Among the many things I love about my job at Salsa Cycles is the fact that I sometimes have opportunities to ride in places I might not have been able to otherwise. This is a story of one of those rides.
Several years ago I joined Joe Meiser (now Salsa Product Manager) on a bike ride through the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan. Not only did we pass through Taroko Gorge National Park, one of Taiwan’s premier national parks, we also climbed 3227 meters to Wuling Pass. It was an amazing bike ride up to Taiwan’s highest pass; a pass that can see snow and ice even though it’s on a tropical island. When Joe and I did it years ago we did it over a day and a half; starting in Xing Chen next to the Pacific Ocean, stopping about three quarters of the way up at a hostel, and finishing off the climb the next morning.
Since that trip I’ve dreamt of doing a complete journey from coast to coast onboard my Colossal Ti, using the same route. When the opportunity arouse for a work trip in January I thought it might be a good time to try.
I talked about the trip with our team in Taiwan first to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and then I mapped out the route. I knew I wanted to start at the Pacific Ocean, climb through the Taroko Gorge, and finish at the Gaonmi Wetlands on the Strait of Taiwan. west of Taichung. I already knew the route from the Pacific up to Wuling Pass, now I just needed to figure out the west side. I figured I could use Highway 14 all the way down to the city of Puli from the top and then connect two-lane highways through the mountains to Taichung. From there I would connect lots of city roads through Taichung to the coast, some of which I had ridden before. The final route would be roughtly 145 miles with about 17,000 feet of climbing.
For those of you who haven’t been to Taiwan, it’s about the size of Iowa and incredibly mountainous in the middle. These mountains cover much of Taiwan and are steep and covered in jungle vegetation. Most of the major cities are along the west coast. In fact, skyscrapers dot the skyline almost completely from north to south along that coastline. The mountains drop right into the Pacific on the east coast; it is much less populated, and has more forest than city. I’ve heard it’s more laid back and is a great place to go when you want to get away from city life. This is why I was excited to spend more time on the east coast and start from there.
Once the route was finalized I began planning out the gear. I knew I could use 7-11’s and pot-sticker stands along the way for food. My main concerns were lighting and charging my Garmin, but I was confident that my 18650 battery system and Fenix flashlight would handle both.
Last, I asked for the help of our team in Taiwan to plan the hostel stays in Taipei and Xing-Chen. Ideally I would fly there, stay in Taipei, and then take the “slow train” over to Xing-Chen/Hualien area. This would allow me to get up the next morning and ride west across the island to Taichung. Thankfully our awesome team in Taiwan helped me find a hotel in Taipei and a local courier to bring my bag down to Taichung. They also gave me the beta on grabbing the bus or train.
When I flew in I took my bike box and duffle to my hotel room in Taipei. That evening I switched all my work related stuff to the duffle and only bike trip related items were put into the bike box. Making sure I had everything and nothing extra was a little meticulous but I got it right (except my belt I was wearing). The next morning I arose jet lagged but ready to go. After a coffee shop stop I caught the local train out of Taipei. I had done this before so was comfortable with the trip even though I didn’t see anybody that could speak my language during its entirety. I tried sleeping but the subway style seating wouldn’t have it.
I arrived in Xing-Chen ready to unpack the bike and make sure nothing was broken. I’d be staying in the Taroko Suisse Space B&B that night. It wasn’t far away, maybe five blocks, from the train station but I didn’t want to drag the bike box all the way there. It was a nice afternoon so I unloaded and built the bike right at the train station. Many of the older Taiwanese men stopped and starred at me as I put my bike and gear together. Taiwan is full of cyclist and scooters but seeing a guy build his bike at the train station probably doesn’t happen everyday, especially a lanky American. Once I validated everything was there I biked over to the B&B.
The owner was very kind and gave me some pointers for lunch. Once checked in I was really feeling the heavy eyelids but I knew I needed to get lunch before taking a nap. Xing-Chen is small so the only restaurant would close after lunch. Apparently they are famous for lemon juice, and I now must agree. I couldn’t really talk to them but I said I wanted rice and thankfully they understood. They brought out a heaping plate of fried rice and chicken and it absolutely hit the spot! I ordered a second Bento Box to go, it didn’t hurt it was $1.15 per meal either. Every time I go to Taiwan I enjoy the food more and more, it really is quite good; plus as an endurance athlete it’s perfect - rice, vegetables, and some protein. On the way out I grabbed a Taiwan Gold Metal Beer for the road and walked to the ocean pier they have in town. I found a concrete bench and enjoyed the cold beer as I watched the waves crash and people walking their dogs.
