What I Think About When I Think About Cycling (Warning: this blog entry is about cycling).

Recently I bought a new bicycle, the most expensive I've yet purchased. It's a Giant Defy Composite 3 purchased in a small "mom and pop" (as our American cousins would say) bike store in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan, an island which is either an independent nation with its own democratically elected government - if you ask a Taiwanese person - or a rebellious breakaway province soon to be drawn back into the fold of Mother China, if you ask someone from the mainland. I am in Taiwan because that is where my wife was born, and where her family are located, hence that's where I'll be spending at least the next couple of years.

Somehow, over the past three or four years, I've turned into something of a cycling advocate. I've never had a car license, so cycling at times has been a necessity as much as a pleasure. I tried to learn years ago, but gave up after a dozen lessons, having reached the point where the idea of having to get behind the wheel of a car and go through the same monotonous series of movements and trained tics - check mirror, indicate, look over shoulder, whatever - made me feel, and I do not exaggerate, nauseous.

For a long time, cycling was primarily a form of transport, albeit one I greatly enjoyed. It also appealed to that side of my personality I recognise as essentially miserly. It was certainly close enough to my heart that the first present I bought myself, in order to celebrate the sale of my first book, was a bicycle. I still have it, although it's currently in bits and in storage back home, a hybrid Ridgebike Comet purchased from Gear in Glasgow for £250.

Sometime between then and now, the rest of the world caught up with me, or at least that's the way it sometime feels. Suddenly a lot more people were cycling, or at least talking about it.

More recently, I felt like I was in certain respects outgrowing my relatively cheap hybrid commuter bike. I wanted to go further, and faster. I grew increasingly confident on the road. I bought specialist cycling clothes, but nothing with lycra, and certainly nothing that made me look like I was within even a hundred miles of a race. Instead I opted for the kind of gear that - mostly - looks the same as normal clothing, but is made of relatively expensive fabrics that offer benefits to the long-distance cyclist. As the date of travelling to Taiwan for an extended stay drew nearer, I began to think about buying another, better bicycle.

My reasoning was sound and economical. Most known brand bicycles, regardless of the name on the frame, are manufactured here in Taiwan, by just a few companies. Here, bicycle manufacturing is mostly dominated by two companies, Giant and Merida. If you have a bicycle and take a close look at its frame, there's a good chance somewhere on it you'll find a tiny, innocuous sticker with the words MADE IN TAIWAN emblazoned on it. They're famous for the quality of their products, whether under their own name or someone else's.

The last time I lived in Taiwan, I bought a cheap Giant commuter bike with a steel frame, mudguards and a rear pannier, a workhorse of a bicycle. It cost less than a hundred pounds (it worked out to just about £75). In the UK, that kind of money would get you a piece of junk - what aficionados refer to as a 'bicycle shaped object' rather than an actual bicycle. In Taiwan's domestic market, it gets you a great deal more. It wasn't the equal of my £250 Ridgeback, but it wasn't far behind it either. But on my return to these shores, I already knew I needed something more. It was time to move up to the next stage of my development as a cyclist.

Because I'd had a good experience with Giant, and because they're ridiculously cheap in the country of their manufacture compared to back home, I decided to take a look at road bikes. Before I left home I had a test-ride on a Giant Defy 3. The nomenclature Giant employ can at times be confusing - so far as I understand the Defy range begins with an aluminium frame bike 0 through 5, with 0 being the highest-rated, and therefore most expensive, model. Then there's another, higher and more expensive range of 0 through 5 which feature carbon frames - the "composite" models. Above that, I think, are the 'Defy Advanced' range, aimed at seriously serious cyclists.

I was so impressed by the Giant Defy 3 with its aluminium frame I test-rode one rainy evening in Glasgow (and researched exhaustively online) that if I hadn't been about to leave the country, I'd have impulse-bought it on the spot. I'd read that the experience of moving from a cheapish hybrid to a decent road bike could be an exhilarating experience. They were not wrong.

