Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two wheels are often better than four

There are at least four reasons for Taiwan's bicycling renaissance. Firstly, now that two-day weekends are the norm, Taiwanese have more free time than ever before. Secondly, as in other parts of the world where eating well and being sedentary is the default lifestyle, many citizens are concerned about their waistlines. 

The third reason is that good, affordable bicycles for all demographics are available. Taiwan has long been a major manufacturer of bicycles. In recent years, as labour and other costs have risen, local bike makers like Giant and Merida have moved up market. Their efforts to produce high-quality bicycles and bike accessories have met with great success. In 2014, Taiwan exported almost US$2.8 billion worth of complete bikes and bicycle components. 
Finally, the government has done its bit. The authorities pro-bicycle initiatives have come in for some criticism, but at least taking bikes on trains is now easier. In both Taipei and Kaohsiung, bike enthusiasts can take their 'iron horses' (鐵馬, which is how many Taiwanese refer to their bicycles) on certain MRT trains, opening up those metropolises and their hinterlands for exploration. Assisting cyclists with tea and drinking water, as well as directions, has been added to the police’s duties. 

International interest in Taiwan as a cycling destination has been building, thanks to magazine articles, TV reports, and at least one movie.  The 2014 romance Nanpu (Riding the Breeze has inspired some moviegoers to bike around Tamsui, Jiufen, and other places featured in this Taiwanese-Japanese co-production. 

Anyone touring Taiwan during the summer is likely to run into clusters of cyclists going all the way around the island. The total distance depends on the precise route, but is often over 1,200km. Huandao (環島, 'round the island') bike journeys have become both a rite of passage and an expression of Taiwanese identity. While it's possible to camp in many places, some riders prefer to travel light, carrying nothing other than a change of clothing and money to buy accommodation and food. 

Bike-rental businesses are boon for both foreign tourists and Taiwanese. Giant Bicycles’ rental operation can supply bikes and other items suitable even for tall Westerners; these can be collected at one location and returned at another - perfect for those on short visits to Taiwan who wish to bike from, say, Hualien to Taitung. 

Both cities face the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan’s unspoiled east, and nowhere are the often-quoted words of Giant’s founder, King Liu (劉金標) - 'Driving is too fast. Walking is too slow. Riding is the best way to enjoy the most beautiful scenes of life' - more apt. Liu, who was born in 1934, still cycles every day.

It's just about possible for a fit, dedicated cyclist to see both coastal and high-altitude marvels in a single day. The distance from Dapeng Bay on the southwest coast to Wutai, a stunningly scenic township deep in the mountains, is just 65km, but involves ascending to 1,000m above sea level. Even steeper climbs exist: Taiwan's toughest bike challenge is undoubtedly the 'King of the Mountains' route, from the shores of the Pacific to an altitude of 3,275m within Taroko National Park (where the photo above was taken; its from Wikimedia Commons). This webpage has a detailed description of the ups and downs of the 105km-long KOM route; it's a regular highway and thus open to cyclists every day of the year, unless there's a blockage caused by a landslide

Experienced bikers say that, before starting any long downhill sections, it's a good idea to lower saddle, to reduce the risk of going over the handlebars in the event of a sudden stop. And it goes without saying that cyclists should always wear helmets - Taiwan's roads, unfortunately, aren't as safe as the Netherlands'. In the countryside, aggressive dogs are sometimes a problem.

If this talk of high mountains and long distances is off putting, be reassured that one needn't be an Olympic-level athlete to enjoy cycling in Taiwan. There are plenty of family-friendly bicycle trails suitable for those who haven't been on a bike since childhood. Two of the most attractive are in Greater Taichung; known as the Houfeng and Dongfeng bike paths, they can be completed in a single day.

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