With a four day weekend in observation of the "American New Year" holiday (If you don't like that, then replace the term Chinese New Year with Lunar New Year... grrrr!), I had a little time to join the folks at T-Mosaic for their annual Taichung to Kenting ride.
Each year I have had to give it a miss due to work or other obligations. This time I was all ready to go.
Usually, I ride with smaller groups or by myself. It gives you a little more flexibility to plan and change plans as the situation dictates. On the other side of the coin, traveling with a larger, organized group allows for someone else to make all the necessary arrangements with lodging, food and support services. I wasn't burdened under the weight of a pack full of "what-ifs". Aside from the logistics planning, Mosaic provided a support van and support scooter linked by radio to help us smoothly negotiate our route and provide traffic control where we needed it. It was a welcome change from my usual battle against the elements; both natural and manmade.
The latest weather reports had a storm-front moving in with a strong wind advisory and a chance of cold, rainy weather.
We all gathered at T-Mosaic dressed for a cutting wind and a biting chill. Riders were practically mummified in weather protection.
As the white sunlight baked us like buttered croissants, the team quickly stripped off any unnecessary clothing and threw it in the back of the support van to enjoy the rest of the morning in relative comfort.
The ride was to be a two-day event covering the approximately 320km (200mi) between Taichung and the Ouluanpi Lighthouse in Kenting. A couple years ago this would have been a training ride without any mountains to climb or times to beat. This year, I have seen my training time drop from three or four rides per week, to three or four rides per month. I was a little worried how I might fare on back to back centuries. My last century was back in early November and I had hardly done much riding since. There were a couple of weeks where I missed riding completely. Not exactly a recipe for success. I feel as though I still have the muscle, but not the gas to do the really big rides.
As I pedaled at an even pace with Dom, an excellent rider and friend, I kept wondering in the back of my mind how long I could keep it up.
With the wind against our backs I was enjoying a bit of speed through the flats of Changhua.
As we neared the town of Hsiluo, I had been excited to cross the Great Hsiluo Bridge. It is always a thrill, and as a route advisor for this trip, I hoped to take the team across the bridge for a fuel stop in Hsiluo before picking up the gloriously expedient Route 145.
One thing about riding with T-Mosaic is that they ride some really nice bikes, some on the highest edge of the price scale (Mr. Wang, I am talking about you). There is always lots of interesting cycling opinions represented in molded carbon, lugged steel, titanium and aluminum. For this group, Campy still holds sway.
We topped off the tank and then spun a brisk pace toward the former agricultural hub of Huwei.
The whole area has a rural flavor. This former stronghold of Hoanya indigenes has become, in effect, Taiwan's heartland, where farming and folk traditions still resonate with the locals.
This is the Iowa of Taiwan. Kilometer after flat kilometer pass by fields and farms. The whole area reeks of pig shit, but there is little traffic and even fewer traffic lights compared with more popular roads. It is easy to simply put the legs into cruise control and eat up the kilometers between jokes, stories and opinions that flow as freely as a bike on an empty stretch of asphalt.
Around Tuku we left the wider Route 145, in favor of the spaghetti-like strand of the 145甲.
The 145甲 is a lot of fun, if you have the time and patience to follow its curves through the hidden lanes and fields of Taiwan's farm country. Often, I am simply trying to get from one place to another and I don't go out of my way to enjoy these little gems. I have to admit, it really made the ride a bit more interesting. When you lave the luxury of time and the legs to risk a wrong turn or two, this is a nice little route.
Our group stretched out into the sunlight as we all settled into our comfortable speeds, while trying to do our best to pull or draft one another. With so little distance in my legs this year, I was happy to avoid much pulling.
The 145甲 becomes the Route 157 and leads to the town of Hsingang; a town most famous for its Mazu temple and the site of the destination for the famous pilgrimage from the sister temple in Dajia, near Taichung.
It was also time to eat again, so we loaded up on duck noodle soup.
Not too much further down the road, Cash, our scooter support driver, pulled us off the road to wait for some of the other team members who had become delayed and strung out over the route.
You'd have thought the circus had arrived in town. The family of the small grocery all came out to see a group of aliens who had arrived on some type of whirligig that moves when you turn your feet. Before long the children withdrew to make hushed commentary on the foreign devils with our large noses, round eyes and overall barbarian ugliness. Then they tried to bring the neighbors out for a look. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Though, to Taiwan's credit, you have to work your way a lot further out of the city limits to encounter this type of direct objectification. In town the sleights are a lot more subtle.
