It’s the nation with many names – early Portuguese explorers called it Formosa, or “Beautiful Island”. When you arrive the stamp in your passport says Republic of China. Their cyclists compete at the Olympics under the banner of Chinese Taipei. We call it Taiwan, but for many years this quixotic country has been known as The Bicycle Kingdom. I was recently invited to visit, and to check out the two-wheeled Taiwanese culture.
The Bicycle Kingdom label makes sense; some of the world’s biggest bicycle manufacturing companies call Taiwan home. At some stage in your cycling life it’s almost guaranteed you’ve sat astride a frame bearing the “Made in Taiwan” stamp. But the accusation that the people of Taiwan make bicycles but never ride them clearly smarts; throughout my travels across the island I met people – from top industry executives to children learning to ride – with an infectious passion for cycling.
The country’s capital, Taipei, is a tangle of towers, rivers and elevated highways. Double – and sometimes triple – deck expressways have helped to induce massive car ownership rates in recent years, creating congestion and air pollution problems to rival any other major Asian city. But down at street level I still found drivers to be courteous and patient if you’re used to riding with more aggressive Western urban traffic, though getting along with Taipei’s many millions of motor scooter users is a unique challenge in itself.
But there are plenty of cyclists here getting on with business - whether it’s a pack of club riders heading out of town for the hills, or an old man selling fruit from the back of his ancient tricycle. The city’s distinctive orange public hire bikes can be seen darting between the tower blocks of upscale Taipei. Run at a loss by Taiwanese manufacturing behemoth Giant to help encourage cycling culture in the capital, the sturdy and comfortable “YouBike” cycles are especially popular with the cool kids and bright young things of the city who can be seen on Saturday nights meeting, flirting and having fun riding around the ultra modern Xinyi district. The scheme was launched in 2009 with just 500 bikes but has rapidly expanded to include 1,500 bikes today. Keeping up with growing demand, Giant have just signed a long term contract with the Taipei city council to expand the scheme to nearly 6,000 bikes across the region by 2014.
In downtown Taipei, charming and erudite Chang Sheng-Kai is opening his glittering bike shop, CSK Bicycles, for the morning. Trophies and photos of local kids training to become the next Taiwanese champions proudly frame the shop window. A cast of unlikely looking bike frames sparkle in the early sun, drawing looks from passing workers scurrying past to their offices, dreaming of the weekend. Here’s a frame cast to look like solid gold, and here’s another covered in a print of bright red strawberries. Fancy a pair of diamante-encrusted rims? CSK is your man. His enthusiasm for all things cycling is entirely contagious.
“On my busiest days I might build up 50 bikes myself, but it’s not all about hard work. I ride with my wife and children for fun, too. On Saturday we took a tour to the south and rode 120kms together.”
I’m impressed when he tells me his youngest child is just 12 years old and already covering such distances, but the adventurous cycling streak would appear to run deep in the family. As we’re talking and sharing sweet tea, CSK’s father – looking sprightly in his late 70s – rocks up on one of their frames.
“Good ride, Dad?” asks CSK before turning to me and explaining, “He’ll have done 70km this morning already.”
I’m not surprised to see CSK’s unique red strawberry print bike in the fashion pages of Taiwanese Marie Claire magazine. Another extraordinary frame hanging in the shop has been painted by a local graffiti artist (“Don’t paint my walls, paint my bike, I told him!”). And larger than life CSK has earnt himself a reputation for being almost as extraordinary as the frames he builds – he’s currently planning a cycling tour for his entire family of the Great Wall of China in 2013; his wife, his children, dad, the dog and not forgetting his elderly mother; “I’m building a big bike trailer for her – she’s going to sit and read the GPS for us and wave. When I’m old I want my kids to take me outside and include me in life so I’ve got to start as I mean to go ahead. Riding a bike should be for the whole family!”
