Eating and cycling combined in Taiwan – put it on your culinary bucket list

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This gallery contains 18 photos.

It is going to be very hard in the next few blog posts to not just turn this into”101 reasons why you should visit Taiwan in 2016.” We have our major international cycling conference there in March 2016 so there … Continue reading

Taiwan touring day 2 – Taichung mountain circuit

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This gallery contains 5 photos.

I am assured that the three peaks of the mountain circuit from Taichung are the measure by which all local riders are judged, with the local clubs and pro-groups regularly thrashing round in a form of survival of the fittest. … Continue reading

I just want to keep riding

Solvay park morning March 2015

Today I leave for what is now the fourth of my annual trips to Taiwan for the Taipei Cycle Show. Added attractions this year are the Asian Cycling Forum, a big step on the road to our Velo-city 2016 Conference in Taipei and a very special weekend cycling with the wonderful Formosa Lohas Cycling Association team who are going to take me out for a couple of long days in the centre of the island.

It may be the rainy (drizzly?) season but it will be warm and muggy compared to Belgium.

However before I leave I had some personal errands to do so I decided to do them by bike early this morning and then cycle hard for an hour so my body is nicely jaded and I might just sleep on the plane tonight, a process that never comes easily to me.

This was a sharp but wonderful contrast to what I am expecting in Taipei. As I left the house there was a very sharp frost and the first 70 metre drop to the valley below left me gasping in shock. But the place was bathed in sharp morning light which began to warm everything with a golden glow. An hour later as I rode through the woods I felt this was going to be the perfect day to spend the whole day riding,

Belgian woods March 2015

I just wanted to set off on a huge adventure on my two wheeled companion and “not come back till tea-time” as we might have said in a children’s book. What a waste to be stuck in a metal tube for hours.

Taipei will be wonderful again, stand by for lots of blogging. But I have unfinished business with these spring mornings in Belgium.

“If you only have one day to ride you take what comes”. A stormy ride to Valetta, Malta

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This gallery contains 25 photos.

It is hard to identify what the symbol of this bike ride should be. One of the many broken umbrellas littering the ground? The cars driving through flooded roads? Or just about any blurry photo with rain on the lens … Continue reading

Searching for cycling in Malta

Photo Kevin Mayne

At its heart this blog has a simple message. Seeing a cyclist is something to cheer, an uplifting feeling from HG Wells’ experiences of cycling in the 1890s right through to today.

So it was all a bit worrying in Malta this week when I took 89 hours from arrival to see a single sign of cycling life, other than our visiting group. My colleagues said they saw one cyclist on the second day, but I missed him or her and from that point onwards the search became a bit like a birdwatcher seeking an elusive rare species. I almost cheered when I saw my first rider on day four, he must have wondered why this passing rider had such a silly grin on his face as he passed. This is indeed the only cycling post on Idonotdespair so far where I don’t have a single picture of a local cyclist, except our host Roberta on our group ride.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I was in Malta for a workshop as part of an international project to boost cycle commuting which has a Maltese partner as part of a 12 nation consortium. While we were discussing the high potential for further growth by learning from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands we were all sensitive to the huge challenge face by our Maltese friends to get cycling going here, especially at our press conference on the final day.

Photo Kevin Mayne

All week the local paper was full of stories about congestion on the roads and that is hardly surprising given that Malta has the second highest level of regular car use in the EU, one of the lowest levels of public transport use and very definitely the lowest level of cycling, by a large margin. When it comes to cycling it is congested, hilly, hot and has inherited many of its attitudes to cycling from that well known cycling laggard and former colonial power, Britain. I understand that it was probably the Brits who advised the Maltese on their transport policies in more recent years, not a recommendation from cycling point of view.

Photo Kevin Mayne

In fact we seem to have left such a great legacy that our other Mediterranean colony Cyprus joins Malta at the bottom of the cycling league tables. Not a good trend is it. British heritage = rubbish at developing daily cycling, British transport heritage and driving on the left, even worse, a special club combining the UK, Australia, Malta and Cyprus.

But knowing that we just did what we always do. We went for one of our multi-national bike rides to explore the reality on the ground, 20 foreigners forming a sort of critical mass in the late afternoon gloom.  Then the following day I went for a solo ride despite a very stormy afternoon. So as usual I give you the I Do Not Despair snapshot of another country, with perhaps a bit less “adult on a bicycle” than the normal observations. The photography was even more challenging in the half light, wind and rain so apologies for the blurry edges.

