An Idler's Guide to Cycling in Taiwan

By Oscar Holland, September 21, 2017

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Cycling around Taiwan is like the hajj for Asia’s sporty crowd – a pilgrimage for fitness freaks.

You know who I’m talking about: Those people who spend their weekends in outer Beijing’s mountains wearing lycra. Who do the Grasslands Marathon for fun. Who were once obsessed with HeyRunning (is that still a thing?).

That’s probably not you. But – and I’m going to blow your mind here – you don’t need to be fit to go on a cycling holiday in Taiwan. You don’t even need to be good at cycling.

Until this trip, I hadn’t stepped foot inside a branch of Decathlon. My physical preparation amounted to joining Mobike and occasionally riding to Sanlitun.

Honestly, you can do this. And it’s completely worth it.

Step one: Immediately abandon plans of going all the way around the island. It may sound romantic, but the west coast is urban and industrial. Cut straight to the best spots with a two-hour train from Taipei to Hualien, a city in east Taiwan.

Step two: Buy some gear. You might not want to be a lycra-clad dickhead, but a pair of those padded shorts will, literally, save your ass. A water bottle and some gloves will also come in handy.

Step three: Hire a bike. (This should really be step one – book in advance.) The world’s largest bike manufacturer, Giant, is Taiwanese, and thus the company has a comprehensive rental network across the island. Bikes can be returned to any of Giant’s stores, meaning you don’t really need a route. Or even a destination. Just see how it goes.

So, with a noticeable beer-paunch and a level of cardiovascular performance described by Chinese visa authorities as showing “no irregularities,” I embark on a 300-kilometer cycling odyssey (alongside three friends in somewhat better condition than I am).

For the most part, our journey follows Highway 11, a road blessed with spectacular ocean views and bike lanes so wide that other road users are relegated to second-class citizens. They could be forgiven for resenting us, but they’re too busy giving us an unnecessarily wide berth and being considerate. This is truly a cycling paradise.

The highway winds down the coast, hugging a ridge of dense, tropical mountains. But don’t let this placid description lull you into a false sense of security. For Day One is a brutal affair.

The stretch of road running south from Hualien is characterized by more than 30 kilometers of merciless ascent. This climb is so steep and unrelenting that, at times, I’m forced to dismount and walk. Like some cruel optical illusion, each blind corner reveals a new  incline or, worse still, a long uphill tunnel packed with speeding trucks.

Warning: Here is where the doubt is going to set in. Suddenly you’ll remember that Taiwan is hot, humid and home to spiders bigger than your face. You’ll experience unsustainable amounts of leg-burn. And, by falling so spectacularly at your journey’s first hurdle, you’ll dismiss the whole endeavor as foolhardy.

Persist you must. In the short-term, your toil will be rewarded with ten minutes of the most glorious, dizzying downhill imaginable – the Tour de Taiwan of your dreams. In the medium-term, you’ll be rewarded with, well, the rest of Highway 11.

Because from here on in, the road is smooth, flat and dotted with quaint townships. The landscape is remote enough to feel wild, yet developed enough to offer guesthouses (or 7-Elevens loaded with cold Pocari Sweat) whenever needed.

Infrastructure – an incredibly boring yet completely valid reason for choosing your holiday destination.

For real though, it means that you can play everything by ear. So with time on our side, we end our third day with a two-day pit stop in Dulan (a 3:2 ratio of cycling days to resting day works pretty well).

Surfer towns are a rarity in East Asia, making Dulan a welcome oddity. Expect some of those irritating backpacker-town vibes, sure. But the town also serves what you will, by now, crave: craft beer, burgers and an Indian restaurant in the middle of the forest. And when you’re on a cycling holiday, you can genuinely eat whatever you want – you’ll still finish the trip lighter than you began.

Refreshed and mildly hungover, we begin our second leg with the short trip to Taitung. Here, you’ll face two options (or three, if you count quitting): Continue down to Taiwan’s remote southern tip or loop back north through the Huatung Valley.

Having opted for the latter, my advice on this dilemma is one-sided. But let it be said that although the coastal roads boast sparkling sea, gorges and lush tropics, the Huatung Valley offers something more dramatic. And while Highway 11’s setup had been relatively straightforward (sea on one side, mountains on the other), the inland route illustrates the sheer variety of Taiwan’s geography.

We forge our way through flat fields, winding mountain roads and a network of dark, raging rivers worthy of Mordor. With them, 70-kilometer days dissolve into manageable chunks of sweating, punctuated by roadside noodle stops and Instagram photo ops.

It’s certainly a workout, but the scenic distractions are so captivating that you’d hardly notice. And if ever short of motivation, the valley’s inhabitants prove to be a reliable source of encouragement. They holler gleefully from roadside stalls and the windows of passing cars, cheering us on and willing us to succeed.

On the subject of friendly locals, it may also come as a relief to know that even the most rudimentary displays of Chinese language ability are met with nods of appreciation, if not comprehension.

In the name of full disclosure, I should conclude by telling you that we bailed on our journey’s final stretch. Taipei’s bright lights beckoned. Upon arriving in Yuli Township, we booked ourselves (and our bikes) onto a train back to Hualien.

And that’s surely the point here. Taiwan is a perfect destination for fitness freaks. But it’s also accommodating to chancers, idlers and those of us uncertain of how far we’re willing – or even able – to push ourselves. 

When to go

Spring and fall are the best times of year to visit Taiwan (with fall slightly drier). The winter can be surprisingly chilly, though cycling should keep you warm. Summer months are hot, humid and prone to typhoons.

Hiring equipment

Although Giant operates an island-wide bike rental service, there is no central database of hire stores. Thankfully some helpful bloggers have compiled contact lists (try Helmets, gloves and other essentials can be borrowed or bought in-store. Bikes must be booked in advance (ideally a week or more before your arrival), and employees at some of the stores speak decent English.

Getting there

There are four or five flights between Beijing and Taipei each day. Hualien is approximately two hours from Taipei by train. Tickets can be purchased on the day of travel at Taipei Main Station.

Where to stay

Most townships will have at least a couple of passable hotels or guesthouses (bookable through the usual online channels). Advance booking is not necessary outside peak seasons, though it's always advisable to book ahead if headed to the popular backpacker town of Dulan.

Photos by Ben White-Overton

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