When Two Wheels are Better than Four

In recent years, the Taiwanese have rediscovered their love of cycling. After several decades during which many people traded in their bikes for the nimble motor scooters that dominate city streets, getting around by pedal-power is once again in vogue.

There are at least four reasons for this development. The first is that since two-day weekends have become the norm, Taiwanese have more free time than ever before. Secondly, as in other parts of the world where eating well and being sedentary is common to the lifestyle, many citizens are concerned about their waistlines.

The third reason is that Taiwan has long been a major manufacturer of bicycles, making good, affordable equipment available for all ages and skill levels. In recent years, as labor and other costs have risen, local bike makers like Giant and Merida have moved up-market. Their efforts to produce high-quality bicycles and bike accessories have met with tremendous success. In 2014, Taiwan exported US$1.035 billion worth of bicycle parts, as well as 3.75 million complete bicycles worth a total of US$1.721 billion.

Fourthly, the government has done its bit. Realizing the health and environmental benefits of cycling, the authorities have rolled out a series of pro-bicycle initiatives. Taking bikes onto public transport has become much easier, for example. In both Taipei and Kaohsiung, bike enthusiasts can take their “iron horses” (as many Taiwanese refer to their bicycles) on certain mass-rapid-transit trains, opening up those metropolises and their hinterlands for exploration. Assisting cyclists with tea and drinking water, as well as directions, has been added to the duties of police officers. And in every region, bike-only paths link sites of cultural and ecological importance.

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International interest in Taiwan as a cycling destination has been building, thanks to magazine articles, TV reports, and at least one movie. The 2014 romance Riding the Breeze has inspired some moviegoers to bike around Tamsui, Jiufen, and other places featured in this Taiwanese-Japanese co-production.

Anyone touring Taiwan during the summer is likely to run into clusters of cyclists going all the way around the island. The total distance depends on the precise route, but is often over 1,200 kilometers. Like climbing Jade Mountain, the tallest peak in Taiwan and Northeast Asia, completing a huandao (“round the island”) bike journey has become a rite of passage.

Bike-rental businesses are a boon for both foreign tourists and Taiwanese. Giant Bicycles’ rental operation can supply bikes and other items suitable even for tall Westerners. In addition, the bicycles can be collected at one location and returned at another – perfect for those on short visits to Taiwan who wish to bike from, say, Hualien to Taitung. Both cities face the Pacific Ocean on Taiwan’s unspoiled east coast, and nowhere are the often-quoted words of Giant’s founder, King Liu – “Driving is too fast. Walking is too slow. Riding is the best way to enjoy the most beautiful scenes of life.” – more apt.

In addition to stretches of unspoiled shoreline, Taiwan boasts bird-rich wetlands, bamboo forests, and deep valleys carved by frantic rivers. Two-thirds of the island is mountainous.

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Amazingly, it is just about possible for a fit, dedicated cyclist to see both coastal and high-altitude marvels in a single day. The distance from Dapeng Bay on Taiwan’s southwestern coast to Wutai, a stunningly scenic indigenous township deep in the mountains, is just 65 kilometers, but involves ascending to 1,000 meters above sea level.

One need not be an Olympic-level athlete to enjoy cycling in Taiwan, and the 2015 Taiwan Cycling Festival (http://taiwanbike.tw) is as much for the benefit of slow, leisure riders as it is for hard-core helmet heads.

Organized by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau and lasting from October 30 to November 22, the festival kicks off with the “OK Taiwan-Bike and Horse Riding Tour.” This event, free of charge to everyone, will highlight locations around Taichung in central Taiwan that are especially good for cycling, such as the Houfeng and Dongfeng bicycle tracks, and Guguan Hot Springs. Lying at the northern end of the Houfeng Bikeway, Houli Horse Farm has been a horse breeding and training center since the 1930s. These days, tourists go there to ride horses or relax aboard a horse-drawn carriage.

The Cycling Festival’s blue-ribbon event is undoubtedly the Taiwan KOM Challenge, scheduled for October 30. Unlike “king of the mountains” titles awarded to hill-hopping cyclists in long-distance races such as the Tour de France, the Taiwan KOM Challenge is a one-day, stand-alone race. After starting within sight of the Pacific Ocean near Hualien City, competitors proceed through Taroko Gorge and into the uplands beyond.

British rider Dave Everett took part in the 2014 event. Writing later for the website cyclingtips.com.au, he said the race “could easily be classed as the unofficial world championships of mountain climbing.” In Everett’s opinion, “The Taiwan KOM Challenge is exactly what the name suggests: a challenge. It’s held on 105 kilometers of spectacular roads that rise from the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean to a quite literally breathtaking 3,275-meter mountain summit.”

It was Everett’s first visit to Taiwan, and he was deeply impressed. “[This] small island has climbs that can best any in Europe,” he wrote. “In fact, Taiwan would have to be one of the best locations I’ve had the pleasure of turning the pedals over in.”

To complete the Taiwan KOM Challenge, riders must assail gradients of up to 27%. No more than 600 riders will be allowed to sign up for the 2015 race, and among them will be renowned professionals chasing prizes of up to NT$1 million. The event’s official website (www.taiwankom.org) has videos and articles alongside registration details,

Another core event, the “Formosa 900,” runs November 14 to 22. Formosa is an old name for Taiwan, a word of Portuguese origin that means “beautiful.” It is a fitting label for this activity as participants will enjoy some of the island’s finest natural scenery during their 900-kilometer, nine-day-long rides. Among those taking part in this non-competitive event will be all-female and physically challenged teams, as well as seniors and international riders.

Thanks to purpose-built bike trails and a range of bicycle-rental options, pedal power has become a popular way of circumnavigating Sun Moon Lake. As part of the cycling festival, the lake and its scenic environs will host a series of family-friendly “Come! Bikeday” activities on November 15.

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Registration and bike-rental details can be obtained from the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration (www.sunmoonlake.gov.tw; Tel: +886 49 285-5668 ext.1239).

For details of several other events associated with the Cycling Festival, as well as general travel information about Taiwan, visit the website of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within the ROC).

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