Our group ride left our hotel at St George’s Bay to ride around the coast and inlets of St Julian’s Bay and Sliema, cutting across the steep headlands on the return. Only a few kilometres as the night closed in but a real taste of some of the challenges of Maltese roads. And doing it as a group we had a safety in numbers effect and lots of visibility. Lots of smiles

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

There were some attractive vistas across the bays, especially the capital Valetta which was tantalisingly close across the harbour.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

Riding on my own to Valetta a day later I was less confident and spent a bit of time hiding on pavements and promenades which seemed more sensible, but the conditions that night were a bit extreme. (Post to follow)

What was it that led to this reticence? Yes there were no cycle paths and the roads were a bit hilly and narrow, but that is not exactly unusual in many of the places I ride, not least Brussels. No the main problem here was the cluelessness of the drivers. I wouldn’t call them super aggressive, it’s just that they had absolutely no idea how to drive around cyclists because clearly they hardly see any. In fact they weren’t particularly dangerous on the busy city and coast roads because their congestion and the narrow side streets acted as excellent traffic calming.

We got honked at a few times when we were actually doing nothing particularly obstructive or when it was absolutely clear that the street was only just about wide enough for a cyclist so there was no way a car would come past even if we pulled over to the side. When there was a gap the drivers didn’t hang back, they tended to pull up beside us which was disconcerting for our less experienced riders and pushed everyone in to the edge.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I tried to hang at the back of the group on the bigger roads a few times and take my preferred “primary position”, hanging out into the carriageway to try and deter their encroachment into the group but without much luck.

Photo Kevin Mayne

On my own in the dark and the wet I wasn’t trying the primary position but there was further evidence that motorists hadn’t much experience of cycling or walking when the roads got really wet. The dreaded bow wave, a wall of water sometimes over metre high when the cars accelerated into the puddles instead of recognising that there were people outside the car as well!

I don’t think the roads were so much worse or unforgiving than many other towns and cities with higher cycling levels. But as well as no cycle lanes there was very little other help from the authorities. For example the older areas were a wonderful maze of narrow streets, especially in the capital city Valetta. To cope with cars they have mostly been made into one way streets but that makes navigation around the city somewhat complicated. A simple adoption of universal contraflow cycling across the cities would open up huge networks of streets instantly.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And some parking restraint wouldn’t go amiss either, that could open up a hell of a lot of space and start changing an attitude that the car is king.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Off season the wide promenades are also perfectly good shared use spaces too, we were advised to use them by our bike tour operator and that was definitely a good call. Great views too.

Photo Kevin Mayne

There are undoubtedly some seeds of change and as usual we met some really committed people who want cycling on the island to succeed. Above all the congestion is reaching a point where the citizens and public authorities know something has to happen. And we know from other countries that part of the human rebellion that set cycling going was a reaction to congestion, when cycling is so much quicker and easier than other transport. A chap from the ministry of transport that I met at our press conference also suggested that e-bikes could be part of the solution, probably not a bad move in a hot hilly country. (Our rainy days were far from usual.)

I also heard that local cycling events can get up to 5,000 participants which is great, the cyclists must be out there somewhere and there are groups of cyclists coming here on tour which must raise its status. But it is going to be a long haul, there has to be a critical mass of cyclists that emerges in at least one town or city somewhere on the island to give it some profile and start educating the local drivers. And despite everyone at our press conference agreeing that it wouldn’t be easy they all then went off into little groups discussing great ideas and places where perhaps it would be possible to get people cycling to work.

My thanks to our hosts who made it an excellent trip and a special thanks to Denis Debono from Bybike who provided possibly the friendliest bike hire service I have come across. He provided the bikes, guide and running commentary on Thursday, then he dashed halfway across the island to bring us bikes on Friday afternoon’s ride and made himself available for a call when the storm caused most of the group to give up our ride to Valetta. Highly recommended and a good reason to cycling in Malta.

Book Review: Along the Med on a bike called Reggie

Along the Med on a Bike called ReggieI don’t get round to doing many book reviews from my cycling library but I feel Andy Sykes latest offering is well worth a few words, probably because I just like Andy’s attitude to cycle touring which is a triumph of curiosity and enthusiasm overcoming his self-declared naivety about the more mundane processes of cycling such as how to pump up a tyre!

