Some 180km south of China lies an unassuming mountain wonderland that’s fast becoming Asia’s destination of choice for travellers of the twowheeled variety. We ventured to Dongyanshan in Taiwan to see for ourselves…
Words: ALEX MALONE
Photography: TIM BARDSLEY-SMITH
The summit of Dongyanshan signals the high point of the day. We’ve been on the road for little over an hour and we’re spent. Another hors catégorie climb has been ticked off, but our list of scalps doesn’t even begin to touch the sides of this cloud-stretching land they call Taiwan. We need more time.
Our Taiwan journey has been relentless, the days busily filled with rides along the coastline and northern mountains – but there has been far too much on offer to squeeze into a single trip. We’re yet to even pack for the return leg home and have already promised ourselves we’ll be back one day.
Yao Chenyu, a Taipei bike shop owner and our guide for the day, is already planning tomorrow’s ride. The rest of the bunch, comprising of friends and Yao Bike store customers – turned mates – are all signed up.
There’s a love for cycling here that feels a little like home, despite the 7,000km distance between. ‘It’s Tuesday – shouldn’t you all be at work?’ a non-cyclist mate would ask. ‘Not today my friend. We’ve taken the day off to ride bikes.’ It makes sense to us, and so too the four-strong rider crew assembled out the front of a Hi-Life convenience store in the Sanxia District. ‘Tomorrow, we’ll meet a little bit earlier for an easy coffee ride,’ Yao says. Music to our ears.
On face value, Taiwan is a busy – if not impossible – place to ride. It ranks amongst the top-20 most densely populated regions in the world, and its northern capital of Taipei is packed. Scooters own the roads here, with cars a close second, but that hasn’t prevented the cycling scene from taking hold. Major arteries are equipped with scooter lanes, and it seems the infrastructure designed for heavy traffic numbers has in fact created safer conditions for cyclists.
Dig a bit deeper into the geography and things look even better. The majority of the 23.5 million inhabitants fill just one-third of the land. The remaining landscape is littered with near uninhabitable mountains, some of which extend 3,500m above sea level.
Scooters own the roads here, with cars a close second, but that certainly hasn’t prevented the cycling scene from taking hold
For those unable to withdraw themselves from the buzz of city life, the capital of Taipei offers the best of both worlds. Sitting at the belly of a mountainous bowl, city slickers and holiday makers can have their cake and burn its contained energy too up the endless nearby ascents. There’s a reason locals call this place Treasure Island.
More bidons, please
It’s 8am when we arrive at the nondescript Hi-Life. The temperature is already above 30°C, the humidity a touch below 80%. Yao, Ah-Ta, Terry and Black file into the frosty-aired store on the hunt for breakfast; meanwhile, I’m more concerned with the water-carrying capacity of my ride. It’s bloody hot. ‘You guys want to throw some extra water in the car?,’ I ask. ‘No, we’re okay,’ replies Yao.
Independent Fabrication Factory Lightweight, approx. $5,100 (frameset, including custom paint), ifbikes.com
Custom sized, welded and painted in Newmarket, NH before being shipped to Yao’s shop, Yao’s bike is one of a kind. Fitted with a SRAM Red 11-speed groupset (11-28) and paired to a Rotor 3D Power2Max with Praxis 36/52 chainrings, Yao’s ride tackles the endless climbs and mountains around Taipei. A pair of Giant SLR0 carbon clinchers roll on Vittoria Corsa Speed 23mm tyres while Deda supply the controls with a pair of Superleggera (400mm) bars bolted to an Extralite 110mm stem. Yao’s caboose is looked after by a Fizik Antares saddle attached to a Deda Superleggera post. Enve supply the fork while the Chris King headset will arguably outlast the frame. It’s both art and a bike to me,’ Yao says. ‘IF go to extreme lengths to comply with the customer’s needs. I wanted something for the mountains while retaining a racy feel.’ They did a fantastic job. It weighs only 6.5kg – that’s lighter than many carbon fibre bikes out there. This is really amazing as it’s made from steel! It’s light, stiff, durable and the ride quality is excellent. Anyone who rides one will definitely love it.
Meanwhile, I’m more concerned with the water-carrying capacity of my ride. It’s bloody hot
Terry and Black have a single bidon. It’s not particularly difficult to spot the tourist today.
Yao has pulled together a mini-peloton of friends and customers to guide us around the south-west corner of New Taipei City. He promises the route will include a treat few out-of-towners would stumble across, though I get the impression it wouldn’t be too hard to find gold here. You’re truly spoiled for choice in Taiwan. Climbing is a given; choosing which direction you want to head and how high you want to go is the tough part.
