Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 8 (Taipei): Palais de Chine to Train Station Press Conference

5 Stars not getting old. Me... getting old.

The Palais de Chine’s suites had a similar design to other hotels in which we stayed. There was a bathroom "studio", often with a clear glass surround, creating a light and space illusion of being larger than they were. Lighting in general was dim here, though, setting a mood that felt ‘Old World’. The desk faced the sink, a two sided apothecary-style long mirror, mounted ceiling-to-counter acted as a ritzy room divider. The round tub in the corner had a creative pass-thru window to the shower, which was floor to ceiling stone tile (bringing to mind the quarries that must be thriving in nearby mountain ranges). Of course, I needed to test the tub. In a crammed time line, you started to learn that power naps apply to “power tubs” or “power blogging” or “power relaxation time”. If you had 10 minutes to relax, you’d best do it! 

Palais de Chine hotel suite, office and bathroom
Trying out the shower, I reached up to adjust the shower head and WHAM. My upper thoracic back muscles finally gave into the daily diagonal weight of my messenger back and pulling my suitcase down another hallway and into another elevator. Feeling old and crippled, I wondered how I would manage the heavily scheduled day of press conferences, trains, and buses. I just barely resisted a sleep-deprived panic attack, I think. My new comrades, thankfully, were up to the challenge.  They were willing to cart my overstuffed suitcase down the hallway, taking the burden of excess bags off my shoulders. It was true gift - the unwavering care and willingness to kick in and help the elder in the group (me!) and still laugh and make fun of me simultaneously. Again, I realize how lucky I am, and how I couldn't do this alone!

We met in the rather glamorous breakfast buffet area.  It was full of tables surrounded by small thin men, mostly European looking, some Asian.  Soon I was feeling like a groupie, trying to cleverly take a picture of the Rabobank table with Óscar Freire. In fact, his wife had to walk around me to enter for their turn at the breakfast spread of eggs, fruit, breads and unknowns we were getting to know. Now, for those of you that have been fans of the Tour de France, or any professional cycling, you know this was kid-in-the-candy-store material. I became a giggling little girl (with a stupid back problem, and could barely carry the big heavy plate of food with one hand due to my new ailment), but still a little girl with the phenomenon of blood leaving the brain and speaking muscles, to the silly brain dead babbling, can’t form-a-sentence blushing muscles.

Mark Villegas in crowded Palais 
lobby, kindly manning my bags, 
while pro team-people watching.

The frenzy that followed the breakfast was comical. There were hoards of cyclists trying to fit into a limited number of elevators, cramming in not only themselves, but their bike boxes and luggage. During this mass chaos, we somehow found ourselves consistently in the same place as most of the Giant Asia Team, including one smiling Iranian pro rider - Daryo. An adorable, lean, taller than average for a pro - and entertaining (he wanted to hang with us (having some smitten eyes for a certain tall lean athletic girl in our group, likely), and it was a blast to see him throughout the rest of our trip in random situations and hotels). 


We all awaited our guides (or their managers) to lead us to our buses that would take us to attend the same press conference in a train station a short trip away.  The lower lobby was a gridlock of bike boxes and luggage.  It was pouring outside, so the space was filled by riders trying to stay dry.  Imagine all this in the small ground-floor space, and now add a life size sculpture of a horse.  It was hilarious. 



The train station press conference was staged perfectly - well organized in the same fashion of the Cycling Festival’s Opening Ceremony. The pomp and circumstance included lots of high-volume music (some of which we unfortunately recognized from elevators & dentist's offices back home). Humorous love songs to us, but played with international enthusiasm.  The stage had a huge projection screen as a backdrop, with a row of bicycles on stationary trainers in front. 


Our clever and well-spoken MC ran the show again, helping translate and making sure to include us English-speaking media.  He did an excellent job of marketing Taiwan and made clear their mission to promote cycling and tourism. Having the Taiwanese government, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer (Giant), and Giant's founder’s “Cycling Lifestyle Foundation” all working together, you can see how in another year, this will be much larger, more publicized, and on it’s way to becoming a serious cycling destination. It was nice to be here at its birth, and nice to see the coordinated effort.

