Monday, March 10, 2014
A Different Day on the Miaoli 130
Taichung as Taiwan's Recreational Cycling Base: Michael Turton picks up this blogger's slack and provides an informative and detailed accounting of Taichung's best local cycling routes. Michael's observations are pure gold as his insights reflect the needs of the recreational cyclist who is not in training for competition, only for fitness and experience. Still, the only thing that really separates these routes from the hard and boring training loops, is the speed in which they are accomplished. Please bookmark this page if your are new to cycling in Taichung.
Tour de Tai-yawn is upon us: With all due respect to the athletes, I do not feel this event does cycling in Taiwan justice with its annual selection of boredom and blight. They have pared the TdT down to a mere five stages of touring Taiwan's worst cycling environments. Even today's Changhua County stage misses the best roads available. I doubt I will comment much more about this race until I have a reason to get excited.
Taipei Cycle: In the hopes of shoring up a a soft market for bicycle exports, Taipei Cycle kicked off with optimism. I missed the show this year to be on a bike instead. It is okay, I think they survived without me. The one thing we can be sure of is that despite a soft market, this year's bikes will be more laterally stiff and less vertically compliant than last year's. Colnago used the event to unveil their flagship C60, which meets the stiffness and compliance requirements of a bike that wishes the stay current.
Monday, March 3, 2014
I have been in a bad way for far too long and it was high time I put myself back on the road. My body has been feeling adequate. My bike still works. I have a couple of coins in my pocket. I decided I had spent far too long on the sidelines and deserved to get out and enjoy cycling in Taiwan on my own terms. With a long weekend and an invite from the redoubtable Michael Turton and Jeff Miller. I threw my hat in for a ride down Taiwan's Rift Valley.
After a last minute attempt to get the logistics nailed down to circumvent Taiwan and be back for work on Monday morning, I made a mad dash across Taichung to hop the Ju Guang Train (a.k.a. the slower than shitting molasses train) to Hualien. The weather was already wet when I arrived and it didn't get any better when we pushed off the next morning into a steady drizzle.
There is something about riding a bike and taking an excellent road that makes the puddle sloshing between your heel and your toe a less than unpleasant experience. I was in luck as we would be taking the Route 193 southward.
The Route 193 is the cyclist's friend when biking the Rift Valley, as it is scenic, with little traffic, few difficult bumps, and plenty of places to find provisions.
As we sloshed along the base of the hillside kicking up spray and grit from the roadway, I kept looking out at the opposite bank imagining the mountains that lay obscured by clouds and mist. It was just that kind of day.
There were a few other cyclists out, but not many. Michael was having trouble with a spoke piercing through the rim tape and was slowed by punctures during the first day.
We plodded along past one Amis village after another to the occasional greeting shouted from the shadows of some roadside shelter or another. If Taiwan is regarded as a friendly country, the ester portion has to be the friendliest.
Jeff engaged in conversation with a local over one of the old wells in the area. We were informed that the quality of the wells has deteriorated since tourists started arriving and throwing cigarettes and betel nut into the wells. As we were leaving I noticed the town was busy preparing to accommodate more tourists.
With the weather growing colder and nastier with every turn of the crank, and Michael suffering from mechanical difficulties, we decided to end our day at the farming town on Yuli. I tested my legs for the final 30km, mainly just to keep myself warm, and was quickly waiting for Michael and Jeff on the outskirts of Yuli where we arrived at a hostel that offered showers with the most instantaneously scalding hot showers I have been fortunate enough to witness first hand. I was relieved to be out of the wet and settling in for the night.
It was most fortuitous that we never made it any further than Yuli as the next morning was simply glorious. The rain had cleared, so we decided to head out toward the coast on the Route 23.
As we headed onto the roads the sun was already pushing through holes in the clouds. The valley was simply glowing between light reflecting off the rice fields or passing through filters of various greens. I beg you will forgive my gratuitous selection of pictured from that day that me seem redundant or doing little to advance this narrative, but I am choosing to revel in the sights of that morning as they were being words.
Alas, it was time to say farewell to the Yuli valley and embark on the Route 23, which is one road my friend and fellow cyclist, Nathan Miller, refers to as a road that, "drops right off the edge of the earth."
Nathan isn't too far off the mark. The Route 23 dips down through some tiny farms and then as if passing through some strangle portal in space and time, you are transported directly into the central mountain range.
The area beyond the hole in the rock echoes of a vast wilderness. It feels like you are caught in the gravity of a much larger area.
