Hong Kong. Riding bikes. Mutually exclusive. Keep them separated. They don’t go together.

I wouldn’t say that’s a controversial opinion. It didn’t even seem like one that was up for discussion, but there we were talking to this guy at Eurobike, who was gushing about how cool riding bikes in Hong Kong is.

Words: Jered Gruber
Images: Gruber Images

It doesn’t take much for the possible awesome bike ride radar to go ding ding ding. He had me at “Hong Kong.” He described a ride that started early in the center of the city, then climbed up on quiet roads, back down and around the island through forests, along beaches, across a reservoir, and then finally back to town, just in time for the morning rush and all the entertainment that goes with it.

We were chatting with Mike Rice from NeilPryde, and like a hundred other conversations we had at Eurobike, it was all, Yeah, let’s do this—that would be so much fun!

It’s fine, I don’t think anyone holds you to your word in a situation like that. The whole place is amped on ideas, but I feel like when everyone goes home, they kind of hide away and hope you didn’t actually mean what you were talking about. It was a good idea, I thought, but  I hope he forgets about it because that’s going to be a serious pain in the ass if we go through with this.

Ta-da!

I assume Mike didn’t think he’d be hearing from us again. We didn’t think we’d be talking to him again, either.  But then we ended up in China for the Tour of Beijing, and then in Japan for another project, and suddenly, Hong Kong didn’t seem so far away.

I was ambivalent, exhausted, and not really interested in doing anything but drool on my pillow in bed. Ashley took the reins from there, bought the tickets, made the arrangements, and before I could stage a classic Parisian street closing student protest, I was on the fast train to Osaka, grumbling about never getting to take even a half-second break.

We arrived to bright, sunny skies in the final days of October. It was 80 degrees and getting warmer. The scene stretching high above the windshield took me back in time to my old computer, and SimCity was on the screen. I had no idea SimCity was real.

I haven’t traveled a hundredth as much as some, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty solid cities. New York, London, Beijing, Tokyo—those aren’t pushovers. 

Hong Kong knocked them all flat on a visual level. Everything went up, up, up, up, up. Mountains pushed toward the heavens, and everywhere that the land was even slightly amenable to construction, gigantic buildings did their best to mimic the mountains above them. Turns out Hong Kong has 1,223 skyscrapers, putting it at the head of the world class. No, I didn’t mean to say buildings—I said skyscrapers: 1,223!

To get a better idea of just how densely packed in Hong Kong is, it’s best to start with some math.

Hong Kong’s full area measures 426 square miles and a population of around seven million resides there. Dropping off a few tens of thousands to make numbers more manageable, that puts us around the 17,000 people per square mile mark. That’s nothing—not even top fifty in world ranking.

I was crestfallen to find that Hong Kong was trounced so badly in the population density game. I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing in front of me wasn’t even good enough for top fifty, but then Mike Pryde brought things back around with an important detail: less than 25% of Hong Kong’s area is developed.

Back to the calculator. The revised population density taking this interesting fact into account pulls Hong Kong’s population density up to 66,400 people per square mile. That’s good enough for top fifteen.

What I’m trying to say is that where Hong Kong is developed, it’s developed in a big-time way. It’s incredible.

That leaves a lot of room to play in. Thirty percent of Hong Kong’s land is classified as either a country park or a nature reserve.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still Hong Kong. It’s not like you leave your hotel room, and you fall into rural Wyoming. It’s big, it’s loud, sometimes smelly, and it’s generally called the fifth most important city in the world behind New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.

We did three different rides with three very different characteristics and one friend as our guide, Orca. NeilPryde were great helping us out during our stay, offering up Orca as our man for the rides and Billy for everything else. I’ll focus in on our first ride though, because the lap of Hong Kong set the tone.

We stayed in the middle of the business district, Central. We rolled off directly into the riot of mid-morning traffic. We hadn’t followed Mike’s advice and explored the city by the dim light of the pre-dawn day, so instead we got lots of light and lots of traffic. I think I would have felt scammed if I didn’t get traffic in Hong Kong, though. We traded time between small alleys, big roads, sidewalks, and even a highway for a moment. You haven’t lived until you ride your bike on a five-lane highway in Hong Kong.

We waded through the wilds of big city Hong Kong without any problems, then turned up a mountain toward Victoria Peak. We climbed for about ten kilometers and gained a bit over 500 meters when we topped out high above the city. The last kilometer or so was on a completely vacant, unused stretch of steep golf path to the high point. We lingered in the quiet for a while before heading down the other side to Repulse Bay and having a smoothie next to the beach in Stanley. We carried on toward Shek O, where we rode to the road’s end. We watched the blue water turn white and crash on the rocks just below and noted the signs that warned of aggressive waves that could drag you out to the South China Sea.

Leaving Shek O, we passed three separate couples getting their wedding pictures taken—all in the span of a hundred meters—in very different setups. I should have bought a lottery ticket that day.

The road on the eastern side of the island was quiet, eerily devoid of cars or any real signs of life. That is, until we descended back into the city proper. The jungle and its quiet, flowing road was replaced with a really big city, really fast.

We spend a lot of time in the mountains, so the grand vistas, while still extraordinary, are more commonplace to me. A big city, though—now that’s something different. I struggled to grasp what I was looking at as we merged with evening traffic and began the long fight back to our hotel along Hong Kong’s busiest road. The buildings were so tall. I feel ill-equipped with words to do them justice. For lack of a better term, I’d say they were unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Sure, I’ve seen one or two, or even ten, but not dozens, and I’ve certainly never seen that interspersed with the chaos of a typical Asian city: meat hanging outside, street vendors cooking on open grills, pedestrians crossing every which way, the smell of a lot of cars, a lot of city spewing gases skyward. It was a sensory explosion. I liked it a lot. I can see how the pleasure could fade quickly, but for that one long passage across the heart of Hong Kong, I was enthralled to such an extent that I would not have preferred to ride anywhere else. It’s an experience like riding the Arenberg Forest or Alpe d’Huez or just making it up the Koppenberg.

The view of the city is different from each angle. From the open top floor of our hotel, it felt like we were one with the skyscrapers. From the top of Victoria Peak, it was like we were in an airplane flying away. On the ferry heading to the other side of the bay, the skyscrapers formed a multi-colored picket fence. From street level, on my bike, it was humbling.

We made it around the island without any issues. The cars didn’t hassle us—I don’t think we got too many honks, maybe a couple, but I probably deserved those. I can fade a bit from my prescribed line when the camera is out, and that problem was certainly exasperated by the magnitude of Hong Kong.

When we weren’t riding around with our mouths agape, we were walking, filling our mouths (still agape) with lots of good food and drink. There was every kind of food you can imagine, and then a lot of food that I couldn’t imagine. We ate traditional Cantonese food, hamburgers, dim sum—everything. It’s all there.

I wouldn’t go and put Hong Kong over a trip to ride L’Eroica or anything—not by a long shot. I would, however, recommend a trip to Hong Kong if you’re ever in Asia. Hong Kong is a great city in its own right, and it’s made even more special by the fact that you can have a good time riding bikes in a unique environment. You can easily source a bike to rent at one of the numerous shops in the city, and once you have that bike, the area is yours to play in. The riding is not for the faint-hearted. Riding in Hong Kong traffic is not for everyone, but I was more than happy to play.

I only regret we didn’t spend more time there, and I’m even more disappointed that we didn’t do a better job tracking down the locals. Hong Kong boasts a very active cycling community, and I’d like to get to know them and the area a bit better someday. I hope that wasn’t our last trip to Hong Kong. I want to go back.

Twitter: @jeredgruber