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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bicycle and National Identity

Here's is a great little video of one person's Top Ten Cyclists. Some of the footage is truly amazing and inspiring. You can really get a sense of the grit it takes to even compete at this level. Only after you've hammered for a day on a bike can you fully appreciate the heroics these guys have accomplished. Look for the Lance snub.

The Bicycle and National Identity

With the Tour de Taiwan scheduled to begin on March 14, I think it is really amazing how cycling has become a significant part of Taiwan's national identity. People love to turn out and watch.

As most people know, Giant is the world's leading producer of bicycle frames and related products, but it is not the only major player in Taiwan. Several large companies work in close cooperation with smaller subcontractors that produce much of the equipment that makes its way into the professional peloton. Despite what many folks are led to believe, Taiwanese companies do not simply supply the labor to produce foreign designs, but rather conduct much of the initial R&D. The now ubiquitous compact geometry was first developed by Giant to fit more people over fewer frame sizes. This close and cooperative relationship between the OEM, subcontractor and foreign customer has allowed the bicycle industry to seep from the centralized factory compound deep into the township economy. Initially this phenomenon went against the Leninist sensibilities of the KMT during its years of political monopoly. U.S. pressure helped break the state's stranglehold on large industries and allow for small companies to grow and expand.

Taiwan's particular historical trajectory resulted in Taiwan developing the unique economic and industrial relationships between the center and the periphery. Following WWII when most Taiwanese were excluded from participating at the center of political, cultural life and state driven economic enterprise, those who owned land and could rely on extended family for labor, could deploy these resources to establish small to medium sized enterprises. It was not uncommon for young men and women of the era to have received some industrial and vocational training under the Japanese. These small to medium sized enterprises often took advantage of guanxi networks to build the foundations of an industry. For example, at one time, almost the entire township of Caotun was in some way involved in the umbrella manufacturing industry. Homei did textiles and the township of Chingshui once produced hats for the Japanese where the skilled weavers later went on to sew tennis racquets and other sporting goods... including footwear and later parts for bicycles. Piece work was a common way to enter an industry and involve the entire family in the process. From this period the Taiwanese bicycle industry really took root.

The Taiwanese consciousness of their global role as the producers of the world's finest bicycles was partially driven by politics as many political actors sought to strengthen a Taiwan centered identity which has existed for at least 100 years, but an identity which has been assailed by competing ideologies since its inception. Despite the politicization of the bicycle in Taiwan, the image has been widely accepted as a meme of both the Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese pride. It is not uncommon to see politicians ride bicycles or pictured along side bicycles to appeal to the Taiwanese national identity which is shared by approximately 80% of the population (Often those who do not support the Taiwanese identity by deed are the first to appeal to it).

This conflation of the bicycle into the Taiwanese identity often manifests itself on the road where ordinary folks take an interest in a group of passing cyclists. I get spontaneous waves and smiles from random strangers when I am on the road. Children root and cheer. I have had complete strangers hand me food and drinks. In the U.S. the only time you get a drink is when someone shouts "faggot!" and throws a Big Gulp at you from the window of a pick-up. In Taiwan, people like to admire a nice bike and they can usually tell if it is good or not.

Still, I always get the same question... "Is it a Giant?"

Sachs and Pr0n!!!

Ahh bike porn at NAHBS (North American Handmade Bike Show).

I love seeing what the craft bike makers are doing. Black Sheep, Vanilla, Richard Sachs...

Packin' Pistola

Cycling has become a part of the local landscape

For the past few months my good friend Michael C. (also friend of cyclists Michael T from The View From Taiwan., Michael F., and Michael K.) has been sorely disappointed with his current bike, a Giant hybrid, and has been plotting and negotiating with the missus to get a new bike that actually fits his riding style and suits his goals for his future as a cycling enthusiast. I have been doing my best to give him some help (or not) in finding something that he would really want and like to ride and that fits his size and power. I have to admit, I have been playing a bit of devil's advocate to help clear away the clouds of marketing to look at the fundamentals of the bikes... and at times I am sure I have been a bit of a jerk about it, but when you've watched your friend agonize over having the wrong bike, you hope he gets it right the next time. It is like watching a friend date a girl who is bad for him. So for some time I have been pouring over geometries, discussing materials and components, looking at after sale service and warrantees, and lots and lots of customer reviews. I have been looking for the potential problems. But when it comes down to it... you just need to get out and ride the friggin' bikes. Even if you don't want to buy them, the more you ride the more you can tell the difference between them.

The Salsa Pistola tester

Today Michael C. took the day to test out the steel Pistola from Salsa Cycles. Just because I own a Salsa does not mean I wasn't critical of it. The Pistola is kind of a neat bike in that it is a modern road bike with compact geometry, but it is made with True Temper OX Platinum alloyed steel, which is a composite of chromium, molybdenum and vanadium for a lightweight steel tubing that retains its rigidity. It is really an excellent frame material, but steel has lost out in recent years to cheap aluminum frames and carbon fiber. Still, steel makes an excellent frame that can take some real punishment. The tester was supplied by Tom at Famous Cycles in Taichung and it was speced out with SRAM Rival, another great groupset. SRAM has been a real innovator in the past few years and I gotta say, as a Shimano man, I am a bit jealous.

