Taiwan Turns National Passion for Cycling into Intl. Sports Fest

Cyclists near the start of Taiwan's King of the Mountain race.

HUALIEN, Taiwan – One of the first impressions a visitor absorbs after arriving in Taiwan via Taipei’s Toayuan International Airport is that this is a nation on the move. Everyone in the 23-million populace in the island Republic of China appears to be rushing somewhere much of the time. Except during extended traffic slowdowns at workday rush hours, the wide majority are steadily mobile on a wide range of cars, motorcycles, mopeds and pedal bikes. 

Taiwan’s Administrative Deputy Minister of Transportation and Communications Jian-Yu Chen at pre-festival press conference.

As explained by officials of the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications, Taiwan’s government hatched a unique scheme a few years ago to harness the island’s original, but still ubiquitous affinity for bicycle transportation as a national sporting pastime. The idea was to create competitive cycling events as the attraction to draw both professional touring athletes and sports-minded tourists from around the world to join Taiwan’s own fitness-focused cyclists in an annual festival. Competitive as well as leisurely touring events were designed to showcase the hundreds of miles of world-class bicycling routes, including purpose-built bikeways, crisscrossing the island’s scenic mountainous terrain. 

The result was the Taiwan Cycling Festival, run for the third annual time this year from Nov. 9 through Nov. 17.  The festival events are run with the organizational support of the Taiwan Cyclists Federation and many corporate sponsors, such as the internationally-renowned bicycle equipment manufacturer Giant, based in Taichung City, Taiwan, a major supporter of the cycling industry in the country.

Why a Taiwan Cycling Festival?

The scene at the starting line for King of the Mountain race in Taiwan.

At a press conference at Hualien’s Parkview Resort Hotel, where dozens of competing cyclists overnighted on the eve of the 2013 Cycling Festival’s first race, the 105-kilometer (65 mile) KOM (King of the Mountain) Challenge, Taiwan’s Administrative Deputy Minister of Transportation and Communications Jian-Yu Chen explained the Tourism Bureau’s festival objectives.

“We have been riding bikes here for a long time, but mainly as transportation,” said Chen. “Now, because [cycling] is used elsewhere as a sport we want to develop this aspect too…At this stage we just want people to become more familiar with the island. Right now this is a semi-pro sporting event but in the future we might want to develop a professional race.”

Although the main events of the Taiwan Cycling Festival were centered between Hualien on the east coast and the 10,700-foot summit of Hehuan Mountain in Wulang 65 miles inland, as well as around Sun Moon Lake in west central Taiwan, David Hsieh, the Director General of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, said the festival was designed to involve the entire country. “We have 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) of bikeways in Taiwan,” said Hsieh. “We want to show how convenient it is to cycle all around the island. On the east coast we have a lot of aboriginal tribes and this event is an opportunity to travel around and interact with a lot of these people.”

David Hsieh,  Director General of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in the Ministry of Transportation and Communications at pre-festival press conference.

The King of the Mountain challenge on November 9 started in the pre-dawn mist at the starting point along the Quixingtan seashore in Hualien.  There 440 cyclists from 28 countries crowded the starting line  before beginning their ascent through the cavernous Taroko Gorge – Taiwan’s answer to the Grand Canyon – on their way to the grueling climb up Hehuan Mountain. As a rider on a media bus through the gorge and up the mountain trailing the racers, this observer grew shaky just thinking about the tortuous effort required of the cyclists on the unforgiving climb. 

On a walking tour of Taroko Gorge, a Taiwan National Park, on the day before the race, our media group snapped dozens of photos.  The gorge’s narrow stone canyons extend hundreds of feet into the air above the winding Liwu River below, which has carved its way through the gorge’s limestone rock walls for centuries. The scenery, which surrounded the racing cyclists on the King of the Mountain race during the early stage of their tortuous ascent, is marked by green carpets of ascending, vertical evergreen and deciduous forests, manmade traffic and pedestrian tunnels cut through Hehuan Mountain passes, and multiple narrow waterfalls descending hundreds of feet into the gorge below.

In a competitive field that included pro cyclists John Ebsen of Denmark, the   event’s defending 2012 champion, David McCann of Ireland and USA Team Cycling member Sean Smith, the Taiwan King of the Mountain winner was Rahim Emami of Iran with an astounding record time of three hours, 26 minutes and 59 seconds. Emami finished 30 seconds ahead of fellow Iranian Amir Zargari while the Taiwanese cyclist Wang In-chi notched immediate national fame by finishing third with a time of three hours, 27 minutes and 53 seconds, less than a minute behind the winner. The top American pro cyclist, who finished in fifth place, was Cameron Cogburn with a time of three hours, 28 minutes and 37 seconds while defending champion John Ebsen was in 8th position at three hours, 30 minutes and 38 seconds. The cash awards for the event winners totaled about US $8,000 with about US$ 3,300 going to the winner.

