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Sunday, December 28, 2014

New York Times is Cycling Taiwan: You Pay What You Get For...

Biking over Wuling

A couple Taiwan cycling related stories have been worming their way through the social media this week.

The first is a beautifully integrated info-tisement, of the kind that are becoming irritatingly common these days, as trusted sources of information have been desperate for content and started pimping for private businesses (CNN anyone?). The quid-pro-quo of content for cash is nothing new, but it is becoming even more prevalent in the internet age.

The article comes from the Grey Lady herself in the In Transit blog by Diane Daniel and briefly touts a bicycle tour of Taiwan.

To be more specific, the blog uses its space to promote one bicycle tour of Taiwan from a company called Bicycle Adventures located not far from where I grew up.

You can always tell when something is amiss when an article about cycling in Taiwan includes one of two things: a) a reference to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, and b) a reference to the mythological founding of Taiwan cycling by Giant's King Liu... "who having descended from on high in gleaming raiments, astride a snorting white stallion, thrust Tony Lo's gleaming bald head into the sands of the Tajia River and said, let there be cycling... and there was cycling."-- Book of Giant 3:13.

This article has both.

The price of the tour is a whopping USD $3945, which is pretty steep by any standard and Taiwan is in no way ready to command this type of cash for an experience that can be had for much less and more fun with some free information, such as the information provided on this blog and others, and a map. Taiwan is safe and relatively easy country to explore, even without any command of Mandarin what so ever as evidenced by decades of McGill University grads who wash through each year.

Upon reading the entire article and browsing the company's itinerary, I was struck by a couple of things.

The NYT says:
While traversing the island’s five mountain ranges, riders visit two national parks in near-rain-forest settings of up to 8,000 feet. One of the biggest challenges will be an uphill ride in the Taroko Gorge, a 65-mile climb that features stunning scenery, traditional villages and several tunnel passages.

At first I thought this was one baddass trip... imagining Alishan, Lugu, Wuling, Baling.... all the great climbs in one ride. In reality, the majority of climbing is done on a single trip up to Dayuling, and back to Taroko. The trip never even touches the western side of Taiwan, where there are some incredible and tour-worthy routes.

The other piece of information that caught my eye, and probably the most damning, is the bikes used in the tour will be rentals (probably from Giant).

If you have the means to spring for such an expensive vacation, for godsakes, bring your own bike... a bike you know intimately. Nothing could be worse that negotiating a landscape on an entirely unfamiliar machine that may or may not be sized and geared to fit the rider.

Lastly, the tour seeks to guide visitors to "Cultural stops". With an informed guide with local knowledge, cultural stops are at every stop. Here we see selected museums and tourist centered locations. It is common practice in Taiwan for tour guides to establish a patronage network with hotels, markets and trinket dealers. It seems here, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has gotten in on the action.

This brings me to a much greater and more philosophical problem that is not directly related to this article, but to the general problem of the current Taiwan Tourism Bureau in general.

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau is greatly influenced by partisan politics. Over the past 30 years we have seen a protracted struggle for the official representation of Taiwan, both internally and externally. The current administration has been completely tone deaf to the actual identities of Taiwanese citizens and has veered far from the Taiwan centered viewpoint that had been adopted (often poorly) under the Chen administration to more closely identify with the views of the higher echelons of the Chinese Nationalist Party, which has maintained an often pejorative view of Taiwan as a mere degraded periphery of a great China.

This cleavage between views influences how Taiwan is represented internationally and locally... from culture and history, to the portrayal of Taiwan's very diverse population of overlapping ethnicities.

I fail to see how the Taiwan Tourism Bureau can best represent for consumption, the amazing strata of Taiwanese life.... when it is continuously informed by an ideological stance that positions Taiwan far, far from the center, in an area that is steeped in the ethnic chauvinism of the Chinese nationalist world view.


Bottoms Up!

Taiwan makes the news for fining drunk cyclists.

The beer and the bicycle have long been an item in the gossip pages of cycling magazines. There are numerous products on the market that integrate the two hobbies. Some frames even come with bottle openers welded to the tubing.

Should we drink and ride? Probably not. Maybe... oh heck, I dunno....

I really don't think I am the right person to write about this.

This somehow reminds me that there are some really great beers coming into Taiwan.

My favorite beers from the Elysian Brewery are now on sale all over the place.  The No.1 from Taiwan's 23 Brewing Company is pretty good for us North Westerners who like hoppy beers. Jolly's Thai Restaurant and Brewery has some nice beers... I think they have food too, but I don't recall. And how can anyone refuse the new beer from Chthonic?

Ummmm... don't drink and ride?! Stay in school.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Connecting to Bigger Things: Linking the Small Roads of Sanyi


Each ride and each route had its own start. A ride often has its inception in the space between the map and our imagination. Other times it can be as simple as the kind of "happy accident" frequented in a Bob Ross sort of way, where a wrong turn turned out much more right. 

