By Becky Furuta
The cab driver was visibly annoyed. The roads were so thick with cars and scooters, people and bicycles, that one could hardly see the charcoal tarmac of the city street below. He clearly conveyed that making a U-turn to access the other side of the avenue would be a near impossibility, and that I would be better off just getting out and walking the rest of the way. But I had been awake for 26 hours, and the box containing my bicycle was awkward and heavy to lug about, so I shook my head and shrugged.
“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t speak Chinese.” The driver sighed angrily, probably knowing full well that I understood his predicament. Eventually, he made his way to the right side of Roosevelt Avenue, and left me on the doorstep of the Liyaun Hotel in downtown Taipei.
I had returned only weeks earlier from a cold and rainy Tour of Denmark, followed by a brief stop to represent the team at a 5k run in Lisbon. I distinctly recall sitting in the lounge of the Copenhagen airport with three solitary hours of sleep behind me, drinking a double espresso from the Illy next door and nursing a separated right shoulder and more bruises than I could count. It was a good thing, too. The dull ache in my body and the almost pathological exhaustion from days of travel and cycling distracted me from the thought that I was eight hours away from wearing my team’s jersey for what I believed would be the last time. For the five years before that moment, I had gotten out of bed every morning and pulled the zipper of a white and blue jersey from my navel to my neck, always knowing that it’s place in my life was both fragile and temporary.
And then, two weeks ago, came the message from my team director asking if I wished to go to Taiwan. I didn’t bother to ask for a single detail. I was grateful, simply, for the chance to travel and for a few more moments to live a dream I wasn’t quite ready to give up, even if its time had come.
The hotel was a narrow building with an aging exterior. As the doors parted, I rolled the giant black box into the yellow glow of a small lobby with glossy white floors and a gold-hued elevator shaft. The man behind the desk had big, round glasses with slabs of lenses in them that made his eyes appear miniscule, and he was stacking small slips of paper with names and room numbers on them. He looked up and pointed to the young woman in the corner, who was eagerly approaching me.
“Becky?” She nodded, enthusiastically. “We sent the car. You didn’t get the car? He wasn’t there? You got a taxi?” My head was filled with the smoke of fatigue. I was still taking it all in as I nodded. “It’s ok,” I said. “I didn’t see a driver, so I just took a cab.” She looked apologetic, so I tried to reassure her. “It was fine. Really.”
She dismissed the issue of the car, and turned to the issue of procuring food. “You should take your things upstairs, and then we’ll go to dinner. They have made plans already, and we are supposed to be there in fifteen minutes. We will get you to your room.” She handed me the key as I pressed the elevator button, wishing I had a little time to get settled, and debating whether I would change the clothes I’d now been wearing for more than a day and a half.
I stepped inside an elevator so small it hardly housed both me and the box, only to turn and discover the woman standing inside the shaft as well, pressing the button to the 8th floor.
Her name was Clare, and she was an intern for the PR company hired to help with any media during my stay in Taiwan, she explained as she followed me into my room. I grabbed my toothbrush from my travel bag, and made my way past the thin partition separating the bedroom and the bathroom, unzipped my pants and sat down to pee. “Oh,” she said from the other side of the screen. “Do you need some time to get ready?” I could hear in her voice that she was suddenly self-aware, wondering if perhaps she should have remained in the lobby. I emerged and smiled gently. “No,” I said, “we can just go.”
I was as hungry as I was tired. I had eaten very little on the plane, and I was desperate to get some dinner and fall into bed. Instead, I was headed to a meeting with the rest of the PR team over spicy hot pot. Clare kept nervously checking her phone, worrying about the time and consulting the GPS while comparing it to the driver’s direction of travel.
“I’ve never been here, so I don’t know if we’re going the right way. We should be on time, though. Or close. It’s going to be close.”
Two other women met us at the door to the restaurant. They were equally enthusiastic at my arrival and immediately inquired about the car. I waved off their concerns, and tried to summon a less obviously disproportionate level of energy. Over the next hour, as I sunk bits of cabbage and langoustines, scallops, wedges of pumpkin and sheets of pork belly into the spicy broth of the hot pot, the women explained the details of the 300 or so kilometers we would race from Taipei to Taiwan. I used my chopsticks to fish out a steaming hot chunk of tomato and popped it quickly into my mouth, only to have it burn the skin on my palate and continue to smolder as it made its way down the back of my throat. I grasped a slice of something that had the ruddy hue of a mushroom and the texture of silken tofu, and ate that, too, only to later discover I had been eating sheets congealed duck blood. I made intermittent conversation but, mostly, filled my stomach and thought longingly about sleep.
It was 6am in Taipei, and nothing was open. I didn’t have enough notice from the team to order Taiwanese Dollars before leaving the USA, and in Taiwan, cash is generally the only accepted form of payment. I made my way to the breakfast in the hotel basement while I waited for the banks and currency exchange offices to open. I sat down with a bowl of rice, some quail eggs cooked in a broth, some thinly sliced pork prepared with bok choy and fermented black beans, and a few crescent-shaped slices of guava. I studied the faces around me, and considered my situation. I was in a foreign country where I didn’t speak a word of the native language, where most people did not speak English, undertrained and planning to ride a tremendous distance without the benefit of seeing a single map or profile. It seemed like both a grand adventure and a bit of nonsense. I finished my rice and left, but not before grabbing a steamed pineapple bun on the way out the door.