The women’s professional winner of the KOM was Japan cyclist Eni Yonamani with a time of four hours 16 minutes and 12 seconds, followed by Tiffany Cromwell of Australia with a time of four hours, 36 minutes and 29 seconds.

Sun Moon Lake Bike Day 

A scenic view from the Circle Sun Moon Lake cycling course.

A festival highlight for our group came on Sunday, November 10, when we were invited to participate in the family Bike Day event at Sun Moon Lake, the largest fresh water lake in the country, located in western Taiwan between Nantou City on its south and Taichung City on its north. The lake and its surroundings are a “national scenic area” with bikeways considered among the Taiwan’s most visually attractive. The 30-kilometer (18-mile) Round Sun Moon Lake Challenge drew about 2,000 cyclists for the early morning start, with a second shorter course of 12-kilometers (7.5 miles) attracting about 1,500 more riders to a more leisurely family-friendly cycling experience.

A festive atmosphere prevailed at the Sun Moon Lake Xiangshan Visitor Center Park. Here thousands of participating cyclists of all ages gathered before an entertainment stage at the center of a circle of tents erected for cyclist registration, refreshment distribution, and an array of cycling-related sales and marketing promotions. The overwhelming majority of mostly Taiwanese riders wore cycling gear from head to toe, including helmets to which registration stickers were attached with numbers and timing chips to obtain precise official timing on the event’s digital scoring system at the start - finish line in the park. 

A pair of tethered hot-air balloons, bobbing above tree lines at the end of the park added multi-color to the occasion. Also on hand were costumed dragon mascots offering photo-opportunities, a loud, looping audio of the Taiwan tourism theme song, “Taiwan, Formosa, the Heart of Asia,” which played throughout the morning, and high-energy women hosts on loud speakers who cheered on the riders at the start, and announced individual cyclists’ names and official times from a computer monitor after they crossed the finish line. 

The 30-Kilometer Challenge

In our 30-kilometer (18-mile) clockwise cycling ride around Sun Moon Lake we experienced panoramic views of the lake and its adjacent mountain valleys from elevated locations, and passed through small lakeside villages named Provin, Shuishe, Zhaowu and Wenwu. Ita Thao, the aboriginal village of the Thao tribe located at the 12 kilometer (7.5 mile) mark was where a rest station provided cyclists with bananas, bottled water and a chance to photograph the scenic lake below.

After the 18-mile challenge, which this cyclist was thrilled to complete in just under two hours thanks largely to an efficient multi-speed Giant touring bike, we received medals and completion certificates inscribed with our names and official race times. We next moved on to enjoy panoramic views of the local sights from the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway cable car, a four-year-old Austrian-made gondola system that soars into the mountains above the lake. Tickets for the ride were $10 per adult, and about $8 per senior or child. 

We also enjoyed a guided tour on a Sun Moon Lake Dragon Boat which circles the lake for about US$ 15 per person and passes sites including a sunken island in the lake’s center and a villa where Taiwan’s first President Chiang Kai-Check enjoyed his vacation stays. Tourist boat traffic on the lake during the festival weekend was substantial, but the boat guide advised us that Sun Moon Lake is busy with visitors most days of the year. Swimming, however, is limited to one designated public event per year to preserve the water quality of the lake.

Sun Moon Lake Sightseeing

Wenwu Temple overlooks Taiwan's Sun Moon Lake.

Alongside Sun Moon Lake in the town of Ita Thao, home of the aboriginal Thao tribe that originally inhabited the region, the market streets and lakeside promenade attracted  many more Taiwanese and international visitors to a festive carnival atmosphere. Our lunch in the Full House Restaurant near the lake was an intriguing combination of traditional atmosphere in a large residential setting combined with an imaginative, contemporary fruit-themed cuisine. The meal featured tasty dragon fruit with salmon; shiitake mushroom and fruits; pork with pineapple; white fish with scallions and other inviting dishes served with sticky rice on a revolving self-service table tray.

Our day on Sun Moon Lake ended with a tour of Wenwu Temple, which sits high on the lakeside hill where it was constructed in 1938. The temple is popular with students as one of its main altars is dedicated to Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.), the Chinese philosopher of wisdom.

High above the temple’s red clay rooftops the scene of the lake and surrounding mountains below from an outdoor terrace provided some of the most beautiful panoramic views and photo opportunities we experienced in Taiwan.

It is classic Far-Eastern understatement to say that Taiwan and its government are “all-in” on their commitment to cycling as a competitive and leisure sports tourism activity for both its citizens and visitors. The officials we met pledged that more bikeways, richer competitive cycle racing award money, larger numbers of professional cyclists and, hopefully, many more tourists are part of its growing cycling tourism future. Based on what was displayed at the 3rd-Annual Taiwan Cycling Festival this year there is no reason to doubt their future plans.

Travel agents or their clients can get more information about those plans by contacting the Taiwan Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China, 9F, No.290, Sec. 4,  Zhongxiao E. Rd., Da-an District, Taipei City 10694, Taiwan, Republic of China. The bureau’s web site is http://eng.taiwan.net.tw/.


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