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Sunday, June 20, 2010

花蓮--武嶺--台中: Central Cross Island Highway: Hualien to Taichung

Soaring Views From Wuling

This weekend it was time again to make the long trip out to Hualien for another go at the Central Cross Island Highway. This time I would be joined by Michael T. Jeff M. and a new face to my riding circle, Dwight J., who is an excellent rider with a very nice Reynolds 953 road bike from the domestic custom manufacturer, Rikulau. The custom paint is all in a Grateful Dead motif. And it is orange.

Our goal was to make it up and over Wuling on Ho Huan Shan in two days. With such good company who would want to miss out? I decided to request the time off so I could make the Friday afternoon train and not arrive too late.


As with any bike trip, there is always something conspiring against you; weather, health, mechanical problems, family issues, and countless other things that threaten to rain hell on your plans for a weekend joyride. For me, it was a snowballing collection of minor problems that were accumulating faster than gnats in my eyebrows. I had been feeling like a cold was coming on all week and on my Wednesday ride I felt like I was only breathing at 50% of my normal capacity. The chest congestion was only alleviated by huffing asthma medicine.

I took Friday afternoon of and hopped the HSR to Taipei and then connected to a train going out to Hualien. The trains all advertise space for bikes in each car, but mine didn't have an apparent spot, so I tried to desperately sandwich it behind a seat. This was pissing me off as the derailleur was poking out and passengers were rubbing against it. I had no idea what was being squeezed under the bike bag and the whole experience scared the hell out of me. I hate taking the train. When someone came to claim their seat I moved to the next car... only to find a huge space available to store my bike. I then alternated in and out of the adjacent seat as riders came and went.

We needed all the help we could get

I didn't arrive in Hualien until 5:45pm and I quickly assembled my bike and changed into my biking clothes for my ride up Taroko Gorge. Unfortunately, something bent on my front wheel and I was getting all sorts of wheel rub. It was a choice of either some friction and a front brake, or free spinning and no brake. Safety first. The issue bothered me for the entire trip as I kept thinking about how much more energy I was using to compensate. I am sure it wasn't that much, but psychologically it was a menace. I didn't have much light left, so I started to hammer for Tian Xiang, right at the top of Taroko Gorge where the rest of the guys were waiting. Darkness soon fell over the gorge and the feeling was one of smallness as I could make out the shadows of cliff sides against the backlit sky. My pace slowed to avoid wasting valuable energy for the next day and because the road was unpredictable with dangerous chunks of rock dotting the lanes. When I finally arrived my lungs were rattling and I was just in time for dinner before the kitchen closed. The cook punished me with the gamiest "chicken" I have ever had the displeasure to eat. It was like that scene in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, where they over-cook the turkey and can only gnaw at the dried out meat. Our lodgings were at a Catholic hostel next to the old China Youth Hostel. Simple lodgings, but a bed nonetheless. I hardly slept with my heart racing from my night ride, so waking up was easy as a fitful sleep never arrived.

Going Up!

We started out just before seven, to beat the rumored road closure, which seemed to be taking the weekend off. After letting the legs warm up we steadily made our way up into the mountains. The views are always breathtaking. As rough as this ride is, it is simply stunning. It is a cyclist's dream. I wish my camera could do justice to the scenery, but my technical ignorance and saturated light conditions led to some disappointing pictures.

A Light At The End

My biggest concern was that we had skipped out on breakfast to head out before the road closed and I wasn't sure how a breakfast of Powerbars and almonds would hold everyone until we could have a proper meal. There is a big difference between "nutrition" and "food" to last for a day of riding.

Michael and Dwight Take-5

We continued up the mountain and hit all of our scheduled rest and regrouping spots early. There are about four major points to stop along the way, counting Tian Xiang. Each spot has water and sport-drink and maybe more. The first major stop sits right under "The Wall", a series of steep switchbacks that lattice their way up the side of a mountain and offer some amazing panoramas of the Taroko National Park. We sat down for a few minutes and ate mini-bananas, drank Supau, and chatted with the locals before resuming our climb.

The Wall

One of the little treasures found along the way is the series of little red bridges designed and built by the Eifel Company. Each Eifel bridge is marked with the Eifel insignia and a mark that signifies the bridges were originally requisitioned for use by the French colonial government in French Indochina (Viet-Nam). The date "1954" is conspicuously stamped into each name plate; a historical signpost illuminating Taiwan's position between geopolitical events, thousands of miles away, involving the old colonial world and the neocolonial world order of the Cold War. Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the colonial infrastructure projects were suspended and sold to other Western allies; possibly bought with some of the remaining U.S. Aid money in 1964.

