Riding the (Insane) Toucheng (頭城) Loop - 165 km

This time I definitely bit off more than I could chew! Riding to Toucheng and back would have been fine if I didn't take the Yilan First Highway (宜1). If I had just ridden straight to Fulong (福隆) on Road 2 and then turned left through Gongliao (貢寮) I would have been fine. However, I decided to do the loop through the mountains and I can honestly say, this was my toughest day on the bike yet. For me it was a monster ride and I think I still need to train more to do it effectively. I left home at 5:30 am and only got back at 8:00 pm: 14.5 hours out on the road is too long. Still, I am proud that I got to the end and now I know how tough this one is. Also, it is a beautiful ride! You first ride to Pinglin(坪林), then Toucheng (頭城), then along the coast to Daxi (大溪), over the mountains to Shuangxi (雙溪) and then through the (lower) mountains to Shenkeng (深坑) and home. It is a beautiful ride but a tough one and you need to be fit and have stamina to get through it.

Turtle Island, Toucheng (頭城)

The Route

So today I rode from Taipei through Pinglin (坪林) to Toucheng (頭城) along Road 9 and then to  Daxi (大溪) on Road 2. From Daxi (大溪) I followed the Yilan First Highway (宜1) and then continued on the mountain roads until I got to Shuangxi (雙溪). From Shuangxi (雙溪) I jumped onto Road 2丙 , passed and then from Shifen (十分) followed Road 106 all the way back to Shenkeng (深坑) and then rode home through the city. Since the ride took 14.5 hours, the battery on my GPS failed, the route that was mapped was cut short just after Jingtong (菁桐). You can see the route I wanted to follow here.

Riding for Rhinos


First up, whenever you see me riding my bike now, you will see my helmet has a red replica Rhino Horn on it. The horn is an initiative set up in South Africa to help raise funds to fight Rhino poaching, to help bring awareness about the current crisis and to try and stop people killing these beautiful animals for unscientific beliefs that Rhino horns have curative benefits. The biggest culprits in this trade are Vietnam, Mainland China and Hong Kong. Some illegal product does come into Taiwan but I think not that much (although I don't know). The horn on the helmet makes people curious and I managed to start a few conversations on this ride and start to educate people in Taiwan about the need for a global effort to preserve Rhinos. It is a small thing, but if everyone does their bit, we can save these beautiful creatures from certain extinction. Follow the Rhinose Day Facebook page.

I will willingly admit though that the big plastic horn, mounted on the helmet makes it hotter and you feel much more wind resistance so it makes riding harder. It took me a few hours to get used to having it there and when cross winds blow you really start to feel the impact. Still, I am doing this for a reason: to start conversations and educate people and so far so good, the conversation has started.

Riding to Pinglin (坪林)

The Xindian (新店) River - Love the Low Lying Clouds on the Mountain

There are many ways to get to Pinglin (坪林) but I chose the most direct road which is along Road 9 from Xindian (新店). I woke up at around 5:00 am and was out the door by 5:30 am. The plan was to get to Pinglin (坪林) by 8:30 am, have breakfast there and then leave for Toucheng (頭城) at 9:00 am. I took the simple route out my door and went along the river to Xindian (新店). I was surprised by how many people were exercising on the riverside path so early in the morning. It was a beautiful morning but it has been a long time since I was there early and forgot just how many people like to get out and exercise. I think it is brilliant! I went slower than normal along the river to Xindian (新店) as I wanted to stretch my legs, warm them up and save them for what was to come. Still, I got to Xindian (新店) by 6:10 am and started to follow Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林).

