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Life

Seeking Steepness in Taiwan

Wildly steep climbs and endless miles of perfect pavement: this must be the place.
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Whether you know it yet or not, Taiwan is a paradise for road riders. The riding is incredible. Imagine endless, narrow ribbons of pavement winding through the jungle. An island packed with mountains, coastline, and the type of terrain that makes your heart flutter. Long climbs and steep climbs. Hairpin turns and perfect unfurling switchbacks. Often, no car traffic at all. It's the heart and soul of so much of the bike industry, including SRAM. When we decided to launch new wider gearing for Force eTap AXS, we knew Taiwan would be the perfect place to put it to the test.

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Early one October morning, a crew of us gathered to ride. We were a mix of locals, expats, and tourists. The plan was to follow a route out of downtown Taichung and into Dakeng, a hilly and rural area just a 30 minute ride away. Our route wasn't epic in terms of overall length. In terms of climbing...well, that was another story.

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In the following story, Colorado-based photographer Jamie Kripke recounts our ride.

It's 3 a.m. and I'm in the bath, drinking coffee.

I have been not sleeping in Taiwan for a week. So the bath has become part of my nightly not-sleeping routine. But I love coffee, so once I'm up, I'm up. Now I'm stuck in this weird place of trying to let the hot water coax me into sleep while guzzling a high octane pour over.

While this approach isn't helping me sleep, and is probably a bad idea to begin with, it's strangely enjoyable. The mashing up of two things in a new, unexpected way. It's a dumb hipster version of maintaining belief in two opposing ideas while still being able to function.

We're in Taichung, Taiwan to shoot photos and video for the upcoming launch of SRAM's new AXS group, which features wider gearing. So I've had to do a lot of functioning. Our days start well before sunrise so that we have time to get out of the city and into the surrounding hills before the traffic and the temps ramp up.

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Riding through downtown Taichung at 5am, the streets are desolate. The sun isn't up yet, and the soft light bouncing around and between the buildings is a watery blue. It's a dense city of 2.8 million people, so the place is plastered with signs, hanging laundry, power lines, and coated in layers of scooters.

Today, I'm riding along with our group, a mix of locals that have been showing us around all week. I'm carrying my camera with me in order to get an on-the-bike perspective. I'm mostly shooting while riding with one hand on the bars, but sometimes need to adjust focus or framing, and switch to no hands. We're rolling through huge, unfamiliar urban intersections, and at first I brace for the inevitable seam or crack in the pavement that makes holding a camera with two hands a bad idea.

But there are no seams. None. So we fly through the city on a sheet of smooth gray glass, hands optional. It's an unexpected, welcome contrast to the visual and social density of the urban landscape that climbs skyward, whizzing past on each side. Given the size and density of this place, the quiet smoothness of the ride feels wrong, like a glitch in the Matrix.

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Our guide points out a 7-Eleven where a lot of riders in Taichung meet up pre- and post-ride. The 7- Elevens in Taiwan are not like the ones we know at home. They serve fresh, hot sweet potatoes instead of week-old roller dogs and fried chicken parts. Eating vegetables at 7-Eleven? Unexpected, but it works.

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Suddenly, we hit the edge of the city, cross a small bridge, and start climbing, straight up, into the mountains. We're still on the same buttery ribbon of seamless pavement, but the color palette snaps from soft urban grays and blues to dense rural reds, yellows, and greens. The city / country switch has been flipped. The plants are winning here, in an area the locals call the "lungs of the city" — inhaling the urban air and exhaling clean country air.

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We are quickly engulfed by an exotic mix of tropical vegetation. There are no people or cars anywhere, which feels strange for pavement this flawless in a place this exotic. We roll over the top of our climb and drop into a short descent. The jungle is drooping out over the road in dense arches that close over us as we dive in and out of perfectly banked turns, and I feel like I'm getting barreled. I'm riding a bike in Taiwan, but it actually feels more like surfing.