Eifel's Bridge

Bridging Divides

The weather was gorgeous during the entire ride. After all those days of rain, it was exactly what I needed to bring the color back to my 1970's Playboy-style, cycling tan-lines.

The Anatomy of a Climb

I was sticking to my plan of approximately 8mph for most of the climb, though after each start and restart things it was getting harder and harder to turn the crank. The gradual grade slowly starts to sap the energy right out of you.

Jeff Pushes Onward

The road along the mountains is full of all kinds of creatures. There were butterflies, hornets, beetles, birds and several troops of wild Formosan Macaques. Periodically along the ride I could hear the barking and woofing of the macaques as they tried to defend their territory from cyclists and tourists.

Monkey... or Macaque

I was pleased to arrive at the little cafe near the God Tree. The last time we made this trip, this was the spot things started to go seriously bad. At that time the cafe was closed, it was getting dark and it looked like tempers were beginning to flare. This time we had a delightful lunch and peach-honey coffee. The operator is a very friendly woman who speaks excellent English. We made light conversation with a family on vacation and then headed out for the final leg for the day.

Cafe at the God Tree

I was thrilled to be seeing the scenery in daylight. So many wonders that I had missed in the dark on the last trip were brilliantly visible. It is amazing to be able to look down at the East Coast and see where you started the day.

Looking Back

The mountains just keep getting more and more impressive as the road edges upward.

The Bike Takes A Rest

For those of us who live down on the plain, it is easy to forget the vibrant diversity of our island. We tend to reduce it to our immediate location. As cyclists we are really lucky to have such a topographical spectrum to savor on each ride. As Taiwan's mountains rise directly out of the ocean we can climb from the salty coastline, through jungle, cedar forests, and alpine meadows all in one day's ride.

Cliffside Traverse

It could be very easy to confuse many of these pictures with some of the more heralded cycling spots in Europe and in many ways Taiwan's passes rival those that are already enshrined in the mythos of the sport.

Michael Arrives In Record Time

We arrived at a little strip of family farms and hostels around Dayu-Ling at about 5:00pm, which is pretty good for a strong, but leisurely pace. I was really happy for Michael to have done such a great job on Day 1. He rolled in to base camp with energy and power.

Dwight Gets Checked Out

When we pulled up to out hostel we encountered a group of riders comprised of old guys from CPC (Chinese Petroleum Company). They took a special interest in Dwight's bike and examined our machines to comparison shop and sing our praises for shelling out X-dollars for whichever shiny component they were hot for. Despite our cordial meeting, we soon discovered we would likely be sharing a single room with Team Metamucil. We asked the girl at the restaurant if there were any other hostels that might have rooms and she fortuitously had an entire building that was vacant. We took it. It was also another night of light sleeping as I was buzzing from altitude and excitement.

That night after arriving we sat down for dinner and discovered that the food in the mountains is not high in variety of quality. This put me in a dilemma. My nutrition plan called for a good, high carb dinner to replenish my spent glycogen stores and a bit of protein to help repair the muscles. I figured if I ate enough, despite not being hungry, it would pay dividends on the hill climbs. The other guys thought they'd make it up at breakfast. We also had bought fruit and I found chocolate milk tea for my recovery drink. My nutrition strategy would be a double edged sword.

Morning in the Mountains

Over Sunday breakfast of what seemed to be last night's noodles, Michael announced his desire to return to Hualien with Jeff. I was happy Michael had made it to where he did, but I was also disappointed I would not be able to post a picture of one of the most inspiring individuals standing atop Wuling at the sign with a bicycle by his side. Maybe another day... but not this time. Dwight and I needed to get to the greater Taichung area and so we were determined to summit by mid morning.

Dwight and I readied for a tough climb of some real steep grades, said our goodbyes to Michael and Jeff, and headed toward our goal. The abrupt warm up climb out of Dayu Ling was a rough wake up call so early in the morning. To add to my misery, I was also feeling a little nauseous from a bad case of Mona Rudao's Revenge that would make seated climbing that much more of a concentrated effort. Ugh! I bet it was the chicken.

Dwight and I kept taking bites out of the climb and before long I settled into a nice even pace... if that's what you can call a sledgehammer pedal stroke.

