Taiwan cycle chic; where a smile is in style

I've already written how a passion for bicycles seems to underpin the cycling businesses and manufacturing in The Bicycle Kingdom.  But the most potent impression I took away from my trip to Taiwan was not garnered from a factory tour, or an executive meeting, but from a bike ride on a packed and popular trail near Taichung.  Young people, old people, whole entire families were out riding bikes and, in short, their enthusiasm for the free-wheeling fun of just riding a bike will remain with me for a very long time.

Now That's What I Call A Bike Path!

My tour of Taiwan coincided with a national holiday, meaning the factories and bicycle businesses were closed.  The sun was shining and it seemed the whole island and its wife had chosen to take to the Dongfeng Greenway, an extensive converted railway path first opened in 1991, in Taichung County.  The Greenway zips riders through rice paddies, over rivers on great railway bridges and under mountains through disused rail tunnels.  A host of small businesses - from bicycle hire to food stalls - have grown up around the trail which is wide, smooth, well lit, and signposted (Sustrans, take note!).  Music filled the air as entire families on monster tandems scooted by with radios mounted on the handlebars.  Teenagers stopped to take photos and to waive to each other.  Mums with babies balanced in bike baskets peddled past with a nod and waive.  Nobody cared what kind of bike anyone else was riding, and there was no sense of elitism (or high vis or helmets) in the air; instead the focus and emphasis was entirely on having a good time, on having fun.


As the sun was setting the fields surrounding the path turned golden, and early evening light streamed through the trees.  I must have shot a couple of hundred photos, and if I could have bottled the feel-good atmosphere and taken it home with me, I would have!  How nice that my most enduring memory of a visit to a country are the smiles that I was greeted with and the happy atmosphere of people enjoying riding a bike.




Thanks for a great time, Taiwan, I can't wait to come visit again!

ibikelondon experienced Taiwan at the invitation of TAITRA - the Taiwan External Trade Development Council - on its first ever bike bloggers tour.

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Top tips for visiting Taiwan and planning a cycling tour

Whether you're planning a gentle ride along the riverside trails of Taipei or planning a round-island-tour, here are my top tips for planning a cycling trip to the island of Taiwan:


The country is criss-crossed by a comprehensive motorway network.  Subsequently the minor roads and country lanes are surprisingly quiet and a pleasure to ride.  Roads in cities and towns are busy all of the time.

Take a good GPS with maps and instructions in characters you understand (ie English)  Taiwanese cities are dense and can be disorientating.  Road signs are normally in English as well as the local language, but Anglicised spellings of places can vary from sign to sign.

Bike lanes are more often than not also the home of motor-scooters.  Be prepared to travel with them, stand your ground and keep your wits about you - especially in towns and cities.  If you don't need to go through an urban area and can plan to go around it, go around it.

Don't worry too much about the local language.  You should, of course, try to make an effort and learn the basic phrases to be polite but you'll find the Taiwanese are warmly welcoming of foreign visitors, and English is widely spoken, especially amongst younger people.  Don't worry if the person you address doesn't speak English, an English speaker won't be far away.

If you like your home comforts at the end of each day and a western-style breakfast in the morning look for hotels which are classified as "International", but be prepared to pay a premium for this pleasure.  "Domestic" hotels will usually have smaller rooms than western visitors may be used to, with limited international options on televisions and non-western options for breakfast.  International class hotels come with an international class price tag - for those who are more money conscious camping is safe in the countryside whilst most towns have a handful of budget hotels.  Don't be afraid to ask to see rooms before checking in if you are at all nervous about quality.

Food is fantastic in Taiwan!  There's a variety of styles available and generally the cuisine is lighter and uses more fresh ingredients than you might find in the People's Republic of China.  Taiwanese specialties include hot pot, Taro cakes and Oolong tea.  If you're desperate for calories at the end of a day's riding every town has a 7/11 which is open till late and sells snacks, 'pot' noodles and serves hot (and cold!) drinks.  Late night snacks - usually of the cheap and greasy variety - can be found at every town's night markets which are open till late.

For a relatively small country Taiwan has a varied topography to offer cyclists.  The north of the island is relatively flat whilst the central region is mountainous with some 300 peaks over 3,000 metres high offering challenging routes for even the most discerning climber.  The east is less populous and offers gentler cycling conditions whilst the south of the island has a more tropical temperament.  A round-island-tour will cover around 1,000KM and take 10 to 14 days, depending on how fast you want to take it.

Spring and summer bring tropical heat when it is likely to be too warm for all but the most enduring of riders.  Autumn offers almost perfect temperatures for riding, while winter is cool but dryer.  It can rain at any time in Taiwan so take a decent set of water proofs with you and you'll be fine!  You should keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast throughout your trip - Typhoons are serious storms and certainly not something you'd want to be caught out in on a bicycle.