I milled about trying to get another chance to speak with King Lui, having a colleague in common (a friend that was for a good long stint, Giant Bicycle’s General Manager here in the States - Jay Townley).  I wanted Mr. Lui to know that I passed along greetings from our mutual friend. The next thing you know... I had him in my sights, with Vicky (current Giant President and his daughter) and translator nearby. I handed him my business card, even though we attempted to speak at the Opening Ceremony before. This was an uninterrupted, less formal moment, and I cherish it. He repeated Jay Townley’s name, and I think we could call our moment a conversation. Success!

video
This video will give you a taste of the atmosphere at the Press Conference.

The press conference was set up with the teams arriving in groups. Mostly all athletes were seated on the right, with media and spectators on the left. A wedding-like arrangement, even down to the special dignitaries in the front row. On the right, we had almost the same lineup as we’d seen in Taitung. This included the Transportation and Communications Minister, the Mayor of Taichung, head of Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, and King Lui.  On the left were representatives from 4 of the major sponsors: Cathay Life, Shimano, SRAM, and Giant. The funniest moment came when the MC - who clearly didn’t know all the details of pro cycling - was describing the classic pro tour jerseys these guests of honor were wearing.  For example the representative from Cathay Life was introduced as wearing “YELLOW! The Champions Jersey!”, but then the MC introduced the SRAM rep as “wearing the green Jersey! That means something!”  I didn’t hide my laughter. (For those in my reading audience that don’t know, green usually indicates the points leader in a stage race.)

The same message was spoken over and over with enthusiasm - that Taiwan is, can be, and hopes to be a destination for both world class pro cyclists and recreational touring cyclists.  This remained the theme of an interview with Óscar Freire.  Friere also gamely - along with the Taiwan dignitaries - rode one of the  bikes on trainers, in front of a screen featuring Taiwan's scenic highlights.  All while giving the universal - and repeated with joy - Formosa Thumbs Up! Óscar was always ready with a cute smile, followed all instructions, and patiently awaited for his responses to be translated. 


Friere (and his Rabobank team) are sponsored by Giant Bicycles, clearly the headliner for the event.  He was genuine in his appreciation for the country’s hospitality, and complimented its potential in joining the pro circuit. He was a real pro: he knew he was the big name they needed to get eyebrows raised, and clearly wasn’t his first press conference. 
Teams pose with Sponsors and Dignitaries (photo by Mark Blacknell)
For the final photo op, I placed myself right up front with fellow media photographers. We were quite tickled while the MC designated a direction for the teams to look to afford the best opportunity for media to get a great shot.  The MC would pick out a person as a landmark, and instruct the riders to look in that direct. Something like “Everybody now look left towards the gentleman in the bright red shirt, now look center... and now look right, towards the girl with the iPhone 4 (in case you wondered... that was me). It was cheesy, yet well orchestrated, creating the ultimate PR moment.  I truly feel the organized fashion and united front to make this successful, will exponentially grow the event, and soon I won’t be allowed as VIP media.  Rather, somebody like Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwen will be the invited media, and I will have to resort to internet streaming of the event, or watching it on Versus.

The event was on a schedule, so it closed after each team posed with all the platform guests. All the teams were shuffled through the station and boarded the trains.  The cars were newly fashioned with excellent bike capacity - right in the same car you sat - and were scheduled to head down the eastern shore in 2 hours, to the start location of the Taiwan Cup Race. (or so they thought, because Typhoon Megi had other plans). We boarded with the teams, getting a chance to film and interview them.  Since we had our own agenda for the rest of the day, we exited at the first stop, about 10 minutes down the tracks. 

Chatted with the New Zealand chap in front.
He was just selected to go pro, and 
excited to train in Europe, but not 
to be away from his girlfriend. 
Robbie Hunter and I steal a moment during 
the photo frenzy. Lighting was terrible for my 
inferior photography equipment. 














Next entry: my 10 minutes on the train with the pro’s, and how I didn’t waste them; how our group of 5 spent the rainy Taipei day and night. 

