Sunday, November 15, 2009

Some thoughts on Biking

Stopping in Changhua on the way to Lukang.

I went biking today with a couple of friends and my son, from Taichung to Lukang and back again. We got back and I found that a commenter wanted to know about biking and me. I've been mulling over posting on that.

Drying wood-ear fungus on the steps of a building in Lukang.

It's difficult, of course, explain what biking means to me. I can show you easily -- put you on a decent bike, and make you experience that wow! moment when you realize that biking is everything its evangelists have cracked it up to be. I myself don't know what that moment was for me, but I do know that after I came back from that first trip down the east coast earlier this year I was totally hooked, even though my bike was a complete piece of crap and I utterly unfit.

Goat meat and pork in a Lukang market.

I suppose the easiest map to make is the terrain of the physical changes.

Me on the dike along the north side of the river, south of Taichung. The dike has been turned into a first-rate bike path, with lovely views, and layered with smooth, new pavement.

Here's me today. No question but the gut remains. Yet my belt reminds me each month: I am shrinking. I've reached the last loop on it and in the next couple of months will probably have to buy a new one. My waistline has shrunk 3-4 inches since I started biking in February, and the weight has been wrung from my face, shoulders, and legs. I never imagined that at 46 I'd be able to lose any weight, let alone significant amounts. And then there are little side benefits, like being to climb stairs without puffing. And being able to bike 100 kilometers and arrive in a condition to do at least another 50. And have the same heart data I had twenty years ago.

Between the noisy election trucks and the constant crescendoing cacaphony of religious processions, Lukang was a madhouse today.

That's one of the things that makes biking so addictive -- not merely physical improvement, but steady physical improvement, often in seven-league boot sizes. Not just being able to see the improvement, but to measure yourself against what you used to be able to do, and see that each time you do it, you get better.

Yes, those are real horses.

But it's more than that. I took my friend who hadn't biked in years out the other day and he remarked: "I never realized how much time we'd have to chat!" The social aspect of biking, spending hours chatting with others while biking through stunning mountain terrain, is a major attraction. But more than that, on bikes you meet people too, in addition to the ones you are traveling with.

The real fun of this ride is coming up the West Coast Highway back from Lukang to Taichung, through flatlands populated by random unrelated objects, like things the gods tossed here because they had no place else to put them. My son and I came up the access road along 61, riding along the dikes lining the rivers when the road disappeared.

When do you know you're well and truly addicted? When you start looking forward to hills. When you feel guilty that you didn't do any on a route. When you stop doing that hill you used to be unable to do without an embarrassing number of rests, because it is too easy. When you are driving on the highway and see a hill, and start plotting how you'd climb it.

Wetlands presided over by wind machines lined most of the route.

Today I biked over 90 kilometers in Changhua and Taichung, and it sounds like a lot, but I know that in the Great Book in the Sky where the Biking Gods write down your accomplishments, this one doesn't count: the route had no hill.

A man watches his friends fishing under Hwy 61.

So many people have written so much -- biking is like being a kid again. It's immersive. It's exercise that's interesting. It's healthy activity that actually enables you to get somewhere. It keeps you young and strong -- a friend told me today that his doctor nearly panicked when my friend's resting pulse turned out to be 48.

My son parks by the dike on under 61

And whatever makes it good, is doubled if your family and friends are with you.

An egret waits in the flat light and muddy land.

When something both concrete and wonderful changes your life, takes it over, enlarges it, reshapes you, words fail.

Also, cows.

All I can say is that I am a total addict.

..and fish farms.

I hope that all of you in your 20s and 30s will make the effort to get out there and bike. The lone regret I have about biking is that I didn't start twenty years ago. When you get to forty and start biking, you'll regret that failure.

On the muddy field bottoms, the crabs move in.

The brilliant and eccentric General Charles Gordon, who died in Khartoum fighting the Mahdi, once said that he would rather spend one night in the desert with the Mahdi's men than attend a year of dinner parties in London.

....and recycling.

That's pretty much how I feel about biking.

You're never far from a ruined factory in Taiwan.

Biking has taken me places I'd never imagined I'd be. It has shown me that I can succeed at things I never thought I could do, and tortured me with spectacular and humiliating failures at things I had hoped I could accomplish.

During the election season I have seen election displays all over northern and central Taiwan. This is the only image I've seen of a current candidate with President Ma.

It has put me face to face with landslides in Tianxing, and five hundred meter drops just above Lishan. It has had me in a tidal pool off Shitiping after a 75 kilometer ride, and a spa in Jiaoxi after a spin down the northeast coast. It has brought me up short of a viper on 7 out of Baling, and made me an object of interest for every dog between Taichung and Hsinchu.

Lunch? Pets? Zoo displays?