With a bike to put through its paces Michael C., Michael T. and I decided to hit the pavement and punish the bike in real world conditions. A lot of shops don't let customers ride before they buy. Giant shops often don't let customers take a bike out of the store unless it is paid for. A terrible way to buy a bike. We are really grateful to Tom for allowing a full road test.

Michael tests the bike on a standing climb

We took off from Feng yuan in Taichung County and followed the Highway 3 past the reservoir. The first part of the trip took us over the rolling hills between Taichung and Miao li counties.

A group of Taiwanese cyclists brave the risk of falling out of fashion
by participating in last season's fad: cycling

A few clicks past the reservoir we turned onto the Miao li County Rd. 130. The 130 is a pretty rough hill climb that scales a (770m) 2500ft. mountain and descends into San yi. It is a beautiful road that really let Michael C. put the climbing abilities of the Pistola to the test. He tested for excessive flex, comfort and climbing chops.

A peloton of Michaels

We stopped at an expensive Hakka restaurant called the Mile High. They served fat. Really! We ate a bowl of fat with some traces of meat in it. As an athlete it is really hard to deliberately eat fat. I have been conditioned against it.

The view from the 130

We continued to the top where the views are spectacular and, like most roadside scenic views in Taiwan, the hill top was canvassed in carts selling coffee and sweet sausages. I have been told by an area local that the rice sausage they sell at the top has been bleached to make it look fresh.

Michael T. and Michael C. crest the last hill

The back side of the hill is a great, high speed descent with tight turns and switchbacks. Michael flew down the hill and cut into the turns. The Pistola was extremely stable in this regard.

Stressing the frame on a steady climb

We took the left at the bottom of the hill that leads to the "Broken Bridge". As I was flying down the road at 27mph. my derailleur cable snapped and I was stuck on the 12 tooth cog. This made the entire ride to Feng Yuan feel like another hill climb.

Michael on the Pistola

We finally made it to a Giant shop and chatted with some old men, exchanging routes and biking info while they fixed my cable.

Michael finished his tester of the Pistola with a generally positive review of the frame. It was stiff enough for climbing, yet forgiving in that it could easily be used for century rides without getting beaten up. It descended with confidence and felt solid, like a steel bike should.

The fit wasn't quite right and so he felt he was reaching for the levers and the biggest problem he had was with the Salsa Short and Shallow ergo bars. Some people like them others hate them... he was a hater. He could have used a different seat. The Mavic Askium Race wheels, which we all expected to be a bigger problem, were not that bad, but a serious rider would probably want to upgrade. The SRAM gruppo was tight and responsive. The hoods were comfy and the brakes worked very well. So the review was mixed. I am not sure if he will go with this bike or not, but it would be a great bike for a person looking for a durable, distance bike or a person who likes the feel of steel. I would say if you are considering a Specialized Roubaix and want or prefer a tough steel frame, the Pistola is worth a look. With the right fit this is a real stand out. Oh! It is manufactured, I believe, but don't quote me, by Maxway in Da jia, which is known for its high quality steel welds. I have to admit to a twinge of jealousy.

If you really dig this picture I have a set of replica samurai swords to sell you.
The view on the way home.

Night Rider

Since I have been discussing safety I thought I should post something about the dumbest, most dangerous ride I do. It is also my favorite.

Like most people I don't have enough time in my life to ride. The cycling understatement of the year. SO I need to get saddle time where I can find it.

Two or three nights a week I do my evening hill loop. It is a 14mi. (22.5km.) loop from Taichung City to the Tunghai market and back. I started doing this during the summer because it was cooler and I could better exert myself without worrying about offending my coworkers with anything worse that my humor.

The loop starts out in Nantun and I take Wu Chuan W. Rd. all the way to the Circle K on the hill by the industrial park. From there I cut right and take the Gong Ye #22 Rd. to Gong Ye 1st Rd. It makes a nice, steady climb to the back door of the Tunghai Market. I cut through the market and dodge people and traffic, before I cross Chung Gang Rd. to the International Street. I hammer my way to the top and then come down the hill at 40mph (64kph) to Xitun Rd. Xi tun is packed with traffic and it is a battle all the way through. I take it as fast as I can go before I join up with Wen xin Rd. and sprint home. On Wen xin I can usually reach speeds between 30 to 35mph (48-56kph). I also do this listening to an ipod. Eh! Sometimes while climbing as fast as I can, a little Steve Perry makes all the difference. So... yeah! Stupid, dangerous and a lot of fun. So far it takes 43min. to complete. Still, I don't take unnecessary chances. If I don't beat my time I don't beat my time.