I promised I would flesh out my two earlier posts about riding in Taiwan with a bit more of the story of the rides.
This was a special opportunity for me because despite this being my fourth trip to Taiwan this was the first time I had a chance to ride outside the Taipei area. I planned to go to the island two days early so I had some time before the preparations for Taipei Cycle Show started. I also had a specific idea in mind, I wanted to ride some of the mountain scenery towards the centre of the island.
First port of call was to contact Demi and Phil at Formosa Lohas Cycling Association who had been great hosts for a short ride the previous year and ask their advice. Their guide leader programme has trained up a large group of expert guides for cycle tours and I was sure they could help me.
The request was very simple. “I would like to hire a bike and I want to ride two long hilly days of about 150km, can you suggest me a route?”
The response was beyond expectation. Within a couple of days Phil replied
“We are happy to see you and arrange the ride for you. Are you want to ride 150KM each day? Do you want challenge or just long distance ride? I have plan a two day ride for you before the cycle show. First day we start from Taipei to Taichung about 150km, it will be some up and down hill ride all the way. Some cyclists will ride with you and I will drive the support van. The second day we can invite some Taichung cyclists to join us.”
Incredible. Despite my protestations that I really didn’t want them to go to any trouble I had a fully packaged ride and some company to ride with so I could completely relax and look forward to the days. I was even set up with Phil’s bike on Friday evening almost straight from the plane.
Day 1. Taipei to Dongshi 136 km
Saturday morning I was collected from the hotel and taken out to the start of the day. Good news is that I was in shorts and a short sleeved shirt for the first time this year, 25 degrees forecast. Strange to see the ten local riders in long sleeves because it was a cool day!
We started about 20km from the centre by the side of Highway 3, a four lane main road leading south out of the city.
From the map I have taken from my Garmin GPS the story of Highway 3 comes clear. It is a main road that follows a traditional route hugging the foothills of the central mountain range but it is protected from high volumes of traffic by the two freeways that run closer to the coast.
I assumed at the start of the ride that using the main road was just to get us clear of the suburbs but remarkably for a bike tour we were to stay on that main road the whole day, enabling us to fly south at a good speed for hours on end. It is a bit of a wide concrete monster for the first half of the ride but for long sections traffic was really light, except for occasional groups of motor cyclists testing their machines over the undulations.
It was hillier of course, but the countryside around seemed to close in and provide more interest. That is where we took our lunch and the strawberries that I wrote about in the previous foodie post.
Two things stick in my mind as I look at the photos. Firstly there was the way we rode and secondly of course what we saw along the way.
I have spent quite a bit of time chatting to Demi and Phil about the way groups ride in Europe, they are really keen to exchange ideas with other tour leaders but I wasn’t sure how this group of ten would ride, they all looked quite experienced in their lycra and high quality bikes. It was immediately apparent when we got to the first small rise on the route as the group almost immediately fractured with the stronger riders pushing on at a good pace and the group spreading across quite a distance. I sort of assumed that in the European tradition we would regroup at the top, but no, we just kept going. And going. Until we reached a prearranged landmark at kilometre 33 where we all stopped and waited for the rest to catch up.
And that was the pattern of the day. We rode in ones and twos at our own pace for ten or fifteen kilometres and then we waited (and ate) while the rest caught up. From time to time some of the slower riders even jumped in the car to skip a leg which kept the whole thing moving but it was by no means what we would call a group ride. It kind of worked for me because I wanted a bit of a work out but it made for an interesting form of interval training, each interval was at least half an hour long. I was only riding for just over five hours but the day itself took nearly nine, so even excusing lunch that was quite a lot of sitting and chatting. No wonder the food seemed never ending.
My pace was actually a lot higher than I could possibly have gone on my own. After a few kilometres of riding we were caught from behind by Jacob who had ridden out from Taipei planning to find us en route. I had been warned he was coming, he was a bit of a local cycling celebrity because he was the first Taiwanese rider to tackle the legendary Race Across America (RAAM) and is going back this year as part of a team.
That means he is doing an incredible amount of riding and he was by far the strongest rider in our group. But he was not a crazy fast sort of guy, he just sat there and rode consistently at a pace designed to ride for days on end so I could slipstream him and occasionally ride beside him for long distances, especially on the flat. It was like sitting behind an engine, he was so smooth and steady to follow but his pace didn’t seem to drop on the hills so I had to let him go or I would have expired somewhere by the roadside.
With Jacob to tow us we averaged 26kmph riding speed even though we did over 2000 metres of rolling climbing in our bursts between stops. I have to say that as the stops got longer my legs got stiffer and by the final session I was really aching. But Jacob seemed impervious, he was getting up at 3am overnight to go to another long distance ride somewhere else on the island. By Dongshi, our final stop I was ready for my break.
But I didn’t just sit there following Jacob all day. I was thoroughly enjoying the sights and sounds of Taiwan by the roadside.
