Cycling in Taiwan | Why 'The Island Of Bikes' Has Only Just Started Riding
How mountainous Taiwan wants its people riding bikes as well as making them...
Words and photos: Lou Boyd
I’m checking into a hotel in Taipei, holding a bag that contains four pairs of unworn cycling jerseys and padded shorts. At this point none of this kit should be unworn.
Since confirming this seven day, 500km cycling trip a few months ago, I’d planned a rigorous training schedule of rides leading up to the mammoth task in front of me. As always happens however, life got in the way. With busy nights and fleeting weekends, my plans for a rigorous training schedule turned into one of short cycles, then into optimistic thinking and I’m now one sleep away from day one of a five day ride, with little to no training under my belt.
My destination is almost as incomprehensible to me as the task itself, having never stepped into Asia before I have no point of reference to fall back on. As unknown as the continent is to me however, Taiwan is even more so. Away from knowing the importance it holds to bike manufacturing, this small island nation off the south eastern coast of China is a total mystery. I’m hoping that I can ride far enough around the island with my lack of training to explore and change that.
For years Taiwan has been known as the 'bicycle kingdom', mainly because of its huge bike factories, which make up a sizeable amount of the global industrial work force. My hosts Giant are the biggest bike manufacturing company on the planet by revenue, a company of epic proportions with $1.8 billion and 6.3 million bikes made in the last year, that started right here in Taiwan.
While they lead in manufacture of bicycles, for numbers of natives recreationally riding they've always fell quite far behind. Far from being a cycling mecca, the population of Taiwan have never caught on to the urban cycling bug, regardless of the amount of bikes being created around them and the beautiful landscape in which they live.
Up to recently, Taiwan has made bikes, but not ridden them. Now, Giant has started to change that.
“I have a mission to make Taiwan the capital of cycling" says Giant’s 80 year old founder King Liu, who still puts in ten hours daily as chairman of the company, alongside promoting cycle tours by doing them himself. He should know how to attract people to cycling that have no experience, his own relationship with cycling mirrors the attitude of most of Taiwan.
"Attitudes towards cycling within Taiwan seem to have shifted from just selling bicycles, to using the sport in order to push forward the country"
Though he’s been at the head of a cycling company for most of his adult life, he didn’t start cycling recreationally till he was well into his seventies, after seeing a film about another Taiwanese cyclist that said ‘with some things, if you don’t do them now, you might never do them in your life.’
“I saw that film and thought, that line, it's criticising me isn’t it?" he says. "I was 73, and I thought if I don’t ride now, I’ll never be able to do it."
Since taking up the sport, Liu’s attitude towards cycling within the country seems to have shifted from just selling bicycles, to using the them in order to help and push forward the country.
From the impact of pollution rates on the nation's health, to the tourism industry, the company sees a great impact that cycling could make in Taiwan. Putting part of Giant’s proceeds towards building better cycling infrastructure and making bikes available to everyone within Taiwan’s biggest cities, Liu and the company clearly have dreams of turning the hectic and dangerous roads of Taipei into a place safe for cycle commuters and getting all people to start to taking advantage of the landscape and mountain climbs surrounding them.
Trying to get the island to notice a sport when it's already a constant noise in the background of their everyday life is no mean feat however, Liu decided to do it through tackling a cycle tour round the whole of the island himself. The inspirational undertaking had a clear message - if I can do this at 73, you can all do it too.
After six months of training, he completed his challenge, cycling the whole of the island, 927 miles, in 15 days, it made front page news all over Taiwan and the interest in recreational cycling felt an instantaneous boost.
Now I'm travelling to take up the challenge for myself by riding 500km up and down Taiwan's mountains, to see how I measure up and to discover the country's burgeoning cycling culture.
Waking up on my first morning, I take a look through the itinerary to see what I’m in for. Day one: 80km, up the mountain - a do or die type of introduction. The group I’m joining on the tour are all far more experienced than me, editors from European road cycling magazines, mountain bikers, old school cycling freelancer journalists, to say I feel out of my depth is an understatement.
We arrive at Giant store in Taipei and pick up the road bikes, our best friends for the next 6 days. Setting up our saddles and checking our equipment, I can feel my nerves shaking as I try and look as though I know what I’m doing. After a jumpy 20 minutes, we finally set off out of the city and towards the cycle route.
Riding away from the hustle and bustle and over a bridge towards the mountain, I’m feeling more confident than I expected, easily keeping speed with the other five cyclists, then we hit the mountain.
The road goes from flat to vertical in a matter of seconds and I push forward, the other cyclists speed forward as panic starts rising in my chest. Seeing them ride further and further away, I’m aware of the support van following us right behind me and I begin to panic about what I’ve taken on, how was I so stupid to think that I could do this? After a 6km climb, with the knowledge that I have another 34km before I reach the top, my willpower wains and I come to a stop at the side of the road.
Our support driver gets out the van. “You Ok? We have a break in four kilometres, want to drive to there?"
Four kilometres?! I can do that! I try and protest and gesture that I’ll carry on, but the support rider is already out of the van and running over to take my place. I give him my bike and get in the van, looking out I see him look back in confusion, mount the bike and reach under the handlebars to change the gear, I realise that I’ve been doing it wrong, I've been cycling the mountain in a high gear from the start. My cheeks burn as I sigh, sometimes you can’t just wing it without asking for help. Reaching the break point I get out and thank him, as we set back off after a drink I find that I'm now able to keep up with the group, definitely not the fastest, but not the slowest either, my 500km of mountains has officially begun.