Police stations outside of big cities also act as local information centres.  They'll often provide water to touring cyclists, as well as inform you of any road closures in the local area (especially useful in the mountains where roads can close due to mud slides and landslips).  They can usually also recommend the best spots to camp safely in the vicinity.

Sun Moon Lake is a popular destination for tourists and Taiwanese alike, and the famous round-the-lake 33km ride is an extremely popular bike ride.  But be warned; the roads become very busy in the afternoon with coaches taking tourists for a drive - make like the local roadies and get up early to enjoy the best the lake has to offer in the safety and quiet of the early morning.

There's a wealth of bike hire stores across the island, many of which are run by bicycle manufacturing behemoth Giant.  At Giant stores you'll be able to hire the best bikes in their range but if you're going to be riding any kind of distance at all you may want to call ahead to book a bike in your size.  Most hire stores only have a limited number of frames which aren't on the more compact scale!
Most Giant stores have English speaking staff - be prepared to provide identification and a credit card as a guarantee.

You can take your bicycle on Taipei's metro system (the MRT) and special bicycle symbols show you the best place to wait on the platform.  Taiwan's national rail system is extensive and efficient, and includes a number of high speed routes, however taking a bicycle onboard can be challenging.  Taiwan In Cycles blog has a comprehensive post on how to do it for those who dare!

 National Day Celebration rehearsals in Taiwan
This is the Republic of China, not the People's Republic of China! There's no bureaucratic worries here - British tourists will receive a one month visitor's visa on arrival so long as they have six months and two blank pages remaining in their passports.

Riding with traffic presents challenges where ever you are, and Taiwan is no exception.  Whilst motor scooters can be a noisy and dirty menace I think the biggest threat to cyclist's safety probably comes from betelnut chewing wired lorry drivers and impatient tourist coach drivers - avoid trucks and buses where you can, specifically at junctions where it won't hurt to hold back and keep out of their turning area.  As with riding in any location that you are unfamiliar with be assertive without being over bold, and keep your wits about you.

For more information check the Taiwan tips on the World Touring website.  Travelling Two has a useful Q and A section with a resident cyclist full of hints and tips, whilst the fantastic Taiwan In Cycles local blog offers plenty of cycling tips, hints and tours and keeps its ear to the ground of bicycling politics on the island so that you don't have to.

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Where does your bicycle come from?

Buying a new bike is always a highlight for any cyclist.  We've all experienced the thrill of a visit to the bike shop, the quickening of the heart as you spot your future ride glistening bright and new in the showroom.  But have you ever stopped to think where your bike might come from?

It's almost guaranteed that in some stage of your cycling career you've ridden a bicycle bearing the "Made in Taiwan" stamp.  The small island is a powerhouse of bicycle production - from £50 supermarket rides to the most high end specialist racing machines.  Much of the cheaper form work has relocated to China, but Taiwan continues to design, build and deliver box loads of bicycles every year.


Bicycle manufacturing behemoth Giant have their global headquarters in the Taiwanese city of Taichung.  Since 1972 the company has grown and grown to become the biggest producer of bicycles in the world - producing other company's designs for them, as well as creating their own brand lines which are sold in 10,000 of their stores worldwide.  By their own calculation the company holds about 10% of the global market share - so where do all these bikes come from?

Crates of future bicycles

Behind closed doors at their Taichung factory, Giant's workers are creating bicycles.  Materials arrive by the lorry load; pre-assembled components from Japan, rolls of steel and aluminium pressed in mills in India and China, made from raw materials dug out of the ground in Australia.  Rubber tyres in every size conceivable arrive stacked high on pallets, whilst the ingredients for carbon frames are ushered in to the factory.

Inside, teams of specialists are going about their business.  A buzz of workers create the frames, which are hand turned, drilled, stamped and finished by individuals, not machines (take that, craft build hipsters!), their frames are then passed to braziers who add their little additions.  A team of painters create colour and decals before the frame winds its way to the assembly line, where the bicycle is truly born.

All the components start to come together.

The assembly line is both mechanical and hand made; the bike travels along a conveyor belt and all those different components arrive at the right place at the right time as if by logistical magic.  Trolleys of gears are shunted in to place, wheel sets fly down from an over head track, adding a touch of Heath Robinson to proceedings.  But it is people who attach the wheels to the bike, and adjust those gears.  It is people who wipe the frame down, tighten the pedals, make sure the chain is running smoothly.  Giant's people seemed happy on my visit to their fascinating factory; their work stations were clean, there were no suicide nets in the roof, they only work one shift a day (8.30AM to 5.30PM) and when I visited the workers were looking forward to enjoying the national holiday the next day.