Before long the road launches skyward. A periodic road sign advertises an imminent village outpost 15, 7, 3, 1 kilometer ahead. Behind every false top you expect to find the elusive village of Donghe.
I took the climb as if I still had the legs to do it. I scrapped and heaved myself upward on my first significant climb since September and my legs knew all about it.
I reached the true peak and let myself fall over the ridge toward Central Donghe, a sight that had just passed overhead.
As I plummeted downward, the kilometers started adding up without anything remotely passing as a "Central Donghe". I wondered if I had been mistaken.
A few buildings here and there. A farm or two beneath an ancient cliff face. No Donghe.
We arrived at a bridge where roaming packs of idiots have been tamed by the local monkeys to deliver food to them.
Finally, after a few more kilometers of pedaling, we arrived at the ocean, where the little town of Donghe bustled with happy tourists.
We pointed our handlebars northward, and with the gentle push of a tailwind, we made a steady pace to Cheng-gong.
The Bikeway took a brief scenic route along the ocean for a wealth of views and photo ops.
On the the third day we were greeted by wind and drizzle to go with our morning coffee. It looked like it might be another rough day. Fortunately, the wind had shifted during the night and we had another tailwind going the other direction to carry us to Taidong.
I looked out into the ocean and saw a solid sheet of rain a few kilometers off shore and decided to go for broke the rest of the way to Taidong.
As I neared our destination, it became clear the rain would remain off shore and I slowed the pace to better enjoy the scenery.
The monstrosity of the Miramar Hotel, the defunct ecological disaster and eyesore, sat decaying along the beach. It serves as a stark warning for what Taiwan's eagerness to court tourism can unleash.
We were in Taidong well before 11:00am and had plenty of time to adjust our train tickets for an early return home.
It is amazing country out there. Just stay off the Highway 9 and eastern Taiwan is an absolute gem.
Monday, February 24, 2014
As I creak into shape after a lengthy (and hopefully long lasting) rehab, I am pleased to know Michael Turton over at The View From Taiwan has been busy combing the roads of Taiwan and keeping things up to date.
He has just published this great article (here) for anyone interested in visiting Taiwan for cycling.
Please give it a read and I hope to put up something in the coming week about my trip with Michael down the coast of eastern Taiwan.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
My Spine (September, 2013)
That vacation was a lot longer than I had anticipated.
My cycling hiatus started back in July, about a week before my prior post; a post which has served as marvelous a place marker as any while I kept a safe distance from cycling and the insanity it can generate in a non-cycling cyclist.
Over the past couple of years I had been oscillating between cycling activity and inactivity largely due to a recurring bout of medial knee pain. I would treat the pain with R.I.C.E. as well as massage therapy, and then get back to training for some event or another. It has been very frustrating to gain a high level of fitness and then to throw away months of work with a few weeks off the bike due to soreness.
I had gone to great lengths and expense to diagnose and treat the knee issue, and each time I would have promising results… only to see my hopes dashed again by a new twinge in the knee.
With all this focus on the knee and little help from medical personnel, who would prescribe rest and shrug when I would ask for a possible cause, I had not paid too much attention to the "knot" I was feeling in my lower back.
I would chalk it up to lack of fitness after resting the knee and it would go away with increased riding.
Last July, after building back from another knee flare-up in preparation for the ride over the Central Mountain Range, I had been trying to stretch my back out a bit more and see if I could undo the knot. I was assuming I had a muscle that has gotten out of sorts and simply needed to be put back in a more relaxed position through stretching. I was in my office and I raised my arms toward the sky. Zap! A blazing bold of electric pain shot down my back and into my foot. I was totally unable to stand upright or put any weight on my right leg.
I had assumed I could massage the pain away and stretch myself into riding shape… and I did… I thought.
I completed that majestic ride through the mountains and then within a couple days I was on a plane to the United States, where I planned to spend a month off the bike to recover.
The pain persisted, but subsided somewhat with rest on an American box spring bed, and I was hopeful I would be able to return to Taiwan ready for some all-out, methodical, serious training.
By the time I returned in late August, the pain in my back had been reduced to a dull ache that would occasionally flare up if I tested it. I did what any cycling fool would do, and I got on the bike thinking a little strengthening work would pull the last bit of soreness right out.
I did one last ride with my old riding buddy, Dom, and stretched the back out all the way.
