors are all representatives of the brand and the cause of women in cycling. When you ask a pro athlete or a first time cyclist, you often get similar adjectives to describe their love of the experience of cycling: joy, happiness, freedom, strength, challenge, pride. All feelings that are relative to their levels of cycling, but a shared experience nonetheless.
"Our pro athletes are remarkable in their efforts and we honour that, but some will be the first ones to tell you that their joy comes in seeing other women feeling their strength and power. At Liv, we sign athletes of all disciplines of riding and all levels, as long as they hold the brand personality traits close at heart — free-spirited, optimistic, authentic and empowering."
Getting the right formula, creating the right experience
It's fair to say that Liv Cycling does seem to have the formula right. In 2015, sales of Liv products accounted for 40 percent of the overall sales of both Giant and Liv in the USA.
The Liv Lust mountain bike (now discontinued) outsold every other mountain bike in the Giant and Liv range in 2015. Let's pause for a moment and take that in — the Liv Lust outsold the Giant Anthem, the Giant Reign and the Giant Trance, all very popular and positively reviewed bikes.
Now, part of this is likely to do with the amount of choice on offer to the female market; although it's changing, if you want a women's specific mountain bike your options are limited. But that doesn't detract from the first fact and it indicates that as a brand Liv seems to be successfully reaching its target market.
Tu believes this success is due to a combination of well-designed product and what she describes as a creating an experience for the customers.
"Well, honestly we just really believe in women. That’s it, pretty simple. Everything we do from the design of our bikes, gear and our message is all for women. Liv has a team of people solely dedicated to the purpose of making a brand for women to experience cycling. Also, while we love the product we make and believe firmly in women’s specific design, we think any brand that focuses only on the product in their messaging is missing the point.
"Women see experiences, not specs, [though] those are still important, don’t get us wrong. We create experiences for them and ask them to share their experiences — building a community and a conversation that often transcends the typical cycling conversations. We also believe strongly in teaching and being useful to our customers beyond the product we sell, we want them to learn and be comfortable no matter what bike they are riding."
Liv = women's specific
We've talked before on BikeRadar about the different approaches brands have to developing women's specific bikes and how that term has different definitions depending on the brand. Liv is one of only a few brands who develop bikes with a unique geometry designed for women, and while there is an ongoing debate as to whether women need bikes with a different geometry to men, Tu feels strongly that they do.
"All people are physiologically different and data shows that there are more significant statistical differences between genders. Because of this, we at Liv believe to truly offer women a bike that fits, it needs to be tailored to a more feminine body mechanics and physiology. We understand that women also come in different shapes and sizes, so our goal is to provide a bike that will more likely fit out of the box without making major changes."
Tu says that the most important piece of advice she could give to a woman on the hunt for a new bike is to try different options, which is something we certainly agree on. "[They should] go to their trusted retailer and let them guide them through the process to get to try a bike that really fits them well," she advises.
Gender equality in the bike industry
While the growth in women's cycling is clear, what is also clear is that women are still in a minority, that their visibility within the cycling industry is still low, and that their representation in sports and mainstream media is less than their male counterparts.
"It’s hard not to walk into a bike industry event — be it a tradeshow or event — and not see the massive gap in gender. Additionally, the bike industry still struggles to find a retail model that welcomes women. Women account still for a very small portion of the industry. However, we see and believe that women are a massive opportunity for growth not only for a business, but for the health and wellbeing of many women around the globe. You cannot argue with the facts and the facts point to a steep up-turn in women’s interest in cycling over the last couple of years globally.
"We are always happy to see brands representing women in a strong way, including our competitors. We believe that when the water rises, all the boats rise, including Liv. While the industry has suffered in the last year, women’s cycling is growing. Liv will be there, committed to these women."
And when it comes to driving that change, in Tu's opinion what will make the biggest impact will be a combination of women asking for what they want and driving change through spending with the people that satisfy their needs.
"Women spend money and drive revenue for many companies. The companies that recognise the profit potential of women will end up being successful and thus drive the change. Additionally, women are a powerful voice in today’s society and that is only growing in expression in media outlets of all kinds. Women are not to be silenced and in cycling we see women gathering together to ride, express and voice their opinions."
In Tu's estimation, women currently account for 10 percent of the cycle industry, but she reckons that will jump to 25-30 percent or more in the next five years. "It's a slow ship to turn," she says, "but it's happening already."
And as for Tu, her passion for women's cycling is clear. In combination with sharp business acumen and visionary leadership, it makes for a powerful driver for change within the industry itself. You get the sense that Liv Cycling embodies Bonnie Tu's own personal relationship with cycling and it's something she wants to share.
She goes so far as to say that launching the brand in 2008 was one of the proudest moments in her life. While the immediate future holds some new products — "Watch this space!" she says — her overall vision of the future is grand.
"It is our mission to see these ripple effects of change when women take charge, ride a bike and realise their power. We love seeing the ladies rise up and hope that the cycling revolution continues. To quote a fierce and inspired woman, Susan B. Anthony, 'Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.'"