Our rest lasted about 15 minutes too long and I was happy to keep my legs warm on the Route 157 to the Route 161.
After a little more meandering about the countryside, we arrived at the coast and the Highway 17. Although coastal highways are supposed to be beautiful, most of Highway 17 is a blight. Luckily we bypassed most of the coastal wasteland that sits to the south of Mailiao and could enjoy the nicer stretch around Budai.
One real nice thing about riding in Taiwan is the instant community of cyclists. As we curved through an overpass, we met a lone rider who was surveying the scenery. Catherine was from Taipei and she was astride a gorgeous titanium Rikulau. We asked her to join, and she plodded along with us until Beimen. I chatted with Catherine briefly and she was an avid cyclist with a love for titanium bikes. You never know who you'll meet on the roads.
The afternoon sun beat down on us like hammer blows. I couldn't believe it was the end of December. So much for forecasts. I was happy to have a blazingly hot day in the bag than to have to think about water sloshing between my heel and toe in a steady, chilling drizzle.
We crossed into Tainan and the day seemed to shift into slow motion.
We were all pretty beat from the day's ride and it was getting damned near close to dinner time. We hugged the Tainan Route 15 through the golden marshlands near Luer Men; the former sand spit that at one time held the seat of the Dutch colony on Taiwan.
The area is calm and relaxing. We were all eager to take it down a notch and slide into town for some carbs to restock the reserves.
Our first day had been a magnificent ride through Taiwan's bread basket and I had survived. All evening I sat with an uneasy feeling thinking about having to do it all over again the next day. A one-off century was survivable, but two in a row could be a disaster for me and my out of shape legs.
After a night of loading up on beer carbs, I was a bit dehydrated for the day ahead. Moreover, like a bad house guest, the foul weather we had been promised had arrived after we had all gone to bed, and was promising to stay several days too long.
We left Tainan City and were negotiating Kaohsiung City traffic within the hour. It seemed Kaohsiung would never end. The overcast skies made the day seem perpetually morning. As we edged nearer to the outskirts of town,occasional droplets of precipitation would lick across my face and sun glasses.
The temperatures were also much chillier. It was one of those days when every twenty minutes the body calls out for a pee break in the cold.
As we stopped at one 7-11 in Fangliao, I noticed the unmistakable concrete torii of a Sinto shrine dating from the 1930's when Taiwan was a Japanese colony.
The concrete lanterns had been removed; probably sold. But the modernist torii and arced bridge lay intact .
At the end of the road sat one of the most remarkable shrines I have seen in Taiwan. It has just been sitting for all these years, neglected, but largely undisturbed. These shrines and other examples of Japanese colonial legacy can be found scattered all over Taiwan. They are often hidden by the insecurities of more recent colonial projects, but many have failed to be erased completely.
For me, it was the highlight of a day that would get more complicated and less comfortable.
Just as we left Fangliao a steady rain began to fall. During the entire trip I was at the front of the group with two or three other riders. The faster pace was taking its toll, and the weather was now insulting my family for a thousand generations.
The usually glistening seascape was a muted swirl of grey and fog. I could barely see through my fogged up lenses. We marched up each rolling hill with a little more ferocity and a little less energy from calories and more coming from pure grit, anger or dread.
Our plans had changed on account of the weather. Besides, we were tired. Instead of cycling around the Kenting National Park to avoid the throngs of tourists, we decided to just go straight through.
By Che Cheng, my legs were burning a bit too hot after eating a few rollers, I didn't have much more left in me.
By the home stretch Dom and I elected to pull back a little bit. After being followed by a car in the bike/scooter lane for a kilometer, I finally pulled off for one last 7-11 pee break and to collect myself for one final attack.
We threw ourselves against the miserable hills that stair step up to Kenting Street. The rain has soaked me all the way down to my I Just Don't Give A Damn.
We evaded Kenting Street along a sneaky back road, and with a kilometer to go, were hit by the most savage crosswind. I pulled up without the energy to fight through with my shoulders down.
With a handful of seconds between us, Dom and I reached Ouluanbi Lighthouse at the perfect moment to get off the bikes.
Before too long the rest of the riders arrived out of the drizzle and haze.
We were driven to some nearby showers before being dropped off for eats. We were all tired, soaked and hungry, but we were also happy to have completed our trip. It made getting out of the elements that much sweeter.
A very memorable end to 2012, indeed.
Thanks to Rocky, Cash, Hsiao Lan, and the rest of T-Mosaic for making this ride happen.
Happy New Year!!!!