‘We call this ride Dongyanshan,’ Yao announces as we roll out from our meeting spot in the Sanxia District – approximately 30km from our Check Inn hotel in downtown Taipei. We know little of what to expect today apart from the HC-ranked mountain to which Yao refers. With literally hundreds of huge mountains scattered across the east coast of the island, it’s seems fitting for rides to be simply named after their main challenge
Pitched above the Sanxia River, the first 10km along Dabu Road are more or less flat, subtly creeping up to the base of Dongyanshan. Having expressed his concern around the main ascent of the day in an earlier WhatsApp conversation, Yao now seems unfazed, his front wheel sitting half its length in front of mine.
Dabu Road snakes its way in a south-east direction, following the line of the valley floor cut through by the Sanxia. We’re surrounded by steep, tree-covered hills – not particularly high, but such is the density of the greenery that it’s tough to tell just where they finish. You’d be hard-pressed bushwalking up one of them without a defined path.
The walls of the road burst with brightly coloured trees, while the rocky river bed offers a stunning contrast with its rapidly moving blue water. We follow the river’s flow as it moves downstream from the Taiwan Strait, part of the East China Sea, to its final destination at the Shihmen Reservoir. ‘We’ll have lunch near the reservoir,’ Yao says, not more than 20 minutes after eating breakfast. Cyclists, regardless of where they live, are constantly dreaming of the next meal. We don’t argue.
We make our first crossing over the river and see Tim, our photographer, already perched above the bridge, finger on the trigger. The riverbed is wider than we thought, and with so much rock exposed, we’re guessing it can handle a serious amount of water. Houses and small businesses push their building walls to the outer limits of the river’s edge, many finding a perfect boulder from which to balance their foundations. I’m not sure you could pay your way to such a view back home; and if you could, council would hardly be willing to pass your development application.
‘We cross over Dongyan Bridge and then start the climb,’ says an excited Ah-Ta. The motorcycle mechanic seems like the climber of the group, and while we’ve been riding around the island for over 10 days by this point – two of those days with his uber-strong friend Terence – he seems more than happy to see just how much I have left in the tank. It’s hard not to be sucked in.
The 12km climb is anything but steady. The road tilts upwards immediately following the bridge crossing. ‘There are about 16 switchbacks,’ Ah-Ta notes. Everyone’s game faces switch on. It’s unfamiliar territory to have so many riders on a Big Ride, but we’re enjoying being able to share the day with more than just two or three others.
We round five switchbacks in the opening kilometres, the river disappearing amidst the thick forest as we tackle the 15% gradient. On any other road you’d assume the Wahoo Elemnt was having a conniption, but the sporadic gradient and need to get out of the saddle justifies the numbers.
The next few kilometres pass without another major turn, but the gradient fails to allow any kind of rhythm. We’d been warned by a few industry folks about the toughness of the climbs around Taipei but failed to take much of it on board. Total distance and elevation from Strava files tend to be the only numbers we look at, and numbers alone rarely do a ride justice. One isn’t simply gifted HC status – the mountain earns it.
Situated perfectly between an opening of surrounding hills, his little corner of the world is basking in the early morning light
We round a huge sweeping right-hander and soon begin the next major section of switchbacks. A local farmer stands on the inside line, his house laying on the outside of the bend, and tends to his veggie patch while we huff and puff (and sweat) around his crop. Situated perfectly between an opening of surrounding hills, his little corner of the world is basking in the early morning light.
By this point our group is scattered across the mountain. Ah-Ta and I are having a little battle up the front as we reach what I believe is the top. A look to my left shows what appears to be the summit. Just a half-dozen turns left. I give it everything around the lower two in an attempt to win the Dongyanshan crown.
Tim has other ideas. Standing at the top with his long lens already locked, he instructs us to head back down. I perch over the edge to see what he’s looking at – a dreamy, twisting road. It’s the kind that strangely puts a grin on your face despite knowing the reality is far more painful. We head down and regroup before being instructed to ride back to the top. He gets what he needs.
Now for the downhill – or so I thought. ‘Just a couple of kilometres,’ says a smiling Yao, local knowledge now coming into play. We’ve been riding for just on an hour and the day is already taking its toll. I fill up both bidons (again) while the others seems to have already filled up. At least, that’s what I tell myself. There’s barely a sip missing from Terry’s.
The road narrows as we get closer to the summit, taking our final left-hander into the East Eye Mountain Forest Recreation Area. The road drops off to our right near the top proper and sharply rises again in nearly every direction. There’s no shortage of mountains here, that’s for sure.
‘That’s the high point for the day,’ Yao says while finally filling up his own bidons. ‘Now we descend for nearly 20km, then we’ll find somewhere for lunch,’ he adds. ‘I’ve got a place in mind for you guys,’ chimes in Jerry, our Taiwan Tourism guide. We give Jerry the nod. Up until now, he has ensured our final days run as smoothly as a bottle of Finish Line Ceramic lube.
We plummet down the twisting descent in a south-west direction, the group braking, leaning and pedalling out of the turns in near-perfect unison. There are few cars on the roads around this area, the land to the east filled with mountains almost all the way to the other side of the island – not that you can see the coast from here.