Óscar Freire's wife in background, Bev Garrity
and Erik Dekker at press conference before
heading to the trains

Saturday, November 6, 2010

BIKE SHOPS & PALACE'S - Day 7 continued

"New Orca: Breath deeply, it's just a bike"
Put a bunch of bike geeks in bike shops, good luck getting them out!

Several flagship bike shops in a row shined like jewelry stores in a high-end shopping district. Merchandising was so well thought out in most with well lit displays, including floors decals with bike path symbols not just decorate, but for testing a bike indoors, taking it for a spin. Giant, Aster, Orbea, and Merida were the shops we spent time in. Super friendly staff's were a little uncomfortable with why a group of 5 English speaking American's descended upon their quiet shops. They spoke nearly no English at all and appreciated it when I approached them with my business card, and would ask for theirs. I asked if I could take photos, and checked out beautiful bikes, bike graphics, and clothing and accessories.


I'd try to point out interesting things to our novice cyclist Canadian Niamh, and then make sure that Mark Villegas would see the crank arms in gold anodized bliss. Mark Blacknell and I tried to make small purchases at each, a magazine, a flashing "Scully" handlebar light, something to show a gesture of thanks to them, and get a souvenir. They often gave us a 10% discount in return for our efforts, I'm guessing because we were in the same industry. To my surprise of being in the Country that most the products were made, I couldn't find gloves in my size, in the women's section. All XS or Large. An inventory mistake in my mind, but I imagine they had bikes in all sizes instead, and some accessories were 2nd priority.

A new favorite. The beautiful Orbea Diva.This seat post clamp had me impressed even before I lifted her off the ground knowing she'd be sub 16lbs.

I loved the women's lines of clothing, often marrying everyday wear
with high performance, decent looks to boot!

We are so used to the look of our Giro Helmets,
that this exotic honeycomb helmet had us mesmerized for a bit.

Took this for my friends in Marketing at both Cat Eye and Topeak,
their walls were looking familiar and clean and well planned and stocked!

Couldn't help but be drawn to this Giant matte pink bike on the end, the
raised box display with striping in lights was effective and beautiful.

With only hand gestures and smiles, the Merida staff installed the battery
and indicated my discount for purchasing, and were very happy to be in the picture. Most anybody we met in Taiwan was friendly and all smiles.

To this day, I never got used to men and women covering their mouths with protective gear. Seeing the mannequin is fashioned this way simply made me smile, they knew their target market!

Somebody please explain to me how multiple stem spacers for this Giraffe of a head tube and bizarre geometry is a benefit? Many of the bikes were not the classic triangle, but lower stand-over height, smaller wheels, and awkward looking stems and head tubes. I can only assume it's for fitting onto the train, your house, or easy nimble entry and and exit over a lower top tube. Too ugly for my tastes, but function should lead form I suppose.


_________________________


HOTEL SWITCH

Turns out a small scheduling problem that could have been huge for ourselves, was solved when John worked his magic, and got us into an even better hotel after we learned original was not booked for the correct day. The alternative he found, happened to be the one where most the Pro Cyclists were staying, and whom we'd meet at the Press Conference the next day.


Mark Blacknell looks for wireless access as we wait for check-in.


We arrived at our new destination. Yes, disappointed we wouldn't get our 1 of potential 2 times we'd stay at the same hotel more than one night, as this "every night a different hotel" was wearing on one's ability to organize and repack a suitcase, but any negativity left after we landed at the The Palais de Chine. In a tall building with an Apple store at it's base, it already gained points with all of us "Apple Heads" at first glance. We weren't prepared for the sophistication of this luxurious, less than a year old hotel. French, artistic and classy with plush features like libraries in alcoves along the hallways, paneled ceilings, even curved ceilings. Lobby with large rough cut stone as a backdrop, couches and seats that looked of a high-end brothel or smoking room that only the finest in Europe could be imagined to be sporting a glass of brandy or port on. Yet... once again, getting alcohol to match the tempting scene, deemed a large challenge, nearing impossible. *sigh*, the only touch missing to us, were nice hotel bars. I was starting to feel self conscious that I desired a good drink other than cheap 7-11 bought beer. And I was starting to feel like this culture was making the effort to fit in and gather tourism momentum, but only with surface and appearance level of knowledge. Where were the hospitality managers that understood travel, vacation, luxury and a good high-end drink go together?