If anything could push me forward it's the fact that I was following in the bike tracks of a 75 year old. King Liu's own tour must have been hard, but it seems that instead of draining him, it only pushed him into more cycling, as after his first tour of Taiwan, he started to plan his second across China to further spread his cycling message.
The ride was 1,688 kilometres long and lasted 20 days. Thousands of cyclists gathered at a stadium in Shanghai to welcome Liu and his group of about 30 supporters at the end of the ride and he used that space to promote the cycling lifestyle even further.
Liu says he sees himself as a "missionary" spreading cycle culture, with its ability to spread low emissions, social harmony and personal health as the basis of his pitch, specifically in Taiwan.
"Driving is too fast, walking is too slow. By riding a bike, you can deeply immerse in Taiwan and appreciate the land" he says.
After a difficult first day, my own tour has been improving. Riding alongside rice fields, through towns, up high mountains and past cliffs, coastlines and beaches, the scenery in Taiwan in astounding. You can go from riding in the middle of a built up, metropolitan city into the rainforests and mountains in a matter of minutes. The contrast between the busy cities like Taichung and Taipei and the empty rolling mountain roads frequently takes the group by surprise each day.
For the last two days we have ridden up the mountains roads in lush national parks and cruised down the side of main roads between one town and the next. I can’t see why Taiwan isn’t already an island made up entirely of cyclists, it seems almost like it was designed specifically to enjoy by bike.
Today we’re taking on our longest ride, it’s 10am and we’re about to set off for a 125km cycle of rolling hills that will carry us from Ruisui to Zhiben, where we’ll be rewarded with hot springs, while the ride is long I’m feeling fairly comfortable with the fact it has a lack of climbs and is rolling for most of the day. Cycling out of Ruisui, we ride over a bridge and onto a main road the runs parallel to the coast. While other days have been sunny, the weather seems closer today and the sky has turned completely grey.
After 60km of cycling we stop to pick up lunch from a 7Eleven at the side of the road and I pick up some sesame noodles, an iced coffee and a bottle of water, a practice that has quickly become my daily tradition over the trip. Sat in the grounds of a small temple at the side of the road, we discuss the route left in front of us for the afternoon. A couple of the cycling editors are talking seriously in German and although I can’t understand what they’re saying, I can get the jist that they want to change the route.
“Too many roads today" they say to the tour leader as he comes out of the convenience store, “can we leave the road and go into the mountains?" The leader looks at the map and thinks. “We can go into the mountains but it’s a long and hard climb and we’ll be riding closer to 140km instead of 125."
Looking around at the faces of my group I realise with a feeling of dread that they’re more than happy with that outcome, turning to me they look to see if I am also. I look up from my lunch and smile weakly. “Sounds great!"
30km later we’re climbing a mountain in the pouring rain. Just after we agreed on the tougher route and set off, the heavens opened. Apart from the rain, we’ve clocked 70km and have been climbing for the past hour.
As I feel my enthusiasm starting drain away we hit a small row of houses in one of the mountains aboriginal communities. Riding past, I notice that the locals in their gardens are coming to the side of the road. As they whoop, clap and wave us past I realise how big the cycling movement is becoming in Taiwan, with this tour we’re one part of King Liu’s enormous movement, it fills me with a bit more determination and I speed up my climb once again.
As we climb and climb, I start to feel like this mountain is never ending. The road twists and turns and every time I think the next turn will reveal the peak, its just another steep road and we carry on pedalling.
After a couple of hours, I realise that the air is becoming a lot muggier and the air is looking steamy, as I ride around a corner I notice a small monkey sat at the side of the road. Our surroundings seem to have suddenly shifted and I feel as though I'm in the middle of a rainforest. I turn the next corner and suddenly realise that the other cyclists are slowing down, we've reached the top.
Getting off my bike and sitting on the floor, I feel my legs want to seize up straight away but I don't really care, the forest around me and the view down is too spectacular to think about anything else.
After five days in the mountains, our return to Taipei is a shock to the system. With car and motorcycle clogged roads everywhere you turn, I can suddenly see why the people of Taiwan find it such a challenging prospect to pick up a bike and ride through the city.
The hints of change can also be seen however, many tourists ride around of YouBikes, the rental bikes that King Liu, Giant and the Taiwanese government have implemented, and brand new cycle paths run down the side of the busiest roads.
As we cycle through the city centre and to our final destination, people still look with interest at our uniformed bike group, we're cycling the same route the King Liu did only a couple of years ago and that image must be coming to their minds. Its certainly changing general attitudes, since his cycle tour the amount of recreational cycling in the country has shot up, overtaking China's rate, which is also growing. From coasts, to mountains, to winding roads and little villages, it seems that the locals of this nation island are just beginning to explore this territory by bike, its an exciting time to see.
Taiwan's pristine landscape and remote corners have interested international bike tourers for decades and conquering my own relative lack of bike experience showed me exactly what this island has to offer. What it most showed me however, was how young the Taiwanese road cycling culture really is, from cycle commuting to climbing its mountains at the weekend, the shift in local thinking is palpable. King Liu got on a bike to show people that it can be done and it seems that people listened.
Now King Liu has announced his retirement at the start of next year, as he steps down from his role at Giant. While his bigger legacy is in business, the most obvious one for now will be in cycle culture. Giant has started the island's first official cycle tour company and recently, the government named their route as"Cycle Route Number One", linking its paths and marking the route with signs. Cycling is quickly becoming a lifestyle choice for the island's inhabitants.
As we leave Taiwan and head home, one thing is clear to us. The Bicycle Kingdom is back.
Find out more about Giant's cycling tours around Taiwan here.