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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Famously Cyclocrossing Taiwan's Interior: The Rugged Wu-Ba Highway

(Photo Credit: Stanley Tai)

Taichung at 4:00am was simply frozenly dead. The streets that are familiar by day were unrecognizable in the darkness without the lit-up signboards or clouds of scooters pointing the way. With a few droplets of rain in the air I wondered what I had signed up for. It didn't help that I had a hunch I was having a fever, but without proof positive in the way of a thermometer reading or note from a doctor I was free to pretend I was simply a little sleepy. I knew the Tylenol would be kicking in at any time to muffle my headache into a whisper. 

I had signed up for a bit of adventure to do some riding I had been dreaming of tackling for several years, and I would be damned if a little flu bug was going to keep me out of the action. 

On a trip to Famous Bikes I was informed that they were planning a trip from Wujie, the Bunun village I rode a few weeks back, to Bakalas Village via what is known as the Wu-Ba Highway. 

The Wu-Ba Highway is the meandering path carved out between towering cliffs by the Suqi River, one of the rivers that feeds into the Jhuoshui River. The area is a spectacular wilderness hemmed in by the central mountain range. In the winter, when the rains subside and the water levels drop, the river can be navigated by 4wd vehicles and mountain bikes. 

My weapon of choice was my Salsa La Cruz, a bike I have had few good words for as it is heavy and slow and about a size out of my comfort range. On the up side, it is durable, and with a quick wheel change I was sporting some 34c knobby tires. 

Compared to the rest of the group with heavy mountain bikes, suspension and fat tires, I was a little concerned how a light, skinny tire bike with drop bars would fare against the elements. My easiest gear would be a 34 tooth sprocket coupled to a 27 tooth cassette-- a typical compact road crank. 

Untitled I would be the only rider with 29" wheels, so I was sure to pack extra tubes. 

This would be a great test to see how well this disc equipped CX bike could slip between the worlds of road and mountain biking. 

I also chose to ride with clipless pedals and wondered if my super-discounted Crankbrothers pedals would leave me stranded in a riverbed. 

We bussed in to Wujie and unloaded our gear. I was pleased to be riding with Stanley, a Taiwanese cyclist I met about this time last year on his attempt as a round-island trip who also had Salsa bikes. It would also be my first time riding with Ricki, a South African cyclist with a well-worn Surly Long Haul Trucker. 

With a few instructions from Tom, our group leader, we were soon rolling under misty grey skies into the river. 

The opening stretch was a wide lick of hard-packed sand in stripes of grey and black. I was pleased to find that my bike responded so well. Off-road it was a totally different machine that seemed nimble and sure as opposed to its Lincoln Continental road manner. 

My uneducated guess earlier in the morning that 60psi would be good pressure in the tires also seemed to be paying off. I figured it would be enough to avoid a pinch flat and it would be easier to take air out on the way than to put it back in. 

I pedaled through the first water crossing. My wheels deftly sliced between submerged stones. I was a bit surprised how easy it felt to ride such a lightly equipped bike through the rugged terrain.  

The group gathered speed as we disappeared into the morning mist. A warn 4x4 track left a darkened stripe of wet overturned earth for us to follow as we scanned the immediate landscape for obstacles. 

The sun never made a serious attempt to come out for most of the day leaving the impression that it was forever 10:00am in the mountains. The group atmosphere was lively and light hearted. As every bump in the track reminded me of my concealed headache I could not do much to shake more than a half smile out of my face. 

The deeper we plodded down river, the more interesting the scenery became. We were constantly stopping to admire striped columns of stone jutting up over our heads or gaze hypnotically ahead at chunks of missing mountainside that had been suddenly scooped away in some calamity or another. 

On a ride like this it is easy to keep energy and spirits up with occasional displays of mock bravado. 

I felt my gearing was fantastic for the level riverbed. I could easily close ground on the group if I stopped for pictures or wanted to get shots from the front. 

We were forced to make dozens of river crossings. The first several dips were fine I mis-navigated a large stone and fell part way in, bumping my knee and rethinking how badly I needed a new injury. 

For me, the key was to sit lightly on the saddle or simply stand and pedal to best balance, pull and finesse my way through the landscape. At times it can be a bit tricky as you are required, in a moment of controlled panic, to both heave forward and then sit back over the rear tire to best negotiate a minefield of deep sand traps and pumpkin-sized stones.    