Early Morning on the Xindian (新店) River

Once I got passed Xindian (新店) and through the built up area along Road 9, the spectacular evergreen beauty that surround Road 9 from here all the way to Toucheng (頭城) begins to show itself. It is exquisite scenery and every time I ride Road 9 I am just in awe that such amazing natural beauty is so close to Taipei and yet so far from many people's minds. I wrote about the beauty of this road when I did the Pinglin Lasso a few weeks ago, but on that occasion I was riding it in the opposite direction from Pinglin (坪林). However, Road 9 is beautiful whichever side you ride it from. I was happy to be out of the built up areas so quickly and gliding through nature.

Early Morning View on Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

I did naively assume that since it was early in the morning there wouldn't be that much traffic along Road 9. I was wrong. Although not as busy as usual, there were still many buses, cars, trucks and motorcycles racing up and down Road 9. I knew that this would only last until Pinglin (坪林) but still, I would have preferred to have a quieter road. Of course there were many early morning cyclists on Road 9 too which provided more motivation to get up the mountain as fast as possible. When I saw a 60-something year old man pass me I decided to tuck in behind him and draft him for a bit. He eventually pulled away from me when I stopped to take a picture but he was in pretty good shape. It is really great to see people of all ages cycling early in the morning and getting fit.

Cyclist on the way to Pinglin (坪林)
Early Morning Cyclist on Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林) is beautiful all the way up. There is a lot of vegetation on both sides of the road all the way from Xindian (新店) to Toucheng (頭城). This provides ample shade and protection from the burning sun that was with me most of the ride. I was able to stay cool most of the way to Toucheng (頭城) and relatively un-burned from the sun.

Beautiful Scenery from Pinglin (坪林)
Another Beautiful View on Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

Shade on Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

The climb up Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林) starts at around the 15 km marker and the first main part of the climb ends at around the 23 km marker. So the ride up is about 8 km and about 410 m of climbing. When you get to the 23 km marker you are served with stunning views of the valleys and mountains and makes the climb up worth the effort.

View from the top of Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

Once passed the 23 km marker the road flattens out considerably for a few kilometers and the top of Road 9 is finally reached at the 26 km marker, but the ride from the 23 km marker is pretty simple with beautiful views of the valleys on one side (see above) and tea fields on the other side.

Tea Fields  at the top of Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)
Tea Fields at the top of Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

Once the descent into Pinglin (坪林) starts at the 26 km marker, you have a short view of the Fetsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫). You can only see the dam through the trees. I would love to ride around this reservoir but the only access road I know of on Road 9甲 to Wulai (烏來) is blocked by a boom gate and some security guards. I have never tried to cycle through the boom gate. Next time I will try but I don't think I will be allowed through.

View of the Fetsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫) from Road 9
View of the Fetsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫) on Road 9

Of course the best part of any climb up the mountain is the rapid descent down the other side of the mountain. I love just tucking my body up and drifting around the curves in the road and feeling the cool breeze on my face. The way down is very liberating and always, after a hard climb up, much appreciated. Of course, the views remained spectacular all the way down into Pinglin (坪林)

Stunning Views on the way down Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)
Stunning Views on the way down Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

Once you get to the river in the valley you know you have arrived in Pinglin (坪林). It is a quick ride down the mountain and when I arrived in Pinglin (坪林) I was happy. I always take the picture of the river (see below). I don't know why, I just think it is a beautiful view.

At the Bottom of Road 9 to Pinglin (坪林)

I got into Pinglin (坪林) at 8:00 am on the dot. I was impressed that it had only taken me 2.5 hours from home. I was only expecting to arrive at around 8:30 am. I was ahead of schedule. I needed to eat breakfast so found a small restaurant where I could sit down and eat. I was there for about 20 minutes eating and refreshing water supplies. It was good to take a break and enjoy the early morning ambiance of this small country town. All too soon (at 8:20 am) it was time to leave and head for Toucheng (頭城).

Onward to Toucheng (頭城)
Toucheng (頭城) and Turtle Island

After finishing breakfast and doing an inventory of myself, I found I wasn't particularly tired and was in pretty good shape to go over the next mountain. I thought it would be a good ride up and down. I have never ridden passed Pinglin (坪林) on Road 9 before so I was looking forward to discovering a new road and seeing new things. I jumped on the bike, crossed the river that divides Pinglin (坪林) and at the 38 km marker on Road 9, started the climb up to Toucheng (頭城).

