We've long been fans of Hangzhou-based pro cyclist Daniel Carruthers. Covering China and beyond, we like it for its wealth of useful cycling tips and race coverage, but also for great destination ideas, entertaining stories and stunning photography. When it comes to serious riding in Asia, Dan's the man. Here he talks to Bamboo Compass about biking in China, how he got here and where he loves to ride .
Bamboo Compass: First up, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Daniel: I am a Kiwi and first came to China in 2000 after living in Israel and St Helena for 18 and six months respectively. I was actually on the way to England to do the obligatory "overseas work experience" a lot of Kiwis and Aussies do once they finish university, but my brother who was living in China at the time convinced me to visit first before going to England: "There are lots of opportunities here and come and check it out first..." he said, and so in 2000 I went.
Back then I was just a recreational cyclist and did not bring a bike with me to China. I found I liked China a lot and made lots of new friends—foreign and Chinese (especially Chinese girls, I was single back then!) and I also worked for www.meetchina.com as an E-Commerce manager (a fancy title they gave me) during the dotcom bubble, before it burst!
After my first first eight months in China I had a few job opportunities to come back to but first returned home to New Zealand for the summer and enrolled in a Mandarin course at Auckland University, the start of my Mandarin learning (2001). I scored top marks in Chinese and was positively motivated to continue when I returned to China... more so when those job opportunities disappeared one by one. I based myself in far flung Harbin, studying Chinese at Heilongjiang University for nearly two years, choosing Harbin over Beijing because the locals speak far more standard Putonghua than the Beijingers can; communication with Heilongjiang people was also much easier for some reason.
I returned to NZ in 2003 to embark on my Masters degree in Tourism and my thesis was on "Sister City Relationships" between New Zealand and Chinese cities and their implications for tourism development. As part of my research, I returned to China in 2004 for four months and traveled extensively: to 25 cities that had Sister City affiliations with New Zealand. I also cycled over 2000 km, mostly in Jiangsu and Shandong Provinces as I connected one city to another.
Having completed a BA in Chinese in 2004 and my Masters in 2006, my dream was then to become a "sponsored" cyclist and do races around the world and after submitting my thesis in 2006 I embarked on that dream, heading to the United States to participate in the World Deaf Cycling Championships in San Francisco. I then stayed in the US for a further five months, racing in various parts of the country, living my dream of traveling and racing.
Fast-forward to recent times and it was not till March 2010 that I returned to China after a seven-year exodus. I had landed a scholarship to study in a PHD program at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and after living in the US and Taiwan, me and my recently married Texan wife came and settled here in Hangzhou.
Bamboo Compass: Did you write a blog before coming to China or was it something you started here?
Daniel: Before coming to China this time, I already had a blog going. In fact, I had started a cycling related blog back in 2005 under the name "www.dunnersdan.com" and it got so many hits that it crashed my hosts server and they removed it. Had they not, I would still have that blog. I have been blogging for quite a few years and had used Blogspot when I was in the US and also wrote for VORB and Cycling New Zealand.
When I was in Taiwan, I transferred that content over to my new wordpress domain name www.danielcarruthers.com and renamed my site "Bikedan in Asia" since I was based in Asia and traveling all over the region to attend bike races.
Bamboo Compass: Tell us a bit about the cycling scene here in China… how does it stand up to elsewhere in the world?
Daniel: China offers some stunning cycling, especially in the west like Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces. You get some scenery there that most diehard cyclists would call "epic". As for the "cycling scene" here, it still has a long way to go to compare even with New Zealand or the United States. But it is a scene that is growing rapidly as more Chinese are earning higher incomes and are seeking new leisure activities.
Mountain biking has been more popular than road for a while now and this is evident in the large turnouts at the events throughout China. However, road cycling is on the rapid increase and there are events proliferating at a fast rate around China that cater only to road cyclists. It seems that a lot of the city governments are catching on to the idea of promoting their cities using bicycle races as a way to draw the crowds and stimulate economic development. They're also quite attractive for the cyclists as the prize money is actually quite decent and pays a lot more than you would get at many races in the US or NZ, bar the bigger races.
Bamboo Compass: What is the best advice you could give someone planning cycling trip in China?
Daniel: Don't plan too much. Have a loose itinerary and go with the flow. Just make sure you have a decent bike to ride with strong panniers to carry your possessions. Also try to carry the minimum... when I cycled toured for several weeks I only had two rear panniers and a small handlebar bag for carrying camera, maps, passport and money. I also carried my laptop in a small backpack. When cycle touring, make sure you spend time visiting places along the way and take lots of photos. Take time to shoot decent photos and not just your regular point and shoot kind.
Daniel: I particularly enjoyed Nordic Ways ran a four day MTB (mountain bike) event in the middle of Inner Mongolia and competitors stayed in yurts and feasted on traditional Mongolian food.
Bamboo Compass: And your worst?
Daniel: Worst experience would be Wuyi Shan as I missed the start (they started earlier than the advertised time), spent the entire race chasing, and then I punctured! To top this off, I was also stung by a wasp that flew out of my helmet on the roadside! I wrote about this experience on my blog in: Luck, can it get any worse?
Bamboo Compass: You’re currently based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, what are your top recommendations for a first time visitor to get a real feel for the city?
Daniel: To get a real feel for the city, I recommend riding around West Lake, up Longjing Hill and also checking out the Lingyin Temple area. This would be an easy ride. A slightly more difficult ride that takes in the best of what Hangzhou has to offer, is to ride up Meiling Road over to Meiling Village. The valley there is covered in tea-fields. Then ride up Nine-Creeks for some nice natural scenery.
You come out on Longjing Hill and can then zip back into Hangzhou city—this ride does not take in much of the city itself. There is also a longer route that I take (about 100 km) that takes you out to Fuyang, through some undulating country roads and back along the 320 highway. You leave Hangzhou by riding along Tianmushan Road and head towards Xiaoshan—past all the universities on the outskirts of the city. At the T-intersection, you turn left and follow the road till you come to another small road on the right. There are a few turns to take, so it might be better just get lost in the area and get into the spirit of exploring—it's a great area to ride.
Daniel: Never thought about it and there are many things in China that I don't like but there are also many things that I do like. You can't really say: "I wish I had known… " you just have to find out things as you go. I came to China without knowing a word of Mandarin and have also traveled around China on my own, knowing the language.
So it's possible to get by with out speaking Mandarin, but life is so much easier if you have some fluency in the language; both spoken and reading/writing. It will dramatically enrich your Chinese experience.
Bamboo Compass: What do you miss most from home?
Daniel: I miss the clean natural beauty of New Zealand… and also the convenience of getting things done.
Bamboo Compass: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow? Daniel: The feeling of discovering something new everyday.
Bamboo Compass: What three words sum up your China experience?
Daniel: Eye-opening, opportunities, change. If you're a biking enthusiast and or have been inspired to learn more about cycling in China, then a stop at Bikedan in Asia is a must. Two wheels are a great way to experience China and all it has to offer, so what are you waiting for? Get on your bike and ride!