Alec Babala

e: alec.babala@gmail.com
in: linkedin.com/in/alecbabala

I believe in making less and connecting more. I'm passionate about bringing people together through effective learning and communication. I also hold experiences racing bikes across North America, Western Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Forbes - 30 Under 30, 2016

Found ❤ in Taiwan

Found ❤ in Taiwan

It took me awhile to figure out what experiences from my trip to Taiwan I should focus on. The obvious ones are the bike rides and bike races. Depending on how I talk about them, these stories can be relevant to only cyclists, and to the people interested in hearing the "dude, we went so hard up that hill" or the "dude, we went so fast down that hill" kind of moments. There's nothing wrong about sharing those moments from each ride, but it's just not my kind of storytelling, especially for a trip this eventful.

A couple months later, I figured out how I will write this brief trip report.  I wanted this to be valuable to those interested about riding in Asia, and to those curious about the Taiwanese culture. Here are a few of the many insights from my short two week trip to Taiwan, as seen from a bike.

 

The smog is real, and scooters are everywhere

I left New England the second to last week of October, just as the temperature was getting colder (40-ish degrees fahrenheit) and the leaves were changing color. The air was crisp, and really the best time to be in New England. Once in Taiwan, I stepped off the plane into a humid mess (80-ish degrees fahrenheit). And after taking a two hour trip from the airport in Taipei to the home I was staying at in Taichung, (via bus, Shinkansen, and taxi) the thick smog and swarms of scooters came at a shock.

I don't think I've ever been so conscious of the air I was breathing. I've only had this feeling when in a spray booth at RISD, applying a final coat of paint onto a model. The roads smelled of hot asphalt, exhaust fumes, and smog from the factories and power plants that loomed outside of the city. It's common practice for locals to regularly check the air quality index (which measures the number of particles per cubic foot, the AQI has a range of 0-500) as if it were the weather. For those who live in Providence, RI, the AQI would be in the range of 0-50 (considered good). In Taichung, it would loom between 100-200 (considered unhealthy). In extreme cases, the smog from China's coast would blow over and increase the AQI to the 300's (considered hazardous).

Honestly, listen to how ridiculous this sound; it's a humid 80 degree morning, with some pros from Europe and the United States, at the beginning of a three hour long bike ride into the pineapple farms at the top of a mountain, checking my phone for the AQI for the day, amongst the hundreds of scooters in the streets of this industrial jungle, unsure of what to think of this tropical and mountainous country, and deciding whether or not I should stop by one of the twenty Seven Elevens that we will pass so I can buy a mask to protect my lungs. It's truly a bizarre experience to have clear skies at one hour, and instantly be in a thick smog the next.

Video: Evening stroll with Jules and Jos in the hills outside of Taichung.

Despite the obvious health risks the Taiwanese face because of their industrial revolution, the idea of riding around with scooters makes so much sense. Looking back, I don't think we've ever encountered a NYC-style traffic jam in the city streets. Although it is intimidating with all the scooters sharing the road with cars (like fish among whales), traffic is fluid. I started to notice that within that chaos are a unique set of rules that people follow. People are strangely aware of each other's driving habits, and it's very rare to see someone have road rage and honk their horn. It was more common to see a full family (mother, father, daughter, and son) riding together on a scooter, or a man and two dogs zipping around.

I was around scooters long enough to convince myself that I needed one. And I still think that I do. I have a whole album of scooter photos I took on my phone as inspiration. I've even put some serious thought about what kind of helmet to buy.

 

Bikes are born here

Before getting to Taiwan, I've been told that this country is the home of carbon fiber bikes. It's like saying watches are made in Switzerland. It makes sense that the bike companies of the world have factories making frames and wheels here, with a country finding profit from its manufactured exports. To see westerners from consumer companies residing on this island on the other side of the world is an interesting unknown bit of Taiwan's culture. 

My curiosity for this topic was heightened by a group riders I met on my first day (Specialized, Cervelo, Wiggle, Black Inc., Nike, etc.) that were here for one of the world's bike expos last week in the city of Taichung. These riders were engineers for their respective companies, who live or visit Taiwan to check up on their manufacturers. It's a small, unique, and close knit community that is obsessed with bikes. For example, I showed up with my vinyl-stripped titanium Litespeed bike and I had two guys start talking about my bike and the brand without even exchanging names. The discussions ranged from sharing new manufacturing techniques, shit-talking crowdfunded companies looking to manufacture in Taiwan, debates on moving their company's manufacturing to Vietnam, criticizing a newly engineered bike product, or drooling over a newly engineered bike product.

Spending the trip with pro cyclists is truly a deep dive into the cycling community here. It led me to a secret, back alley, bike shop (it looked like garage sale) selling overstocked bike products for cheap, to an infamous bike cafe hidden in the city, and to going out to the clubs in Taipei with reporters from CyclingTips and the like. It's a surprisingly exciting place in the world to be in for manufacturing bike products, but more so for the growing appeal of cycling as a sport. It was not uncommon to see a commuter riding a high-end road bike around town. Who knew bike racing in Asia could be just as competitive as in Europe?