The town of Sanmin is our lunch stop. One thing we’ve noticed that’s different to back home is that a lunch stop is normal on longer rides – not that this is really one of them when purely looking at the kilometre count. Being all too familiar now with Taiwanese cuisine, we’re already salivating at the spread to come. Meals tend to consist of a main dish for each person at the table, all to be shared. Pork, fish, chicken, vegetables, soup, rice, tea and cold drinks – there’s no shortage of food going around, and Tim provides a surprising education on many of the fish swimming around in the restaurant’s tanks. With stomachs full and brains filled with new knowledge around freshwater swimmers, we’re back on the bikes for the final 40km.
We use our extra weight for the fast, flowing ride down towards the Dahan River and Shihmen Dam. The quiet road follows the line of the river and there’s barely a car on the road. Small boats and marinas line the edges, while a pair of newlyweds stand on a small jetty with a posse of loved ones arranging themselves for post-ceremony photos. Two photographers and two assistants – one taking care of lighting, the other straightening the flowing white dress – ensure no detail is left out.
Tim has managed to clamber up a wall nearly twice his height and gives us a shout on approach from up in the foliage. We round a few more bends and the huge dam comes into sight. Our route takes us across the wall before making a sharp turn down to its northern afterbay side.
‘They have had a KOM point at the top of the dam during the [UCI] Tour of Taiwan,’ Yao says as we fly down to its base. Having only followed the online results and short highlight videos, I hadn’t, until now, really appreciated the appeal of this race. I’m sure it’s one that riders love coming to. Perfect roads, searing heat, humidity, amazing food, great hotels and tough competition – sounds like a great place to race.
Icing on the cake
The day is getting on by this point and another day in 30-plus degree temperatures is starting to take its toll. The rest of the bunch seem to have sparked up now that the real climbing is done, and Ah-Ta starts to really push the pace over the flat final 20km.
‘You want to have shaved ice at the end?’ Yao asks. I’ve already learned that the Taiwanese version of a park-up is just the thing to cap off the day. ‘Of course,’ I reply while almost bursting out of my jersey following a huge lunch. Ah-Ta speeds up once again, cutting through the final few turns en route to our next meal. The bunch trickles in to a tiny store with little fanfare but no doubt serving exactly what we’re after. It’s a place only a local would know. While the mountain was incredible, I wonder if this was the treat Yao promised. Whatever the case, it feels just like home.
Do it yourself
Follow our route around Dongyanshan and the Daxi District
The full loop will land you with around 1,400m of climbing, most of that coming from the HC-ranked Dongyanshan mountain. Starting in the Sanxia District, follow Dabu Road for 4km. Cross the river onto the 114 and with the river now to your right, continue for another 5km until reaching Dongyan Bridge. Turn right, cross the river again and start climbing along the Dongyanshan Industry 113 Road. After 20km you’ll reach an intersection where a sharp left takes you into the recreational area. Flip a U-turn at the top and follow the 119 to Fuxing. At 44km in, turn off the 7 road onto Huanhu Road, which takes you all the way through to the dam and the wall. Cross over and turn off towards the right and jump onto Kangzhuang Road. This brings you into Daxi before making a last right-hand turn onto Xinyi for the final kilometres back into town.
By the numbers
The story in stats
distance in km from New Taipei City to the start of the ride
switchbacks up Dongyanshan
difference in number of bottles consumed by Alex compared to Yao
shaved ice bowls enjoyed
HC climb conquered
How we got there
Cyclist travelled direct from Sydney to Taipei on an overnight flight (there and back) via China Airlines. The approximately nine-hour flight leaves Sydney late in the evening and has you in Taipei in the early morning. We used a similar flight schedule for the way home in order to provide the most amount of daylight – for extra riding and shooting, of course.
We stayed at the Check Inn in downtown Taipei, just a few kilometres from the popular market area of the Shilin District. The rooms were amply supplied with everything we needed and offered a great view across the city. With a near endless number of shops within walking distance from the hotel, this was a perfect place to stay for the tail end of our journey.
FOOD AND DRINK
Taiwanese people have an abundance of cuisine options – often quite literally at their doorstep. Food choices are influenced by two major outside areas: Japan and China. With 50 years of Japanese occupation and as a popular place for Japanese holidayers, there’s a huge amount of Japanese food on offer. China also has a large influence in the style of food, while local fare is available everywhere. Western food is also available, but we find little point in eating the same food you can find at home. If you’re in Taipei, be sure to sit down for a giant Mango Ice Monster bowl.
Cheers to Jerry and Taiwan Tourism for providing our Cyclist crew of Alex and Tim with everything needed to ride and shoot our Big Ride around Taipei; to the Attaquer Cycling guys in Sydney for supplying apparel and connecting us with Yao; and to Terry, Ah-Ta and Black for taking the day off (and the next morning) to guide us around their amazing city. We couldn’t have asked for a better bunch.