As the blurb says this is his self-published account of his summer 9 week trip from the southern tip of Greece right across Europe to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, nearly 6000km and 10 countries. He loosely follows the route of Eurovelo 8, the Mediterranean Route but very much creates his own itinerary and diversions, not least to the legendary Mont Ventoux, cycling’s “Giant of Provence”.

It is a sequel to his 2010 trip “Riding across Europe on a Bike called Reggie” where we first met an even less prepared Andy and Reggie cycling from the UK to Brindisi in southern Italy along Eurovelo 5.* I enjoyed the first book a lot, there were some highly amusing moments all along the way so I was looking forward to book 2 when I heard Andy was off for more in the summer of 2013.

The cycle touring book has a long tradition going back almost to the invention of the bicycle. Some of them are voyages of discovery, some epic endurance adventures. The ones I enjoy most are the ones where the personality of the writer comes through and Andy certainly wins on that front. His writing is strongest where he addresses his own feelings – sometimes curious, sometimes anxious, even at times a bit nervous about hills, main roads, the state of the local campsites and arriving in Portugal in his allotted nine weeks. And then the other Andy takes over and just does it, delighted by the small pleasure of cycling travel like wonderful views, chance meetings, yet another coffee in a town square, a day completed. Occasionally he even lets an inner epic cyclist come out and like his day cycling over 200km to Valencia and he is drawn to master the incredible Ventoux, a legendary mountain of the Tour de France. I think the book is best in the first half when he has the time and relaxation to potter about and take side diversions in countries like Greece, Albania and the states of former Yugoslavia including Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

Both books make an excellent introduction to these long distance routes and the concept of using a bike to have an epic adventure.  Andy is also the first cycling writer I have discovered from what I can only call the “on line” generation. He may hardly have a functional map of most of his route but he has got an I-Phone strapped to his handlebars, a solar charger on the back to keep it powered, an I-Pad in the pannier, hotels booked during the day by the internet, guest homes from the cyclists hospitality web site Warm Showers and he has kept his on line community in contact with his travels by Facebook, blog and Twitter. I think many tentative cycle tourists could be encouraged and inspired to take even a short adventure by Andy’s travels across Europe with limited preparation but confidence in his resources. If you know someone who needs a push to try a bit of a cycling adventure but loves their electronic toys this could be the perfect Christmas gift, but of course they would download it as an e-book! I am trying to be this relaxed about my touring, I think a bit of the Andy Sykes approach is starting to rub off.

You can find links to the books and the various points of sale on Andy’s lively web site cyclingeurope.org which also has his blog and lots of other content.

If you like this you’ll probably also like “One Man and his Bike” by Mike Carter and “French Revolutions” by Tim Moore, both mentioned in my library page

Eurovelo.com

(*Declaration of interest here, the wonderful 70,000km Eurovelo network with its amazing long distance cycle routes is a product of the European Cyclists’ Federation who I work for in Brussels. Thanks to Andy for some enthusiastic promotion of the network, even if he does frustrate some of our colleagues by “not sticking to the proper route”. Personally, that’s what I would do, use the routes for inspiration and then make my own way, so no problem here!)

Ingredients for our perfect cycle tour on the Flanders Cycle Route.

Belgium Flanders cycle touring

My Dad and I have just returned from three days really excellent cycle touring in East Flanders and its borders with the Netherlands. Before writing up a typical travelogue I was musing on what made it particularly successful.

We have both done a lot of touring over the years and we had a very clear idea of what we didn’t want. We didn’t want the sort of trip where the cycling gets in the way of the touring. Or more probably the cyclists got in the way of the touring, the sort of trip popular with cycle tourists who have a very fixed view of what constitutes a day’s cycling.  I have of course done these rides, and enjoyed them enormously, especially afterwards. The trip where there is a consensus that we are going to sixty miles a day come hell or high water. Or where the organiser has booked hotels exactly xx miles apart in a straight line and we are just going to have to get there, even if we arrive in the dark when the chef went home hours ago. Other symptoms include arriving at a place of beauty and riding straight past because we are behind schedule, or probably worst of all discovering a set menu of exquisite local food for just €15 and going in the café next door because we can see the bikes from there.

Legends are born on trips like that. But that isn’t what we wanted.

We wanted the other sort of cycle tour, where the cycling is a means of exploration and an excuse to spend a few days just chatting and putting the world to rights. And for various reasons we both needed something that was entirely relaxing. As we haven’t actually toured together overnight for many years we also had to work out something that made sure we were on the same wavelength too.