My achy body and head were forgotten as my concentration narrowed on the immediate front tire area. I felt as though I was simply skipping over the stones barely cognizant of their arrival or departure under my bike. It was incredible. 

The eddy in the water often belies the shallowest crossing point, and those ripples were becoming fewer and further between and we were forced more and more to portage or pull our bikes to the opposite bank. 

For the end of January, the water was not all that cold. It was never an issue on the ride. We simply plunged in and air dried. 

By mid-morning it was decided the time was ripe for a coffee break. A camping stove emerged and we were soon lounging around the sandy riverbank with coffees all around. It was definitely a four coffee day for me. 

The striation in the stone made for some interesting pictures as the violent story of Taiwan's birth towered above, painted into the crumbling cliffside in hues of reds, yellows, blues and grays. 

We pushed on through the river valley with the only audible voice coming from the hiss of forty wheels grinding away through an alley of sand punctuated by the occasional metallic clank of a hard impact or missed gear. 

At a wide fork in the river we pulled up for lunch. Tom from Famous Bikes had arranged a local from Wujie to drive out and meet us at that particular location with a full spread of chicken, sausage, fish and vegetables. I was more than pleased to be eating something that didn't come in the masking flavors of grape, lime, or cherry. Roadies tend to over focus on gels power bars and miss out on the home cookin'. 

We took the right turn in the fork and the road immediately became more challenging. There were sections where I had to simply hop from big stone to other big stone. My headache came back with a vengeance cluing me in to the fact that I had been too thrifty with my single water bottle. 

The portaging after lunch was more frequent than ever. It seemed we were hopping on bikes only to immediately hop back off and throw them into the drink. I continued to be surprised by how well my bike was handling the obstacles. I was trying to find reasons to justify a heavier mountain bike, but there were none. Only once did my skinny tires cut too deep into a sand trap to launch me into the ground. No more mishaps than anyone else, really. 

As the day wore on I was finding it harder to fight back my physical discomfort. I tried to shake it off, but the oscillation between chills and burning symptoms of a fever kept me wishing I hadn't left the extra tylenol on the bus in my bag. Right where it shouldn't have been. 

I sensed our journey was nearing its end, but I still couldn't figure out where were would end up. There had been too little time for me to research the route and so I was blindly following intuition and the guidance provided by Tom and crew. 

At Bakalas Village, a "village" in the sense that there were about two buildings located there, we followed a road that climbed an impossible 3.5km out of the river to the opposite side of the ridge where our busses were waiting. The climb, with my limited gearing, was absolutely painful. I rode about half way and then hiked the rest. I was in no condition to even make the effort at the whole thing. I was simply happy when it ended. 

The descent was lit by the my knobby tires screaming like a TIE fighter as gravity took hold and pulled me at ever faster speeds down the mountain. My forearms burned as I clamped hard on the brakes. Hydraulic discs would have been better, but I survived the descent and waited for the rest of the group to filter in. 

We all cleaned up and used the restrooms at one of those semi-abandoned resorts that littler the hillsides where someone's idea of leisure getaway smashed head first into the realities of tourism patronage. 

The ride was incredible. The bike performed flawlessly in proving that a good CX bike can be a really great tool if you need a one bike solution for on and off road. 

The folks from Famous were excellent companions. This was a very well executed trip. It really got me thinking about some crazy ideas for river riding in Taiwan. 

I went home having used muscles I had forgotten existed. Finally, I could allow myself to be sick and I checked in with a medium fever and a wet cough. Despite this totally unexpected deviation from my training plan, I would do it again in a minute. 

Bike route 1965738 - powered by Bikemap 


  1. Holy crap that looks awesome.

    I'd love to whack some fat knobblies on the Trucker and give that a shot. One day Oz... one day.

  2. Fantastic photos and looks like you all had a great experience.

    I think I could take about quarter of that ride's roughness. I'm a smooth surface road/path rider.

  3. This Chinese New Year break, after climbing GanZorWanShan, I hitched and walked down to WuJie and spent three days on this route camping about halfway along next to some gum trees. Plenty of hunters going up and down at night. Bakalas village has a homestay, and I met the pleasant and knowledgeable owner who gave me a ride as he was on his way to ShuiLi.(Cell no. 0937-259952) Thanks for writing this up because I had no idea this was possible before. Incidentally, the bus from ShuiLi to Puli goes along the 131 road which is quite a winding and interesting route through the low hills.Not exactly a short cut!