Chances are, without knowing it, you’ve spent hours sitting on a Velo-made saddle. So we visited Velo’s Taiwan HQ to interview the person behind Velo Saddles, Stella Yu. Italian is a sexy and provocative language, for sure. And Italian brand names pretty much carry off the same stylish mantle of repute—be that deserved or not. That is even more the case when it comes to cycling and its brands. And if you step back into the days of down-tube shifters and toe clips, Italian was the only reasonable and realistic choice component for the discerning cyclist.
Words and Images: Steve Thomas
Things have changed over the past three decades, although Italian-branded bikes and kit do still manage to carry off something that the others can’t quite nail. Well, sorry to spill the Chianti, but the fact is that for many years now the Italian stallion’s share of fine-art bikes and bits has actually been coming off the production lines of a select number of Taiwanese factories, along with most of their competitors’ offerings too.
The first thing to accept (with a sharp intake of grappa) is that there is absolutely no shame in this, and that it is very much the norm throughout the top and middle tiers of the bike industry. The cheaper goods are no longer produced in Taiwan—these are now outsourced to China and other less- prolific economies—while Taiwan is at the head of its game, purveying goods and technologies that often leave the rest of the world in its wake.
All of this adds up to just why you’ve possibly never heard of Velo Saddles…or Velo bar tape and Velo grips. Yet a vast number of the saddles with chic brand names and designs that you see adorning the best bikes quite possibly (even probably) came straight out of the Velo Saddles factory, and the reason we can’t name every one of them is commercially as clear as a glass of San Pellegrino.
More than 30 major brand names in the saddle business have a good number of their finest saddles crafted here, and each and every single one of them has its own dedicated designer and technicians. The reasoning behind this brand attention is so these OEM relationships can remain as pure as possible and avoid crossover. Saddling is a highly secretive process, and there is not so much as a side glimpse or jesting trade of a technological hint exchanged between these 30 individual designers. They are not seen by others until the saddles roll off the production lines; not even the company CEO is entrusted with the secrets of the inner-saddle coven.
It has to be admitted that many OEM companies in Asia are soulless and bland places—where there is a distinct domination of commerce ruling every aspect of things, and where products often seem devoid of the passion and fanaticism that as cyclists we hope runs through every last stitch and solder of our hard-earned and bartered rewards. But things are different here, largely thanks to the founding passion and vibrant drive of one lady, Stella Yu, doyenne of the bike industry and the founder of Velo.
West-coast Taiwan, and even more so the Taichung corridor, is where many of the most important and powerful people in the bike industry strut their stuff—and it has been so for almost 50 years. There is also an ever-growing element of quality and experience blended with repute with the passing of every season in Taiwan.
Stella Yu is a spritely and infectious lady who you really would not want to try and drink under the table or outwit. Raised in a very female-dominated household, she was the last-but-one in the age pecking order of sisters and was tasked with the care of her younger sister, which was quite restricting when it came to having a personal life. Hence, she never married or had children—despite her deep love of the kinder folk, Velo Saddles and her “adopted” daughter (her sister’s daughter) Ann being very much her life and passion.
There’s an apparent shimmer of confidence from Stella when it comes to personal things; you can’t help but sense that she must have scared the life out of many of her peers and potential suitors. She is a very driven and imposing lady who has carved her way with huge success in what is, and even more so was, a male-dominated world and industry—although she modestly refuses to acknowledge her feats. “As a woman in the business world, I don’t think gender makes much of a difference,” she says. “What matters are how beneficial your strategies are to the customers, and how popular your products are.”
It’s also quite noticeable that the hierarchy of Velo is predominantly female. “There are just more females than males in the sales department, but each department is different. As a whole, Velo only focuses on the performance but not the gender.”
When Stella left school, the bike industry in Taiwan was very much in its infancy. “My first job after graduating from school in 1965 happened to be in a bike assembler. At the time, bike exporting in Taiwan had not taken off. After three years, some Japanese customers started to purchase bikes from Taiwan and to export to the U.S.”
It didn’t take long for her ability to step above the assembly lines. “In 1968, a Japanese customer decided that it was necessary to set up a trading company in Taiwan, and therefore I was invited to work for his company. In 1979, with the support of my boss, Velo was founded as a bike- saddle manufacturer.”