The next morning I could hardly get out of bed. I needed to roll onto my elbows and push my feet off the edge of the bed to even stand up. The second day was worse. I tried sleeping at the foot of the bed without the dip where I normally sleep hoping the firmness would help. I could hardly move. At work I could stand for no more than five minutes before grabbing the edge of a desk or cabinet for support. I was bent and hobbling and in agony.
A trip to the doctor revealed some very bad news.
A muscle imbalance had led to minor scoliosis and a herniated disk. The goo squirting from the disk had aggravated the sciatic nerve and thus I was in incredible, unrelenting pain, and would be for a number of weeks.
After six months of complete abstinence, I am finally cycling again.
I am not entirely sure and I can only guess. My theories are:
A: I had been stretching less while building strength in my muscles and my fit changed. I did not notice or adjust for the change and, as a result, I developed a muscle imbalance that was aggravating my sciatic nerve and thus triggering knee pain. I would treat the knee (symptom) and not the cause. I also allowed my core strength to deteriorate as I had less time to devote to training… forgetting the rule that much of cycling performance comes from training, diet, rest and preparation off the bike. Whoops! The prime suspect would be the Illiopsoas muscle group (hip flexors) in my right hip. I developed a slight dip in my stroke to compensate and, with the repetition over my notoriously long rides, my spine was pulled and disk deteriorated. That is one theory.
B: An over training injury in my left knee led to my favoring the right over the left. I am already prone to favoring the right side (I was a goofy foot skater back in the day), so it is a possibility. The over strengthening led to a wobble that led to a total breakdown of my stroke and disaster.
Chicken or Egg?
Now, as I start back up again I have:
1. A perfectly sized and custom fit bike.
2. A new mattress on the bed.
3. A body that has rested for six months so I will have no real base to speak of and must start from scratch.
4. I healthy fear of lapsing from good habits and some healthy added perspective.
5. Fat that needs to go.
6. A stretched spine and strengthened core.
Nothing is more debilitating that a serious back injury. It makes almost all types of exercise impossible.
Now, as I head back onto the roads… I think I may need to see where I can pick up some aero carbon fiber training wheels.
Cycle safe. Cycle smart.
Beware! Take care!
Take time for all the little things or it can lead to lots of time away from something you love.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
My good friend and riding buddy, Dom, is signing off on his life in Taiwan and moving back to New York. The reasons are his own, but it certainly isn't about the lack of any exciting cycling.
He was not going to be allowed out of the country without one last adventure through some of Taiwan's most impressive landscapes, and thus we decided to take a couple of days and ride from Hualien on Taiwan's east coast, to Iilan on Taiwan's northeastern corner.
On a map this looks like nothing for a couple days of riding, until you consider the route would take us from sea level to 2374 meters on the first day... and then leave us spending the second day skimming the 2000 meter mark before dropping us off in Iilan. We covered over 4000 meters of climbing in two days.
We picked the perfect two days for the trip as the wet weather has been sucked out of the area by a looming typhoon. Things couldn't have been better.
The trip had been on and off the calendar for a couple of months. I was the biggest threat to the trip as I had to come back from a sore knee that prevented any serious climbing... and as soon as that was clear, I lost a week to a pulled muscle in my back from stretching. There were several times I thought I would have to cancel.
My back seemed manageable, so I kept with the plan. I had recently only done a few local climbs and nothing over 100k.
My next obstacle was the Taiwan Rail Administration. I originally bought a ticket on the Zi Chiang Train with a bike car. When my wife went to double check to see if I needed to purchase an extra ticket for the bike, they misunderstood and sold my seat. Then, they had to try to get me a new seat on the train, which put my bike in car 12, and I was seated in car 2.
I was fine with this arrangement, but when I went to put my bike on the train, I asked If I could load it in with the rest of the boxes they were loading into the car 12. I was told I would have to enter through the passenger door of the car.
This was a brilliant idea as it was packed and I would be forced to stand with my bike in the hallway until Ruifang.
I finally had a seat and I could roll down to Xin Cheng outside Hualien with a group of girls from make-up camp, which is far less exciting than it sounds.
At Xin Cheng Station there were several groups of cyclists headed out for various projects. There were baseball teams, Taiwanese expat groups, single speed enthusiasts and more. Lots of people using the bike to make a statement.
Our trip was actually two and a half days. I met Dom at the station, and we decided to take it slow and easy up Taroko Gorge. This would ensure we didn't feel rushed for pictures and scenic stops. The plan was to land at Tian Xiang and launch our attack on the mountain from there.
