Last autumn we built a couple of F5 prototype road bikes, flew to Taipei and rode a 10-day loop around the island. To any ambitious, experiential cyclist in China it's a rolling right of passage, full of variety and beauty and roads bristling with cyclists.
Considering the pilgrimage nature of biking the island, it has taken me a while to reach a concise conclusion. Here it is: Don't ride all the way around Taiwan.
There are some phenomenally beautiful parts of Formosa Island that cannot be missed. They accumulate into one of the best bike rides in the world. There are also some distinctly average routes. For those who set out for the well trodden clockwise circumnavigation of the coastline, the final 25% of the journey will feel a challenge of attrition and box-ticking success.
That's because the island's west coast is 250km of industrial cities. There's no real coast, no real hills and nothing really beautiful to see. Add to this a prevailing southerly wind and the return to Taipei is an incredibly drawn out re-introduction to a messy city in south east asia.
Which is why I fully suggest ditching the concept of cycling all the way around Taiwan. Unless you ride just for the purposes of riding all the way around places, all the most phenomenal parts of Taipei can be experienced without hitting the let downs.
There are plenty of phenomenal places. Here's a selection:
Hualien and the East Coast
The number 11 highway south of Hualian is a beautiful road. It runs straight down the coast with sea on one side, mountains on the other and smooth, gradually downward sloping tarmac out in front. It levels out alongside the water for long stretches and twists up through the hillside for breathtaking views at a series of outcrops.
The beaches aren't particularly alluring but that's not what we're here for. The towns aren't picturesque coastal hamlets but this is essentially China and we knew that already. Even the food doesn't embody the excitement I was hoping for, but that's for another post.
What it does have is calm traffic, a constant streams of riders, wide cycle lanes and free tools at every 7-11. The feeling of camaraderie and an adventuring spirit will propel you along regardless of how overloaded your panniers are. I wrote a few notes here about the essential items for touring taiwan by bike.
There are hot springs too. A perfect example is at the East Spa Hotel up the hills above Jinlun town. It's peaceful, cheap, friendly and has a few huge pools out front. After a long day in the saddle it feels a just reward With the waves breaking over yonder, the stars twinkling in the sky and hot mineral goodness reversing the effects of 100km on your muscles.
The closed Southern Cross Highway Route #20
Both the Central and Southern mountain pass routes are often closed due to landslides. We only found this out about the Southern Cross after getting far enough up it to hit the road blocks. It's utterly worth it however to follow the river back up the valley on a 20km route gaining 750m of elevation.
The scenery up top is breathtaking. We stayed in Wulu at the Chief Spa Hotel which is perched on the valley with a huge suspension bridge in the back garden and a fine cluster of luxurious hot springs.
Spa-like hot springs are delightful for a soak and a beer but there's something truly magical about a naturally forming onsen out in pure nature. Taiwan must be full of them but I'm convinced Lison Springs at the top of Highway #20 is second to none.
A 30 minute undergrowth hike down a steep valley widens into a small river. Wading waist deep upstream and around a corner reveals a breathtaking crop of smooth, beautifully mottled rocks. They're stained green by the boiling water trickling down from the spring above. It mixes into the river and creates a small, secluded pool of steamy current.
Sun Moon Lake
Up in the central mountain range running the length of the island, Sun Moon Lake is undeniably one of Taiwan's foremost attractions. Approaching from the South or the North it is nestled within a basin of the surrounding mountains which makes for a superbly rewarding descent to the water's edge.
It is riddled with tourists but not in an altogether terrible way and the main town, Mingtan, on the north-west banks of the lake is pleasant enough. It has a drop-in selection of hotels for next to no money, good for an evening stop, a drink by the water and a walk through town.
On the west side of the lake is a visitor's centre by Norihiko Dan and Associates. It's worthy of a visit but the real attraction is the road that circles the lake. This area is home to Taiwan's best roads for riding.
The Central Mountains
Taiwan's best roads for riding are indeed The mountains. Unless you haven't the legs for climbing then the coast or the city will fee like child's play when you get inland. Which is why I say that going for the coastal route all the way round will mean you ultimately miss out on the best part.
My advice, and what we will do next time, is ride south along the east coast from Taipei, then turn towards the mountains up whichever cross highway is now open. Spend your kilometres in the hills, winding up the hairpins and blasting down the valleys and turn back towards the capital when you're ready.
There is one route that's particularly rewarding from the island-circumnavigation. It tracks the river back into Taipei along the Huanhe Rd. As the city takes shape and skyscraper begin to fill the horizon there's no feeling after a week or two in the saddle like cruising into a city and right into the middle of town. We ended 10 days with smoothies and bike poses at the bottom of Taipei 101. That we had deviated from the coast and found the real value of Formosa was enough to smile about.
Note: I used strava to track our route but had a couple of glitches in the first day.
Here are the stages I successfully recorded starting at Taidong:
For a few notes on surviving a bike-touring trip through Taiwain, check my post here.