Roads might appear perfectly flat when you drive down them in the comfort of your car. But they’re not. Almost every road angles either up or down, and when in the midst of a long-term cycling trip, you notice every minute degree. Even the slightest downward slope elicits a feeling of pure euphoria, while the smallest rise in elevation can be enough to crush your soul.
All of this became clear to me during my first long-distance bicycle trip, the Formosa 900 (騎遇福爾摩沙), a 900-kilometer-plus, nine-day, two-wheel trek around Taiwan designed to cultivate a cycling culture on the island from the ground up.
Giant Bicycles CEO Tony Lo (羅祥安) took part in the trip, doing his fifth ride around the island. Also along in my riding group were politicians and bike industry representatives, each looking to curry favor with the other in the interest of boosting tourist numbers, increasing the sales of Taiwan-made bikes and related components, getting more locals to see Taiwan from the seat of a bike and ostensibly helping the environment.
TALE OF TWO ENVIRONMENTS
Cycling in Taiwan is really a tale of two environments, those of the eastern and western halves of the island. The only thing the two have in common is that they’re both in Taiwan, though biking through them you would be forgiven for thinking they are two different worlds: one an idyllic place of uncommon natural beauty, the other the former’s unregulated dumping ground.
My team’s journey from north to south would take us down the eastern side of Taiwan, mostly via the valley between the Central and Coastal Mountain Ranges, from Taipei City all the way to the town of Checheng (車城) in Pingtung County. After a few words of encouragement from Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) on the morning of Nov. 9, we were on our way, with Hau himself leading us partway through the city on a uBike, a public bike program put forth to get the city pedaling.
From the outset, a gradual climb of nearly 1,000 meters as we moved from New Taipei City toward Yilan County had my legs pumping battery acid. By the time we reached the Shipai (石牌) Barrier, a thick fog had settled over the peak and a bitter late-fall cold had set in. A murderous headwind did little to ease the feeling that I might have to do the train ride of shame back home to Taipei. But after a few hours we reached the summit, and the climb gave way to a blissful downhill roll. The flooded rice paddies and whitecap surf of Yilan County came into view, and we coasted down the steep, smooth switchback toward the hot spring town of Jiaoxi (礁溪).
The beautiful scenery of the eastern half of Taiwan would continue through Hualien County, on to Taitung and finally to Pingtung before we would make the swing northward. At times my legs were as stiff as two-by-fours as we covered an average of 100 kilometers daily, but the sights always made the pain worthwhile. The ride to the town of Zhiben (知本) passed through bucolic fields and verdant valley scenery, with farmers bringing in their crops as we rolled by.
THE LOST WEST
Unfortunately, the inspirational sight would be the last thing of beauty we would see for quite some time. The trip from south to north along the western coast of the island is largely urban and industrial blight, kilometer after mind-numbing lung-blackening kilometer.