The road through Taroko is metered to a ten minute window every two hours due to the most massive avalanche I have ever seen. We lucked out and the road was closed for lunch and we just ambled through at out own leisure without the storm of vehicles waiting to burst through.
Taoroko Gorge is an awesome spectacle of towering rock. The Central Cross Island Highway chisels its way through tunnels and along cliff sides to bridge the terrain. Taiwan's mountains have an immediacy about them. They are high, like mountains in other countries, but unlike other places, these mountains are compressed very tightly against one another making for some very severe walls and roads to navigate those walls.
We arrived in Tian Xiang with plenty of time to spare, so we thought a few beers might help us load up on carbs for the real climbing.
The second day started after breakfast at the China Youth Hostel in Tian Xiang. These mountain trips are always made fare more difficult by the lack of a good breakfast anywhere. I put three tea eggs on my plate and tried to put as much peanut butter on my toast as I possibly could. It would have to fuel me to Guan Yuan and over 2000 meters.
The second day was as fine as the first. We hit the road beneath another scar from an old avalanche and hit the opening climbs.
The road out of Tian Xiang starts out with an impressive grade for first thing in the morning, but it warms the legs up pretty quick.
We were soon high up above the valley, but still burning in the heat. A cool waterfall can be a great fountain of rejuvenating goodness.
For much of the way, the road is quite manageable. It is still climbing and takes its toll, but ever so slowly.
The next major obstacle is "The Wall"; a massive hump of a ridge with switchbacks stacked one on top of the other. There is a little store right at the base for refreshments and snacks before the climb.
From the top of "The Wall", the climb really starts to impress. The air is a bit cooler and clouds begin to catch on the peaks above.
We stopped for lunch at the restaurant near the God Tree, and then continued on our way. A little mist sprinkled down on us and the pedaling started to get much harder with the altitude beginning to come into play.
We finally rounded a corner to the gas station and our lodging at the China Youth Corps Hostel.
We woke up the next day and got to the breakfast buffet ahead of the annoying camp/club that had been staging some kind of mix between a fascist parade and a hoot nanny. Seeing the breakfast spread, it was decided it would be okay to eat a quarter of the scrambled eggs, in exchange for leaving the pork floss to the other guests. Seemed fair enough.
The worst thing was the lack of drinkable water (or anything to drink) that wasn't scalding hot. Try filling water bottles with plastic melting water....
A third sunny day was ahead as we pushed out into the chilly morning air. I was happy to have worn all the clothes I had packed.
We punched through the mountain at the tunnel and started an amazing descent toward Lishan. Before we could even whorl up our descending smiles, we were forced to stop for some construction. We passed the time letting the road worker ogle our bikes.
Finally, we were in free fall toward Lishan. It was nice to be on the other side of the ridge. I am so used to the Wuling route, I was happy for the change in scenery, which looks a lot like northern California... but more grand.
We hit Lishan; a high mountain agricultural town famous for pears, apples, and tea. It was nice to have phone reception again. It was also nice to sit down for a cup of coffee and take in the morning. We couldn't stay long as we still had well over 100km to cover on our way to Iilan.
The Highway 7甲 starts on a wonderful descent over some uneven roadways. It takes a moment to realize you are still at altitude and this is merely a round ridge between two opposing mountains.
The descending comes to an abrupt end. Suddenly it becomes another day of climbing. Each hill dissapoints in its promise to offer a badly needed descent. The altitude needle bumps 2000 meters a few times, but the descent never comes.
A headwind made things feel all the more desperate. I started to have my doubts. I started to regret the picture taking and coffee breaks.
Then it came. The most wonderous descent imaginable. As far as covering ground goes, I can't thing of a better sight. It was a slalom course to Iilan. It was a natural thrill machine. It screamed 45kph.
We blew down the mountain and through the green cabbage farms. The legs were buzzing. Dom was in excellent shape and would lose me when my power failed to materialize midway through a bump in the road. I would then race to catch up on the low sections.
This carried on for kilometer after kilometer. The speeds were incredible.
We finally lunched with some locals who were happy to admonish their buddy for touching my bike. After a good laugh we were on our way again...
Iilan was in sight and it was as pretty as ever. We made it into the city by 4:00pm and had our bikes loaded up within the hour.
It was as perfect a trip as you can find. I was honored to do one last big ride with a great friend.
This also makes for a great post before I take the show on the road to ride a little in the United States.
Vacation starts here!