Where It Starts To Get Interesting

I took a little rest up at the rest stop at the half-way mark to TCB and get a coffee. Dwight came along and was just clearing his head of the altitude. We were over 2500 meters and our bodies were demanding more oxygen than we could provide. The temperatures would oscillate wildly between extremes of hot and cold around every switchback and it was making my lungs react with fluid and coughing. It was bad enough trying to get oxygen in the high altitude and then my lungs were conspiring against me to limit how many alveoli were available to put the high octane stuff into my blood. I was pissed.

Leaving The East Behind

I settled into slow, even breaths and let my muscles power up the climb, alternating toe direction to spread the work between muscle groups. Toes up... hamstrings... toes down.... quads. I was really getting into it and feeling the progress. I was much stronger than last time and that knowledge alone was a big motivator. Although I haven't been doing my regular hill climb lately, the practice was paying off.

Dwight Pulls Himself Up

Dwight was also powering up the climb. He was a fantastic cyclist and stormed up the ribbons of roadway with a determined grind.
The Road To The Summit

Finally, at 3275 meters the ascent was over. We had crested the mountain sometime around 10:00am. For me it would be my second trip to the top and for Dwight his first. It is not an easy feat by any measure and there we were at the top. Taiwan's rippling mountain range eddying into the distance and clouds far below. It was euphoric.

Looking West

The next task was to get off the mountain. I am not a believer and thus descend with guarded caution. That caution was rewarded several fold as driver after driver strayed over the double yellow line. Each corner becomes a potential catastrophe as ascending vehicles cut for the straightest lines rendering many parts of road impossible to safely pass. Gravity is not only an enemy on the way up, but on the way down in can easily pull you into a belligerent driver. Several times I saw the face of stupid. The worst was the Volkswagen T4 van than thought passing three cars and a tour bus with a 12% grade on a blind corner was a reasonable maneuver. With a van closing in and a rain gutter nearly a meter deep on my right, I had to become as small as possible and consider crashing into the gutter to avoid getting hit. That incident put me on edge for the rest of the descent. The adrenaline put my Spidey senses on alert and soon every motion in my periphery became a threat. Earlier I also saw an underpowered Suzuki Solio pull a similar stupid move, but it was nowhere near as close.
Dwight J. Triumphant

We zig-zaged down off the mountain through Wu-She and stopped for a moment at Mona Rudao's grave before aiming for home out of Puli. We kept a wicked pace mostly between 38-45kph. taking turns pulling. Dwight made one fantastic pull on the way to Caotun. We maintained this pace and despite my intestinal discomfort, I felt pretty good. At one point we caught a couple riders from Taichung out doing a Puli ride. They hopped into our line and Dwight and I took turns pulling. At no time did either of those two make a move to pull, which is fine, but then after nearly losing them a couple of times, they stayed in line until we hit the last major hill out to Caotun, popped out of line and smoked us on the hill climb. Not the most courteous of riders. Despite two days of hard riding, we pull their asses out of Puli and then they leave "ffft! Without a do-you-mind-me..."

At Caotun Dwight and I parted and he kept on the Highway 14 toward Changhua. I took the Highway 3 to Taichung, but not before a stop at the poor Wufeng McDonalds to alleviate my symptoms. Afterward, with a little encouragement on the road, I was overcome with a new burst of strength and power to propel me home at a speed that was eating up other cyclists and some slower scooters alike.

There is something I really like about returning home feeling battered and pummeled, and knowing I look it. I love the feeling at the end of the day's fight against all my physical and mechanical enemies; the feeling that although roughed up, I pushed myself to overcome and I won another day in the saddle. I put the bike up sometime around 4:00pm. In two days we had logged 124 miles, climbed to nearly 11,000ft in just under 60 miles, covered 32,644ft. of vertical climbing and had a marvelous time.

Thanks guys!

Be sure to check:
Michael's Post on the ride with pics.


  1. Glad you had a clear day for climb, great views, great photos! The stats sum up the challenge nicely.

  2. Thanks! Yeah... it all worked out very well. Just gorgeous all the way up. I really like the Hualien side better. The traffic is so much more pleasant.

  3. Many of these drivers got their first car after they started taking Viagra, or got their driver license long after menopausal somehow learned to drive like Mario Andriette on steroid. I certainly hope drivers like that are in the minority in Taiwan. It will take a hundred psychologists each twice as smart as Sigmund Freud to figure out this social behavior from otherwise seemly harmless people, and how to cure them.

    Certainly an epic ride and you guys overcame and did it on one of, if not the most difficult paths in central Taiwan. Super job and nice photos.

  4. I gotta say a huge thank you to you, Drew. You made the trip challenging, safe, informative and FUN!

  5. Awesome! The pics came out great!