Saddles were not perhaps the obvious choice in a steel- dominated industry. “We chose to be in the saddle business, because it was at the time when BMX and mountain bikes just became popular in the U.S. These types of bikes had totally different needs from road bikes and city bikes in terms of function. Many bike makers had a lot of ideas and expectations unfulfilled, so we thought it’d be quite a good opportunity.”
Needless to say, under the drive and innovation of Stella the company has thrived. “Research, development and innovation are a very big part of the focus in Velo. We are always thinking how to make better products in the perspective of functionality and aesthetics. We want to make riding a more comfortable, fashionable and environment- friendly activity. This is in line with the customers’ vision and therefore they usually look forward to using our new designs.”
A female eye cast over what was a male-dominated saddle market very much changed the way we saw things as well as the technology of saddles. “Function is always the priority of all products, and then the fashionable appearance. Together, the best design was born. Velo’s Angel Series is a great combination of function and fashion…. Angel saddles have very sturdy supports, with excellent pressure relief and superior shock absorption that the professionals and enthusiasts are seeking. Furthermore, they are sleek, high- tech savvy looking and the modern graphic design. Surely, it is the perfect product to represent Velo’s spirits of innovation.”
Velo certainly didn’t let things sit with saddles. The bar-tape market had been stagnant and staid as far back as anybody could remember, but Velo set about changing that. “Bar tape is perhaps the best example to represent Velo’s product innovation. Twenty years ago, when we started producing bar tapes, we acquired deep insights of the challenges of the products in the market. We learned that lack of flexibility, which caused breakage during application, and poor shock absorption due to the low density of the foam were the major issues. Velo had been ‘expertized’ in producing shock- absorbing gel. Our material engineers addressed these issues with the densest foam (to bear at least 5 kilograms of pulling force), in combination with our signature gel, to elevate the shock-absorption capacity and the tactility.”
Logical thinking and defiance of trend-originating by Velo has given us all a more comfortable grip than we had a few years back. “Because such a breakthrough outperformed the benchmark then by so much, we were granted patents in so many countries…. Customers know what a good product is. When you launch one, you get the support immediately.”
You will see Velo-branded display stands and products throughout bike shops around the world—although many of us rarely give them a second glance given their lack of brand awareness; and, as with many in the Taiwanese bike industry, Stella is all to aware that the actual frilly and fancy part of the business that we know as marketing is not her forte. And she didn’t let that rest—well, not completely.
Prologo is a top-end and highly reputable Italian saddle and tape brand, well known for its innovation, yet delve beneath the foam padding and you will see a “Made in Taiwan” label (as you will with many other brands). In all truth, there is only a handful of people out there that know the full extent of the relationship between Stella Yu and Prologo, but after a frank and open interrogation the best answer I can give is that you’d find it hard to draw a line between the two. To all intents and purposes it would seem that Stella (who is most probably the most powerful and influential lady in the bike industry) found a logical way around the Italian-branding issue.
Along with many key figures in the Taiwanese bike industry Stella has both grown up with and into cycling, and now practices what she preaches. “In 2007, Giant and Merida together organized the A-TEAM, aiming to bring the manufacturing of all bikes and bike parts in Taiwan to a higher level, as well as to turn bike riding into a trend. In 2008, all the presidents and CEOs in the companies that joined A-TEAM were to circle Taiwan by bike in a weeklong trip. To be able to make this trip, I started training with my coach six months in advance, and finally was able to complete 1,036 kilometers.”
It certainly didn’t stop there, and she is now a passionate convert. “Since then, I have participated in many riding events, and I have put riding as my priority for both exercise and to test Velo’s products. In the meantime, I have also established Velo Team, in which managers and engineers from all departments all participate. Thus, our products are constantly being tested and re-invented to achieve the best functionality possible. This is the key to how Velo fuses function, quality and style in every single piece of our products.”
I’m told by long-term colleagues that Stella has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to cycling. “At a personal level, intensive riding has improved my physical fitness and made me more energetic. It relieves my stresses from work and allows me to enjoy working even more.”
Indeed, an evening with Stella Yu is an impressionable and inspiring one, and you can’t help but feel a sense of compassion and admiration for the lady—and what she has achieved.