Text: Nick Kembel
Photos: Betty Fan
Bicycling has become one of the most popular leisure activities in Taiwan over the past decade or so, and because of this popularity, riding has become increasingly convenient for both local residents and foreign visitors.
From about 2005 to 2009, Taiwan was rife with bike fever. What had once been a niche recreational activity suddenly exploded into the mainstream. Developing in parallel to the burgeoning popularity of cycling was a proliferation of bike paths and dedicated bike lanes. And just when the trend seemed to be subsiding, Kaohsiung, Taipei, Taichung, and even smaller centers such as Changhua introduced public bike-rental systems, spawning a new generation of urban cycling enthusiasts. Below we will explore the rise of Taiwan’s love for cycling, give visitors the necessary info to tap into it, and lastly step into an up-and-coming bicycle shop to see what’s out there for cyclists looking to try something new.
It comes as no surprise that Taiwan’s evolution as a cyclist’s playground is finally being recognized. Both Lonely Planet and the New York Times cited the excellence of its biking networks in recommendations of Taiwan as a top travel destination. Despite its compact size and high population density, Taiwan boasts a stunning diversity of landscapes that can be accessed in short-distance excursions. In a single day, cyclists can marvel at high-mountain vistas, pedal through bucolic rice-paddy areas, and finish on coastal roadways looking down over rocky precipices dropping to the Pacific Ocean. (Coastal Hualien – Taiwan’s “Secret” Backyard Garden)
Some state that a turning point in Taiwan’s passion for cycling came in 2007, after the release of Island Etude, a film depicting a young deaf man’s seven-day circuit of Taiwan by bicycle. In the same year King Liu, founder of Giant Bicycles, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, completed a full circuit of Taiwan at the age of 73, saying the tour was the execution of a lifelong dream. This year, Liu completed a second circuit of Taiwan, and in faster time. The passion displayed by Liu for biking, the company’s success in the international market, and its enormous contributions to the island’s cycling environment have made Giant what is probably the most widely respected company in Taiwan. It has earned a reputation for quality, and helped make Taiwan the world’s largest exporter of advanced bicycles.
Circling the island on a bicycle has become a sort of rite of passage for aspiring cyclists, with a number of annual races dedicated to the feat. With route options ranging from 900 to 1,000 kilometers, the journey is completed in anywhere from 5 to 14 days by most. The circuit showcases the island’s stark contrasts, leaving nothing to the imagination. From the mirror-surface irrigated fields of the Yilan Plain and dramatic coastal bluffs of Hualien to the busy urban development of the west coast, a round-island trip exposes the cyclist to Taiwan in all of its facets.
If you lack the time or energy to do a full-island circuit, the ride from Hualien to Taitung makes for a perfect two-day trip, through some of the finest scenery Taiwan has to offer. Another popular choice, regarded by some as one of the most attractive rides in the world, is the 29-kilometer route around Sun Moon Lake. For a relaxing, family-friendly outing, the 15-km path from Hualien City to the beach at Qixingtan is lovely, as is the 17-km one from Nanliao Fishing Port to the Nangang Bird Watching Area in Hsinchu. Taipei City is also home to an extensive system of riverside trails, some of which connect to parts of New Taipei City.
Cyclists seeking more demanding challenges are spoiled for choice in Taiwan as well. Main highways across the mountains pass natural hot-spring areas and awesome cloud-hugging peaks. The Northern Cross-Island Highway (Prov. Hwy 7) is the easiest and most accessible from Taipei, while the Central Cross-Island Highway (Prov. Hwy 8 & 14) is the most arduous. The relentlessly steep section from Taroko Gorge, the jewel in Taiwan’s crown of scenic attractions, to Hehuanshan takes you to the highest section of road in East Asia, at 3,275 meters above sea level. Every November, cyclists from around the world race up this grueling stretch in the Taiwan KOM Challenge, part of the Taiwan Cycling Festival.
In 2009, the Taipei City Government, in collaboration with Giant, established the YouBike public bike-rental system. Requiring no annual fee, and with bikes free for the first 30 minutes, YouBike has the highest usage rate in the world, with the 30 million-user mark recently reached. Over 5,000 bikes are available from 160+ rental stations across the city, 24 hours a day. Bikes can be rented at one station and dropped off at another. With a distinctive orange-and-yellow color pattern, the YouBike features a three-stage derailleur system, wheel-driven front LED light, easy-to-straddle down tube, reflective tires, adjustable saddle, and lock. Each bike is valued at NT$10,000, and is built to withstand above-average usage.
All these factors have made YouBike a smashing success, and the system has already been adopted in the cities of Taichung and Changhua. (Kaohsiung’s C-Bike system, which preceded Taipei’s, was in fact Taiwan’s first public bike-rental system.) Government authorities are experimenting with connecting the Taipei and New Taipei City urban core, but the problem remains that many of the bridges between the two cities are not bicycle-friendly, and require significant alterations. (Summertime City Cycling and Unstable Weather)
Biking Do’s and Don’ts
When riding in Taiwan, there are a few matters to take into consideration.
- No doubling up on public bikes
- No talking on your phone while riding
- No riding on sidewalks where it is not permitted
- Always be wary of pedestrians as well as scooters
- Walk your bicycle across pedestrian-only bridges
- Ride defensively at all times
- Keeping yourself hydrated when riding in Taiwan
- Use sunscreen, even on cloudy days, Taiwan’s sun is strong
- When riding longer distances, wear proper bike closing
- Choose dedicated bike paths or smaller country roads to stay clear of heavy traffic
This article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (Jan./Feb., 2015)
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