So we compared notes on some important ingredients and then discovered that East Flanders was absolutely perfect recipe for our needs. This was only a relatively short trip, others may indeed set off to cycle round the whole of Flanders, of Europe or indeed the world. But for us it was just right. If the Mayne rules ever help you design a future tour then please feel free to steal them.

1. If the plans get in the way of the enjoyment, ditch the plan.

2. It’s not about the cycling, it’s about the trip. Stop lots. Especially in the proximity of a café. (see 7)

cycle touring in Belgium

3. Don’t go anywhere.

Yes seriously. A few days before we were due to set off I was beginning to worry about where we should go. Maybe the Ardennes, maybe a Eurovelo route? Somewhere by train, car or bike? We need to get out and see some more of Belgium don’t we?

And then a booklet for the circular Flanders Cycle Route which meanders some 800km through the five Flanders provinces sort of fell off a shelf into my hand and I made two important discoveries. Firstly that it passed just 10km from my house and secondly that I hadn’t actually ridden any of the areas in that Easterly direction. So I thought “why bother doing anything else?” It is mapped, signposted and starts on the doorstep. Wherever we end up we can get a train back. Let’s just give it a try.

Flanders cycle route sign Photo Kevin Mayne

4. Distances are to be measured at the end of the day, not set at the start.

This was a particularly successful strategy. I had predicted roughly where we would end up each night based on the straight line distances between some of the towns but we discovered that the winding route added a considerable distance on each stretch so my predictions were way out. But because we had neither planned nor booked anything it really didn’t cause any stress at all.

The wonderful Knooppunt navigation points* help with that too because at each junction you are pointed to the next Knooppunt but no distances are given. So you just potter on to the next number, and then choose a new one depending on how you feel.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

5. If one person is a stronger cyclist than the other – they take most of the luggage and a heavy bike.

Touring bikes for Flanders tour

No equality required. (How many times is it that I see groups of cycle tourists where the person struggling is always overladen and on a heavy or unsuitable bike? Does nobody see how wrong that is?)

6. Ride anything.

Looking back it is actually quite hard to work out a type of road or cycle path we didn’t find en-route. If at any point one of us was a bit bored by the flat or terrorised by the cobbles we found that five minutes later it would change. So there really was no point even commenting. (Much)

Narrow concrete tracks across farm land and rolling orchards were quite common and delightfully quiet. We followed dirt tracks surrounded by trees and wonderful purple heather.Flanders cycling photo Kevin Mayne Off road cycle route cycling Flanders

Urban cobbles, floral bridges and giant canals with the smoothest, widest cycle paths imaginable.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

Flanders cycle routes

Even a motorway bridge at one point. You have got to love the Dutch, they do build bike paths on an industrial scale!

Cycle route motorway bridge

7. It is always worth ten minutes more at the café.

When one person really wants to go and look at the bravest of the Gauls, the Belgae warrior Amborix whose statue was rather too like comic book hero Asterix to be taken seriously then the other person is equally free to take a second coffee.

Cycling in Flanders

And conveniently on this trip every time we took a bit longer it started to rain, but in this year’s Belgian summer it was soon gone again soon. We rode on a lot of wet roads, but only in a bit of drizzle in the whole 3 days. Very, very lucky.

Geoff Mayne by Kevin Mayne

And finally item 8.

Go home while you are still having fun.

Cycling in Flanders Kevin Mayne

When we set out we didn’t actually decide whether we were going for two days or three. The weather was probably going to be the defining factor, but we both knew that we had to work out whether we were going to enjoy each other’s riding style and the route.

At the lunch stop in Maastricht a conversation took place that roughly said “when are we going to get the chance to do something as good as this again?” and the matter was very quickly decided in favour of the extra day. Unanimously.

*Knooppunt are a system of nodes or junctions on a network of recommended cycle touring roads, paths or route sections.

They are all numbered and you plan your route by selecting a sequence of numbers that you want to connect on a map, on-line or on a GPS unit. The excellent signposting takes care of the rest as each road or trail junction has a signpost pointing to the relevant numbers. They started in the Netherlands, now cover Flanders and are gradually beginning to appear in specific areas of Germany and Wallonia.

Where we went the Dutch and Flemish signs linked up over the border – so useful.

Some more information here.