Two wheels make a comeback in Taiwan
Fitted in sporty cycling outfits and equipped with the latest model bicycles, a group of cyclists cheer happily before setting off on a nine-day, 1,000km cycling journey around Taiwan.
"It's my lifelong dream to see Taiwan by bicycle before I turn 50, so I'm very happy," says one female rider.
Such enthusiasm reflects Taiwan's renewed love affair with the bicycle. It was only about three decades ago that bicycles were used as the main form of transportation for many families. They carried not only people, but everything from vegetables to poultry.
But with modernisation, motorised vehicles - especially scooters - later took over many of Taiwan's roads.
Now, cycling is making a comeback as the Taiwanese see it as a great way to keep fit and have fun.
The annual Taiwan Cycling Festival, held since 2010, is a good indicator of this trend.
In 2013, some 22,473 cyclists participated in the races, tours and other activities. But last year, the number of participants more than doubled to 45,810.
Aside from riding for fun, city dwellers are also taking to cycling to get to work.
In Taipei, a bike rental programme has proven extremely popular, making the Taiwanese capital perhaps the only Asian city that has managed to convince many people to ride a bicycle instead of a scooter as the main form of transportation.
Stepping out of a train station on a weekday, Taipei office worker Jennifer Pan rents a bike with a simple swipe of her debit card, and pedals for 10 minutes to get to work.
"Riding a bike is faster and more relaxing than driving a scooter or taking a bus," said Ms Pan. "I go through the alleys and listen to music on my headphones.
"I work up a sweat too, so it's good exercise. And I save as much as $20 (£13) a month in transportation costs. It gives me a nice feeling before I start my work day."
Miss Pan is part of a growing trend of commuters who favour getting around on two wheels.
Taiwan's bike rental services have had a busy year. Taipei City along processed 22 million rentals in 2014, double the 11 million rentals in the previous year.
The success mainly stems from a partnership between Taipei City and Taiwan's biggest bicycle manufacturer Giant which led to the formation of the country's YouBike Bicycle Program.
Their collaboration led to an increase in the number of rental bikes in the city to 6,406 across 196 rental stations at the end of last year.
Before both parties jointly launched the scheme in August 2012, just 500 bicycles were available for rent, from a total of 11 stations.
Renting a bike in Taipei is free for the first half hour and costs only about $0.33 cents for every half hour after that.
This has led to 1.9 million bike rentals each month. Each Taipei rental bike is rented out about 12 times a day, much more than those in London, New York and Paris.
|Taipei's YouBike Bicycle Program|
|Rental stations||Available bicycles|
|2012 (Before August)||11||500|
Other Taiwanese cities are following in Taipei's footsteps. The most populous - New Taipei City -is planning to boost the number of rental stations from the current 12 to 300 by the end of 2016.
And the government is also doing its part to help the rising number of cyclists around the country.
Besides launching these bike sharing programs, Taiwan's central and local governments have also added some 3,000km of cycling paths in recent years, and another 2,600km will soon be built.
By making bicycling convenient, as well as cheap and trendy, the government has encouraged many people back on two wheels.
"We're promoting bicycling to reduce energy use and pollution, and to use bikes as a form of exercise, recreation, tourism, and transportation," said Chen Shyan-heng, head of the Environmental Protection Administration's air quality protection department. "Our goal is to reduce the use of cars and scooters."
It is hard to be certain how much the rise in cycling is affecting transport habits. But the number of scooters on the roads has dropped, and passenger car registrations are increasing at a modest 2.5% a year.
Taiwanese officials have pointed out that the cycling community is helping to ease congestion, promote healthy living, and reduce pollution.
Many in Taiwan would agree, better air quality is much needed in the country on the island. Taiwan accounts for nearly 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even though its population is only 0.3% of the world's total.
And the number of "good-air-quality days" here amounts to just 50% of the year.
Apart from improving the air quality, the cycling trend has also been good for Taiwan's bicycle manufacturing industry, which is number one in the world in terms of the number of bicycles manufactured and exported globally.
Giant - the world's biggest bike maker in terms of revenue - recorded a 10.8% rise in sales in 2014 to $2bn.
And it is selling more high-end bikes as many people in Taiwan and other parts of Asia are joining Americans and Europeans in taking up bike riding as a form of recreation.
Some of its mountain bikes and light weight, carbon fibre bicycles start at a price of several hundred dollars and go up to a thousands of dollars.
"We're benefiting from the global trend of more people riding bikes for health and environmental benefits," said Jeffrey Sheu, a special assistant to the company's chairman.
"The trend has been happening in Europe and the US for the past two decades, and we began to see it in Asia in past two years, especially in places like Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
China is also moving in this direction and that means they will soon want higher-end bikes."
Giant's success comes not only from developing the latest technology and finding lighter material for making bikes, but promoting bicycle riding.
Other businesses are also benefitting.
The company that operates bike rental shops along Taipei's riverside trails has seen ridership increase by more than 12% annually as riding on the scenic trails in the evenings and on weekends has become a popular pastime.
Travel agencies, which operate bike tours, are meanwhile seeing 10% to 15% annual sales growth.
And although the Taipei bike rental business is still subsidized, it is expected to make money soon.
Despite the growing popularity of cycling, only 11% of Taiwanese ride bicycles regularly.
The government and industry want to get this figure to go up in coming years.
If it succeeds, Taiwan and its people could be known for not only making bicycles, but also for being ambassadors for the two-wheeler.