 

These mountains are wicked

The main reason I came to this side of the world was to race the Taiwan KOM with Jules. It's a ~65 mile race with ~11,000ft of elevation gain that takes a winding road going through one of the highest mountain peaks in central Taiwan. It's one of the world's toughest climbs, if not the toughest, and I've been eying an opportunity to race it myself. It has gained popularity over the years (this year attracted ~500 racers) and I found myself at the start line next to Tour de France riders and national champions from all over the world.

Unfortunately, Jules at the last minute decided to take on a stage race in Malaysia with CCN and could not do the Taiwan KOM with us, so Ben (our ECCC bro) and I traveled to the race in a roomy minivan together. Our friend John (Jule's teammate on CCN, and amazing hill climb specialist) was looking for a win against a competitive lineup, yet, he still managed to score a second place. For me, I've been training two months to get myself fit enough just to get over the top. The race came at an awkward time since it's my off-season,  but I was still able to come in at 118. I cracked hard in the last 5-10 miles when the road pitched up to 30% (it's essentially a hill climb within a hill climb) and I fell back 50-60 places in the matter of an hour. Yet, I can comfortably say I crossed the finish line before the 2012 Olympic track champion, Lasse Norman Hansen of Garmin-Cannondale.

Taiwan's mountains and winding roads are beautifully deceptive. For cyclists, it's a climber's paradise with it's steep rises and technical descents. It's attractive for sights that are not overrun by cycling tours like those in Europe. These roads along cliffs and through jungles are dangerous, wild, and new, and with that brings a sense joy that can't be had anywhere else.

 

Scrappy

I spent my last two nights by myself in Taipei and took the time to explore at my own pace. I booked a cheap bed on Airbnb at a hostel for $20 USD.  I met the most interesting people here, all 20-somethings from around the world. A few were from New Zealand and Australia, and others were from the UK, Hong Kong, Canada, and other countries. It's an honest place to stay, and an interesting place to meet people and listen to their stories of what brings them to Taiwan. Some were here to start the next chapter of their lives and looking for schools to teach English, and some were here as just the next destination of their travels around the world.

Armed with a guide from Sam, who spent some of her college time in Taiwan, I was able to get around Taipei like a pro. I've never experienced anything like Taiwan's night markets before. Pop-up shops set up along the center of a closed off road and hundreds of people walk and hang out, eat street food and shop for cheap accessories in the late hours of the night. There's this raw, scrappy, and lively vibe that is dominant here that I haven't experienced in the United States. It feels like the country hasn't been affected by the clean and uniform consumer brands and retail stores. Sure, there's a Uniqlo or a Nike store here and there, but even the presentation of the corporate branding had it's own Taiwanese flare.

This scrappiness is unique, and I say that positively, is present in the way a business of any sort is handled here; loosely controlled and unbelievably genuine. Even in higher-end stores that sell Cheap Monday's, or a cafe serving branded bubble tea, or a bakery chain selling delicious pastries, or even the back alley bike shop selling products with no price tags on them, the feeling is the same. 

 

Surrounded by good people

I think I understand why I felt so comfortable here in Taiwan: the people I was surrounded by were all sincere. It would be inaccurate for me to assume that everyone here is free from pretense, but there's just too many experiences for me think otherwise. Here are some examples.

Even before arriving to the country, when I boarded the plane from San Francisco to Taipei an elderly Taiwanese man in his late 60s was sitting in the seat next to mine and looked at me as if he were in trouble. He kept looking up a few rows in front of us and said a few words to me in Taiwanese that I did not understand. "English?" He replied in a very soft spoken voice, "My wife, she is sitting alone, would you mind switching seats with her so we may be together?" I thought to myself that it wasn't a big deal, especially because I was flying alone. "Of course! Where is she sitting?" His face immediately lit up. I can't tell you how many pats on my shoulder and thank you's he gave me. It's as if I were his very own son. We walked up the aisle together to tell his wife the situation, and she too added to the shower of thank you's, and I received a hug from both of them in the aisle of this boarding plane. They were even persistent in putting my carry-on in the overhead for me. Absolutely unnecessary.

On the last day of the trip, I took a solo trip to Hualien, an old mining town nestled alone the side of a mountain. On the bus there, a woman asked me a question in Taiwanese. At this point, I was annoyed with myself for not learning at least one phrase so I could respond to people. She started speaking to me in English, two or three words at a time. Saying how brave I am to be traveling around not knowing a word of Taiwanese. She and her friend insisted that I follow them around Hualien so that I would have company. I walked around for an hour with complete strangers.

Jules and I Skyped with our homies back in United States about our travels and how grateful we are to be taken care of this well. We talked to them about how the Gitelis's had been so welcoming, providing us with breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the entire family. We shared with them about how Cindy had taken all of us on a day trip around Taichung, to a historic martial art training site, to a popular desserts shop, and to the city museum. We also talked about how Carry, Jules and Jos's translator from the CCN cycling team who's now a close friend after spending 2-3 weeks in China together, drove us around one night to see historic and scenic landmarks in Taichung, feed us local foods from the night markets, and even took Jules and I on a day trip to see Sun Moon Lake. After all these experiences, Taiwan truly feels like a second home.

On the long flight back to the United States, I had many existential thoughts that most people have when they're 10,000 feet in the sky. This trip was a much needed break.

Special thank you to Jules, Ben, Candice, Jos, John, Carry, Sam, Kyle, mom, dad, and the Gitelis family for making this trip real.

Festive Feasts

Festive Feasts

Apples