River in Pinglin (坪林)

Once over the river in Pinglin (坪林) the climb up the mountain starts but ,fairly soon after crossing the river, there are some beautiful views of Pinglin (坪林) itself. Pinglin (坪林) is a small riverside town that is famous for its tea. The town itself has a Tea Museum and many different tea houses. There are also some rivers that extend out of the town along which people can walk and in which people can swim. I definitely think Pinglin (坪林) should be on any tourist itinerary for Northern Taiwan.

Early Morning Pinglin (坪林)

As you move further up Road 9 you pass an elaborate gate for a temple and you start to see some beautiful little hamlets buried in the river valley. The views of the valley are stunning. After riding up Road 9 I made a decision that sometime in the near future I will spend a day cycling around the farm roads in Pinglin (坪林). I think it will be a rewarding experience! There are many little roads that shoot off from Road 9 and I think they would take me into beautiful valleys and through small communities. I intend to do the ride soon so lookout for that post.

Elaborate Temple Gate on Road 9

Beautiful Valley View on Road 9 to Toucheng (頭城)

Beautiful Hamlet from Road 9 to Toucheng (頭城)

As I mentioned earlier, the ride up Road 9 is surrounded by vegetation and there is ample shade most of the way. Considering this was a blazing hot day, the shade was much appreciated and the ride was significantly cooler than it could have been.

Shade on Road 9 to Toucheng (頭城)

I thought I would tire quickly on the climb up Road 9 but I was surprisingly fresh and my legs didn't really burn at all. I carried on pressing further up the mountain expecting my legs to feel the pain sooner rather than later, but the pain never came. I was happy to be feeling so good and I was getting increasingly optimistic for the rest of the day. I was pushing hard up the mountain, making good time and was enjoying the ascent and the views of the surrounding mountains.


Beautiful Views from Road 9

View from Road 9

After about two hours of riding I could see the gradient of the road was decreasing. I was looking up at the mountains thinking that the end of the climb must be in sight. And I still wasn't feeling particularly tired. I had made good time to the top of Road 9 and felt that it could only get easier on the other side when I had a long and expected downhill into Toucheng (頭城). I realized I was near the top when I came onto a part of the road that had some beautiful green coniferous trees lining the road. It was beautiful and cool.

Beautiful Trees on Road 9 to Toucheng (頭城)

When I passed this part of the road and turned the corner, I looked up and could see what was clearly the top of the mountain. I was happy. As I approached the top I saw the sign that welcomedme to Yilan (宜蘭). I knew from that point on that I would be going downhill all the way to Toucheng (頭城). But it should be said, the greatest part of being at the top of the mountain was the amazing views of the rice paddies, the coast, the ocean and Turtle Island. Just absolutely stunning!

Turtle Island and Toucheng (頭城) from the top of Road 9

Sign at the top of Road 9 in Yilan (宜蘭)

The other incredible views from the top of Road 9 are those of the road and the beautiful greenery that surrounds the road on the way down into Toucheng (頭城). The road is completely surrounded by greenery and after looking at it I was looking forward to gliding down the road and getting in among the rice paddies before I finally made it in to Toucheng (頭城). The views of the ocean, Turtle Island, the rice paddies and the Road 9 itself made the ride up Road 9 from Pinglin (坪林) worth it and I would really recommend this road as one everyone should make an effort to ride.



View of Road 9 and the Surrounding Vegetation

After admiring the view of Toucheng (頭城) and the surroundings for a while it was time to head down the mountain. The road up from Toucheng (頭城) certainly looked like much a more difficult and much steeper ride. There were multiple switchbacks all the way up the mountain and the acceleration down was brilliant.

