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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Choosing Your Taiwan Bike

Which Bike To Buy For Taiwan Riding?

Sometimes when I am out riding or talking to friends and coworkers about my rides, I get a lot of questions from people who are interested in doing something similar. A lot of people want to explore the pretty pictures on a bicycle, have adventures with friends or just get into better shape when the creaks of creeping middle age start making a descent night’s sleep an impossibility.

A lot of folks just hop on down to the Giant shop and the sales clerk sticks them on any moderately priced mountain bike that is clogging the stock room and off they go (fitted or not). At some time in the 90’s someone decided that fat tired mountain bikes were the cure-all for the average. This is great for a weekend duffer and going around town, but for serious riding there is a lot to think about that can seriously affect whether the rider will ever reach their goals. Getting the right bike is like selecting the right tool for the job.

For Taiwan riding here are some common bikes and things to think about. I hope this post will help those of you on the fence thinking about biking Taiwan better understand your options and choose the best weapon.

The Mountain Bike:

Many people who first start riding in Taiwan often reach for a flat-bar mountain bike as their initial choice. Giant sells them by the truckload. They look sturdy, have fat tires for rough surfaces. They often come with an assortment of shock absorbers which many people feel will add to comfort, and the stable looking flat-bar looks simple and easy. Some have disc brakes and feel like a tank.

The Pros: Mountain bikes are rugged, sturdy and cheap. They often use 26” tires, which are easy to spin up to speed. They are great climbers and often have a wide range of gears designed to spin across loose dirt without torquing out and sliding. Mountain bike geometry is more upright for added visibility and the quick steering makes negotiating obstacles much easier. Mountain bikes can descend with confidence due to their center of gravity being shifted to the rear. They are great for slow speed balancing as well. The fast spinning crank and finesse can improve a rider's pedal stroke, making it smooth, fluid and even. There are many mountain bike trails in the hills above Taipei, Taoyuan and Miaoli where a mountain bike enthusiast can have a lot of fun.

The Cons: Unless you really have the opportunity to ride on singletrack and rough trails and have convenient transportation to those trails, a mountain bike is not the ideal choice. Mountain bikes are designed for off road where they excel, but on road they can be extremely uncomfortable over long periods. The geometry is not designed for long road rides and the tiny cranks mean that a lot of energy is wasted spinning a crank without as much forward motion. The gearing is not practical for the road. Mountain bikes are made to withstand abuse, but that means they are unnecessarily heavy for most road riding in Taiwan. The knobby tires take about 3-5 mph off road speed and the soft tires combined with the shock absorbers sap energy from the rider that could be better used for forward motion. This demand for effort can actually reduce comfort. The flat-bar is great for negotiating roots and stones, but it puts a lot of stress on the wrists and may be painful after a couple hours. Even with additional bullhorn bar-ends, the number of hand positions is greatly reduced when compared to a drop bar.

The Standard Road Bike:

There are all kinds of road bikes from race bikes to relaxed bikes. They all serve a different purpose. These bikes are usually rigid framed bikes with skinny tires and drop handlebars. In Taiwan, road bikes have taken off and have an air of exclusivity and sex appeal. Road bikes are designed for mainly road riding and Taiwan has some wonderful roads. I used to scoff at Taiwan's roadways, until I actually went out and discovered how much smooth pavement there actually is.

The Pros: Since road bikes are designed for road riding, they obviously are better for… the road. If you ride mainly on pavement then a road bike is truly worth a hard look. Although the novice may assume a road bike will naturally be unstable and uncomfortable, with the proper fitting the opposite may be true. A road bike better balances the rider for putting down distance on the roads and they are generally geared to achieve greater speeds. The standard 53/39 crank may be fine for flats, but for mixed conditions the compact 50/34 has replaced the road triple. Road bikes are usually between 9 and 11 cogs on the rear cassette (speeds) and so a 10 speed with two cranks has “20 speeds”, but it is called a 10-speed because of the number of cogs. The drop handlebars offer a wider range of hand positions to relieve stress on the wrists and avoid numbness. Road bikes come with many add-ons, including: rack mounts, fender eyelets, bottle mounts and other options. A road bike may weigh between 16 and 23lbs depending on the material and construction. I like to imagine one lb as a can of coke. There gets to be a point that it just doesn’t matter… especially when the rider is carrying 30 extra cokes around the middle. It is not uncommon for a road rider to log 8-12 hours in the saddle. The 700c wheels have a more gradual angle of attack, so the bumps don’t feel as rough. With so much of Taiwan accessible by paved roadway, a road bike is an excellent choice for exploring Taiwan.

The Cons: Road bikes are generally more expensive than mountain bikes. In my opinion, a “good” road bike should be between $1500 and $3000, but in Taiwan a descent Giant or Merida road bike can be found for half that. For a lot of beginners the road gearing may be difficult for a beginner, especially for hill climbing. A road triple may be a better choice or the SRAM Apex , which gives the rider a road double with a wider rage of gears. Some bumpy roads may be harsh and a road bike really shouldn’t be abused on harsh terrain like a mountain bike. The smaller frame limits the width of tires you can use. My wife, a novice, spent NT50,000 on a very good road bike that she should be happy with for a long time. In her case she chose the Shimano 105 group with a compact crank and 11-28 cog cassette. She has not needed a triple crank thus far to tackle the local hills.