This road started with telephone poles. 


Two weeks ago I had been out on a late-starter and chose a route I knew with an added wrinkle along a farm road. 

As I scanned the hillside across the valley, I saw a pattern of telephone poles zig-zagging up the hill and beyond. I really wanted to explore, but I couldn't guarantee a decent return time and left it. 

This past weekend I recruited Michael Turton to go exploring with me and together we disappeared into the Miaoli Route 51. 


The Route 51 starts off with an impressive staircase out of the river valley off the Highway 13 in Da She. Several of these roads are popular with cyclists. The Route 49 is especially used as a cycling route. The Route 51 was surprisingly devoid of cyclists. 

After capping the initial climb, which majestically overlooks the area and a famous railroad bridge, the Route 51 flattens out in a twisting avenue through an ecological forest preserve. 



The road is not glass smooth, but rather quite rough for traction against slick moss. The quietness of the shade along with the clicking and squeaking bamboos is simply relaxing. 

The Route 51 will surely be on the map as an alternate to some larger, busier roads. 


Near the Sanyi Station I bid my farewells to Michael and continued alone to see about connecting this network of incredible paved tracks that hide beneath the shadow of Guandao Shan. 


My first experiment was a failure as a promising connection to the Route 56 ended at a sketchy little farm that, apparently, raised vicious dogs. Google Maps seems to include former roads and streams in its mapping software. Still, the ride through these little marshlands is so unique. 


I eventually made my peace with the roads and retreated up the Route 49 to the Route 56. 

The Miaoli Route 56 is a hidden little gem that rises up to Guandao Shan.. but it does so with some compassion. Lots of little climbs, but noting that would restrict the road for climbers only. 


The Route 56 eventually opens up high over the landscape for about a hundred meters before being again devoured by the mountain. 

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After another climb, the Route 56 ends at a strange intersection of tiny roads under a low canopy of trees. Each road leads off the hill, so I went down the hill to the Liyu Reservoir. 


I brushed along the orchards and graves lining the roadway until I was on the 53-1... roads I was more familiar with as ascents than descents. 


We need more water! 

I kept the chain on the large ring and jammed for home through Zhuolan and Dongshih. I was feeling good. 


Moreover, I was able to put the final piece of a puzzle together--a puzzle that will make for a remarkable summer route under the shade of the jungle. This one's gonna' be great. 


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Tainan By The Hillside: A Hard 200k


The day after Taiwan's big 9 in 1 elections, I decided to see what effect four complete decades in the tank could have on my legs. I felt like a longer ride with a little help from the wind. Somehow Tainan by Highway 3 seemed reasonable with enough outs along the way to avoid getting stranded with bad legs. The route would be a day of short, undulating hills that ripple along the foothills of western Taiwan. Not the kind of terrain to bank a successful day of distance on. 

I was joined by the phenomenal Rob King of Pro-Lite, who is an absolute hoss in the flats. Together we made for Tainan and Rob was going to try to sprint there. As for myself, I took a more modest approach... ahem. 

I had about cocked everything up from the get-go. I hadn't really done much stretching all week. I hadn't slept well. I hadn't eaten or drunk correctly before the ride. As Rob charged and hills, intersections and windmills, I kept waiting for the legs to warm up. I really started to fear I would have to abandon early. 


We made moderate time between coffee stops and it began to dawn on me that I was probably a little overtrained. I had simple punished my legs in the hills for four weeks in a row and now was time for some payback. Remember, listen to your body. It always knows. 


I was feeling so-so on the hills without the strength for the low grind. On the flats I was feeling off and on and Rob charged ahead on his blasted 28 year-old legs. It seemed it would take forever and my ass was hurting. We got busy jaw-jacking and missed our connection to the Highway 3, and beat it mack on course along the lovely Yunlin Route 172.  

Still, the hills were relatively bite-sized compared to some of the other stuff ahead. 


At Zhong-pu a cyclist must commit to either continuing on the Highway 3 through the Tsung-Wen Reservoir, or escaping around on the Route . We figured the climbing on the inside of the reservoir might just be a bridge too far, and opted out on the 158乙... but not before some strenuous climbing.

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Alas, with every killer climb, there is a killer descent. The Route 172 was no different. This was a high-speed-don't-blink-for-a-second parachute drop. We skinned the side of that hill with a straight razor as gravity and inertia flung us through each bend. 

We were finally spit out onto the Tainan Route 165 and eventually the Highway 1. I was about out of gas, but Rob kept the pace going into Tainan. By the time we worked our way out to the HSR station road I regained a bit of energy and we arrived at exactly Beer o' Clock. 

It was an incredible 200k of hard work all day. I took 10 days off the bike and felt much better for it. 

