‘I finished and just wanted McDonald’s’ - Joanna Chuang on her 650km record attempt ride between Bangkok and Chiang Mai

The Taipei-based rider talks about falling in love with cycling and the difficulties that come with ultra-endurance riding

This article was produced in association with Pas Normal Studios

“After 12 hours, I just felt sleepy, so sleepy. I brought my caffeine tablet and used it so that helped, then the soreness in my legs and the fatigue was just inevitable.”

Joanna Chuang was one of five riders to embark on a monumental challenge in Thailand earlier this year. The brief was to cover 650 kilometres by bike in 24 hours through the undulating terrain between two of the country’s biggest cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. On their journey, the group of intrepid travellers would pass through Thailand’s earliest kingdoms and oldest cities, surrounded by lush rice paddies, tiny villages and the country's tallest mountains. As Chuang explains, however, she didn’t have much time to enjoy the views.

“It's just like a dream. I didn't think too much during the journey. I could just feel my legs moving. The process of riding is really slow and very difficult. It was the longest ride I’ve done,” she explains. “Everyone's ability in the group was not quite the same so we just told each other that we should just ride together until the end, which we managed to do. I could escape from normal life during that ride.”

Despite the group not managing to break the 24-hour record for the ride, something Chuang admits was more difficult than they had initially envisioned, she explains that the feeling after completing such a huge feat of endurance was one of blissful satisfaction.

“I was so relieved and I was exhausted. I was so happy I could finally go to sleep, I actually even felt like I was falling asleep while riding, my eyes closed for like three seconds at one point. When I finished I slept for 10 hours and then I just kept eating,” she says. “We only used gels and power bars during the ride as the most convenient way to get nutrition, but I just wanted real food at the end. When I was finished I had a McDonald’s!”Chuang’s ability to complete the 650km ride is even more impressive when considering her relatively short journey in the sport so far. She explains that she first started cycling a few years ago on an old mountain bike which she rode up and down the river nearby where she lived. It wasn’t until 2018 when she bought a road bike in order to go on a cycling trip with her friends.

“I found that I could ride far quite easily,” Chuang says, pointing out the natural ability she felt as soon as she got on a bike. “I’m not really speedy but I have good endurance. I decided to do a cycling trip with my friends across Taiwan that was 900 kilometres in a week, so we did around 100-120km per day which was a big challenge for us back then.”

It wasn’t just feeling at home on the bicycle that drew Chuang towards cycling as a sport, she explains that the social element is one of the reasons that she enjoys it, as well as how much landscape you can cover compared to running.

“The speed is moderate in cycling, if you run the speed is slow and when driving driving the speed is too fast, cycling is a good in between,” she says. “Now most of my friends also do cycling and I met lots of them from when I started to ride a bike, the social part of cycling is really interesting.”

Chuang explains that the popularity of cycling in Taipei, where she lives, has skyrocketed in recent years. Fashionable cycling apparel brands such as Pas Normal Studios have opened stores in the city, giving Taiwanese riders the chance to not only have access to some of the most on-trend kit, but also build riding communities around that. 

“It’s a more fashionable sport now. I didn’t wear a famous brand for cycling before when I was a beginner, now I know about more and more brands. I found that it’s not just a clothing brand, it also gives me an impact culturally as it helps me find people to ride with,” she says.

Taipei is known to be an idyllic spot for cycling, it’s a city surrounded by three rivers, each with a relatively complete system of bike lanes. Outside of the city, Taiwan as a whole has fascinating and unique geography, as well as a mostly subtropical climate meaning long and hot summers. Roughly 70% of the island is covered with rugged, densely forested mountains and close to 30% of the island is 1,000m or more above sea level.

“Taipei city is surrounded by mountains so people have climbing challenges within 20 minutes of the city,” Chuang says. “Some people come here from places like Copenhagen and are amazed by the mountains, they say that they have to ride so hard on the flat roads there to get good training. People in general are really kind to cyclists as well, the vehicles are safe and friendly towards us.”

It’s fair to say that cycling takes up the majority of Chuang’s life – it’s her hobby and her profession as she works in the Pas Normal Studios store in Taipei, meeting customers and educating them on kit and cycling routes in the area. 

“Before I worked in the office rather than the store but someone left and my boss asked me if I wanted to work in the shop. I thought, why not? And I tried it. I’m now a sales representative,” Chuang explains. “When I was in the office I was working on the import processes so it was quite different to being in the shop. I think both jobs were interesting and very different, one was completely internal and now I’m much more active.”

Working in a company that understands and actively encourages its employees to cycle has helped Chuang to train for big events like the record attempt between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. She explains she rides even more since starting to work at Pas Normal Studios, doing rides of up to 200 kilometres in the lead up to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai challenge.

“I knew I had to do some really big tempo training to get used to the challenge,” she says. “When I was in my previous job and I went cycling on the weekend, my colleagues would ask me on Monday what I’d done that weekend. They’d all be a bit confused as to why I was cycling again, so nice to be at a company where that’s quite usual.”

Despite her exhaustion after finishing her 650 kilometre ride a few weeks ago, Chuang is already looking ahead and training for her next challenge, which she thinks might be an Everesting attempt. Although she doesn’t believe she’s a good climber, Chuang believes that she can use the attempt as good motivation to help her improve when the road goes upwards.

“I want to do it before the end of this year,” she says. “My teammate just finished the challenge of a double Everest a few days ago and he encouraged me to try something similar so I might do that next month. It will be a really big challenge for me. I also love the long distance so I would also like to do the Japanese Odyssey challenge held in Japan every October, so I’ve done some research and I am thinking of going there.”

In a sport that can sometimes be incredibly euro-centric, Chuang offers a refreshing view of cycling as something that has the ability to offer joy to people all over the world, no matter your ability or surroundings. Whether it was taking her first mountain bike around the rivers in Taipei, or climbing up some of the toughest mountains on the road to Chiang Mai, it’s clear that Chuang does it all for a love of the sport, something that she’ll always hold on to, regardless of any records she’s trying to break.

Cover image: @paul_3275

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