The Cross Country Bike:

An XC (Cross Country) bike is generally a term used to describe a larger framed rigid mountain bike, often with larger 29” wheels. They often have a wide range of gearing between mountain and road bikes. An XC bike has flat bars and an upright position. They are often designed with rack and fender mounts. The term “Cross Country” refers to the type of long rides over dirt trails.

The Pros: XC bikes are often used by travelers and Mormon missionaries in Taiwan for their versatility and durability in a variety of conditions. They make a pretty good all rounder and they can be loaded for touring. XC bikes are often inexpensive and not a theft risk. They can use wider tires for mixed conditions and the 26” and 29” tires can be found all over the globe. The XC bike geometry favors climbing over a stable descent. XC bikes also boast longer chainstays which can allow for frame-mounted rear racks that sit far enough back to avoid heel-strike during the pedal stroke.

The Cons: XC bikes are not as fast as road bikes. They are heavier and are often geared with mountain triple cranks, which are not ideal for road use. The flat bars can lead to fatigue over long hours of touring and the upright position is less aerodynamic. With much of the rider's weight shifted to the rear, the sit bones must bear much of the weight rather than dividing the load between the front, rear and torso as with road geometry.

The Touring Bike:

A touring bike is a road bike that is specifically designed for long, loaded touring. When asking about touring bikes in some Taiwanese shops, I was routinely pointed toward the Cross Country bikes. While an XC bike can be a great light tourer, it is defiantly not a touring bike. Touring bikes should have drop-bars for the superior had positions for long riding. The geometry should be upright with longer chainstays and a longer wheelbase. A true touring bike should use 650c wheels for their versatility around the world, but many have switched to the more comfortable 700c wheels. Touring bikes use cantilever or V-brakes to better accommodate fenders and fatter road tires. The geometry of most touring bikes is optimized for riding loaded with gear and thus may actually perform better under load. They are extremely stable bikes and offer a wide range of gears for heavy pushing up mountain passes.

The Pros: For long, long distances day in and day out over all kinds of roads, a touring bike can’t be beat. Both front and read panniers can be loaded for months on the move and the tough frame can handle all kinds of abuse. The rider can pedal for hours at a time in total comfort. The components are durable and readily available in all parts of the world.

The Cons: These are hard to find in Taiwan, though I do know a few places. If you are not planning long trips involving plenty of camping, then a touring bike may be overkill and impractical for daily or weekly day-rides. Basically, if you are not planning to cross the Gobi desert, then there may be better options.

The Cyclocross Bike

A cyclocross bike is a special kind of drop-bar road bike designed for racing semi-off road races in often muddy conditions. Cyclocross was traditionally used as Fall training for road riders. A typical cyclocross bike has slightly more relaxed geometry than a road bike and greater tire clearance for knobby tires. They tend to have longer wheelbases for stability and comfort over rough courses and they are slightly more robust than a typical road bike. Cyclocross bikes primarily use cantilever or V- brakes like mountain bikes (though some use disc brakes). The forward geometry lends itself to climbing and they often have higher bottom brackets for greater clearance.

The Pros: Despite being designed around a particular racing discipline, cyclocross bikes have become a favorite as a do-all bike for the person who wants to have it all. They can be stripped down with skinny tires for speed or beefed up for dirt. Some can be loaded with panniers and racks. They use drop bars for better hand position and more upright geometry for better visibility in traffic. Their robustness and design makes them comfortable like a tourer, but nimble like a race bike: A good bike for Taiwan… if you can only have one bike.

The Cons: Cyclocross bikes have a higher center of gravity and may not feel as stable descending. The upright position catches wind and, depending on the geometry, they can be twitchy at times. The long chainstays reduce some of the bike's agility in comparison with a true road bike. Although cyclocross bikes can be loaded with racks, they are not as stable as a touring bike nor do they have the descending chops of a mountain bike. A jack of all trades… master of none.

The Folding Bike:

Folding bikes are small, lightweight bikes, designed with a hinge in the middle to carry in the trunks of cars or on train cars. They use unconventionally small wheels and standard cranks. Some use drop bars and others use flat bars.

The Pros: They are portable and great for getting from the train to the office.

The Cons: Folding bikes are less stable with smaller wheels and thus less able to roll through bumps and ruts. The hinge can act to absorb energy that could go into forward motion. Folding bikes sit lower and drivers are less able to spot them.

Summary: Taiwan has a variety of conditions to ride and it is up to the individual rider to determine which bike is right for their needs. Think about the rider you are and will likely become within the life of your bike. In general most road bikes would be the best option for the type of riding most people do. A cyclocross bike or XC bike would be a close second if there is a possibility of dirt and back road cycling. Heavy mountain bikes should only be considered if you are seriously considering the mountain trails. Forget folding bikes unless you don't intend to travel beyond the train and the office. Most importantly, for whichever bike you choose... be sure you get a proper fitting and don't buy unless you can ride for an hour.

