Saddle Up for a Tour de Taiwan Holiday

The island is a cornucopia of delights for cyclists keen for the call of the open road, mountain adventures, Pacific Ocean vistas, and myriad cultural highlights.

Every Sunday Lin Kun-you gets up before dawn and puts on his spandex uniform of fitted and padded cycling shorts, short-fingered gloves, and an aerodynamic road cycling helmet. His high-spec road bike is stored in the spare room. He rolls it out of the apartment, down one flight of stairs, out the door, and onto the practically deserted streets of Banqiao district in New Taipei City.

Lin then saddles up and sets off to a prearranged spot to meet his friends and fellow cyclists. For the whole morning, they will explore the open spaces of New Taipei City – climbing mountains, trailing the coastline, or heading to some scenic destination – before making their way home in the early afternoon for a well-deserved rest.

Lin is one of the tens of thousands of amateur cyclists in Taipei who transform into weekend road warriors for a break from work, family, and the cares of the world. He’s been doing it for a few years now and has also done tours of the island, including punishing cycling trips all the way down south to Kaohsiung. He describes Taiwan as a “paradise for cyclists.”

“I like cycling because I can use my own power to go places,” Lin says. “It’s not really quick or slow, but just the right speed to see and enjoy everything. I can go to many beautiful spots that cars or buses just can’t access, avoid creating pollution, go places where there’s no pollution, and it’s also convenient and kind of cheap too. I’ve met a lot of cool people and had some great experiences doing this.” 

The secret is out, with both professional and amateur cyclists, Taiwan residents and tourists, all clued in to what Taiwan has to offer. The Taipei Cycle Show every March and Taiwan’s status as the global center for bicycle production – because of companies like Giant Bicycles, Merida, and KHS – have spurred the country’s transformation into one of the world’s great road-racing destinations.

The abundance of high-spec but affordable bikes and increased leisure time have led to the development of an impressive infrastructure for cyclists all over the main island – and even on the offshore islands. Since around the middle of the previous decade, there has been a steady expansion in the number of cycleways, bike stores, and roadside rest areas where cyclists can get free water, tire pumps, and updated map directions.

There are also myriad cycling events, such as the King of the Mountain (KOM Challenge), which has become a major international sporting occasion, partly because of the scenic Taroko Gorge route, but also because it’s rated as one of the world’s most arduous cycle climbs. It inspired the editor-in-chief of CyclingTips, Caley Fretz, to call it “More rewarding than an outing to Alpe d’Huez, and certainly more difficult. It’s more adventurous than anything in the Dolomites, more rugged than the Pyrenees.” 

The five-day ultra cycling race, BIKINGMAN, has also gained a reputation for tough climbs, as it starts in Taipei and takes on the 3,952-meter Jade Mountain. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of them all, the Tour de Taiwan, has been held every March since 1978 and is part of the UCI Asia Tour. 

Bicycle Kingdom

“Taiwan is Asia’s ‘Bicycle Kingdom,’ an island that produces some of the world’s best bikes and has the roads and extreme geography to test them,” says Simon Foster, destinations manager at the Taiwan office of Grasshopper Adventures, which started up in 2004 and is one of the biggest bicycle tour operators in Asia.

It’s time to take a break and some fluids on a Grasshopper Adventures bike tour. Photo: Courtesy of Grasshopper Adventures

The King of the Mountain ride starts at sea level and rises to 3,275 meters in a little over 100 kilometers. “The good news is that for mere mortals, the varied terrain and excellent cycling infrastructure makes Taiwan a great cycling destination no matter what your ability level,” Foster says.

Taiwan Tourism Bureau has also climbed on board. Since 2010 it has gone big on supporting bike tours and produced some well-written introductory materials. For example, the pdf-format “Cycling Around Taiwan” (see fact box) gives pre-ride planning tips, daily schedules for a selection of rides, and information on bike rental stations and bike service stations. There are also sections on finding accommodations or riding partners, and even a QR code link to get a GPS tracker from the Cycling Lifestyle Foundation that can certify round-island trips.