Switchbacks down Road 9

I all too quickly arrived at the bottom of Road 9 and managed to find a 7-11 in Toucheng (頭城). I looked over my left shoulder up the mountain and could see the place I had just come from. It was an incredible ride down but, as all downwards journeys on a bicycle, was over far too soon. One thing I am determined to do is ride this road in the opposite direction and see what it feels like going up this side of the mountain. I am sure it is more difficult than coming up from the Pinglin (坪林) side and would need a big effort to get to the top.

At the bottom of Road 9 looking Up

Into the Furnace

Temple in Toucheng (頭城)

After stocking up on water it was time to head out of Toucheng (頭城) for Daxi (大溪). However, after riding in the cool mountain air on the mountain before descending into Toucheng (頭城), the heat came as a sudden shock to the system, but was not unexpected. It was a beautiful blue sky day, the sun was pouring down, it was already midday: brilliant weather all around really. I road around Toucheng (頭城) a bit because I remembered there was a place with a coffee shop and great views of Turtle Island. Turns out it was on Road 2 and I didn't have to deviate but I did ride passed a beautiful temple close to the beach (see above). When I did arrive at the tourist center where there is a coffee shop (and some shade), it was time to take another short water break. The picture at the top of this blog post was taken there. As you can see, it was a super hot day.

Enjoying the View of the Beach and Turtle Island

After resting for a bit, it was time to head for Daxi (大溪) and the mountains. Although it was very hot along Road 2 and even though Road 2 from Toucheng (頭城) to Daxi (大溪) is narrow in part and busy with trucks, buses and cars, the ride itself was pleasant. The ride to Daxi (大溪) from Toucheng (頭城) is short (maybe 12 km) and I made good time getting there fairly quickly. I was now really looking forward to climbing up the Yilan First Highway (宜1) but did not realize how tough this road was going to be and that it would be the road that did significant damage to my ability and confidence going home.

Riding Along Road 2

The views along Road 2 to Daxi (大溪) were brilliant all the way and for most of the time I had a great view of Turtle Island. The day was so clear and I got some great pictures of this beautiful little island and the coast line along the road.

Beautiful Turtle Island

Beautiful Coastline

I finally arrived in Daxi (大溪) where I stopped for a water break and one final picture of Turtle Island (I know I took a lot but it was hard to let go). It was great to have reached Daxi (大溪) in good time (shortly after noon) and I was fairly optimistic of being able to make it to Shuangxi (雙溪) between 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm. I was severely mistaken.

Last View of Turtle Island

A Climb too Far

Yilan First Highway (宜1)

I started to head onto the Yilan First Highway (宜1) in Daxi (大溪). The highway starts at the 10 km marker and I thought the climb up the mountain would end after 10 km. I was wrong! As you start on the Yilan First Highway (宜1) you cross the East coast railway line before heading up the first of many amazing switchbacks that took me higher and higher and higher.

Not the Smartest Place to Take a Picture

Once I crossed the railway tracks in Daxi (大溪) the climb started for real. It was soon apparent that this ascent was going to be a tough one and my muscles finally started to feel the combined effects of cycling up two mountains earlier in the morning. I was soon wasted (probably at around the 4 km marker). Of course, since the mountainside was steep, there were a lot of switchbacks (as mentioned above) to take us to the top. It was tough all the way up.


Wicked Switchbacks on the Yilan First Highway (宜1)

As I got higher on the mountain the views of Daxi (大溪) and the ocean from the road were impressive. Although I was hurting a lot going up, the slowness of the ride once again gave me time to appreciate these magnificent views.


Views of Daxi (大溪) from Yilan First Highway (宜1)

Going up the mountain also threw up some amazing views of the incredible vegetation on the mountain. The evergreen vegetation is always brilliant and is always a feature of my rides and photography.