A long nap led to a late dinner, one last check of my bike, and then sleep. I hoped the weather would be good for my ride. On our last trip, Joe and I had started in similar warm weather (50’s Fahrenheit) only to finish at the top in freezing rain. I’ve learned to pack light for a lot of varying conditions buts its hard to dress for 30’s and rainy! I was not hoping for a repeat.
The alarm went off at 3AM but I was already awake since my body was so confused and thought it was more like 1PM in the afternoon. By 4AM I was outside ready to go. The temperature felt good and it wasn’t raining. I started the Garmin and pedaled over to the Pacific.
I walked down the beach to do the ceremonial plunging of the rear wheel to mark my official start. Soon I was I biking through town quietly with just a few local dingos giving chase. I biked several miles seeing no one on the road; something rare in Taiwan.
After several miles I was in the national park and things quickly got very dark. My bike light seemed brighter than ever before in the darkness. The gorge road is truly amazing; it really shouldn’t exist considering the difficulty it was to build, yet here it is. The entire road, and many of the Taiwan mountain roads probably wouldn’t be built in other countries considering the steepness of the mountains and constant mudslides. Some political and trade reasons exist for Taiwan to maintain and build them, but it also shows the determination of the Taiwanese people and their love for the mountains. I was thankful Joe and I had biked the route before in the daytime when you can see how deep and beautiful the gorge is. It’s truly a remarkable site. Now, this early in the morning all I could see was the road in front of me and hear water crashing over rocks and waterfalls as it made its way to the Pacific, cutting the gorge deeper and deeper. Occasionally the many tunnels would cast a focused orange glow down into the gorge, never finding the bottom. It was a surreal experience.
I climbed further and the grade on this section of road is almost perfect, maybe 5%. It’s deceiving how much you can climb without feeling all that stressed. Around 7AM the sun had risen but the mountains were covered in thick fog. I was thankful for my bright rear light. I cut back and forth across the mountains going through the small villages here and there. Finally, 40-some miles into the ride, I hit the tea shop near the Bali Sacred Tree. Joe and I had stopped here before and it was nice to say hello to the owner again and get a warm cup of coffee. I talked to some very friendly Taiwanese folks there who were interested in my trip and they said I should find sun at the top. Before getting too comfortable I headed back out since I didn’t want to start cooling off. The temperature was near freezing but the climbing was keeping my hands and feet warm.
I finally hit the junction of highway 8 and 14 where the real climbing begins. I’m not sure if Highway 14 is older or they just built it steeper but it climbs at 10% grade and almost 30% in spots. The roads were wet with a very light downpour, nothing to complain about but it made the road grates slick. The road climbed and climbed and I could tell my breathing was being affected because of my sea level lungs. I arrived at a spot that last time had provided some amazing views but this time was completely socked in. The great thing about the clouds is that it had allowed a heavy ice to build up on the trees and foliage all the side of the mountain; it was gorgeous. I took pictures and hoped it was only on the vegetation, and not on the roads. It’s actually possible to have ice and snow up this high but it doesn’t last long. They have signs to warn drivers of the need to run chains.
After several switchbacks the climbing began to lessen and then suddenly I was out of the clouds. The views were absolutely amazing; I could probably see five or six layers of mountains. I stopped to get photos and told myself it was just to get pictures when secretly I knew it felt good to get a breather. I came through the ridge cut that allows you to see the final climb and mountain lodge. This area sits just below Wuling Pass and has a new cafe and Song Syue Mountain Lodge. This is a great place to stay if you want to do high mountain hikes. I decided to fill up water bottles here and eat some of the food I had carried up. I finally did the last 2 km to the top, which looks short but at 15% grade it isn’t. It was beastly, and I found a new brick wall at the very top to prop up against. I enjoyed the sunshine and warmer temperatures now that I was out of the clouds. Taiwanese tourist wandered about taking pictures and laughing. It was a good place to rest and I’d made it there in about six hours of ride time. I lay down on the brick wall letting my heart and lungs slow down and quickly fell into 20-minute nap. It was perfect and I felt much more awake. I was pretty excited about the almost 30-mile descent in front of me now!