My room upstairs was so small that there was hardly space enough for the bed and a lamp. There was a mossy dampness to it from the humidity outside, made worse by the close quarters. The heat and the sodden air clung to my skin like a wet towel. I found myself in my underwear, perched on the bed’s headboard and stacking the bike box, wheels and frame in the center of the thin mattress, trying to piece it all together. Then, with the pineapple bun tucked in the pocket of my jersey, I rode North out of the city, along the banks of the river, past dragon boats and fishing villages and tiny homes with tin roofs, groves of bananas and coconuts, and alongside temples and small stands selling oysters sprinkled with sesame oil and scallions. The towns smelled like a mixture of incense and five spice powder, and mist clung to the tops of the hills and mountains. For the next two days, I spun out my legs and inhaled the peppery air without any sense of direction or destination.
Clare picked me up early in the morning. “Are you ready? Are you nervous? Don’t forget which car has your bag. I think it’s car number four, ok? I mean, we’ll find it either way, but try to remember because that will just make it easier.” That first night, it was as if Clare’s enthusiasm and nervous banter were invading the quiet hallways of my psyche. After three days with limited conversation – and having heard hardly a word of English since our supper three nights earlier –the chatter seemed a soothing lullaby.
I smiled at the young intern next to me, with her round glasses and her breezy laugh. I noticed that she was pretty, with the facial features of a porcelain doll and eyes so dark they looked like wells of black ink.
A man with the English name of Michael checked over my bike, aired my tires, filled my bottles and handed me a couple of tiny cakes made from raisins and puffed rice. I stuck them in my pockets alongside my American race gels and bars. He patted me on the back, and flashed a grin as he gestured toward the start.
It took only seconds for my frustration to set in. The pace was erratic, people were shouting in Mandarin, the motos held signs with Chinese characters I could not read nor understand. I had not been provided any technical guide, so I wasn’t even entirely sure how far we had to pedal or how many meters I would need to climb. The wheel in front of me made a frantic dash to the right side of the road, and I was too busy trying to remain upright to even consider whether or not to follow the move. I began to feel a bitterness about being there at all, thinking perhaps I should have closed the book in Denmark.
I scanned the field until I settled on a girl whose picture I had seen in photographs. The woman had come from Taiwan to Georgia years earlier as part of the team’s attempt to develop young riders through their talent identification camp. She was one of only a handful of girls to ever attend. I didn’t know her, but I recognized her.
She didn’t speak English. I didn’t know a word of Chinese. Moments later, however, as I moved toward the front of the field, she was firmly planted on my wheel. The race made its way to a tunnel five kilometers in length on a road open to traffic. We straddled a thin line of white paint with farm trucks and cargo vans whizzing by so closely on the left that I could have reached out a hand and touched them, and with her, only millimeters from tapping the back of my wheel.
A single error, a too-quick reaction or an unexpected acceleration would have sent us both spilling to the pavement and most certainly dead. It was an exercise in trust and, more importantly, mindfulness. I stopped hearing the shouts in Mandarin, stopped seeing the signs held up by the moto alongside us. I put my head down and, for a moment, there was only the road before me, the smooth cadence of pedals turning in the darkened passageway, and a woman I now trusted with my life taking a pull.
For the next three days, through suffocating heat and pouring rain and wind so hot it was like a hair dryer, we made our way from North to South. We spent long days chewing on the sand and grit of the road that splashed back at our faces, eating the puffed rice cakes and dried biscuits stuffed with plum paste, and exchanging laughter and smiles. At the end of each day, we would sit at a table covered in fish and stir-fried vegetables, salty slices of marinated pork and whole Dungeness crab, soup made with the jet black meat of silky chickens, rice and noodles and scallion pancakes. We would eat, ravenously, and in total silence. The one exception was the evening when I used my chopsticks to snatch up a tiny pocket of something shaped a bit like a large bean, placed it between my lips and bit down into the soft inside. I realized, instantly, that it was some kind of organ meat. Clare, giggling hysterically, informed me that I had just consumed the testicle of a rooster. My new-found teammate was no less giddy as I shrugged, and finished the second bite.
There is a language of bikes that transcends the spoken word. It’s the rhythm of undulating roads and smoothly turning pedals, of burning legs and warm breezes. It finds you teammates across oceans and on the other side of the world. It reminds you that, in the middle of shifting tides and uncertainties ahead, you have to cling to one another. You find yourself at the base of one hill, turning the cranks as hard as you can to reach the summit, knowing that there will be another hill up ahead. It’s an ongoing struggle that takes self-awareness and trust in spite of all the innumerable and unknowable obstacles.
When I crossed the finish line in Tainan, I looked over at my new friend. I took off my racing gloves, and handed them to her. She smiled, embraced me warmly, and nodded in gratitude. I looked over at Clare, and spoke the only Chinese word I had learned over the past week: “goodbye.” And then, for the last time, I took off the blue and white jersey, changed into my jeans and a t-shirt, and boarded a plane back home.
Becky Furuta raced for Team Novo Nordisk from its inception in 2012 through the 2017 season, at which point the sponsor discontinued support of the women’s team and elite team amateur cyclists. Team Novo Nordisk is continuing to race in 2018 with a reduced squad of UCI Pro Continental men. Becky is looking forward to rebuilding a new program under the Team Type 1 Foundation, which operates as a 501c3 non-profit, and provides lifesaving diabetes supplies and medications in Africa, as well as creating college scholarships for young athletes in the United States.