Friday, July 6, 2012

Taiwan Nantou Epic

Day 1- SML to Silk's Place

Leaving Hong Kong with a T3 typhoon warning isn't usually the best omen by which to begin a bike tour in nearby Taiwan. Especially when your planned route is notorious for being one of the most unforgiving riding environments Asia has to offer. Reports ranging from 'the coldest I've ever been on a bike' to 'I didn't ride the descents because it was so cold and wet' didn't really bode so well either. 

Yet, waking up to beautiful blue skies in 'Sun Moon Lake', an environment akin to an Asian Switzerland, the previous evening's drive through the pouring rain and 1.45am arrival at our cockroach infested (well, one) hotel were soon forgotten.

James, Mark & I set off a little late, but with fresh legs and the wind in our sails, we hit the day's big climb after about an hour and enthusiastically set tempo, climbing from a mere 450m above sea level to four figures, getting higher and higher. A Starbucks set just below the 2000m mark provided lunch, a caffeine hit, and an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with our very enthusiastic latte supping driver- Mr Jason.  

Climbing higher and higher the effects of hour upon hour of grinding out the gears (luckily a 39x29 fitted for the occasion) and a touch of altitude assisted heavy breathing, began to take their toll on me. Having ridden the bulk of the climb with James, who seemed to be going better on the steeper ramps, I started to really toil around 2500m, and having been comprehensively dropped, happened upon the most delicious roadside delight one is likely to find in clouds on a mountain in the middle of Taiwan- a fresh peach! Rarely has fruit tasted so good.

Nearing the top my stints of riding became shorter and shorter, as breaks to take in the scenery and catch my breath became the order of the day. Mr Jason appeared like an apparition with a mere 3km to go and I took the opportunity to get some warmer clothing, knowing there could be a wait at the top for Mark, who was clearly struggling the most out of the three of us. Still, at 3200m, the feeling of having made it to the top outweighed any altitude induced weasiness, and the views were quite spectacular up above the clouds. 

A solid lie down was in order on the back seat of our van before wrapping up to get set for the longest descent I've ever ridden, as well as one of the most memorable. Setting off at gone 4pm (what- only one climb?!?) we began our drop off the mountain in glorious late afternoon sun heading in the direction of Taroko gauge.

Interspersed with tunnels and hair raising blind corners we twisted our way down this never ending descent for over 2 hours. James and I played the game of 'stay with Mr Jason'- this had the advantage of some warning for on-coming traffic going into blind corners on the narrow single track roads, as well as proving light and safety in the often un- lit tunnels. 

Following the van had the added bonus of feeling like a rave once inside the tunnels- with Mr Jason's LED embezzled rear bumper complimenting the hazard lights reflecting off the wet cave like walls nicely. The disadvantage was that Mr Jason can really throw around a VW van in a way only people with Chinese genes know how, and following him with a softening rear tire certainly pushed the boundaries of grip and stability at times. Having failed in my efforts to stop mr Jason to fix said tire James and I had a well earned rest to add a few more psi to get us to the hotel. 

And what a hotel it was! In complete contrast to the previous night we checked in, showered in pampered glory and tucked into a 3 course meal before heading to the roof for a night time jacuzzi. Oh yea- if only more bike race hotels were like this!

Day 2- Silk's Place to Foushoushan Farm

Waking to the sound of rapids outside your window and yet more blue skies, I was pretty keen to get myself together and hit the roof top pool! Oh yea, there was some riding to do as well, but not till I'd had a dip and soaked in a bit of the gauge's atmosphere- sans Lycra.

Still, needs must, and we didn't come all this way to sit by the pool. If yesterday was a record breaker for duration of descent, today would return the favour with a 50+km climb, starting right outside our front door. 

What started as good progress in the morning deteriorated into an hour and a half's delay, as a road block for cliff side repairs put a halt to proceedings. As a 'short' day of 85km (almost all up hill) we were not too bad for time, but this hillside was not blessed with so many peaches and Starbucks, so lunch was proving tricky to find. 

Luckily, redemption came in the form of a peach themed cafe, sat on a bend overlooking the gorge. Here we sampled peach flavoured honey, peach tea, dried peaches and, more importantly, some beef rice proper food!

Hitting the summit, Mark innocuously asked me to look at his gears as they were slipping. A few adjustments later and his rear gear cable had snapped! It had been holding on by a thread and gradually stretched then snapped. Without and spares, Mark jumped into the van to chase down a touring rider who we thought may be better prepared than us. A fruitless task, all we could think of was to sack the mechanic...

Riding a 2 speed bike would prove to be a cruel way to wrap up the day for Mark, collapsed over the bars and defeated by the gradient going up to our evening's accommodation- Fushoushan farm, set at an impressive 2200m.

DIY ice cream and cherries washed down with a few tins of beer proved a successful strategy for numbing the pain of sharing a double bed with Mark, but I did not sleep so well!

Day 3 - Foushoushan Farm to wherever Mr Jason called stumps

A cloudless sky greeted us for yet another fine morning. Less wondrous was the Chinese buffet breakfast- the western concession of mingin' white bread toast topped with fluorescent jam a reminder that staying on a Taiwanese farm has its drawbacks. 

Still, with shade there is light, and to top off the fine blue sky was the sight of Mr Jason clutching a cable, sourced from a motorcycle shop, with a smile on his face. 10 minutes of botching with electrical tape and an innovate stem clamp shifting device later, I'd 'upgraded' Mark's 2 speed gear ratios to something he could climb with. 

This was all good, were it not for the fact Mark is completely incapable of leaving on time. As such, James and I set on our way without Mark and/or the van, following garmin's pink line to the letter. This led us on some super rolling back country roads that bore no resemblance to the route profile we were expecting (the missing 3300m mountain being the major discrepancy). When we got halfway down a rather epic descent, having ridden for a few hours, we started to worry. With no reply to the messages we sent out out and the mobile not working, just as we were midway through operator assistance at a phone box, Mark came whizzing by, followed by Mr Jason. Apparently we were on the right route and there was no 3300m mountain. I guess google maps has it's limits, especially in China, where the garmin maps have no context.

Another hour or so's riding through lunch and Mr Jason called stumps, worried about the amount of time it would take Mark to pack his bags (...), as well as the traffic for getting back to the airport.

Driving these last km's the skies clouded over and we reflected on quite how lucky we'd been with the weather and just quite how epic this unlikely high mountain riding destination is. While it can't quite match the best Europia has to offer in terms of breadth of quality, let's remember the highest pass ever featured  in the tour de france (the Col de la Bonnette) is 'only' 2715m. Obviously The Himalayas and the Andes etc will no have higher, longer, faster, but for such a small country, central Taiwan is certainly the land of surprises. It should be on any cyclist's riding wish list.