Lee’s Lowdown: Taiwan Travels!

Lowdown: A slightly different Lowdown from Lee Rodgers today, no doping, his thoughts on Taiwan as a cycling holiday destination… Good and bad! The island the Portuguese called Formosa – ‘beautiful island’ might not be on your bucket list yet, so let Lee change your mind.

Millions of scooters, noisy, overcrowded cities and a feel of China 2.0 were what I expected from Taiwan before I came here six years ago, knowing nothing of the island save some sketchy details about Chiang Kai Shek’s hasty retreat from the Maoists at the end of the 1940s, and that in summer it was humid as heck. Well, when I took a job here as editor of a cycling website I did in fact discover millions of scooters, somewhat noisy cities and a humidity that knocks you off your feet in summer, but what amazed and surprised me was the beauty of this tiny rock, the generosity and friendliness of many of its inhabitants and roads so sublime for riding that you wonder just why so few folk out in the rest of the world have not yet cottoned on to the island the Portuguese called Formosa – ‘beautiful island’.

The vast majority of the 25 million people live in the north and along the central areas of the west coast, with the major cities being the capital Taipei up north, Kaoshiung in the south-western area, Tainan just above and finally Taichung (also known as the Silicone Valley of the bike industry thanks to the proliferation of bike companies here), where I live, just about in the middle of the west coast. The reason for this is the flat plains that are a feature of the west coast, as opposed to the east coast which has generally a more rugged coastline.

In terms of cycling, which is of course all important, this means that though generally speaking the western side of the island has more roads, it also has more industry, scooters, cars and hence more pollution, which in the summer, with the cloying humidity, means riding ain’t that much fun this side. Riding through the cities is also a tad dodgy, with scooters and cars coming at you from all directions, with very few folk following basic roads of the road, such as not doing an eight point turn in the middle of rush hour on a street no more than 15 feet wide, or not reversing into oncoming traffic because you missed your turn.

If my Chinese was any better and I had a license to carry a deadly weapon, I’d be in a whole heap of trouble by know thanks to these lovely, considerate drivers and the fact that I do get quite irate when people almost kill me…

So, ‘great travel piece this is!’ I hear you thinking, ‘I really wanna go to Taiwan now, with my gas mask and an Uzi…’ but, it gets better. In fact, if you can make it out of the towns and cities, and especially if you come between October and May, you not only get near-perfect weather for riding (it was 23 celsius here today) but you also get the most amazing strips of tarmac, concrete and even gravel to ride on, up hills that go so high that even cars suffer on the upper reaches of the mountain roads.

Take the hill we use for the Taiwan KOM Challenge, which starts at about 15m above sea level and got up to 3,275m over 90km, a road that snakes and slips its way up through Taroko Gorge, a natural phenomenon so majestic that it literally takes the breath away. On the other side, you can ride up 70km, if you want the easier ride up to the summit, from the small town of Puli that sits besides Sun Moon Lake, a gorgeous body of water with a smooth, twisting up and down road circling it.

Two more huge hills make up the Holy Four, Ali Shan and Tatajia, all being roads that have races held on them and all deliciously hard to get up, though none quite match the brutality of the KOM hill.

Just a 90 minute ride from my house there is a 40km ‘infant’ known as Big Snow Mountain, a hill that barely notes a mention when the locals talk about ‘big’ climbs. Taiwan really is a climbers’ paradise, and with so few drivers on weekdays up in the hills, it’s a dream location for cyclists.

You can ride around the entire island on a variety of roads, with one popular route from Taipei down the West side being mainly flat, or you can move more inland and get on some of the big hills. There’s plans afoot to build a round-island bike path very soon, which should attract more people to get out and ride.

Cycling has taken off massively here compared to ten or even six years ago when I first arrived, and though I don’t have any statistics, I see far more women riding full road bikes here than in European nations, eve the Netherlands. The local road racing scene can’t honestly be called vibrant, but it does exist, and Taiwan has its first Pro Tour rider in Chun-Kai Feng (who is Aboriginal Taiwanese – there are several vibrant and multi-faceted Aboriginal communities here also, making up about 3% of the population).

There’s also a UCI 2.1 Tour de Taiwan held each year here (I won the Green Jersey there in 2012, just beating Feng by one point, not by sprinting but by getting into huge breaks almost daily!), though whether having this race actually helps the local scene is highly debatable. Much to my shock,I discovered that the local teams in the race were not allowed to stay at the race hotel each night, nor attend the final ceremony dinner, as the organizer was pocketing the cash instead. I was on a Taiwanese team at the time and remember, quite fondly now but not at the time, being shacked up in cheap and rather skanky love motels every night, and eating burgers and pot noodles for dinner!

Taiwan is modern enough to offer similar luxuries in all its cities that one can find in Japan, whilst offering up, if the traveler is game for it, a taste of adventure more akin to Thailand or even Vietnam, and, for anyone heading to China, also offers an introduction to Chinese culture without some of the more culturally jarring aspects. For example, there are doors on all the toilets here…!

So, basically, Taiwan absolutely rocks and a cycling destination. Stick to the hills and the East coast if you want clear skies and relatively car-free roads to ride on, head to the South for pristine beaches and postcard blue waters, to Taichung to visit a bike brand’s HQ, and Taipei for a very cool night-time experience, with pulsating night markets and a great bar and club scene.

This place has kinda got the lot!

By rare coincidence, Lee is offering bicycle tours in Taiwan and also Japan as of 2017, email him at lee@crankpunk.com to find out more.

Photos by: Lee Rodgers, Daebong kim and Paolo Martelli.

Cycling in Taichung, Taiwan from Lee Rodgers on Vimeo.

Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.

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