I’ve spent 13 years of my life in so-called Greater China (Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan). Without a doubt, my favorite place to ride is Taiwan. It’s got everything: fantastic mountains, terrific food, friendly people, beautiful nature, decent weather and great bike shops. Earlier this month, I was planning a four-day trip to the island. A day before my departure, I caught a bad stomach bug. The five-day forecast also included heavy rain. I debated a bit about whether I should bring my bike as I had planned. In the end, I decided that even if I had to pull over to puke every kilometer in torrential rain, I was still going to ride. I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to ride through Taiwanese mountains again. It did rain and I suffered a bit with the gastrointestinal issues, but as usual Taiwan really rewarded me and I’m glad I did it.
I did my usual thing and stayed at a small motel in the Tienmu neighborhood in the capital of Taipei. Tienmu is at the base of Yangmingshan National Park, so after a five-minute spin from the hotel door, the road starts climbing out of the Blader Runneresque urban densepack and into the lush subtropical forest that covers the Yangming Mountain range. The first 10-kilometer climb gets you into the park, where you’ll find a Starbucks coffee shop. I can’t think of many other climbs in China that deliver you to a Starbucks. Many folks won’t think this is a good thing, but I’m not one of them. I’ve done enough of the rough and remote thing.
The night before, I bought three big chunks of banana bread for my ride, so I decided to stop at Sbucks to enjoy some with a cup of joe. But I forgot that Starbucks opens at 8 a.m. in Taiwan and it was 7:30, so I decided to just have my snack on the patio. A young woman inside the cafe saw me and came to the door. She said, “Sorry, we’re not open yet, but can I get you a glass a water? How about a chair, too?” In Guangzhou, I would have been told to scram until the store opens.
She called herself "Winnie" and she was wonderful. She apologized for not being able to open the store earlier and offered me a glass of water and a chair. She was amazed that I planned to ride 80 km in the rain.
Yangmingshan is full of natural sulphur pits. The steam rises rises from the hills in several areas, and the rotten-egg stench of sulphur fills the air.
The rice crop is just getting started. In a month, this will be a brilliant green carpet of rice plants.
My favorite climb goes up and over Yangming Mountain and down to Jin Shan Beach. There were a few dedicated surfers waiting for waves when I stopped to watch them.
This food truck sells some awesome waffles with whip cream on the coastal road that passes Jin Shan Beach. It’s at the mid point of my ride, and I was really looking forward to stopping to have a second breakfast. I was crushed to see that he wasn’t open.
Waiting for waves at Jin Shan Beach.
Like in mainland China, convenience stores in Taiwan sell chicken parts. But they also have chocolate-covered Belgian waffles. Boo yah!
Stopping at a flower farm on the climb back over Yangming Mountain.
This guy marveled at how high my seat was and said to his friend, "Look at the long legs on this guy!"
One of my all-time favorite switchbacks at the base of Yangming National Park.
Whenever I travel for my job, I try to bring my bike along. I always try to stay in race shape, so I can’t afford to be off the bike during trips that can last as long as a month. I also hate working out in hotel gyms, pedaling in a pool of sweat on a squeaky stationary bike facing a wall. I would much rather explore a city by bike, and traveling with one is easy with the latest bike boxes and bags that are relatively light and protect your rig.
In Taipei, I can get in a tough two-hour ride in the mountains before work if I get out the door by 5:30 a.m. It’s a fantastic ride that begins in the “Blade Runner”-like urban chaos of Taipei and within a few kilometers takes you into the lush green mountains that provide terrific views of the humming, sprawling city below.
Taiwan is undergoing a cycling renaissance. Bicycles were once the main form of transport for the masses before the leaf-shaped island evolved into a manufacturing juggernaut and the economy boomed. But the people who shifted to motor scooters and then cars are rediscovering the joys of cycling. On the weekends in Yangmingshan, the roads are filled with people pedaling everything from Colnagos and Pinarellos to tricked-out collapsable bikes.
My favorite ride is a 92-kilometer out-and-back route from the Feeling Hotel, over the mountains in Yangmingshan National Park and down to Jin Shan beach on the northeastern Pacific coast. The climbs can be steep, and in one five-kilometer section, I felt like the two greasy fried eggs and toast I had for breakfast were inching their way up my gullet with each pedal stroke.
But the payoff is huge as you speed down long descents into mountain valleys where farmers grow vegetables in small terraced plots on the hills. Elderly ladies set up rickety stands under umbrellas on the side of the road and sell cabbages, eggplants and greens. One itinerant butcher in a rusty red van throws a wooden chopping block on the roadside and hacks up cuts of meat for passers-by.
The park is full of hot sulfur vents that spew steamy clouds into the air that smell like rotten eggs. The tropical rainforest vegetation is loaded with bamboo groves and tall grasses, where locust-like insects make a strange metallic whirling noise that sound like a space ship is about to land.
A switchback-filled descent of about 20 kilometers ends at Jin Shan Beach. When I rode there on a recent Saturday, the beach was full of young Taiwanese surfers enjoying the higher waves being kicked up by a tropical storm.
I stopped at a roadside food wagon, and ordered a second breakfast of coffee and waffles with a generous dollop of whipped cream. I sat down at a small plastic cafe table and watched the people riding the waves.
When I turned around to go home, I could see dark rain clouds hanging over the mountain. Rather than wait out the storm, I decided to push through it.
A hard rain began to fall about 10 minutes into the climb back over the mountain. But as I pedaled higher, I climbed out of the storm and spent the rest of the way uphill in a fantastically refreshing mist that kept me cool. It was much like a dream.
I returned to the hotel absolutely exhausted but with a wonderful buzz from being in the spectacular outdoors. I lugged my bike up the steps of the Feeling Hotel and opened the door with a big smile on my sunburned face. As I stepped into the lobby, I saw the Taiwanese man in the black suit with his date. He was also grinning, also looking tired but happy.