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A few sneaky forks take us higher, to a narrow goat trail with edges carpeted in decaying leaves. Apparently they also pave the goat trails in Taiwan. Our route tilts upward, and we're eventually forced out of our saddles. The exhaling forest thickens the air so breathing feels more like drinking. At the top of the climb, there is a vista-hole in the canopy. We look out over layers of mountains in gradient greens, listening to the low, chirping soundtrack of the jungle, catching our breath, laughing.

Our guide, Fraser, explains that there are an endless number of mind-blowing rides here, with roads that are too steep for most riders. Taiwan is a country of extreme geographical contrast, with white sand beaches and palm trees connected to snowcapped peaks by pristine, uncrowded roads. Fraser is a former pro, originally from Canada, but has been living in Taichung for 17 years. He rides every day (sometimes all day) and has yet to scratch the surface of what this island offers.

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We surf our way down through the jungle, and roll back into Taichung, which has shifted from cool, desolate blue to a hot, bustling yellow. Every street is packed with buzzing swarms of scooters and cars. But in the city, the scooters are winning, easily slipping to the front of every line that forms at each red light. Riding a bicycle in heavy urban traffic is often unnerving, but here in Taiwan, there are so many scooters that the traffic flow sort of welcomes bikes. So we roll deeper into the heart of Taichung with our scooting friends in two-wheeled solidarity. It feels both reckless and oddly safe at the same time.

 

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That night, we go to the local night market, where locals congregate after dark for xiaoye, or a "midnight snack." The narrow alleyways are shoulder-to-shoulder with masses of meandering people. There are vendors yelling through speakers, layers of pop music blaring over each other, clouds of stinky tofu wafting about, and the occasional scooter / car buzzing through the crammed maze of people, way faster than looks safe. It's complete and utter chaos. But this cultural mashup of humanity is strangely and beautifully harmonious. And my scallion pancake is extra delicious.

I think back to the goat trail. It's the polar opposite of this place in every way possible. But somehow, the goat trail and the night market are working in concert to make each other better. The same way that blue makes red better and flats make climbs better. Contrast creates meaning.

Later that night, there is no 3am bath. I drop right into 8 hours of solid sleep and wake in the morning to realize that I have finally flipped the clock. It's time to go home.

\\\\\ "Combine the extremes, and you will have the true center" — Friedrich Schlegel, Poet

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About the riders:

 

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My name is Regina Khoo and I live in Taichung. I'm originally from Hong Kong.

I usually start my rides from home bright and early. Within 20 minutes you're out in the rural countryside and it's hard to believe that you're in Taiwan. Sometimes I feel like I'm in Bali or Thailand. It's the greenery is amazing and no cars and the roads are so well paved. It's great to clear your head while you're on these rides. 

It just amazes me in such a small island like Taiwan, how there's so much to see. I've touched less than 1% on my bike. There's just so many places to ride and so many people to ride with. The cycling culture in Taiwan is awesome.

I love riding with people. I prefer not to ride by myself. I like being able to talk to people and the encouragement you give one another on a hard climb. And of course grabbing coffee and meals together afterwards.

Even if I don’t ride well, just finishing the route just makes me feel awesome. And that's another one of the reasons why I like cycling. It's just the feeling you get after a ride.

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I’m Fraser, I'm a Canadian. I've been living in Taiwan for about 17 years now. I got into the bike industry and I've been enjoying that for the last 10 years.

Riding here in Taiwan is a great release for me. It gets me away from the city, it gets me away from work. It gives me time to relax, but it also gives me time to explore. There's so much to see here that you can go and ride different roads every weekend, every weekend of the year. I love being able to explore but still be close to home.

One of the things I like to do on weekends is if I can get out with friends, is take them to some really remote areas. We'll often start at sort of sunrise and we'll ride five, six, seven hours. The feeling that I get when I show them these new routes, it makes all the pain and suffering worthwhile, just to have them smile and experience something new that they never thought would be possible in Taiwan.

