I’m counting the cracks in the ceiling of my hotel room. I’m waiting to nod off. Waiting, waiting, waiting…1:20 AM:
Man, it’s hot in Taichung. Guess that makes sense. I saw a whole lotta jungle on the taxi drive over from the airport. Gotta be hot if you have jungle. And monkeys. Wonder if that means I’m above or below the equator. Probably above it. Right? Right. Maybe. But there were
all those monkeys… that really seems like a south-of-the-equator deal. Ah, look, there’s a crack in the ceiling that I haven’t counted yet. Monkeys and jungles. Monkeys and jungles….3:39 AM:
Lying here in a tangled, sweaty heap across the bed. Eyeballs feel like they are coated in sandpaper and crazy glue. But Sleep. Not. Coming. Ever. 4:00 AM…or maybe 4:10…
I think that’s what my watch said the last time I checked it. Probably. Things getting fuzzy…BeepBeepBeepBeepBeeeeeep. 6:00 AM:
The alarm is going off. Shit. My gut feels like it’s loaded with thumbtacks and my head is swimming. Why the hell did I agree to a six-in-the-morning road ride? What good could come of this? None. Nonewhatsogoddamnever. That’s what.
Stumble out of bed, squeegee off the sweat and funk, grab a chamois and a sausage suit. Time to ride.FLAT PEDALS AND SPANDEX
My riding partners are already in the hotel lobby. Everyone’s spandex’d up and wearing duck shoes. If there is a set of roadie Kosher laws, I’m pretty sure my Five Ten Impacts and flat pedals are probably breaking all of them. Rocking DH pedals and slinky Castelli bibs on the same ride? It’s like bringing pork belly tacos to a Bar Mitzvah.
I get eye rolls for neglecting to bring pedal washers, the end result being that my Specialized Boomslangs are snugged tight against the fancy carbon cranks. They won’t budge without tearing a new hole in the crankarms.
I borrow clipless pedals and kicks, stuff a diaper’s worth of toilet paper into the toe section of each utterly massive, Tour de France-yellow, clipless-compatible shoe and it’s off to the races.
One of the locals turns to us Taiwan neophytes, “The painted sections of road are super slick. A lot of the street grates will catch your tires. And the cars….they aren’t out there to hurt you, but this won’t be like riding anywhere else. You just have to be like a small fish in a big river—go with the flow or get eaten by it.”
Huh.LITTLE FISH IN A STRANGE POND
At this time of the day, we share Taichung’s streets with some stray cats, street sweepers and a small army of factory workers on mopeds. A big guy in what appear to be welding overalls and a pink Hello Kitty helmet flashes us the peace sign at a traffic light before sputtering away on a moped that looks like it’s narrowly survived a nuclear holocaust. I try to reconcile it all, but we’re darting from light to light, left, right, left, right…. I’ve lost my bearings within seconds and resign myself to following our leader’s wheel.
It’s a weird feeling—not being in control. Not having any sense of where I am in a city I’ve never visited before. If I lost the group, how would I get back to the hotel? My Mandarin is largely limited to shitty English pantomime. I can’t even properly pronounce “Hello” correctly. From my mouth, it just sounds like I’m bellowing “Meow!” to everyone I meet. Children laugh. Adults shake their heads. I have a feeling that absorbing 20 miles worth of street-by-street directions in the local dialect will be about as easy as building a time machine out of toothpicks and Play-Doh.
But then the city starts to fade in dribs and drabs. Space opens up between the buildings. Trees spring up along the roadside. Five more minutes and we can see a mountain looming ahead. The road starts to climb and we leave town entirely.ICING ON THE CAKE
The temperature drops as we climb. The air is different here. Fragrant trees and flowers threaten to overrun the road from all sides. It smells like…I can’t even put a name to it—it alternates from amazingly sweet to, for brief intervals, something as funky and rancid as the back end of the monkey house at the San Francisco Zoo. It’s all…weirdly beautiful.
The road bucks to the sky in earnest now and I’m reminded of just how long it’s been since I’ve done any real fitness riding. I give a few gutsy sprints before common sense prevails and I hunker down on the taint-torture device that passes as a bike seat on a Tour de France-caliber road bike. We pass other riders. Everyone flashes one another the wordless international sign that says, in essence, “I'd love to say hello, but my lungs are in my mouth at the moment and I can’t manage breathing just now.”
After a couple thousand feet of climbing we crest the top. Jerseys get zipped up again. Brakes get a quick squeeze-check and then we’re plummeting back down to the city. We are time warping down the mountainside, faster than cars on these narrow country roads. We pass in and out of what look like small outposts from civilization—a liquor store here, a dog with mange there, the occasional work truck ahead.
We take a left onto a broad sweeping section of asphalt—clearly some kind of new infrastructure project that cost a bundle and which rolls as smooth as glass under our tires. The speeds are tremendous. Eyes are watering. Bodies stretched flat over the top tubes. Just how fast can you push a 700x23 tire in a corner like this? 35 miles per hour? 45? 50? It’s been a long while since I’ve been on a road ride, but I seem to recall that these things don’t handle a good drift all that well at these speeds.
And then we’re back in the city. It’s in full swing now. The streets are choked with mopeds and mini-vans and luxury sedans. We sprint from every light, trying to put a gap on all the sulfur-belching scooters. They come up behind and beside you at Mach Chicken. I bump elbows with moped fighter pilots once, twice… But there’s no hostility here. It’s just every fish for themselves. We go with the flow. It’s that or wind up beneath the wheels of something bigger than yourself.
We finally roll up to the hotel. Much high-fiving ensues.
It suddenly occurs to me that the best ride I’ve experienced all year just happened on a road bike. In Taiwan. Didn’t see that coming.
How is it that the rides you don’t want to go on somehow always turn out to be the best rides—the ones you never forget?
There’s a place down the street run by an Australian that serves biscuits and gravy with a mean side of fried chicken. Or there’s that dim sum joint everyone is talking about. Or, hell, we can just gorge on Taiwan beer and fifty-five varieties of delicious-yet-nameless-meats-on-a-stick from the street-vendor carts.
It’s 10 AM and after a ride like this, anything else that happens today is just icing on the proverbial cake.