My next ride was with two of GT’s product managers, Todd Seplavy and Cait Dooley. I met Cait at this year’s Press Camp and found her to be a truly knowledgeable and invested bike geek. Todd and I have known each other a few years but the fact that we both went to UMASS has given us common ground that would have taken a decade to achieve by any other method. Todd mentioned that there was a café on the outskirts of Taichung that actually served Belgian and American beers.
That was all the prodding I needed. If I’m honest, I probably didn’t even need that much.
They took me on a sequence of roads that echoed my previous two in that they headed west out of town and once the vestiges of city life were behind us, the roads turned up and cruel and amusing angles. What was especially dumbfounding to me was that the roads’ crazy pitches suggested places like Belgium and the Netherlands where roads will run straight up and down hillsides, gradient be damned. In the back forty of Taichung, the roads would spin upward in ways that would make you think that this place of heavy machinery and incessant construction lacked bulldozers and graders. Then, as you rolled to the top, you’d notice the notch in the hilltop or the smoothed crown to the mountain. Oops. They’d been using them all along and that 21 percent pitch was some engineer’s idea of an improvement, and compared to a free-fall, it was.
I’ve spoken with many product managers who admit pining for Taiwan when they are stateside and feeling homesick when in Taiwan or China or wherever their duties take them. Todd and Cait helped me to begin to see the delicious juxtapositions in which product managers revel. They still want good beer, powerful coffee and Western music, but they love Taiwanese cuisine, which, as far as I can tell, is the ultimate fusion—lots of Chinese, some Japanese, a fair dollop of Indian and then an ever-available sprinkling of every other southeast Asian fare conceived. Asian media, especially the magazines, are a source of unfailing amusement, too. It helps that all the Hollywood movies are subtitled, usually below the screen, instead of dubbed.
All your miles are belong to us
That night I received an email from Dave “Super Dave” Koesel, the road product manager for Felt Bicycles. Given how fast he is and the sheer scope of his job, the “super” is well-earned. The note was brief:
7:00am from evergreen
Not fast but there are some hills.
3-4 hours max depending on stops
Please join us.
Do you know where the Evergreen hotel is on Taichung Road?
The subjects of CIA renditions receive a more detailed itinerary, but honestly, it was enough. A group ride, in Taiwan. What more did I need?
We made our way to Wenxin road, one of the many ring roads that help to define the layout of Taichung. It took us west, then south before we jumped over to Hwy. 63 which took us to the banks of the … some river I never got the name of. We then began working our way up the river valley on Hwy. 14, crossing it from time to time, always gaining elevation.
In the near distance I could see a bank of mountains rising with a jagged, sawtooth profile. If the Rocky Mountains are young compared to the Appalachians, geologically speaking these things were infants. I estimated their height to be between 3000 and 4ooo feet. What gave me chills was that I could see the faint outline of another range curtaining the sky from view. One steady grey line rose from the south, sweeping upward to a defined peak.
I turned to Dave, “Is that Yushan?”
“Yep,” he said; “That’s where the Taiwan KOM Challenge went.”
The day before, I’d looked at the map to see if an out-and-back was possible; while it certainly was, the 200-mile round trip was as impractical as time travel. I had contemplated trying to take the train south to Chiayi City, then learned that very few rail cars allow bikes on board and you need a reservation for your bike. Masi’s James Winchester had told me that I might get a light scolding but I could probably manage the trip down. What concerned me was just how shackled to my own demise I’d be if after riding 100 miles in the mountains I couldn’t get back on the train for the trip back to Taichung. And given that I didn’t know what time I’d be returning, there was no way to reserve a spot for my bike ahead of time. And the distance between Chiayi and Taichung was great enough—and cab drivers hate bikes—that a cab ride home was as likely to occur as peace in our time.
Near Puli Township we made the right turn onto Hwy. 21. This was where the tour buses started passing at what I would normally call “an unsafe distance.” Only these drivers seemed competent and caring in a way that those employed by transit systems in the U.S. would never be accused. It was here that I saw the first sign for Sun Moon Lake. Next to climbing Yushan, Sun Moon Lake was probably the most authentic Taiwanese tourist attractions I could visit. Only we were doing it by bike.
There are a number of bike shops that ring Sun Moon Lake and rent bikes for taking a day trip on the 18-mile road that follows the contours of the lake, but not many people ride up Hwy. 21 to the lake. Now I know why.
As far as I recollect, every road I’ve ever ridden than traced the shore of a lake was at least flat-ish, if not as level as laminate flooring. The road around Sun Moon Lake may stay within sight of the lake on its run, but it isn’t remotely flat. This volcanic island is as contoured as laundry in the dryer. The road was never straight for more than 100 feet or so. Up, down, left and right, it followed the contours of the blob-shaped lake faithfully.