I've been on eTap AXS for a while now and I'm really enjoying it. It’s super intuitive. You don't need to think about it. It's hard enough when you're climbing hills to remember which button to push. When the weather is really cold as well, or really hot, you don't need to think about it. You just push the button and it reacts instantly. There's no lag. I do a lot of traveling as well, and so packing my bike and having the access makes it so much easier. You don't have to worry about cables and wires. The battery lasts so long you don't need to worry about it. You can ride for weeks without ever charging it.

Another thing that I really like about it is the range. The ratio is very, very close, and then for climbing, it spaces out nicely. There's no big gaps between the gears and so you can always have that right gear. I've used systems in the past where there are some bigger gaps between the gears. It's not as consistent and not as even, and for me AXS has been eye opening. It's so much better than what I was using before.

It does open up a lot of areas that you couldn't ride in the past by having that wide gearing. Even a strong rider, if they want to ride all day, you're going to get tired at the end of the day. By having those low gears, you can spin up the hills more and it's much easier to do a long one.

You don't want to think about it. You just got the right gear and you can just go.

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My name is Eddie Chen and I’ve lived in Taichung for about 20 years.

Taiwan’s terrain is mostly mountains and it’s a lot of fun to ride there. It’s not convenient to ride in the city because there’re a lot of cars. I like riding in the mountains where there are few people and you get surrounded by trees. It’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty when sunlight falls through the trees, and you get a special feeling when riding through. It feels good. 

I’ve never used eTap before. So when I used it today, it felt different in the beginning, but I got used to it after five minutes. It felt natural.

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My name is Johs Huseby, I'm the global director of OEM sales for WTB, and I live in Boulder, Colorado. I started coming to Taiwan in about 2000. I've gotten to know a host of great people here and learned a lot about the culture as well.

When I first started coming here, I didn't ride a bike at all. It's become truly one of my favorite places in the world to ride. My first ride in Taiwan was in Dakeng. You're going through mayhem, and traffic, and scooters, and all sorts of types of transport. And then all of a sudden, you get to the edge of the city. You're immediately in the wide open in the jungle and on these quiet roads. It's incredible. To me it really is. I am the least religious person you'll ever meet, but boy, it really is my church.

Anyway, you get out of town, you start, you hit that wall of jungle and city, and then you start getting on these little small roads that twist their ways up into the mountains. Some of the roads are 25% or steeper. It's crazy how steep some of the roads are. But just quiet, beautiful roads that flow along. They've repaved a lot of those roads now. Everything is paved here. There's really is no dirt. Even if you're on a goat path in the middle of the woods, you're on a concrete path.

The new Force eTap AXS gearing is perfect in a place this where you have a lot of very abrupt steep hills and they're pretty unforgiving. You climb these things and you're like, oh my gosh, I can't imagine going up this. The wider gearing really makes a huge difference. It's something that I think that a lot of people are going to enjoy. 

I always look forward to coming back to Taiwan. There's never a time I come here where I'm anxious. I really feel quite at home here.

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I’m Ginger. I live in Taichung. I have lived here for nearly 40 years.

I like the weather, the road conditions, and the people here. I feel happy as soon as I go out. I feel like it’s not just about the weather and environment. It’s also about people and things I come into contact with make me feel very warm.

Riding gives me a sense of peace. I have time to be alone. I feel quiet in my heart. It makes me feel great.

eTap is helpful for my riding. I don't have to worry about any hard changes. I think it's good. It's very good.

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My name is Chang Chih Chen. I live in Taichung. My interest is riding. It is good to relieve stress. Riding in Taiwan, I think there’s a lot of diversity, like ordinary road, hill and mountain climbing. All of these are available in Taichung. It is actually a lot of fun to ride.

Even though the 10-36 cassette is big, the gear steps are actually very linear, so it does not disrupt my cadence.

Biking and cycling is a stress reliever for me, but more than, it is also a way to make me more energetic and look younger. Many people say that I’m not 41 years old.

Riding gives me a sense of achievement. I used to be afraid of descending, but later I found that I don’t need to use the brake, which make me feel that I can be faster. It is really enjoyable.

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