Buddhist temples, bright with colour and decoration.
Dry river beds running down from the mountainside emphasising the seriousness of the island’s water shortage, accentuated by the bare dry walls of a large reservoir.
And I learned a little Taiwanese cycling tradition. Our first meeting point on Highway 3 was the 33km mark so we all had to stop to make that the official photo call. This is because the Taiwanese riders like to go out and collect road signs where the numbers match – kilometres 22 and 222 on route 2 for example. It is a sort of train spotting for cyclists, and I like it.
Day 2 – into the mountains – 70km
This was a completely different day to Saturday.
Much shorter and none of the long flat stretches to bowl along behind Jacob’s engine.
This was 70 kilometres which was all about two big climbs up to 1000 metres above the city of Taichung, home of the Taiwanese bike manufacturing industry and perhaps one of the main hot spots for club riding in the country.
Joining us were four local riders from the touring club in Taichung who all had a somewhat lean and enthusiastic look to them which suggested they would be pretty confident in their own hills. Today’s photo call started with them unveiling their “Beer Club” banner which also highlighted their laddish approach to riding, lots of chat, laughter and banter. A fun group to ride with.
We had a little whizz out to the start of the climbs for about half an hour as a group, then the real stuff started.
We paused at the bottom and then hit a superb alpine style climb, all hairpins and switchbacks climbing 600 metres from our start point. The locals quickly bounced in to action and we rode as a nice group of five for the lower slopes, but I decided that the front three were just a bit too quick for my sore legs and drifted back to ride with my personal guide, Josh, whose job was to make sure I got round OK, a job he did perfectly by riding with me all the time, and then discovering he was a fan of international bike racing we were able to chat riders and races for hours, in between the grimaces on the steep parts of the hills.
The views were increasingly spectacular, looking out over the steep sided valleys below.
At the top everyone was met by the traditional sight of friends cheering and shouting them over the top. There was a popular café at the summit but unfortunately it was closed for the season, but it did give us a good rendezvous. Speciality “tonic eggs” apparently, probably the only food I didn’t get to try all week.
Superb descent on the other side of over 20km. I wanted to throw the bike down it at top speed but the hairpins just kept coming and I was a bit worried I was already tired so I was cautious. That did however give me great views of the front riders descending below me, a spectacular sight.
For the final section we ran along the valley floor for a few kilometres, up and down some low ripples to the foot of the next and final climb. A café break enabled us all to regroup and the beer club insisted on some liquid refreshment, there’s no way I could have joined them with what I thought might be coming.
I was right. Ten kilometres of climbing, much steeper than the previous climb. It was hard, really hard and I fought the bike the whole way up. Josh and I rode together nicely but he was kind enough to say that even his younger legs and lighter frame was tiring. Just over the summit was a summit stone with a few small stalls which provided a gathering point for cyclists and motorcyclists.
Lots of photos of course and I was made an honorary member of the beer club for my efforts.
Then I got an almighty surprise. Somehow Demi and Phil and some of my hosts concluded that the next descent might be a bit dangerous for the visitor, in particular because of the poor road surfaces so they thought maybe I should use the car to get down to the restaurant in Taichung. There must be something in the rules of cycling that says nobody can be deprived of coming down a hill once they have done the hard work of climbing up and I really was not enthusiastic about the car.
The look on my face must have told a story because Josh and the other Taichung riders hit the road down and welcomed me to come with them. Yes there were some dodgy moments on the way, I think I must have worried my minder a bit when I skimmed a couple of bollards but I was actually really enjoying it, the bike handled beautifully. And poor road surface? These guys are really spoiled, they need to sample the state of Belgian road maintenance sometime.
Again it was another 20km of descending, right down into the edge of Taichung. The last 10km into the city where it flattened out we had a great time, hardly dropping below 40km per hour except for traffic lights. To make it even better we passed sights like this glorious temple by the roadside, it had me slamming on the brakes to take photos even in the middle of the high speed chase.
I am very happy that I completed two thirds of the Taichung mountain circuit. Yes it would have been tempting to go for the third summit but that would have been at least another hour and a half which would mess up the rest of our day. And I am sure after the second climb that I was getting close to cooked, the enjoyment was diminishing as the two days took its toll. I can save it for another time, I have an excuse to go back when I can join the Beer Club with fresh legs and go for a really good thrash.
Gerry from Taipei and I agreed that we should have a special recognition because we were the only two to ride the whole two days and we were the two old guys in the group. Put it down to experience.
Thanks once again to Demi and Phil for the great trip.
I am really sorry I cannot remember all the names of the 15 or so riders who came with me over the two days, they were all exuberant and enthusiastic company, I cannot recall when I have been out with a group that just laughed so much while cycling, it was infectious. I thoroughly recommend the experience, but even more I appreciate the company. Book your FLCA guide now!