Meanwhile, a fertile ecosystem of local, regional, and international companies has grown to service demand for bike tours. Grasshopper Adventures, for example, offers everything from fully guided bike tours with support vehicles, to family rides and self-guided tours. These typically include accommodations, restaurants, luggage transfer, and mobile phones for emergency support.

Although Foster says that “bikepacking” (like backpacking, but with bikes) has taken off in recent years, partly because of advances in technology, his company’s main business remains tours. “Language can be a hindrance to independent touring for non-Chinese speakers, and while people are always keen to help, communication can be an issue, whether you’re trying to find your way, get your bike fixed, or just order some noodles.

“Likewise, road signs can be ambiguous or confusing, and while Google Translate and miming can overcome some of these issues, guided tours remove these hassles and allow riders to focus on the scenery and the ride, plus offer a variety of cultural experiences that are difficult to access for the independent rider.”

Basically, there’s something for every bike rider in Taiwan. So, without further ado, let’s set off and take a look at five bicycle tours recommended by those in the know, ranging from easy to punishing, and taking in some of the country’s most scenic byways and highways.

Taipei

Taipei is an intensely bike-friendly metropolis, from the applauded bike-sharing service YouBike (a collaboration between the Taipei City Government and Giant Bicycle) to the policies of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) allowing bikes to be taken on board. 

Founder of the Taipei-based Panagoe Professional Cycling Tour, Stephen Chen, has been part of the fast-evolving business since he was first asked to organize a bicycle tour for six American cyclists in 2013. He notes that not only is it convenient and safe to cycle around Taipei to see the city’s various attractions, but also very easy to get out of the city to the tea plantations of Muzha, fumaroles of Yangminshan, or the hot springs at Jinshan.

“Not every country is like this. In Paris, it’s a long way to the oceans and mountains. Here, an hour’s ride and you could be anywhere,” Chen says.

A bike tour will certainly include the impressive Riverside Bikeway, an 111-kilometer network of paths along Taipei’s four major rivers (Keelung, Jingmei, Danshui, and Xindian). The highlights include the bright lights of Taipei’s Dadaocheng area, natural wetlands of Guandu, and the sports parks and dikes of the Shuangxi riverside trail. 

Hualien

One of Simon Foster’s lesser-known but favorite routes is in Hualien County on the winding Route 64, also known as “Monkey Mountain Road.” The tour could be looked on as an introduction to the steeper mountain challenges that lie ahead, taking in the hot springs town of Ruisui at one end and the Cave of the Eight Immortals at the other.

“You’re more likely to see monkeys or a multi-colored Muller’s barbet than cars on this magical little road that traces the course of the Xiaguluan River as it carves its way through the jungle and badlands scenery to the coast at Dagangkou. But this is just one of a hundred brilliant backroads in Taiwan’s awesome arsenal,” Foster says.

East Coast

It’s fair to say the East Coast is the jewel in the crown of Taiwan’s “Bicycle Kingdom,” Foster says. “My favorite overall itinerary would be our Bike Taiwan ride, a classic route that starts from mind-blowing Taroko Gorge and works its way down through the idyllic East Rift Valley, eventually crossing the Coastal Mountain Range to emerge on the rugged Pacific East Coast, which we follow all the way down to Kenting in the deep south.”

“The East Coast and Central Mountain Range are sparsely populated, stunningly spectacular and have well maintained roads, some of which are so underused that it feels like they were put there just for cyclists. But no matter where you are on the island, great local food and soothing hot springs are never far away, making for the perfect end to a hard day in the saddle.”

Taiwan has some challenging terrain, both along the coastline and up the Central Mountain Range. Photo: Courtesy of Grasshopper Adventures

Wuling

The road to Wuling Mountain, the highest road in East Asia, rises up to 3,275 meters and is not an easy ride, ask ask Steve Skinner, from New York. “Just finished my third trip with Panagoe,” he told TOPICS. “Stephen and his team always do a terrific job. Very patient with me as I struggle to get up Wuling Mountain. And Taiwan is such a special place to ride really unique terrain and sights.”