Check-in was on the 4th floor, maybe the 6th, it all blurred together at this point. It was also useless to try and remember your room numbers. Luckily we'd all try to write them down when we were handed our keys, and often could remember everybody's but our own. Meeting times were agree'd to, and off we each went to try and not unpack so much as to make the early morning a chore to re-pack, and try to go wash the travel and tired eyes off w/ a quick shower and change. Often we'd gather in somebody's room to chat pre dinner, and this time it ended up mine. A quick catch up and comparing room amenities with each other, sometimes sharing a Taiwan Beer. Laughing together at the complicated lighting systems, and enlightening another as to what we learned. "Oh... that's how you connected to the internet", or "how do you flush the toilet", "How did you get your lights to turn off?" were common discussions. This pattern formed early on, and grew, as the group liked to share everything, and liked to be together. Luckily, we were usually roomed on the same floor.


This is a lounge area screaming to enjoy spirits, we did finally get some
wine to sit in this space and soak it in a bit.

Kate, Mark and Naimh hang in my room and try to connect with our worlds at home before dinner.


PARTY OF 6 FOR DINNER PLEASE

We were readying for a walk to a famous "night market" that I had heard about before the trip, and to get a "traditional meal". John found a restaurant after whisking us through a quieter than normal night market... as the rain was on and off and drizzling at this point. The local cuisine was a large flat grill that they cooked in front of you and you practically ate off of. As usual, Mark Blacknell and I were the outcasts on the end with our ever burdening request for a vegetarian meal, but I was always glad for the decision. I would nibble on fish when I felt like it, but didn't take to the mystery meat. Mark Villegas was an expert chopstick handler, and in the caring fashion that we all started to have for each other, sometimes would help me if I couldn't separate something out, and manage to serve anything onto my plate. I had always thought I was not so bad at chopsticks, but put a wet greasy noodle or shiny bean in front of me, and I might accidentally catapult it into your eye. Separating fish from skin was my most ungraceful, so usually I just didn't try.


This meal was fun, the cooks very local and between their cell phone calls and lack of interaction, I think they added more oil to the process. My belly was not happy as we walked back, as the grease was landing in my belly, we each retired to our glamorous rooms, to digest in our privacy, and get ready for the big "Press Conference" day in the morning. Bags packed and down to the check out by 8 or something like that. So breakfast at 7 or 7:30. They all blend together, but all of the morning calls seemed too early - especially with bags packed.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Pathways and Patterns. Leave Hualien for Taipei

(Part one of Day 7) Our last moments in the Gorge were via our bus, which didn't fade my childlike enthusiasms for spotting waterfalls high up on cliff hillsides that exposed themselves as the clouds eased off. One of our group had a stand-off with a monkey in the morning, others went monkey hunting along secret pathways and came up empty, but full with the memories of seeing the clouds lift over the Pagoda, hillsides and our modern hotel (Silks Place) in the foreground. I found myself introspective as we zig zagged through this magical canyon of marble. The group packed up from the hotel with anticipation of a contrast to our current environment, one filled with professional cyclists interactions, bike shops, and the hustle of a dense city full of culture.


(photo by Mark Blacknell www.blacknell.net)


First stop before flying out was literally 10 minutes at a beach. Only a long walk or easy bike ride from the previous stay at Bay View Hotel in Hualien. But now, a weather phenomenon, it was calm. "Typhoon Megi" still circled nearby, and we had no idea that she'd be affecting the rest of our trips itinerary - in a big way. So far we were mostly on schedule, with a few cancellations such as real river rafting, paragliding and some hikes we'd hope to do were closed do to rock slides in the canyon itself.


IF YOU HAD 10 MINUTES

Our guide John gave us these whole 10 minutes at a beautiful beach full of small grey and white flat rocks, with calm small waves hitting shore. Immensely different from any of our water views before, including waves crashing breakwaters 3-4 stories tall and spray that looked like Old Faithful in Yellowstone. What to do when you are given such a deadline to experience a beautiful coastline... leave a sculpture behind for the next visitors. Rocks had white streaks of perhaps marble or quartz. Graphic lines... strings... that were asking to be formed into something. An Andy Goldworthy inspired pattern was my obvious choice to leave behind. A dash to the water for my ritual of splashing salt water on my face for a quick baptism was not the smartest, as my sandals remained wet with salt water for the rest of the journey. It was worth the short visit, the surprise of finally seeing the sun and some blue sky, with gorgeous blue green warm water as a back drop. A welcome change, even for the limited moment we had.


