Will Robson sets off to pedal halfway round Taiwan, blissfully unaware of the challenge ahead
Covering 400 kilometres in four hot and very humid days, he dug deep while revelling in cycling camaraderie and the culture and epic landscape of this little-understood island.
Day #1 – Taiwan: it’s complicated.
Entering the ice cold and alarmingly cavernous, bright red lobby of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, it’s clear that my travelling companions are not new to this cycling game. They have brought their own bikes in special bags from as far afield as the USA, Australia and Turkey. Each has the body-type unique to ‘roadies’: smooth tanned legs tapering downwards from powerful quadriceps, set beneath upper bodies of teen-like slenderness. They are entirely fit for purpose. Arriving a day early, they went out for a warm up ride in the fearsome hills behind Taipei and clocked up 1,000 metres of vertical climbing.
Lovin’ it | Photo: Will Robson
Since arriving in Taiwan as a guest of its tourist board and the GIANT bicycle company, the heat and humidity alone had me thinking our quest to ride 400km in four days will be more bracing than I’d imagined. Having met my fellow riders, I’m in no way reassured.
But then I wasn’t sure what to expect from Taiwan. Brit tourists don’t beat a path to its shores. It’s better known as an industrial powerhouse, making a lot of bicycles, amongst many, many other things. Then there’s its political status; which is complicated, to say the least.
Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC) as it’s correctly known, was ruled by Japan during the first half of the last century. Since 1950, the People’s Republic of China, otherwise known as China, has regarded the Republic of China as a rebel state to be reunited with China. But to stumble on oversimplifying the complexity of the island’s history and politics risks being discourteous to our very friendly hosts.
Of whom, our leader, minder and source of limitless information is Ling Ling. She’s a tour de force of efficiency and good cheer, which is put to the test when she’s suddenly tasked to accompany us round Taiwan in our support van. She takes it in her stride with a smile that in this part of the world can mask a multitude of emotions.
Day #2 – Bullet trains and children of the sweet potato: Taipei to Kaohsiung
We leave the bustle of life in Taipei City at the northern tip of the island, catching the bullet train and hurtling south along the plains of the west coast to the major industrial city of Kaohsiung in the southwest.
Heading into station with bike bags | Photo: Will Robson
The island’s geology has a violent past. Shaped like a sweet potato (hence the nickname for Taiwanese) it was formed by the crashing and tilting of four tectonic plates. The west coast is mainly flat plains, north to south, and home to many of the factories that power Taiwan’s industrial might. The east coast is so rugged that roads seldom traverse the interior and it’s given over to a succession of national parks and forests.
The Tropic of Cancer cuts through the centre of Taiwan, giving it a mix of tropical and sub-tropical climates. But it seems mainly tropical, given that it’s August.
At our hotel, Aya, who heads GIANT’s support team, gives us a thorough briefing. She also lends me a fine GIANT Propel Advanced Pro 1 carbon aero bike. What I don’t have is more than one set of Lycra cycling kit, due to a foolish oversight on my part. Not a problem. Unlike my socks, which the roadies tell me contravene the ‘Velominati’ rules of cycling (#27) by being too short. There are #95 such rules. Joy.
A fine steed, but less than fresh attire after several days in the saddle
Day #3 – The way south: Kaohsiung to Checheng (90km)
It’s a long ride out of town, tucked in behind Chik, our young guide from GIANT. He is fit and sets a good pace, despite wearing trainers on flat pedals. Maybe he’s not used to leading groups of dedicated roadies. It’s not an issue at this stage as the first few kilometres see us weaving though heavy traffic with frequent halts at traffic lights.
Our first stop to refill water and take on food comes still within the endless industrial suburbs of Kaohsiung. Matt, an American semi-pro rider and coach, kindly adjusts my saddle for better comfort and efficiency. The support van is full of sachets of electrolyte, bananas and sweets. I tuck in, and am already soaked in sweat.
As we head out onto long open roads, with lighter traffic of mainly vans and scooters, the roadies are locked onto Chik’s wheel, ever so slightly pushing the pace up with a smooth spinning cadence that appears effortless.
Which it’s not, as far as I’m concerned. The bike computer tells me we’re travelling at 30kph, with no particular indication of this being anything other than cruising speed. I’m spat out of the back of the group of riders, all of whom are rotating their position within the group, staying behind Chik as we head down the Ping-E Highway.
