Fun, Food And A Dose Of Fitness

Life & Leisure, Australian Financial Review

27 February 2015

 

Traversing the island by bike offers travellers the opportunity to explore at a leisurely pace, immerse themselves in local culture and get fit too, writes Tatyana Leonov. 

We had a bicycle craze a little while ago. In 2007 and 2008 it felt like everyone was riding," Chengnon Hsu, general manager of boutique Taiwanese bike manufacturer Rikulau, says. "In Taiwan we have crazes all the time, but usually it's for food – egg tarts, pork buns, jelly and shaved ice – this time everyone was lining up to buy bikes."

Like all fads, the queues became smaller and smaller until there were none. That said, today there are plenty of bike shops peppered all over the island and cycling tourism is flourishing. The government tapped into something the people were willing to embrace, and it worked.

Today, the cycleways that were constructed around the country zigzag like coiled veins through picture-perfect landscapes reminiscent of movie sets – idyllic beaches, luscious forests, authentic tribal villages – scenes that tourists don't usually associate with Taiwan. 

Cycling was promoted through various events and these same events continue to attract new clientele every year (Sun Moon Lake Come! Bikeday and Taiwan KOM Challenge, held every November, are two of the most popular). In 2001, YouBike, a public bike rental station initiative between the Taipei City Government and the Giant Cycling Lifestyle Foundation (a subdivision of Giant, a Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer and world leader in the field) was launched and since then it has expanded enormously. Today, bike rental stations are scattered all over Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung and Changhua; the vivid orange rent-a-bikes a renowned sign of busy city life.

On any given day you might see lycra-clad cyclists (locals love their gleaming, sometimes-too-loose ensembles) flying along cycleways, busy workers utilising the bike rental stations at metro stops, and laughing families unhurriedly pedalling along riverbanks.

Local Taipei mum Su-Yi Wun, who works as a business manager at Kris Yao Artech, says that she takes her children to the river a few times a week. "There are so many rental bike stations around the rivers in Taipei. It's cheaper than buying a bike and there are various sizes – and even baby bikes and parent-child bikes available for rental too."

The cycling tourism scene is fast expanding and biking events play a big role in this. Damion Potter, deputy director of the British Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei, moved to Taiwan with his family in 2013.

The Potter clan got into leisure cycling quickly ("It's just so easy to do in Taipei," Damion says ), but Damion went one step further and recently completed a 920-kilometre nine-day ride as part of the yearly Formosa 900 challenge. "It was an amazing experience. Discovering parts of this beautiful island, meeting wonderful people, stretching myself physically, raising some money for children in need (Damion used the ride as an opportunity to raise money for the British charity Children in Need), increasing the profile of the UK office in Taiwan... although it was tough, it was definitely worth it."

The majority of travellers will opt for a shorter ride and there are plenty of possibilities. Those who love the atmosphere that comes with being in a chaotic urban environment can hop on a YouBike and explore, stopping at roadside eateries to sample Taiwanese delicacies and to chat to locals. Travellers wanting to unwind can make their way around the island's serene surrounds, navigating sprawling flower fields, dense forests and plains dotted with rice fields that seem to stretch on forever.

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan's largest lake, is one of the most popular and scenic cycle settings. The lake is legendary for having inspired many ancient Chinese artists and writers into creating some of their most celebrated works, and when the bulbous clouds hover over the still turquoise vastness it makes for an ethereal ambience.

Most cycling routes around Taiwan use a mixture of cycleways and roads. Dedicated cycleways have been in construction since 1997 and the network is still expanding. New Taipei has around 370 kilometres of bike paths, while in Kaohsiung dedicated cycle paths make up over 500 kilometres. Cycling on roads is also common and generally perceived to be safe. "Drivers [in Taiwan] are used to watching for motorbike riders so they are naturally aware of cyclists," explains Chengnon.

Iain Treloar, a Melbourne-based cyclist and associate editor of Ride On magazine, recently spent a few days cycling in Taiwan and loved it.

"At Sun Moon Lake I rode the 50-kilometre All Stars Sun Moon Lake Tannan Tribal Village Challenge (part of Sun Moon Lake Come! Bikeday), which saw me pedal through farming land into the jungle and through an indigenous village – my favourite part," he says. "I also cycled from Hualien city through Taroko Gorge, about 70 kilometres up Wuling Mountain (the course of the Taiwan KOM Challenge). Taroko Gorge is stunning beyond words, and the climb is one of the most picturesque – and challenging – I've ever ridden."

Although cycling unaccompanied is easy enough with a map and a sense of humour (most Taiwanese people speak some English) more guided group cycling tours are being launched to cater to a growing tourism market looking to traverse the beautiful island by bike. And the teachers? They are passionate advocates of all things cycling.

In Taiwan's oldest city Tainan, Taiwanese couple Lin Hsiao-kai and Yen Yi-hui (who embarked on a cycling trip in 2010 that saw them bike through four continents over the course of 30 months) run city cycling tours. Their adventurous voyage was about exhibiting Taiwan to the world (around 90 per cent of their cycling gear was made in Taiwan) and today they showcase Tainan – a city seeped in history with plenty of beautiful temples – by sharing what they love to do most.

Headed up by husband and wife team, Phil Tai and Demi Huang, Formosa Lohas Cycling Association is another establishment operating a gamut of tours that take travellers along picturesque routes showing off the best of seasonal Taiwan – such as golden blossom tours in January, firefly-filled forests in March and rice fields in June.

One of the most special expeditions that the Formosa Lohas Cycling Association offers is the Hualien Amis Harvest Festival Tour (available in August). The indigenous people of Taiwan account for around two per cent of the island's population and the Ami tribe is the largest of the 14 Aboriginal tribes. During the journey cyclists join the indigenous locals in a celebration of dancing, traditional ceremonies and plenty of indigenous food – a unique experience and a nod to Taiwan's hospitality and culture, which is essentially what any cycling tour in Taiwan is about – food, fun, festivities... and a sore butt.

The writer travelled courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau (eng.taiwan.net.tw). YouBike Rental stations are found in Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung and Changhua (youbike.com.tw/en). For Tainan city cycle tours emailLin Hsiau-kai (tn274@ms17.hinet.net). Formosa Lohas Cycling Association (flca.tw/en) offer group biking holidays around Taiwan.