(Mark Villegas spends his time slot proving his skills go beyond just cycling)

(More often than not, you find yourself walking on a tapestry of marble scraps, arranged artistically, yet going unnoticed because your attention was up at the views of mountains, tree's and ocean. Apparently we were in the land of Marble. Finally saw signs of the quarry's and mountain top mining from the air on our flight.)

FLY TO TAIPEI

The airport was nearby, and practically abandoned. We tipped our bus driver for the last few days of shuttling us around, and walked through the polished marble echo chamber of simply the most empty airport of it's size and design I'd ever waited in. The short flight was lined with beautiful views to the left of the East Coastline, we were able to see the entrance to the Gorge where we just spent time, and the highway that is barely etched into the side of the steep coastline. Luckily this time we weren't forced to sit in front of the prisoners... but the flight attendants were like mean Nun's at a Catholic school with constant reprimanding if we used our cameras. Apparently we couldn't even take pictures of the coastline. We knew not to at the airport, as it shared the space with a military base, but the worry we'd use our phones instead of just the video or cameras became laughable as they would appear out of no-where, as soon as we were tempted. Luckily I got a few pictures before the verbal slaps. Otherwise they smiled and were beautiful attendants, with pleasant demeanors. I imagine, they acted under strict orders to keep us "in-line".

As soon as we approached the Northern tip near Taipei... it was obvious rain was back in our picture. Bumpy approach, windy, rainy gray. None of us seemed to mind, our gear wasn't dry yet, and it was still warm on this tropical feeling island. Plans to visit Taipei 101- which was once the World's Tallest Building, now the 2nd to their disappointment, was postponed in hopes of a clear view tomorrow.

AS LONG AS WE ARE HERE... LET'S EAT!

Schedule changes were normal - and we all went with the flow, and knew it could only mean a different adventure. Visiting bike shops once they opened for the day, became the new mission, along with experiencing my favorite meal of the entire trip, at a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Saki and tasty treats. (hopefully this map will help you find it on your own visit!)

A modern restaurant with fabulous interior design, including a fountain with the same rocks we'd just left behind at the pebble filled beach. Bottles used for chandeliers were right up my repurposing ally, they were lovely and modern! Walls of bottles lit in red and blue lights, stone sinks. Tasty food other than the standard "Cabbage and Seaweed" (actually some kind of greens I called seaweed) - that had already grown old on my self induced vegetarian diet w/ sprinkles of fish mixed in.


Well satisfied and perhaps buzzed from the Saki we went to experience foot rubs for a treat (www.kinraku.com.tw) while we awaited bike shops to open. It was still early, and finding things to do before a hotel could take us, and out of the rain, was John's mission. We loved our options, other than fatigue setting in, I still craved a good 1/2 day at a hotel to get caught up on blogging, and sleep. I never did get that 1/2 day at a hotel, and it's okay as the group wouldn't let me opt out of any of the "events" - and I was glad to go whenever I had fought the urge to just stay and sleep. I really didn't want to miss a thing!


FRIENDS

Everything was interesting, everything was clean (for the most part) and everything remarkable! The group was growing close and caring for each other's well being. We laughed so hard each day deeming any Pilates unnecessary. Between Canadian Niamh's sense of sarcasm and bewilderment that we would want to ride bikes far or hotels of our caliper didn't have bars, to Bike Hugger Mark's rise and falls of sugar and adorable fixation to metal objects - anodized or not, then Blacknell's observations and sometimes embarrassment of us, mixed with dry wit and great sense of direction, and finally to Kate's enthusiasm and high energy including singing with me at other's expenses... I was in some kind of school girls dream of hanging with my new best friends. We even got John, our guide, to sing his first ever English song he learned as a boy "You are my Sunshine"!