Each worker on the assembly line handles one step in the creation of the bike.  One will mount the gear cassettes whilst another will fine tune them.  One will lay the cables whilst another might tape the handlebars.  They can be re-dispatched to help alleviate bottlenecks on the assemble line, or move on to other jobs if the line is moving slowly.  And they'll assemble a host of different types of bike; from Giant's most stately of uprights in the morning, through to their most high-end racers in the afternoon. 


The bikes - growing and looking more like a finished product as they move along the line - travel towards the final destination; the wrapping station where they are padded, taped and protected.  They're then slipped into a cardboard bike box which is rushed away on a conveyor belt, flying out of the factory high above the heads of the assembly line workers and into a waiting container.  Once full of bikes the 40ft container will be driven away on a lorry to the ports in the north of the country where they'll be loaded onto enormous waiting ships which will bring them to the west.  A bicycle is born.

Fully assembled "Youbikes" - Taipei's public bike share bicycles - await shipment at the Giant bicycle factory in Taichung.

A long journey by sea and a few steps of distribution further and that beautiful new bike is waiting for you, gleaming and unused, ready for you to ride out of the bike shop.  But next time you swing your leg over your frame and pedal off in to the street, take a moment to think of your bike and the hands involved in creating it.

Do you know where your bicycle comes from?

My account of a tour of the Giant bicycle factory is part of a week long series of posts focusing on cycling culture and business in Taiwan.  Check out my introduction to the Bicycle Kingdom and Taipei's best bicycle trail.

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Taipei's best bike ride; the Tamsui - Bali loop

  • Length: Approx 12 kms
  • Time: Allow all afternoon, including picnic and temple visits
  • Metro stop: Danshui (Tamsui), the final stop on the red MRT line, approximately 40 minutes from Taipei Main Station

The charming port towns of Tamsui and Bali, either side of the Tamsui river basin, were once the bustling fishing ports of Taipei City - first settled by the Spanish in the 1600s.  Nowadays they have a much more relaxed holiday atmosphere and are a popular spot where city dwellers go to enjoy the sea air and take in the view of the sunset, but they're also the location of one of Taipei's most rewarding bike rides.


Head out on the red MRT line to Danshui train station, an approximately 40 minute air conditioned ride from Taipei main train station.  Danshui (Mandarin) is also spelt and pronounced Tamsui (Taiwanese) but don't be alarmed, they're one and the same place.  On exiting the station cross the road and head north to Tamsui market - there's no signs but follow the crowds of people disappearing into a narrow alleyway and you'll find yourself transported in to an intense, bustling Taiwanese market where you can stock up on fresh fruit and drinks for your bike ride.  At the end of the market lane is a Giant bicycle store where staff speak English and accept credit cards, and there's a wide range of good quality bicycles available for hire.  Other bike hire outfits can be found clustered around the station but quality varies so choose your ride carefully.  If you're travelling with your own bike you can bring it with you on the MRT - just board the train where the blue bicycle symbols direct you.

Once you've stocked up with fluids and adjusted your saddle height, head for the river itself (south of the MRT station).  Here you'll have your first encounter with the wide, smooth shared use bike trails that will become a key feature for the day.  Head back towards the city (east) - the bike trail will climb a small hill by the old oyster house before beginning to run alongside the MRT line.  The bike trail itself also serves as the service road for the basin flood defences hence why it is so wide, but here on this side of the sea wall the basin is almost untouched and wild mangroves climb right up to the edge of the bicycle path.  Keep on the path, passing the mangrove workers and their roadside fruit stalls, and let your mind start to unwind.


The mangroves are particularly unspoilt around Haongshulin station, a little further down the path.  Bring your camera and keep your ears peeled for the song of some of the Tamsui basin's distinctive wildlife.  Just behind you, on the other side of the flood defence, is the high rise bustle of the city, but here at the water's edge you could be a thousand miles away from it all.


Continue upriver past the distinctive red Guandu Bridge, following the path till it reaches the sprawling Guandu Temple complex in Zhixing.  Approached from the west this temple doesn't look too inviting, towering as it does over a busy road and coach park, but there's a big reward for those who persevere.  Go into the temple tunnels at the foot of the hill and follow them up and in to the temple proper.  Then, climb the stairs and winding paths to the peaceful and little-visited terraced gardens that rise above the temple buildings.  The temple - dedicated to the god of sailors, Mazu - is particularly famous for the intricate statuary perched on the roof, and climbing the terraces brings you level with where dragons come down from the skies to rest upon the rooftops and blue clouds of incense billow up to greet them.