Trying to hitch a ride in the humidity
Luckily for me, the heat and humidity affects even the fittest of cyclists and we stop often to take on liquid. Steve from Denver is used to climbing at altitude for hours on end but he confesses to never having experienced conditions like this.
A lunch stop in Chaozhou sees us tuck into bowls of shaved ice with hot and glutinous rice balls inside. It wouldn’t have leapt out from the menu at me had I had a choice, but any food is good right now.
Standing somewhat disconsolately in my cycling kit under the shower at the Boutix Resort hotel in Checheng, I reflect upon my first day on the road.
Gökhan, the urbane and uber-cool editor of Cyclist Turkey magazine, insisted on beers all round on arrival and there’s no doubt that a burgeoning camaraderie of the road takes the edge off my fatigue and prevents any ‘what am I doing here?’ self-pity (see Velominati Rule #5).
It’s not quite a pub lunch, but tasty once you work our how to eat it | Photo: Will Robson
Outside my window, the waters of the Taiwan Strait are steely grey with only a gentle swell. We seem to be the only westerners at the hotel, drawing mild curiosity as we tuck into a buffet supper that evening. It’s not the easiest of cuisines to tuck into. Delicious as the roasted pork and chicken undoubtedly is, while it’s thoughtful of the cooks to then bash it flat and cut it into pieces, bone fragment removal is very much left to the individual diner.
Day #4 – Pacific heights and reservoirs of determination: Checheng to Zhiben (105km)
It’s no use, I can’t stay with them; I’m dropping off the back of the pack again. I feel a firm push in the small of my back and Gökhan’s voice: “get on his wheel and stay there.”
Riding in a group is an art I’m having to learn fast: don’t let your front wheel go forward of the guy in front’s back wheel; when you see a pot hole, give a wave of the hand behind you to warn the others; see a car coming towards the group? Shout “car up” (“car back ” if it’s behind).
The group rolling through Taiwanese countryside | Photo: Erkmen Erakkus
The biggest lesson for me is that staying within the group of bunched riders saves as much as a quarter of your energy. Once you drop off the back, you’re gone. Hence Gökhan’s kindly but insistent push. Taking a turn on the front saps energy and riders swap in and out as they tire. Our guide Chik took only an hour of riding at the head of the Lycra juggernaut to realise that allowing others to take their turn on the front was the only way he’d survive this trip. I’m very seldom allowed to take the lead, as on balance, I’m less of a burden to progress as a ‘wheel-sucker’.
We’ve done our first proper climb, 450m of vertical ascent, to reach the Mudan reservoir, entering the protected area of some of Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Paiwan tribe. It’s a heavily tropical forested mountainous area and County Road No. 199 is ideal for cycling – not always the smoothest, but nicely winding and fast on the descents. The roadies descend using the ‘Frooming’ technique, crouched down on their crossbars, chins on the stem.
‘Frooming’ on a fast descent
The steamy forest gives way to the Tungyuan wetlands of tangled Bareet grass dancing in the wind. Our stops become more relaxed as we take in the variety of Taiwanese landscape and read the English language signage in the forest and recreation parks.
Cycling is a big past time for Taiwanese but as we pass guided groups we feel under-dressed. Most people ride clothed head to foot, complete with facemask and neck covering. Ling Ling suggests that those Taiwanese with money and time for leisure pursuits like cycling are not keen on tanning as it might suggest they work in the fields all day.
Day #5 – The East Rift Valley and paddy fields: Zhiben to Ruisei (125km)
The Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates are colliding beneath our wheels as we weave our way along the East Rift Valley with two steep but relatively short climbs. Provincial Highway No.9 is busy and as we crest a hill for a long descent our chase van crew get caught in traffic. Despite a plea that we keep behind Chik for a safe descent, the group screams downhill at ‘full gas’ (Rules #83 and #95), with marginal overtaking of big trucks on fast open bends, applying brakes only to preserve life. Not big, not clever. Fun though.
After taking a road through endless rice paddy fields, our lunch stop in Chishang serves up an excellent Biang Dang wooden box of rice with dry side dishes. I manage one but some get two boxes down. In the course of this trip, I don’t think I’ve ever ingested so much liquid at such a rate before. The stops are not just essential for re-hydrating but they allow me to take on food and recuperate just enough for the next section of 20kms or so.