Stunning Vegetation on the Mountains from Yilan First Highway (宜1)

It was an incredibly hot day and on the lower reaches of the mountain there was little respite from the sun and heat. I stopped often for water and was concerned about my ability to get to the top of this hill. My legs were hurting a lot at this stage and I was starting to think about walking but at the end I took more breaks and rode all the way up. On one of my breaks I looked up and saw this brilliant blue sky.

Blue, blue Sky

As mentioned I started to take a lot more breaks on the ride up. At around the 8 km marker I came across a small shrine with a place to burn paper money. It had shade. I rode there, stopped and sat on the floor, stretched my muscles and drank some water. I sat there way too long. I massaged my legs and tried to revive myself as best I could.

Place to Rest

I rested way too long at this point and I was getting concerned now about how much longer I could ride and I was seriously considering heading down the mountain, back to Road 2 and going home from Fulong (福隆) but I decided to stick with it as I knew there were only 2 km left on this part of the climb. But I knew in myself that I was in bad shape and that the ride home was going to be a tough one as I knew that even when when I got to the bottom of this mountain, there were still a few more climbs I would have to get over. Regardless I decided to take each kilometer at a time and see how far I could go. I knew I had to get home that night on my own steam and that there really was no other option. I finally left my resting place after 20 minutes and managed to to reach the end of the Yilan First Highway (宜1) and start to ride on the the ups and downs at the top of the mountain.

At the end of Yilan First Highway (宜1)

After reaching the end of the Yilan First Highway (宜1) I started to press on acutely aware of the time. In the beginning the road was fairly flat but after a while it did start to go up and down. I was feeling alright on the flats, but the fire in my legs reignited on even the smallest incline. It was hard but I persisted in trying to go as fast as I could. It was painful but I grinned and accepted it as par for the course. As I rode further along the road, I came across this really strange temple that had plastic windmills strung all over the place. It was one of the more interesting temples I have seen. I thought the windmills might serve the same function as the Tibetan prayer flags i.e. carrying prayers to heaven, but I am not sure that is true.


Strange Temple with Plastic Windmills

Although I was exhausted, I was still able to appreciate the natural beauty at the top of this mountain. The vegetation in parts was different to what I had seen before. I liked the diversity.

Different Vegetation on the Road

Of course, since it is Taiwan, there was a river running across the top of the mountain that was beautiful too.

River at the top of the Mountain

Further along the road there was an elaborate temple gate, which is also a common sight here. But for a lot of the time now I was riding next to a beautiful river. Also, now that I was at a higher altitude, it was cooler than it had been at sea level and on the climb out of Daxi (大溪).

Temple Gate on the Side of the Road

Mountain River

I carried along on the road for a little bit and came across this beautiful scenic area next to the river. It was beautiful. It was a good place to stop, rest and take a break and I was happy to be able to rest in such a beautiful part of the mountain. I also met some friendly people there who were amazed to know that I had come from Taipei and was trying to get back on the same day.

Resting at a Scenic Area

Scenic River Area

Reflection in the river

I left the scenic area and started to head for Shuangxi (雙溪) after another 20 minute rest. I was told that although there were some uphills, it was mostly down from here. I tried to use that to encourage myself. Just before getting to the top of the ridge that overlooked the ocean again, I hit another uphill that wasn't particularly tough but, since I was exhausted and my legs already finished, struggled to fight my way up. At this point I was also starving since, apart from two bananas, I had not eaten anything since breakfast and it was already 3:20 pm. After getting up the last of these climbs with tremendous difficulty and a lot of pain, I finally reached a level contour and had some great views of the surrounding areas.

View from the top of the Mountain

From this point on it was downhill all the way into Shuangxi (雙溪). Of course there were as many switchbacks on the way down on this side of the mountain as there were going up from Daxi (大溪). But it was downhill. I just coasted to give my legs a chance to rest. It was necessary. I finally got down to Shuangxi (雙溪), found the 7-11 and started to guzzle food and water. I was hungry and I think the lack of fuel was a big part of the problem. I was happy to be there but when I checked the time, it was already 4:00 pm and I was still a long way from home.

