Cycling tours more popular as people ditch beach holidays and hit the road
Cycling tours in Asia are growing more popular as people ditch the beach holiday and hit the road, writes Rachel Jacqueline
With its narrow and congested roads and heavily polluted air, Hong Kong is not ideal for cyclists. So those who have caught the cycling bug are swapping Asian beach breaks for bike holidays, touring the region for days or weeks at a time - and conquering personal challenges along the way.
"People are well travelled in Hong Kong; they've sat on every beach in Asia, and now they're looking for something different," says Troy de Haas, manager of the Active, Health & Wellness travel teams at Flight Centre Hong Kong.
He estimates the number of those taking part in cycling tours around the region has "more than tripled" in the past three years. Not only is cycling social - "you can stop and have a coffee along the way if you feel like it," says de Haas - it won't ruin your joints like a week-long running adventure might.
"Plus, you get to see things at a much slower pace than you do on the back of a tour bus or in a van," he says. "You get a true experience of the destination."
Though the European Alps may seem a more likely cycling destination, de Haas assures rewarding cycling awaits just a short distance from Hong Kong, "from the mountains of Taiwan, to the hills of Thailand's north, to meandering through the diverse countryside of Vietnam".
Hong Kong's newest cycling company, Mad Dogs, promises the "ultimate long-distance cycling challenge" throughout greater Asia. From Hong Kong to Hanoi, Sapporo to Moscow, Hanoi to Bangkok, Taipei to Kenting, Singapore to Krabi and Macau to Guilin, cyclists take on such mammoth challenges in shorter daily stages. Over seven days, you can cover as much as 1,420km.
"People want to achieve something major, but for most, it is unrealistic to take more than a week off work," says founder Humphrey Wilson.
The 31-year-old Brit was inspired to start the company after exploring 22 countries by bike over 10 months in 2009, on a ride from London to Hong Kong. "After my own experience, I realised that if the cycling is planned and supported, you could cycle further in a day or a week. You could really achieve something."
His tours are supported by mini-vans and mechanics, and even offer a bike share scheme.
Although he is fit, Geddes had hardly ridden a bike before attempting the challenge and only bought a cheap one the week before.
Cycling adventures may not be for everyone, with early starts, the dreaded cyclist's seat and perpetually sore muscles being some of the drawbacks, says 28-year-old Geddes.
"But it's perfect for someone who has a bit of grit about them, and enjoys a few challenges - a few punctured tyres, cycling in the rain. Trust me, the beer at the end of it had to be one of the most well-deserved beers I've ever had." And extra benefits? "You burn a heck of an amount of calories," says Wilson with a grin. "You can eat anything, seriously."
For the more experienced cyclist, a customised tour offers a tough but enjoyable break. And according to cyclists in the know, there's no better place to train than in Taiwan.
"Taiwan has some of the best road climbs in Asia, including one at 3,272 metres, which is probably one of the highest rideable road climbs in North Asia," says avid Hong Kong cyclist Paul Smith, who's cycled Taiwan on many occasions. "It's also very close to Hong Kong."
Smith ranks Taiwan adventure company In Motion Asia (IMA) as one of the top choices for tours in Taiwan. Since 2007, the company has gone from offering eight private tours a year to at least one a week, says founder Cam McLean.
"I initially came to Taiwan for one week to catch up with friends, but during my travels around the island I was blown away by what I discovered: a rugged outdoor adventure playground totally off the radar with stunning coastline, massive mountains, lush valleys and beautiful rivers," says the New Zealander, who's been living in Taiwan for more than 10 years.
In addition to tours for diehards, In Motion Asia also offers corporate teambuilding programmes on bikes, youth adventure camps and "the occasional stag do". IMA also puts together cycling tours in Thailand, Japan and other regions of your choice in Asia.
After more of a saunter than a sweat-fest? Flatter destinations such as Cambodia, Vietnam and southeastern Thailand are your best bet, making the adventure more family-friendly.
Valerie Lagarde, 31, chose a three-day expedition from Bangkok to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, for a family expedition last July, with her four-year-old daughter and husband.
"We had been to Thailand a few times and stayed at beach resorts, so we wanted something different. I thought cycling would be a good option to explore," says Lagarde.
She chose tour operator SpiceRoads, sharing the tour with one other family. "The whole experience turned out to be stress-free as the logistics were absolutely incredible - we always had a mini van following us, and there were two bike mechanics and two guides with us on the road the whole time."
"I am not a cyclist yet I found the tour very manageable. There were always times to relax, and we were never forced to move faster or do something we didn't feel comfortable with," she says.
For the ultimate adventure, how about DIY?
Richard Hunt created his own itinerary, cycling from Singapore to Hong Kong over five months last year, travelling through Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and China at his leisure. Although Hunt's adventure took a lot of preparation, most of the planning occurred on the road, and the approach gave him the flexibility to enjoy his travels.
"I had a basic idea on where I wanted to go, but once on the road I would take it week by week and, more often than not, day by day. After spending enough time in one town, I would mark out the next key town I was interested in and set on my way," says the 27-year-old Australian.
"I would never set a firm schedule on where I was going to be because you never knew what you'd find or see on the road that could be interesting."
Despite feeling homesick during Christmas in Malaysia, enduring many dog attacks in Thailand, suffering from dehydration in Cambodia and getting a virus in Vietnam, his five months on the road taught him valuable life lessons.
"The trip taught me anything is possible if you set your mind to it," says Hunt.
"The hardest part is taking the steps to start the journey. It's very easy to say it's crazy, dangerous or too far, but once you're on the road, you set yourself a task for that day and go out to achieve it."
Biking tour groups:
Tour group biking challenges up to a week at a time throughout greater Asia.
Bespoke tours, corporate packages and youth adventure based in Taiwan.
Bespoke and group tours through Southeast Asia.
Bicycle and photography guided tours throughout Asia, from half days to two-week plus expeditions.
Family groups and custom tours by bike out of Vietnam.
Group tours throughout China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.