Still, it was a fantastic trip. Next time it will be the inner reservoir side. Rob was a great riding partner. I hope he didn't pay for this ride as badly as I did. 


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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Climbing A Mountain Of Tea: Sanlinxi on Nantou Route 49 and 49-1


For my last weekend in my thirties I thought I should do something bold. I had a couple ideas in mind, but I needed to check the weather and see when I could get out of the house.

As soon as I saw the yellow glow of the rising sun reflect off the neighbouring high-rise, I took a gulp and knew where I was going-- I would be heading to Sanlinxi--the hard way.

There is the main road to the tea farming district of Sanlinxi, the 151, which snakes its way way past the outdoor tourism megaplex of Sitou and into the thinning mountain air. I have climbed this road a few times and I was looking for something different.

I had only ever descended the Nantou Route 49 and we were constantly being assured that somewhere beyond the towering wall of white mist lay the most amazing panoramic views. This time I was ready for some vistas.


I chugged along to Zhushan (Jhushan) in about 90min. and then refuelled at the 7-11 that sits about four blocks inside the Route 149. I took three mini-packs of Gummi Bears to act as my energy gels as hey are cheaper, contain a third more calories than a gel, they taste better and are more fun to eat as they look like little tiny bears.


The mountains loomed ahead with the immediacy Taiwan's mountains all seem to possess. The Route  149 makes a quick right and the Route 49 keeps heading straight until it smashed head-on into a cliff that it makes no attempt to circumnavigate.


Before any serious climbing could commence, I had to stop at the absurd sight of a large African bird looming over the roadway. It must be the new prestige pet to replace the husky; another inappropriate animal for this environment. The ostrich was not taking visitors andI left before I could see any Moa (Ouch! Sorry about that).


Although I had originally planned to take the 49 all the way up, I was lured into taking the 41-1. With names such as "Sky Ladder", how could I go wrong? It was going to Sanlinxi anyway. Fortunately that distance marker is about twice as far as the true destination.


My legs were feeling a bit tired from my Thursday night ride (1650 calories in 90min) and I started to regret not resting another day.

The landscape and my familiar landmarks started to warp into unfamiliar shapes as I edged higher above the plain.


I was smack in the middle of tea country. It is amazing how much tea is being grown, but totally hidden from view.


The altitude profile on the Route 49/49-1 is far, far steeper than on the 151. I was forced to battle lengthy stretches at 10 percent or more without the luxury of a switchback or gear spinning shelf. It was just a continual grind that churned my legs into hamburger.


Despite being an alternate route by a good margin, the road conditions on the lower sections were simply praiseworthy.

I found a ridge near the end of the 49-1 to spin the amino acids out on and felt a bit better about my prospects.


The 49-1 descended and smacked into the 49. I was sorely disappointed that the "Sky Ladder" has been less spectacular than what I remembered from the Route 49.

As soon as I turned the corner off the 49-1, the mountains came into view. It is really easy to forget how many of the damned things we have here in Taiwan. Just ripples upon ripples of vertical real estate.

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I kept at it and simply enjoyed being almost completely alone out on the roads. I imagine all the KOM contenders took a weekend off from the hills and with the marathon as the sport dejour in Taiwan as marathon chic is cheaper and easier to fudge than cycling chic, there are simply fewer cyclists to be seen in general. The mountains were mine!


After a rough dip about three quarters of the way up, the road becomes a narrow minefield of uneven slag. It becomes especially tedious travelling at a slow, climbing pace and takes a lot of attention away from soaking up the views.

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One of the greatest things about the Route 49 is that for large sections it faces outward toward the direction you started the climb. You can look back at your progress and really get a feel for the scope of what you are doing.

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I was well past the point of no-return and found myself a little behind schedule. I was forced to continue upward along a slice of paved track through the tea fields.


That little ribbon of roadway wrapped itself around every fold and contour on that hillside in a confusing boy scout knot amid layers upon layers of tea.

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I could look back and still see that I could almost reach out and touch Zhushan, but I was merely elevated above the town by some 2000 meters.

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The road finally flattened out and I was able to build up a little bit of speed. I thought I could see the 151 to Sanlinxi just on the opposite hillside.


I took one last look over the mountains before disappearing into a cool cedar grove at the end of the Nantou Route 49.

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After a celebratory photo, I soaked up the biting chill as I dropped back down into the warmth of the flats.

As I beat it home, I was surprised how fast I was going with a crosswind and a little boost from a slight descent.

I stopped to assist a poor rider who was walking with a flat tire. He had no spare, no pump and didn't know how to change a flat. We have all been there at some point or another in life, and the best you can do is to lend a hand. He was so grateful for the cycling courtesy that we all (hopefully) share.


THAT!!! That was a good day on the bike. Rewarding to the last. This is what 5581 calories of hard work looks like.

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