10/29/2014

Adios, old bicycle. Hola, reborn bicycle.

Yes, it's another post about bicycles. So sue me.

So anyway, I crashed my shiny new carbon bike back in June and I haven't had the heart to write about it until now.  The carbon frame, one gear, part of the chainset, all fucked: my front wheel all bent out of shape.

Given I only had the fucking thing about six months, this was, shall we say, not a good feeling.

But these things happen. And the more you cycle, and the farther you go, the more likely it is to happen eventually. Fear not, however: for since the accident, my bicycle has returned, phoenix-like, with new or repaired components and a brand new (aluminium, this time) frame.

In fact, there have been several incidents since I arrived in Taiwan, each of which is worth revisiting, if briefly. They speak both of the potential dangers that unfortunately come with cycling, and of certain realities of living in Taiwan.

One way of summing up those realities might be to say something along the lines of, nobody in Taiwan watches where the hell they're going, and while that might in some respects be true, it might equally be said of anywhere in the world. One might also, for instance, note that the streets and avenues of Taiwan are extremely crowded: and indeed they are terrifyingly so.

Venturing out into the streets of central Taipei during rush hour, one is confronted with quite literally a raging mass of scooters, cars and blue trucks that can barely squeeze into many of Taipei's narrow streets, all hurtling along at terrifying speed. For this reason, often the only cyclists you see are a few kids on folding bikes, on their way to school or university, or old men in wife-beaters pedalling placidly along on supermarket-bought commuter bicycles composed primarily of rust, with the seat set so low they run a risk of kneeing themselves in the jaw with every revolution of the pedals.
  • 1st incident: Nearly got doored by some guy randomly shoving their car door open in my path. I don't know why, and perhaps I never will know why, but for some reason the Taiwanese seem to delight in swinging car doors open without ever once looking over their shoulder or in the mirror. 
  • 2nd Incident: Waiting at the lights, a scooter-rider spotted a gap beside me and tried to squeeze through, since apparently they were bored waiting for the light to turn red (I've learned to wait at least ten seconds after any pedestrian light here turns green, otherwise you run the risk of being slaughtered by cars and scooters slamming through immediately following the change at ferocious speeds). The scooter collided with my front wheel, then vanished off into the distance while the air rushed out of my front tire. I'd had my bike a week.  A week.
  • 3rd Incident: Taipei is built around a series of rivers, and there are extensive bicycle lanes built along these riversides. They're modern, well-maintained, and quite fun to go for a leisurely cycle along. What's not so fun is passing some old guy - wife-beater, check - rust-bucket bicycle, check - who turns to his side and spits at you. Not deliberately; not out of hatred; but because he hadn't bothered to look and see if anyone else might be in the vicinity. Something, again, that appears to be endemic.
  • 4th Incident: back in May, my bike slid right out from under me after I crossed a narrow patch of water-stained path along the riverside that almost certainly contained some kind of industrial-mechanical fluid flowing from an adjacent building site.  I hit the ground hard enough on my chest I couldn't sleep on one side for a month. And yes, there was compensation. 
  • 5th Incident: the biggie. In June, some kid in full road gear but on a mountain bike came howling around a bush on a twisty stretch of path and straight into me. All I remember clearly is picking myself up from the path several seconds later. I think I was unconscious for a couple of seconds at least. The bike? Mangled. 
The thing I've learned - the hard way - about those flashy carbon frames is that for all their lightness and nimble versatility, they're really, really fucking fragile. One crack, and they're goners. You might think this possibility would have occurred to me prior to buying the bike, but here's the thing: before any of these incidents, I had rarely, if ever, had any accidents on a bicycle. The worst that ever happened  was when somebody's huge and out of control dog decided to make friends with me by launching itself off a hill in a Glasgow park as I cycled by, knocking me into the grass.

That's the worst it ever got, in decades of cycling.

The weird thing is, this doesn't put me off cycling at all. It just makes me even more cautious than I already am, and the funny thing is that most of these incidents occurred not on busy roads, but on dedicated cycle lanes, far from regular traffic...precisely the places where you'd think I'd be the safest. 

Not so, unfortunately. 

What really puts salt in the wound is that I've been completely unable to find anything even resembling insurance for bicycles in Taiwan. This is a very odd thing. To understand just how odd, you need to understand that nearly 90% - 90% - of the world's bicycles are made here. Really: if you've got a bicycle of any make, the chances are extremely good that if you study the frame closely, you'll find a sticker somewhere on it saying 'Made in Taiwan'. Go look. I can wait. It's probably somewhere really out of the way, like on the bottom of the frame beneath the pedals.

And yet, even in the country where they are manufactured, where there is an annual international trade show for the bicycle industry, where the biggest city - Taipei - has invested hundreds of millions in developing (slightly pointless, but that's another story) hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes outside the city, you can't get a bike insured because, so far as I can tell, people still don't take them that seriously. 

Cycling for me has become pretty much like running is for some other people. And in case you think maybe I should go running instead, believe me, I've tried, numerous times over the years. Each and every time felt like some kind of horrible, horrible torture.

The farther and longer I cycle, by contrast, the better I feel. 

I was off the bike for the better part of two months. But I had a book to complete - the sequel to Extinction Game - and that meant a lot of butt-in-seat time anyway. I researched frames in my spare moments, and discovered a whole slew of local bike manufacturers unknown in the West but generally, to my understanding, of very high quality. I considered a steel frame at one point - I wanted something essentially unbreakable - and you can get very high quality, very light, very modern steel frames entirely unlike the clunky monstrosities a lot of you probably remember from your youth. Unfortunately, they cost about as much as the superlight carbon frames, and after seeing my Defy 3 creamed mere months after blowing a considerable wad of money on it, I wasn't in the mood for throwing money around.

So I decided on an aluminium frame, made by a local company called Performer, and perhaps better known for their reclining bicycles. Aluminium is heavier than carbon, and not as strong as steel, but it's reliable and, by god, it's cheaper; and besides, I'd done a lot of reading in the meantime and discovered why a lot of people are in fact rather less than enamoured by carbon frames.

Now, a few months after that last accident, my bike is reborn with its new black frame. I'm back out on the road, and the funny thing is, even though it's not as super-light as my old carbon frame (seriously, you can balance modern carbon bike frames on your pinkie and hardly feel like you're trying), I find I actually prefer the aluminium frame. It feels more stable, and it appears to absorb road vibration much better than the carbon did. I don't feel like it's going to shoot out from under me if I hit a hard bump.

Carbon frames are fine if you're into competitive cycling, but if you're not, you're better off without. That's my tested opinion. All I need to do now is spend some quality time on a good quality steel frame, and I'll be certain which of the three I prefer.

And I've decided to invest in a bicycle camera, because the next time some fucker takes me out on the road, I want solid video evidence of their sorry, stupid asses. 
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