The road on the west side is in great condition, newly paved, smooth, and full of thousands of corners. I was excited to have the Colossal Ti with disc brakes and HED Belgium + rims clad with Hutchinson Sectaur 28mm tires. I felt very confident on the descent cutting and cornering my way down. On my bike I was able smooth out the corners much better than the cars but I made sure not to be reckless and stay on the inside of blind corners. I kept descending almost not believing how much elevation I was dropping.
I continued down to within several miles of Puli. This section into Puli was the only section I was nervous about, as it was a skinny road with a good amount of traffic. Overall Taiwan is a good country to ride a bike or scooter because so many people use them, but the cyclist never wins in a truck/pole/car collision. Thankfully it wasn’t as tight as I remembered and the road still went slightly downhill here so I was able to hold mid-20’s mph and integrate with traffic when I needed. I finished my big descent and started on the back roads of Puli to cross the valley.
I’m always impressed with the many different small roads going everywhere in Taiwan. Taiwan towns and cities weren’t part of some designed master plan, so the roads just connect and meander here and there. I followed my GPS file next to cabbage fields, rice patties, small farms, chicken coops, and homes, finally popping out on the opposite side of the valley. The locals watched as I pedaled by, somewhat interested. I meandered through a beetle nut farm and down into another valley probably descending another 1000 feet. About halfway down I realized I had missed my turn, painfully climbing back up for two or three tenths of a mile. This offshoot reminded me so much of a similar road in Tennessee it was eerie! Even the chicken coops looked the same; strange!
I hit my next highway and enjoyed smooth roads with little traffic. I was just past 100 miles into my journey and my back was starting to let me know. I tried to do a little on-the-bike-stretching before the next climb. I weaved up another mountain road and descended to Puli Township. Here I had to go through a busier section with two tunnels. I went through the busy tunnels as fast as possible. The drivers did fine around me but I could tell traffic was picking up, probably due to proximity to Taichung and people getting off work.
At this point I began to mentally relax a little too much because I didn’t realize my last section of mountain highway (Hwy 136) would have such a sawtooth profile. When I planned the route, the big 10,000-foot climb had scaled all the other climbs down and the distance also minimized the severity of some of this section since the elevation chart resolution was so big. I corrected my attitude and remembered how cool this bike ride was, plus the weather had been almost perfect. I reminded myself to count my blessings before complaining.
Eventually the skyscrapers came into view along the high points of highway 136. This teased me into thinking I was much closer than I really was. 136 does not take a direct way into Taiwan, instead it goes parallel for a bit and up and down the ridgeline. Finally, when I had almost given up, this road even took me to Taichung. It descended quickly and I arrived just on the edge of the city.
I went quickly from quiet mountain roads to busy city streets full of cars and scooters. I tried to pick the best route through the city but it was difficult in a city that large. I’m sure that if I knew the area better I could have found better bike routes and faster roads but I hadn’t really biked this section of town before. The ride became a slow meander full of stoplights and scooter traffic; some of them filling the air with exhaust fumes. I had made it to the east side of the city around 3PM, but by 6PM I was just getting past the Taichung airport on the west of town. I knew the roads better in this area but traffic was still heavy.
I watched the setting sun from atop the hill as I did my final descent down to Taichung Harbor. I was only 6 or 7 miles away from the finish, but again the city closed in around me. I was hoping to finish before sunset but now it was looking like I was finishing in the last embers of daylight.
I bobbed and weaved and finally found a nice stretch of road along some rice patties to make time. I could see the wind turbines along the coast so I knew I was close. I finally found the sign for the Gaonmi Wetlands as the final rays of sunlight were filling the sky behind the clouds with red and oranges. It was a beautiful canvas to view at the finish. There was just enough daylight to help me find the boardwalk out into the Strait of Taiwan.
I had expected to see one of our team members here but several showed up making the finish that much better. We talked about the trip, and they congratulated me with a very cool poster they had made, and some flowers. It was something I’m not used to getting at the finish of a bike ride but greatly appreciated. I thanked them for their kindness and the hot green tea they brought was excellent! We walked along the boardwalk and I found a patch of water to stick my rear tire in. I was tired, but it was a grand finish. The trip was an amazing way to see more of an amazing country.
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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen
I was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee. I decided in high school I wanted to design the best bikes and parts possible; I’ve been following my dream ever since. I love about every possible mode of cycling, mountain biking is the most fun, but if I’m on two wheels I’m happy.