Instead of the lower range aluminium frame bicycle, I wound up buying one with a composite carbon fibre (the Defy Composite 3). Carbon frames, essentially, are exceptionally light and stiff, good at absorbing vibrations, and come with the curved handlebars and lean-forward geometry of a road bicycle. It's a leisure, sports and exercise machine rather than a full-fledged racing bicycle, which is just what I wanted.

The recommended retail price for the 2013 model on Giant UK's own website, the last time I looked, was £1250. I've seen them on sale in British bike shops for between £900 and £1100. I got mine for a shade over £650 including a 15% discount, or about £50 less than the standard aluminium Defy 3 would have cost me. The frame is black and white and shimmers under the streetlights of this southern port city. It looks like a bicycle out of Tron.

The process by which I came to own this sleek eel of a machine involved a great deal of back and forth. My wife acted as translator to the proprietor, who spoke no English but was friendly in the way the Taiwanese are always friendly, particularly in the south. He had a seemingly permanent grin and the most curiously snaggled teeth. Emma talked to him, and he talked to his wife, who talked to Emma, who talked back to the proprietor, and somewhere out of all this Emma somehow got me a pretty good discount while I stood and watched and listened and waited, slightly dazed by the constant back and forth of Taiwanese and some Mandarin, and all soundtracked by the chaotic rumble of the traffic outside.

The only thing I wasn't sure about was the white handlebar tape that somehow made it look a tiny bit cheap. They happily rebound the bars in black tape, giving it a sharper, sleeker, somehow more dangerous edge. I took it for a brief test ride, wobbling slightly, wary of the rush and hiss of the Tainan streets, still packed late in the evening with scooters and buses and cars in a seemingly unending stream.

I've had the bike for a couple of days and I now regard it as one of the best expenditures I've ever made. Tainan is perhaps not the best city for cycling - few are, really - certainly not compared to Taipei in the north of the island, with its well-lit cycle paths winding along riversides for hundreds of miles. Its streets are crammed and busy and thick with hurtling steel. But it also has broad, flat avenues of perfectly smooth tarmac extending for many miles.

Let me, then, use a few perhaps overly well-worn phrases, in order to sum up the experience of cycling on this machine: like swimming through air. A cliche, yes, but I can find no better words to describe the sensation. I realise now that much of my previous experience on a bicycle was in a sense a battle with that machine, with its inherent weight and inertia dragging me ever back. by contrast, I felt my new Giant was more akin to some form of symbiote, a semi-organic extension of my body, capable of carrying me forward at such terrifying velocities I felt it necessary to constantly hold back, afraid of overreaching before I was ready.

There are other reasons for buying this bicycle, and they tie in to the title of this blog entry, itself a (very obvious) play on the Murakami book What I Think About When I Think About Running. Like a lot of people who spend a lot of their time thinking, running for Murakami and many others is a strategy, a way to distract the conscious mind in such a way that the creative urge is most clearly expressed, in a kind of fugue state. The mind wanders, but productively, along paths that can prove fruitful, rewarding and even profitable.

Running was never for me, however, because it seemed like an exercise in brute torture. Cycling, by contrast, did nothing but bring me a sense of peace, even during those brief periods of intense physical exertion when confronted with a hill or rushing traffic. I feel the stress flow out of me when I climb into the saddle. My mind enters a state of calm even as I negotiate streets busy with that same tearing traffic I witnessed outside the bike shop where I bought my carbon-framed delight. It is a tool of my writing, in that it allows me to segue into the particular frame of mind necessary for me to be able to do what I do.

Cycling on a warm and sunny morning, seeing new things with every turn into an unrecognised alley or street market, brings me nearer to that state. There are, I think, few finer ways to spend a day than touring a new city or a new neighbourhood on two wheels, and whole epics can be composed in the back of one's thoughts while negotiating a series of traffic lights or waiting for the signals to turn at a train crossing. Plot lines can be analysed, surprising twists can spin into life. The turn of a wheel can begin a story, or inspire the end of one.

In future, I'll likely write a bit more about cycling here, interspersed with the more usual entries about my writing and my work.

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