The view ahead to the city is incredible on a clear day too.  Though you're standing in the tranquility of the temple gardens, ahead of you the Taipei 101 Tower stretches for the skies in the distance whilst tiny looking aeroplanes skid in to land at the domestic airport.


After your visit to the temple, hop back on the bikes and head back towards the red Guandu Bridge spanning the river which you passed beneath earlier.  Ride the ramps up to the top, but don't worry, you won't have to fight with the thundering traffic as there are superb separated cycleways on the bridge to keep you safe.

As you come down from the bridge (use the off ramp for bicycles rather than following the road all the way to the end of the bridge), join the bicycle path running underneath.  Look out for the old folk practising karaoke in the make-shift bars here, but specifically keep your eyes peeled for the Frog Bicycle Cafe, just after you've passed back under the bridge.  This is the best place to stop on the ride for lunch; the cafe is a centre for all things cycling and was set up by Taiwanese adventurer Yang Ming-Huang who set it up after his own round-the-island bike ride in 2008.  Yang's beautiful photos of Taiwan cover the walls, and small tickets adorned with good luck charms left by people who have started (and finished) their own round-the-island rides here at the Frog Cafe hang from the ceiling.  If you need it your bike can get a quick service here, the Oolong tea is fantastic and the club sandwiches are out of this world.  Why not stop for lunch at this bike friendly halt before pressing on?


The path from Guandu Bridge to Bali is even wider on the south bank and has been extensively landscaped which makes for a very pretty ride.  At times you're zipping along beneath the bowers of fig trees, at other times riding along on boardwalks hanging over the water.  I was joined on this stretch of the ride by some of the staff from Tern Bicycles, who are based a few kilometres downstream, and were out enjoying the fruits of their labour; a selection of fantastically robust as well as comfortable and practical folding bikes.


CEO Josh Hon took time to explain what the bike paths meant to his company; "You don't hear us talking about folding bikes - we think of ourselves as part of urban transport.  The fold is just one of the keys to getting around by bike."
As part of that belief in the bike as a part of the urban fabric, Josh and his team like to get out there and be part of it all on two wheels, "Taipei is a good example of what happens when a city invests in infrastructure.  6 to 8 years ago there were no bikes and now we have a new domestic market of leisure cyclists and recreational users on these riverside paths.  At weekends we have bike traffic jams - it's a nice problem to have!"  I take a spin on the Tern Eclipse and like its speed and sense of veracity for a folding bike.  I'm mightily impressed when Josh stops to help a passing cyclist who has a puncture - he flips open the handlebar ends on his bike to reveal hidden tools, and slides out the entire seat post which doubles up as a track pump.  When he's done he checks his emails on his handlebar-mounted iPhone which is being powered by the dynamo hub in his wheel - Tern appear to be building James Bond bikes!


Josh is right to pinpoint the leisure paths as the source of an entirely new market in Taipei - they are rightfully very popular because of the very high standard to which they've been built.  Funding has come from central government who are starting with the "low hanging fruit" with the off-road paths that hug the river.  From here, if you wished, you could cycle for KM after KM all the way to Taipei and around the city river system.  The paths, with their signs, sculptures and smooth surfaces are second to none and far outstrip any cycling provision built in London.  Having built the "easy" paths they've stimulated enough interest (and users) to be able to justify starting to build cycle tracks on streets and roads away from the rivers, which there's now a waiting market for, ready to use.  Let's hope Taiwan keeps to its high standards of design and construction when it comes to building these more difficult paths - if they do then they will really have a cycling revolution on their hands.


We press on, past sculptures by the sea and brightly painted traditional fishing boats.  It's a Friday afternoon but there's a constant stream of people riding bikes - from teenagers, to elderly courting couples out for a ride together.  Tandems, and baskets for either the family dog - or baby - seem particularly popular.

Colourful Bali quayside

On your ride, keep following the path towards the mouth of the river and the sea before you reach the colourful small town of Bali which marks the end of your ride.  You can stop here for some frozen mangoes or sweet tea before taking the ferry back across the basin to Tamsui.  It leaves every ten minutes or so and you pay (cash only) just before boarding.  Bicycles are allowed; just push your bike down the jetty and wait.


Back in Tamsui the sun is beginning to set and, having returned the hire bikes, it is time for a well deserved beer as the day winds down.  Locals flock here to enjoy the views, and who can blame them?  Despite being just a short MRT ride from the city the town really has a perpetual sense of holiday about it.  Enjoy that beer, you've earnt it!  When I got back to my hotel that evening I collapsed in to bed in a tired, contented heap, and dreamt of temple dragons and Taiwanese bike paths.


It's Taiwan Bike Week here on ibikelondon - check out our previous post introducing the Bicycle Kingdom.

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