Despite the fact that it was nearly noon, the fog was only beginning to burn off. We could barely see across the lake, a distance of maybe two miles. Air pollution was in the moderate range, which means that most of what I was seeing was water vapor, but maybe water vapor binding to particulate matter. I can at least say that my lungs weren’t burning.
For all the tour buses I was seeing, there didn’t seem to be enough boats on the lake with people sunning themselves. Not only did I not know where most of the people were, I wasn’t even sure what the people on the boats were doing. The Taiwanese protect their skin from tanning with a fastidious care. You see people wearing sweaters backward to make sure their arms don’t get tanned while they commute. Some go the extra step of adding what look like oven mitts to the handlebar to their hands don’t tan. So it seemed unlikely that the people on the boats were slathering themselves with Hawaiian Tropic and reclining on a chaise lounge. They weren’t water skiing, and I didn’t see fishing poles. So what the hell were they up to?
I never got to find out; at the far end of the lake we began our drop back down out of the mountains for a very flat run back to Taichung. We were lucky to have only a few buses on the road on our way down; we took the lane and lost more elevation in 10 minutes than I’d been able to climb in the last hour.
Following our descent, we found ourselves in Shueli Town, which is positioned at the end of a river valley. Our road leaned against the river as we headed west toward the coast, but as soon as we were free of the mountains we turned right to head north. Our course followed the general contours of the elevated highway that ran through the region. We were surrounded by rice paddies irrigated by the river, the green leaves extending upward and ending uniformly, like a crew cut of grain.
We began to see Taichung rising in the distance far sooner than I would have liked. The buildings were tiny, telling me that we still had a good hour of riding left. At a light, Felt’s Alan Foster, a former world champion in BMX, turned to us and announced, “This is the longest bike ride I’ve ever done.” I congratulated him, but I also felt a bit bad for him; we had a ways to go and I’d even begun skipping pulls because my legs were starting to fry.
We’d never have managed all the turns necessary to make our way back to Taichung without a local helping out. Rob Gitelis rode for ONCE back in the ’90s and after winning the Tour of Taiwan, the thought occurred to him to retire and enter the bike biz. Decades later, he owns several factories that produce bikes you’ve probably ridden. Though he says he went years without riding, he’s fit enough that he’s racing as a pro once again. With his close-cropped hair, tropical tan and iron-hard physique, Rob looks more like a retired playboy than someone who works for a living. Without Rob, I’d be in a rice paddy trying to decide what my new name should be.
As we entered town the turns came in constant succession. Everything looked the same to me. Scooters next to us, scooters parked everywhere, outdoor restaurants cooking all manner of flesh, electronics stores selling everything from smart phones to laptops. We could have been going in circles for all I knew. Rob peeled off and I looked to Super Dave for guidance.
“Where do I turn?”
“Just watch for Taichung Road. Wenxin will cross it where we originally turned.”
Only the road was called Taiwan Boulevard there for reasons that left us all mystified. Well, the mystified part for Dave didn’t happen until I emailed him later to recount how I overshot the turn by several miles and realized it once the buildings started to get smaller again. I found the whole thing pretty funny, that is, once I found a 7-Eleven for some final snacks and a Coke.
Back for more
As part of my duties for BRAIN, I joined our group for a trip up to Sun Moon Lake two days later. The trade association which was playing host to us, ferried us to a bike shop where rentals had been procured. The head of the TAITRA is from Sun Moon Lake and he wanted to have a chance to introduce a bunch of foreign journalists to his home.
While I stuck with my bike, most everyone rode flat-bar road bikes with flat pedals and 23mm tires. Our group covered a broad range of fitness, so we tended to stop a lot for photos as we made our way around. And I have to admit that my experience was notably different on this ride than it was two days before. I had more time to look around and spent less energy worrying about preserving my legs for the ride back. Also, because our little jaunt was on a week day there was no crush of buses.
Because we stopped every mile or two for photos, we had a chance to walk around and check out the various temples, gazebos and lakeside structures. There were spiders everywhere. The webs spanned for feet, not inches, and the spiders themselves were as big as my hand. It was not uncommon to encounter stray web strands while walking on a path or passing close to trees. I learned not to lead the group on any of the bike paths we rode in order not to gather any webs on me.
After our ride we showered, grabbed a quick lunch and then attended a press conference, the purpose of which I’m still trying to discern. What it did do was introduce us to representatives from a number of Taiwanese-based companies, which gave my colleagues and me some interesting leads on products worth checking out. The press conference also served as a lesson in what we were to experience many more times on the trip—how many Taiwanese manufacturers have yet to really understand how to deal with the press.