The killer 13-day tour is for those over 18 who are in regular training. The average daily mileage is 77.7 kilometers. It takes in scenic cypress forests before tackling the Central Mountain Range, which has broken many a cyclist. The saddle on Hehuanshan’s east and main peak marks the road’s highest point, in Wuling, a historic place on account of the Wushe Incident, a bloody rebellion of indigenous Atayal tribespeople against the Japanese, who colonized the island between 1895 and 1945.

Formosa 900

It’s understandable why the East Coast and Central Mountain Range – with their unspoiled vistas and indigenous culture – should receive so many plaudits. The West Coast facing China, meanwhile, is like a strip mall for factories at some points. Even so, there are some fantastic bike paths and plenty to see and do, which is why our final bike tour takes on the whole island.

Cycle Route Number 1, the Huandao (環島) or Formosa 900, is a 900-kilometer circuit of the entire island, usually completed in nine days. It first gained prominence with the movie Island Etude (練習曲), in which a hearing-impaired college student decides to get on his bike and explore the island of his birth. “There are some things that, if you don’t do them now, you never will,” he says.

Foster calls the ride “something of a rite of passage for young Taiwanese, and increasingly more foreigners in recent years,” helped by Giant and government sponsorship. Though it was only signposted in 2015, it has quickly become one of the world’s bucket list tours for experienced cyclists.

Tour’s end

While we’ve looked at the main bike tours of Taiwan, it should be emphasized that it’s easy to get off the beaten track and find independent adventure. This could be on one of the offshore islands like Penghu, or up one of the country’s 286 mountains. Many local cyclists are fans of the “sea of clouds” in Taichung’s Lishan, and family fun can be experienced on the country’s first bike lane, the 12-kilometer Guanshan Township Loop along a canal. 

Most visitors arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and spend at least a few days in Taipei before exploring farther afield. Some cyclists bring their bikes and with the right carrier it isn’t a problem as long as it’s packed in a bike box and doesn’t weigh more than the typical load for checked baggage (unless you want to pay extra). At the same time, Taiwan is an ideal place to rent or buy a bike.

“I’ve cycled in other parts of the world, like Japan, Italy, and Hawaii, but Taiwan compares favorably with the best of them,” says Stephen Chen. “There are lots of cycle paths, road maintenance is good, the landscapes are very diverse, and there are some first-class mountain roads.”

FACT BOX

Taiwan Tourism Bureau
Download pdf-format publication Cycling Around Taiwan
(https://eng.taiwan.net.tw/att/0024052/04_0024052.pdf)
Also see website for 2019 Taiwan Cycling Festival
(https://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002019&lid=080071)

Giant Adventure
Contact: Alice Cheng
117, Henan Road, Section 2, Xitun District, Taichung City
(西屯區河南路二段117號2F)
Phone: 04-2311-7979
https://www.giantcyclingworld.com/travel/
Or go to Facebook page

Panagoe Professional Cycling Tour
https://www.panagoetour.com/
For challenge and adventure and strong local knowledge

Grasshopper Adventures (Taiwan)
https://www.grasshopperadventures.com/en/tours.html?country[]=Taiwan
From self-guided to fully supported tours, or design your own

Ours Travel
Works with Giant Manufacturing and China Airlines Ltd to offer tours (https://www.ourstravel.com/)

Taipei City Cycling Map
Online and in pdf form:
(https://www.travel.taipei/Content/images/static/information/taipei_cycling-map1_en.pdf)

Cycling Life Style Foundation
https://www.cycling-lifestyle.org.tw/
Address: 51, 17F-1, Keelung Road, Section 2, Taipei
(台北市基隆路二段51號17F-1)
Phone: 02-8978-5099

And finally …

8 Laws Every Cyclist in Taiwan Should Know
(https://www.taipeibiketours.com/single-post/
2017/06/06/8-Laws-Every-Cyclist-in-Taiwan-Should-Know
)

Courtesy of Taipei Bike Tours
(https://www.taipeibiketours.com/)

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