One of the projects I set for myself for this trip to Taiwan was to try to learn more about the cycling culture here. The Taiwanese love cycling. Where my Vietnamese friends detest cycling as a mark of poverty, cycling is definitely a recreational pursuit here in Taiwan. What I consistently hear is that the love of cycling isn’t founded on racing. So what does that look like?
Well, while I’ve had some insights, I don’t yet feel qualified to really answer that question. I’ve been asking people I know who do time here to find a group ride for me to do. I didn’t want one of the rides made up of expats and journeying product managers. Sure, the conversation would be easy, and I’d probably learn a good deal more about the environment I was riding through, but it wouldn’t teach me much about what riding means to a Taiwanese person.
It was Mark Peterman, the former general manager of GT Bicycles (and now the brains behind the new product Air Fom), who found me a ride. The ride was Saturday morning and met at Tiger Bowling Alley, a block from the only Ikea in Taichung. I found Tiger with little trouble, pulled up a polished granite step and waited. There were already a couple of riders hanging out: a guy with an aero Lapierre, another with a Scott Addict. Eventually other riders began to roll up. I tried to catch the eye of the guy on the S-Works Tarmac. Nope. The guy with the older Pinarello Prince was busy telling stories, so I left him alone. There was a fellow on a 3T Strada equipped with Red eTap. I got a nod from him.
Start time is listed as 6:30 a.m., but they were utterly civilized and didn’t roll until they were convinced everyone who was coming was there and a gentle spin commenced at 6:42. We were probably 20 as gathered at the light, with two women among us. Sock game was a solid A. Rapha was the brand-name apparel of choice, but I saw plenty of Pearl Izumi. Outnumbering everything were the custom kits for the club whose ride this is: Neko’s Fun. The club takes its name from a Japanese cartoon cat, named … Neko.
We headed north through Taichung at a pace that was disconcertingly leisurely. I had no idea what to expect other than a ride of roughly 120km. Would it be this pace the whole day? Would it be urban riding the whole day? I chuckled at the absurdity of my situation. I figured I had enough food and a had two drink tabs for bottle refills, but the course and speed were out of reach.
Those of you who have been here know that Taiwanese traffic lights are long, often 75 to 90 seconds. There was zero reason to get your heart rate up for the 50 yards from light to light. I’d barely be clipped in before I was clipping back out. We threaded through cars, scooters, down underpasses, through scooter lanes, and alongside one highway briefly.
Their conversation was punctuated with exclamations, head tosses, gestures with a single hand. Fifteen miles in, we pulled over at a 7-Eleven, which are ubiquitous here as churches are in the South. It was once said of Memphis that there’s a church on every corner. The same could be said of the reach of the Southland Corporation in Taiwan. As I waited in the parking lot for everyone to top off bottles and chow snacks, riders continued to stream in for several minutes. One rider smoked a cigarette.
I wondered if our pace so far was in any way reflective of the future.
Back on the bikes, we continued to stutter from one light to another. Surely there must be a way out of town with fewer hesitations, right? That was my frustration talking. That was my lack of trust for riders I didn’t know, but they are a dedicated lot, no less so than any other group of riders I’ve met. There couldn’t be a better way because we would have been riding those roads. This was it.
A short time later we reached a bridge—even as we were crossing it the group was continuing to splinter and regroup. I had no idea how many riders were trailing the group in ones and twos. My plan for all group rides to which I’m new is to stay with the main mass of riders, whatever the biggest group is. Upon crossing the bridge we turned left and I immediately noted the group picked up the faintest whiff of urgency. Several lights more captured us, but the road turned more distinctly upward and a pecking order began to sort itself up front.
What I hadn’t noticed was that we’d already been steadily gaining elevation. The pace picked up, picked up again. I sat sixth, with an untold diminishing few behind. The river, to our right, was low, but not dry. Businesses continued to edge the other side of the road, but I was beginning to see stretches of foliage between them.
Minutes later I decided that I wanted more draft, pulled right and threw my left elbow forward, a gesture I trusted the sufferer behind me would understand. He closed the gap while I was still close enough to see, but a only four more riders back I saw the rider on the 3T Strada calmly surfing the tail of the group. What I didn’t expect was that he was the end of the line, quite literally and the group slipped away like a ball rolling downhill.
Well this will be interesting.