I've gone a thousand meters up a massive mountain in a single morning, and introduced myself to dozens of lovely betel nut girls. I have pierced curls of smoke on a rolling dawn as the farmers burned off their fields, and sped past the stink of mud and trash oozing from the muck of a canal next to the ocean in Changhua. I've bantered with the old women selling me water and mantou, and exchanged hellos with farmers spraying fruit trees in the fading light of a summer evening. I've skimmed into Chingshui port for sashimi, and lugged the last few klicks to the only noodle stand for a hundred miles in any direction.

A deity perambulates before a temple.

I've nursed a flat tire as the gravel trucks blew by me on 3 in Shihgang, and wolfed down Vietnamese food in Fengyuan as my bike waited patiently by the door. I've rolled down 52 above Miaoli at 75 kmph and crawled up the 9% grade above Fuxing at 5 kmph. I've looked down on the lovely Liyu Reservoir and up at the terrifying landslide scarp at Jiufen Ershan. I've sweated out the kilometers under the pitiless hammering sun on a thousand simmering roads, and yelled at my friend for pushing me beyond my limits on a gorgeous fall day under the sumptuous shade-bringing pines on the way to Puli. I have seen the backs of my companions as they left me behind, and their glad grins again in the evening over beer and fried rice. I've stood with my son next to chasms as deep as geological eras, and heard the whistle of teapots in houses far above, filling the mountains as a crisp dawn cracked across the peaks with six hundred meters of hill in front of me and a handful of people I love at my side.

No man can say these things well. All I can really say is this:

I've climbed. I've biked. I've lived.

You should too.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

Michael is a testament to hard work and determination.
Most men at 46 would give up before they even started. I think this says a lot about Michael Turton, his spirit, and his love of life.

As they say, "You've come a long way."

Michael Cannon said...

Great write up Michael. Glad to know I'll have a riding companion here in Taiwan for a while longer.

75kph downhill? You're nuts!

Anonymous said...

Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike....
...did you not get the hint?

We want tasteful nudes.

Nothing else will satisfy

Anonymous said...

Oh no, you did say it well. Awesome. Wow, boy I am glad you obliged the request. Thank you, thank you. It's late, but reading your post made me want to get out on my bike and ride right now.

Michael Turton said...

Comprock, it was insane and I'll never do it again. If anything had crossed into my path, I would immediately transitioned to a higher state.

But it was fuuuuunnnn.

The Taipei Kid said...

Keep on biking! Hopefully I will be able to join you on a trip one of these days.

Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) said...

This is great Michael, what a great write up. I'm going to share this post with a few friends who've expressed interest in biking but haven't really done anything about it.

As soon as I finish the coffee I'm drinking, I was planning to head out for a short loop ride. But after reading this, I've decided to take the left fork instead of the right and extend it into new territory.

Michael Fahey said...

First, thanks for expressing how I feel about the subject so well.

Secondly, the amazing thing about biking in Taiwan is that you have just scratched the surface. I'm still finding new places to ride all the time.

Third, nice post on the Daily Kos. The tourist people should be paying you for this.

Jason said...

Well said, big guy. Nothing like some self-brutalization to remind you that you're alive.

Oh, and I second the request for tasteful nudes.

Anonymous said...

The Giant people are paying you a commission, right? ;)


Anonymous said...

Tasteful nudes of Michael?

Diego said...

Wow, it's so epic. Really looks like you've reached true enlightment :)
I share every word you wrote, I love the supreme feeling of accomplishment when you push a little bit farther, the joy involved when some issues (getting lost, a comic fall wihout consecuences ... ) arise.
For me, nothing is better on those troubled days than taking your bike and see things fix again as kilometres come by and your feel you can bike, breathe and sweap to end of the world !
I'll probably be at Taiwan next summer close to Taichung (Yuan-li), hopefully find you up climbing one of these hills.

Todd said...

You're looking great Michael! Hope to join you on some more rides!

Anonymous said...

Amidst such chaotic traffic please ride safely Mike!

Your blog about biking is giving me goose bumps cuz you make it sound like an epiloque!

Again please do make safety a priority.


D.E. said...

DailyKos - Biking in Taiwan

Thanks for the heads-up Feiren.

Nicely done Michael! Great stuff as usual.

Daniel said...

Hey, awesome post! This will be inspiring to alot of people. Its good to be on two wheels and get into the exploration spirit. I'm a new-comer to Taiwan and live in Taipei, have been exploring new areas each day on my bike as well as going back to the same routes that I enjoyed. Hope you keep up your blog writing with some regular stories. Check out mine:

Bicyclesidewalk said...

I really enjoyed riding that - speaks volumes to me. Hope to catch you on your next adventure - perhaps the east coast in a couple weeks?

kelly said...

You have one of the most entertaining travel blog I've ever read, Michael! Enjoyed my time here!

Btw, what route would you recommend if you were just to walk around Liyu Lake? Where to go first and where would you stop last? :)