Spend just a little bit more than you intended to keep the "shoulda' syndrome" in check. It is all too common to deny yourself the extras and then spend two years kicking yourself for being too cheap.

Happy riding!!!


  1. Great bike review. I wish I had read it before I bought my Giant Defy 2 a month ago to replace my old 10 speed from the 70’s. Here in the Bay area, you HAVE to ride a road bike on the road. Drop bar is also “mandatory” here if you don’t want people giving you a funny look while riding, despite the fact that most people put their hands on the top flat part of the bar most of the time anyway. I chose a triple since all the big climbs in central Taiwan you guys talk about scared me. As a boomer, I need that granny gear, I earned it, I am a Granny!

    Read a few discussions from you and your blogging/riding friends about the declining of cycling in Taiwan. It’s not that popular here either. I can ride all morning in the rolling hills of Morgan Territory outside Livermore encountering less than half a dozen fellow cyclists who don’t even make eye contact, and fewer motorists who are even less friendly, and of course there are no pedestrians to talk to, no roadside vendors nor 7-11 to refuel. A comforting observation for you though: while visiting all popular brand dealers (Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Fuji, Giant - can’t find a Merida), ALL of their models priced $1000US and up (all the way to $14,000) are Made in Taiwan, prominently marked on the frame, while lower end ones ($700 and lower) being made in China. So while shopping look for the label, spend that extra bucks please, they go to the hard working people in central Taiwan. Keep making them in Dajia, Changhua, not the land of Xi and Zhong. And yes, it is Hsi Tou, not Xi Tou. You will never say you live in Tai-Zhong, will you?

    We need a review on how to dress proper for cycling without breaking your bank account. The team kits, top line Giro, sunglasses, gloves, warmers and shoes for a lot of the cyclists I saw here cost more than my bike. I was lucky to get my bike shorts for 199 and jersey at 245NT from Carrefour in Taoyuan. Will follow Michael C’s tips to shop on next trip. It is more daunting and frustrating shopping for jersey and bibs than for bicycle.

  2. Thanks!

    Yeah, there are a lot of ARPs (Arrogant Roadie Pricks) out there, which is too bad because all attitude gives the rest of us a bad name.

    In SIlicon Valley there are lots of highly competitive people who feel they can simply purchase their way to better performance. The fact of the matter is... a great, fit, trained cyclist on a Schwinn Pixie could beat a guy on a $14000 carbon frame. I do understand why some bikes are priced the way they are, but when we pull back from our midlife crisis dreams of becoming a pro racer or a rock star... we are better off with what we need. It takes a lot of strength to accept that.

    As far as gear goes... I will address that later. Great idea! I have had some good experiences and been burned a couple times.

    With the spelling systems.... ugh! I was trained in Hanyu, but I really don't care what Taiwan uses as long as it is uniform. I actually liked Tong Yong. On the way to Si/Hsi/xi tou there were three different spellings. The spelling at the top was "Si tou". I am still trying to figure out how to solve this problem for readers.


  3. thanks for the review, but what about hybrid bikes?? which combines features from road bike and mountain bike.

  4. Good question. Hybrid bikes are similar, and often sold as XC bikes.

    I would not recommend them for a lot of road riding. They are great little bikes for going to the store and around town, but they are not made for light touring.

    Michael T., who is mentioned in the some of my posts, traded in a mountain bike for a Giant M1 Flight Hybrid. At first he was delighted, but within 9 months he had outgrown it and it really wasn't stable enough for climbing or light touring. As soon as he switched to a Giant OCR road bike, his speed increased 5mph, he wasn't as fatigued in the saddle, and he could descend with more confidence. The hybrid was just not designed to be much more than a townie.

  5. cool blog for mtb enthusiast Sir.. i'll be staying in Taiwan 2 years or more starting this September. since this country is a known manufacturer of bikes & parts, i want to assemble a new unit & leave mine back home. can you give me a rough estimate of how much will it cost me to build a new project? & where can i find a good groupset? i'm into freeride, a little downhill (but not hardcore), mostly do xc trail (since at my locale there's no established park for mtb. mine is a da bomb tora bora frame 26ers wheelset.. thank you in anticipation Sir. -

  6. Hi
    What's your about the build and ride quality of Van Nicholas Ti bikes? Thinking of Chinook

  7. From what I have heard it is an ok titanium bike. I believe it is made in Kaohsiung.

    The walls are thin like a Litespeed. I think it could get a little springy for bigger guys or guys who push a lot of watts, but for most guys it should be ok.

    A wrench at Famous Bikes picked on up and loves it. Out of all the bikes he has ridden that was the only one that he really liked. He is about 60kg.

    See if you can work a test ride.

    What size are you looking for?

    I saw some Lynskeys on sale a while ago that might also be worth checking out.