Once viewed in Taiwan as a mode of transport for pauper students or zealous environmental activists, cycling has acquired a new cachet on the back of growing ecological concerns and rising interest in health and fitness.
The cycling population - especially bicyclists able to advance to long-distance routes - has increased in recent years, due in part to an expansion in designated bike trails and the growing realization that Taiwan is a cyclists' heaven, blessed with diverse geographic features, from picturesque plains to mountains 3,000m above sea level.
There are bike trails in most city parks. But more challenging are the strenuous routes that take cyclists through the natural wonders of the island. Tours cover the Central Mountain Range and circumnavigate the country.
Breathtaking views can be found from Taroko Gorge (太魯閣), Hualien, Suao (蘇澳) and Taitung on the east coast to Taipingshan (太平山) and Alishan (阿里山) in the central region.
For a prospective long-distance cyclist, the list of choices and challenges is almost boundless. Knowing where and how to start can be daunting.
The country's many cycling teams, clubs and associations that organize tours and provide forums through which to share information and experiences and recommend routes, ensuring a safe and pleasant ride, are a good entry point.
Experienced cyclists recommend novices go on several rides with biking teams as a prerequisite to undertaking longer-distance tours on their own. This gives beginners a chance to pick up tips on how to ride correctly and safely as well as repair and maintain equipment.
One of the best places to start is the Big Apple Team (大蘋果車隊, bigaplle.idv.tw), Taiwan's largest recreational cycling club, which boasts over 1,000 active participants and 20,000 registered members. The team's extensive database of more than 2 million articles contains everything you need to know about cycling to get going.
Apple Cheng (程計源), head of the Team, coordinates day trips every Saturday and long-distance tours every two to three months for beginners and advanced cyclists alike.
"The rule of thumb for long-range cycling in Taiwan is that it gets more challenging when riding closer to the Central Mountain Range and easier when moving toward the coast," she said.
While Big Apple Team charters buses to transport an average of 200 cyclists for each trip, smaller clubs like the ODO bike club (blog.xuite.net/team_odo/cycling) usually turn to public transportation. Cyclists can either take their bikes on trains as carry-on luggage, or, if the bike can't be dismantled, put them in special carriages.
"It's most convenient to drive a recreation vehicle to the destination and use it as a back-up car. Trains are the second best choice, but express lines only allow carry-on bikes. If there are only three to five bikers and not many passengers on the coach, usually the driver is willing to allow them on," said ODO member Chang Kai-ming (張開明), who also has experience cycling in Europe and China and feels that the island is ideal for cyclists because of its variety of terrains.
Chang said a three- to five-day trip is preferable as it is short enough not to interfere with family life and work, but long enough to venture out into some of Taiwan's most scenic landscapes and challenging routes.
The New Central Cross-Island Highway (新中橫公路) offers scenery that is most representative of the entire island. Cyclists can visit picturesque Chingching (清境), Hehuan Mountain (合歡山) and Wuling (武嶺), which at 3,275m above sea level is the highest point on Taiwan's highway system and a must-visit spot for adventurous bikers.