I wasn’t concerned that I’d get lost. I had an iPhone in my pocket. But I wanted to do the whole of the ride, a goal that would be infinitely more elusive on my own. I kept the pressure on for a while, hoping to rejoin on one of the occasional dips, but eventually I eased my pace, hoping there were riders on their way up to me.
We neared a bridge across the river, a bridge wider than the road we were on, and a trio of riders reached me. I pulled for a bit then the leader of the trio passed me to set the pace. For the entire time we’d been on the road we’d been riding single file, a formation borne of habit and informed by necessity. With only two lanes and ever-present scooter, car and truck traffic passing us, it was stupid to do anything other than stay as far right as possible except to pass other riders.
I looked over my shoulder only to realize we’d shed the other two riders, which meant I needed to stick to this rider like pine sap. We were well-matched, occasionally gapping each other as we began a pull, but surprisingly well-coordinated considering our lack of communication.
At the top of one steep ramp at some sort of interchange of highways, a rider who had been with the leaders had just pulled over, shoulders hunched with defeat. He unclipped and stepped off his bike in time to turn and say, “Good job,” to me as I passed.
A moment passed and then my brain jolted me into saying, “Xiexie!” (say sheh-sheh)—”thank you” in Mandarin.
The climbing refused to end. Following a short dip the road twisted right and shot across a bridge before bending left and resuming its climb, but I could see riders dismounting ahead. A 7-Eleven. Salvation.
I went to my companion and held out my fist. He looked, paused, then brought his hand up closed in a fist and tapped mine. I opened mine, made the sound of an explosion and laughed. We smiled at one another and nodded. It really doesn’t take more than that.
As I looked around, I counted upward of two dozen riders. There were groups aside from ours recovering from their labor. A couple more riders from our trickled in.
I sat on a bench, minding the mood. Then it was time to head out. We remounted and within the first mile passed several more riders who were there in the opening. Because the climb had largely been gentle, we pedaled the down and pedal we did. A trio of riders set the pace and I found it easy to stay with them, that is, until we had to move right to allow a bus to pass. I had to slow to make sure everyone moved as far right as necessary, and at that instant we hit the base of a rise. With me slowed and the leader at full gas, a gap exploded between me and the back. Again, a tried furiously to regain contact but I failed.
No one caught me from behind, which left me concerned that they’d turned at one of the various bridges. I found them, several miles later, stopped, at a McDonald’s. They were addressing a rear brake issue, but so many riders were playing with barrel adjusters, I couldn’t tell who was having the trouble. Didn’t matter. We soon pedaled away again and turned left to cross the bridge that began the climb.
A few miles later we turned left onto a small road that paralleled a creek. I was caught off guard when the hammer went down once again. This time the game was flatland power, and my legs had the goods for this. We dove through a few lights, past cars in intersections and into a great, sweeping left that signaled their final sprint zone. I followed wheels and stayed firmly with the leaders. The guy who sprinted to second drifted back, took a look at me and nodded.
The rider who had praised me earlier pulled alongside just as I let out a relieved, “Whoooo.” He laughed and nodded. I’d been nervous to just start speaking English to riders I didn’t know, but I figured I could take a chance with this fellow without seeming impolite.
“So you speak some English?”
“I love this ride. Thanks for letting me join you. Xiexie.”
He proceeded to tell me about how when Taiwanese pros are in town they will often join their ride, how in that sprint zone, they can hit 60kph (40 mph) in season, but with a pro present can do nearly 70 kph (46 mph). We began to trade little bits of biography and with each new detail I revealed, he’d translate to other riders. By this time our group had been trimmed to just eight. My new buddy Ken translated a question from one of the other riders. Which hotel was I staying in?
I was blanking on the name initially. I told them it was small, near the Taichung train station.
Ken then slapped the other rider on his back and said, “He’s my brother; he makes sure everyone gets home. He doesn’t want you lost.”
“I don’t head out for an adventure without GPS. I know the way back.”
Riders began turning off. I thanked Ken again and with that, I was alone in the crush of Central Taichung.
Including my spin to and from the ride, the final count was 87 miles, with 2700 feet of climbing. The ride itself was an almost perfect pyramid, with the 7-Eleven at the top of the climb being our highest point of elevation, mid-way through the ride.
They made me promise to ride with them next time I’m in town.
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