Riding through endless rice fields | Photo: Will Robson
I’m staying within the ‘bunch’ although the pace feels marginally more relaxed. On a long climb I find myself alone with no idea of where I am in relation to the others. I pedal on up through the forested hills and after a long descent the other side I’m tragically delighted to not be the last one in.
Every now and then the roadies up the pace to push themselves harder on a climb or a long run in at the end of the day. Matt is off to China after this trip to race in a World cup event. Alex and Tim from Cyclist Australia are staying on in Taiwan to ride some serious hills with some serious roadies. This trip, for them, seems more about acclimatisation.
My cycling kit wash and dry routine is pretty slick these days. It wafts gently on a hanger in front of a rattling aircon unit hanging loosely on the wall of my cabin in the grounds of the Ruisui Feng Sheng Resort – chamois pad turned outwards.
Day #6 – Sugar and trees: Ruisui to Hualien (80km)
We’ve been following an old railway line, turned into a ‘bikeway’, for some miles through Danongdafu Forest Park and we’ve lost our support van. Chik is standing at a junction looking puzzled, reaching for his phone. it’s a rare hiccup in our smooth progress, thanks to the excellent support crew. The group has hatched a plan to chip in and buy Chik some proper road shoes and pedals when we get to Hualien: the end of our journey.
The Guangfu Sugar Mill, later named the Hualien Sugar refinery, is a welcome stop for a large amount of ice cream and drinks. Progress as we leave is tempered by a need not to throw up, but we were always going to over-indulge.
Working on group cycling dynamics | Photo: Will Robson
It may be the last day but Aya and Ling Ling have a busy programme for us. As we roll into the Lintianshan Forestry Centre, known as Little Shanghai, we tour a museum and sit in the shade of the forestry camp buildings. It can be a tricky balance between wanting to cycle hard while taking in some culture at the same time. For me, coming halfway round the world means taking in as much as Taiwan has to offer, and seeing it from the perspective of riding a bike over 400km of hard road is well worth it. Just to come and ride a tour bus to the places we’ve been would have been a much lesser experience.
The group is powering through the last kilometres into Hualien and forms a double file of riders, taking turns on the front. I even get a turn, grinding away at 40kph until told to drop to the back before working my way up as each rider rotates.
The mechanics of group riding are fascinating. What looks straightforward on TV is far more complex in terms of preserving energy and finding the best way as a group to sustain speed over the course of a day in the saddle. For example, Alex tells me to change up a gear, as what I think is an efficient cadence is actually holding me back from sustaining a higher speed for less effort.
As we hit the city traffic of Hualien, dropping my bike off at the GIANT store and showering at a nearby hotel, the journey’s end seems all too sudden. The crew do some fist bumping and then we buy Chik some shoes. He seems pleased.
For us now it’s a train back to Taipei to take a ride to the top of the Taipei 101 tower, visit volcanoes and a wallow in a hot springs bath. It’s a sophisticated end to our trip, but for me, pedalling round the lower half of the island of Taiwan, despite its challenges, was more rewarding.
Need to know: how to wheel-suck on Will’s adventure
We did half of Taiwan but you can do the whole GIANT Tour de Taiwan 2017 for a very reasonable £660-£1000 (depending on numbers and timing) for nine days and eight nights. It includes bike, helmet, accommodation, meals, snacks, support van and mechanic — so almost everything except beer and insurance. Go to giantcyclingworld.com/travel for this and other bike touring options in Taiwan.
KLM fly to Taiwan four times a day, via Amsterdam, for around £826 return: www.klm.com/flights/taiwan
If in Taipei, I’d recommend staying at the Grand Hotel with its monumental Chinese palatial architecture and illustrious guests over the years. Standard rooms are surprisingly reasonable at £86-£150 per night.
For a more modern boutique hotel try Home Hotel DA-an in the eastern district with its allergy-free huge beds and all-round trendy vibe. Standard room is around £120 per night.
Hotels on the tour are included in the price and were of a three-star standard or above.
101 Tower, Taipei
It’s over half a kilometre high and its air-powered lift takes you to the top in 40 seconds. It’s impressive and well worth the ticket, especially as there’s a great food and restaurant mall below. Tickets: £14.