A few blocks away, two tiny Taiwanese children are learning to ride their bicycles in the safety of the gardens of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This sprawling ceremonial complex was built to commemorate the life of the former leader of Taiwan. The gardens offer a peaceful refuge from the relentless bustle of Taipei’s busy streets and children play here in the shadow of the red roofed National Theatre. The memorial itself is a marble tower at the centre of the complex rising 89 steps – the age of the controversial politician at the time of his death – above the winding ornamental paths, ponds and gardens that surround it. It’s the perfect spot for testing out those training wheels, feeding the gold fish, flying kites and turning great circles in the sweeping parade grounds set aside for ceremonial events.
But it is all across the island, and not just in the capital, that the bicycle is making a comeback in Taiwan. In the mountainous centre of the island the 33km circular ride encompassing Sun Moon Lake is almost too popular for its own good. There are family friendly sections along wide traffic-free boardwalks skirting the shores of the lake, as well as more challenging on-road sections full of climbs, hairpin bends and swooping descents.
Just going for a bike ride through the Taiwanese jungle, as you do.
Photo by Carlton Reid, with thanks
Weekend riders come from all across the country to hire bikes here and enjoy the spectacular views, but in order to really enjoy it you must make like the local roadies and get up early to beat the traffic; especially the crocodiles of coaches packed with tourists visiting from mainland China.
To me, the Tourism Board’s PR is off message when it comes to Sun Moon Lake. It’s heavily promoted as a romantic, alpine landscape but I found it to be visceral, dramatic and mysterious – and all the more beautiful for it. Steam rises from dense forests where indigenous people flourished for thousands of years, and black butterflies the size of your fist fly alongside you as you climb. The silent respite of Xuanzang Buddhist temple and its magnificent views are the reward for getting to the highest point on the ride. Behind the temple the deep, dark forest slopes away ever higher – I couldn’t help but think it would be a great location for some really serious mountain bike trails.
A man who knows a thing or two about mountain bikes – indeed, about most bikes ever built – is taking me on a tour of his bicycle museum. Here’s a very early Penny Farthing, there’s a prototype Brompton. Here’s a Schwinn beach cruiser from the 1950s, whilst just around the corner are a selection of folding bikes which collapse and corrugate in every way imaginable.
President of Pacific Cycles, George Lin, is my guide. He explains how Pacific (not to be confused with the brand of the same name in America which churns out Walmart-destined BSOs) were the first bicycle manufacturers to use computer aided design in the 1980s and pioneered a whole host of other high-end manufacturing techniques in their quest to push bicycle technology forwards. From MuddyFox Mountain bikes to the Mando Footloose e-bike (currently available in the UK at Harrods, no less) the company turns out a wide range of different rides, as George explains whilst showing me how to fold a CarryMe small wheeler; “By making our bicycles attractive we like to think we’re helping to improve the cityscape. It’s one of our design principals; the bike should work with the metro, easy to carry, to store, to fit in to your life and make it better.”
I like George’s approach, and his passion for all things two-wheeled is evident “Here we follow the “BMW” concept – bicycle, metro, walking – we want people to know that these three things can go hand in hand, and we’re excited about the way this can change the market.” Suddenly distracted, George leaps in to the seat of a bike especially designed for landmine victims in former war zones. He takes great delight in demonstrating the steering mechanism; you turn by shifting your bum in the bombproof seat of the bike; fun and games in the safety of the Pacific Cycle Museum but surely revolutionary in the field in the way it affects people’s lives.
The museum is a genuine cabinet of cycling curiosities that would keep anyone with an interest in bikes entertained, whilst in the factory next door Pacific turn out their latest designs. I’m beginning to get the impression that a passion for riding bikes, as well as making them, underpins much of the industry here.
In the week ahead I'll be exploring Taiwan's growing cycling culture in a number of blog posts; from my favourite Taipei bike trail, to the production lines of Taichung, and not forgetting a little bit of Taiwanese cycle chic. Join me as we explore this enigmatic island and ride out to meet the people who live and work there.