Racing into the Night on Road 106

Sunset on Road 106

After a 30 minute break in the 7-11 in Shuangxi (雙溪), I had to push on. I got back on the bike and found the road from Shuangxi (雙溪) that leads onto Road 2丙. The road runs next to the river which is quite beautiful and I managed to stay focus on this part of the road.

River from Shuangxi (雙溪)

After joining Road 2丙 I started the "long" 40 km ride home. Road 2丙 starts as a flat road but it soon starts to go up and up and up. The first climb is not steep but after trying to ride up for a bit my legs just wouldn't work. I got off the bike and started to push up the mountain. I walked the bike all the way up to the tunnel. When I got to the tunnel I got back on the bike and rode through the tunnel with more agony. At the end of the tunnel there is a short downhill into Shifen (十分). Once into Shifen (十分) I turned left onto Road 106 and started to head towards Pingxi (平溪). By this time my legs were on fire and I started to really struggle. I managed to get up the short uphill that leads into Pingxi (平溪) but by now I was going very slowly. I was in pain and the daylight was starting to fade. I shot through Pingxi (平溪) but was definitely hurting. I finally got to Jingtong (菁桐) at around 6:00 pm, 28 km from home, but I knew I needed to stop and rest.

I found a small restaurant that was serving ice cold jelly drinks and I gulped down two of them. The proprietor, Mr. Yeh, was absolutely amazing. He invited me to stretch my legs out on his chairs and even gave me a cup of juice for free. After 10 minutes when I tried to leave he insisted I stay and rest longer. It was great advice and I took it.

The Friendly Mr Yeh in Jingtong (菁桐)

After 20 minutes of resting in Jingtong (菁桐) I had to go. I left there at 6:20 pm. There is a small uphill outside Jingtong (菁桐) which I managed to crawl up on the bike. At the end of the uphill I managed to race all the way home without stopping on Road 106. The light was fading. I looked down the Road 106 and the sun was dropping below the mountains. When I arrived in Shenkeng (深坑). I blasted through Shenkeng (深坑) and headed for home. I finally made it home at around 8:15 pm in a terrible condition. My legs and whole body was sore, I was covered in sweat but I was happy to be home. I was happy to be back after 14.5 hours on the road. It was a hard ride, but it was done!

Final Thoughts

This was definitely one of my toughest rides to date. My Garmin died so I estimate the total distance covered was around 165 km and about 2,100 m of climbing. It took me an incredible 14.5 hours. I regard this ride as  a failure and I will do it again and finish it within 12 hours.

Also, this was definitely a very emotional ride. When I was heading down the mountain from the tunnel on Road 2丙 into Shifen (十分) I started to have a lot of dark and negative thoughts about myself and my life. I was even tempted to stop the bike, get off, and throw it over the mountain. I think I was so disappointed by the failure of not being able to finish the ride in a decent time. But somewhere deep inside I also knew that a lot of this was coming out of sheer exhaustion and desperation for the pain to end. I managed to push those thoughts out of my mind and keep focused on the next 10 m in front of me. Also, stopping in Jingtong (菁桐)  and chatting with the jovial Mr. Yeh helped raised my spirits too.

After I got home, showered and ate I sat down and thought about the experience. Yes, I was disappointed that I couldn't get it done in a decent time, yes I was disappointed that I wasn't as fit and strong as I thought I was but, on the positive side, 165 km is still a heck of a distance and this was the first time I climbed over 2,000 m in a day. But, for me, the biggest positive of all, that despite the difficulties, the pain and the self doubt, I managed to push myself through it and, even though I walked a bit, I still got to the end under my own steam. So yes, it was bloody tough, but I did it.

I am going to do this ride again within the next year, but next time I am going to OWN IT.

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