A different kind of tour — of Taiwan’s bicycle industry

I’ve started to receive a steady stream of PR emails thanks to my blog’s more-or-less decent visitor numbers over the years. These emails usually go straight to the spam folder (sorry PRs!), but a recent one caught my eye:

“As part of your ongoing and deliberate transition to celebrity bike tourist,” it asked (not at all ironically), “would you be interested in participating in a tour of the Taiwanese bicycle industry?”

Hold on — an invitation to the centre of the bicycle-making universe? Hell yeah…

Cycle park 4, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

The Taiwanese government could have picked better candidates, I thought, as I boarded the Cathay Pacific 747. I haven’t exactly built my blog on the consumer side of cycle-touring, though I’ve been known to do the odd review here and there. But no strings would be attached; the tour was a new idea, an experiment by the government.

In Tapiei I met up with four other bloggers from varied corners of the field, most of whom ran very shiny and professional-looking websites. Tyler, Carlton, Byron, Mark and I were handed a packed-looking timetable for the 1-week tour, dashing my plans to spend the free time writing, undisturbed, in coffee shops and hotel rooms.

Mark Ames of iBikeLondon, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

This wasn’t an issue in the end, because during the visits I saw lots that relates to touring thoughts I’ve had recently, which was a relief as I didn’t want to return home having seen lots of shiny road and mountain-bike stuff but nothing of relevance to touring. The world of cycle touring is growing and changing fast — creating plenty of space, by the looks of things, for innovation.

Folding Touring Bikes

Every tourer knows what a pain in the padded shorts it can be to travel with a touring bike by any means other than pedalling it. Planes, trains, buses, hitching — it’s a drag, especially in the over-regulated West. Ignore the racket made by riders pledging to cycle every last inch of their rides: there is a lot to like about a less fundamentalist style of touring that incorporates the odd stint on public transport. If only it were easier…

Bike transport on Eurostar

Mixing bikes and public transport brings back a few memories. Travelling from Bari to Rome, I had to directly phone the manager of the incoming train (as it sped through the Italian countryside) to have him clear suitcases out of the bicycle compartments so that we could get on the train. In Avignon, I was told at the station to dismantle the bike and put it into a cardboard box (which I had to pull out of a skip behind a bike shop), only to be told by the conductor of the train itself that I couldn’t bring it on board. And, returning to the UK after the Arctic Cycle I was nearly left stranded in Hamburg at 4am by an angry bus driver — because I’d had the audacity to bring a bike bag on a Eurolines bus. These are amongst my many other anecdotes that will be familiar to travelling cyclists.

So when I spotted a folding tourer outside the Tern office, I saw confirmation of an occasional fantasy: to tour with a bike that didn’t grow to twice its normal size whenever it went indoors.

Tern visit 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

I took the Link P24h for a 10-mile spin down the riverside with Tern’s founder Josh and his staff. The bike seemed to tick every box — front and rear racks, wide gear ratio thanks to the clever combo of 3-speed hub and 8-speed cassette, great tyres, a rigid and reassuring ride. Clever and thoughtful touches included a generator hub with integrated lights and a USB charging port, a multitool built into the handlebar, a seatpost that doubled as a pump, and flat-profile bungees built into the rear rack.

The idea is nice. I’m in the business of writing from experience, though, so I’ve arranged to borrow a Link P24h to try out before I head to Iran. I’ll let you know how I get on with it. (I’m not the first to think of touring on a folding bike — this ride through Africa comes to mind.)

Mobile Power & Charging

With the advent of smartphones and tablets, people are rapidly ditching big cameras, chunky GPS units and laptops. But the problem with electronics on tour has always been keeping them charged. Solar panels are impractical; generator hubs have traditionally been either expensive, incompatible with modern devices, or crap.

Tern are launching a new generator hub in 2013 under the Biologic accessory brand. Josh told me they’d used the German-built Schmidt hub as a benchmark, wanting to build something with the same low drag and high efficiency but without the astronomical price tag. I hope they’ve managed it. Again, great idea, and I’ve arranged to put a Joule 3 through its paces myself.

Tern visit 2, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012
Tern visit 1, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

Josh and the team were a lovely bunch with real passion and seem to have built a new bicycle manufacturing company with a real focus on the convenience of urban cycling, with the aim of transforming cities back into habitable places for humans. Folding bikes have been taking hold in the UK, but Brompton et al are still a bit showy and pricey. Here’s hoping Tern’s more utilitarian and affordable bikes (as well as the wonderfully eccentric British-designed Strida) can help with that.

Sunup Eco DSR-1 retrofit dynamo, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

Elsewhere, I tried out the Sunup Eco DSR-1 generator hub that attaches cleverly to a pre-built rear wheel and provides USB power while on the go. It wouldn’t work with a disc hub, but it’s an interesting idea and one that might appeal to those looking to add an affordable generator to an existing touring bike. I’ll reserve further judgement until I’ve had an opportunity to test it myself.

Random Weird Cool Stuff

Throughout the tour I was astounded by the creativity and passion on show from the small outfits I visited. There must be something in the water in the bicycle-manufacturing capital of the world. Anti-lock brakes that actually work? A two-seater pedal-powered car? A folder with 8-inch wheels? Space-age gear cable hoses? Not so useful to the tourer, I guess, but there’s so much coming out of this country for bicycle enthusiasts to get excited about.

Pacific Cycles visit 7, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

George Lin in particular, owner of Pacific Cycles, seems to have made a living out of finding the most outlandish and specialist bicycle designers on the planet and helping them turn their designs into real, functioning products. Like many of the business owners, he’s a cyclist first and foremost, and does a circumnavigation of the island of Taiwan every year (a similar distance to LEJOG) — something that many of the companies seemed to do on a regular basis; a kind of ‘rite of passage’ for the country’s bicycle makers. Those into tandems, trikes and recumbents would do worse than to check out his line-up.

Touring in Taiwan

I didn’t really know what to expect from Taiwan itself. I did no research before arriving. I went as much for the chance to travel as for the bikes, and spent as much time as I could nipping off to immerse myself in the places I visited. I didn’t expect I’d want to go back to Taiwan to cycle around the country. But I certainly would.

Taipei sunset, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

There isn’t much to recommend about the west coast, as this is the manufacturing hub of the island, packed unimaginably deep with the factories that make our hard drives and laptops and appliances (and bicycles).

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

But the interior of the island is stunningly lush, well-paved, accessible and friendly, as I found out on a ‘day off’ during the week, riding a lap of Sun Moon Lake in the centre of the island. The east coast, I was told, is even more stunning, as are the outlying islands.

Taipei 1, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

The country has a fiercely independent heritage, which brings Chinese tourists from the mainland to see ‘what China could have looked like’. And the food is mind-blowing.

Taiwanese food 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

Taiwan might not be top of many tourers’ lists of places to ride. But there seems little reason why it shouldn’t be. Cycling is part of the fabric of this little island. Though cast in recent years as a symbol of the poverty that the nation wants to leave behind, the bicycle seems now to be undergoing a national resurgence. Witness the glorious chaos of the weekend leisure cyclists in Taipei’s cycle parks:

Cycle park 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

I’m keen to look further into folding touring bikes and power generation solutions that are practical and reliable long-term. Where do you think there’s room for technology and innovation in the world of touring bikes?

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