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October 18, 2009

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Two-wheel trouper bitten by bike bug

SHANGHAI cycling fanatic Zhang Linyuan pursues his passion for discovery from the seat of his bike in the world's wide open spaces and it's caught on with hundreds of followers, Fei Lai reports.

The mystery of unknown places is always enticing but they stay mysterious if you don't go. Zhang Linyuan, a 36-year-old advertising man, has worked out that the best way to see the unknown is from the seat of his push bike.

So a two-wheeler has become an indispensable part of his life, travelling vast distances in the fresh, natural environment that he has found is a good remedy for stress and benefits his health, heart and soul.

The cycling bug hit Zhang when he was a young university graduate in 1998 and it still burns today.

As the founder of Shanghai Prodigy Mountain Biking Club, the young cycling enthusiast has just finished a Euro riding trip in the company of club members. It included the annual Albstadt LBS Bike Marathon in Germany and a self-organized riding tour of the Alps to promote World Expo Shanghai 2010.

Albstadt is a sports town which generally appeals to outdoors lovers but it seems to be a particular favorite of cycling afficionados.

Apart from the marathon, events such as the German national cycling championships and the international women's race inspire residents to come out and cheer on the competitors, Zhang said.

This year's 85-kilometer marathon for amateurs was the second Zhang had competed in and he was joined by three Germans and a Hong Kong-based member of the club.

Last year, he ranked around 700 among the 3,000 contestants. This time, he planned to break his own record and wanted to get into the top 500. He rode well in the first 30 kilometers but sustained a painful cramp in his legs which had never happened before.

"It was quite depressing at first," Zhang said. "But when two people from the crowd helped to free up my muscles so I could start riding again, I felt welcomed in this foreign land."

It eventually took four hours and 40 minutes to complete the marathon and he ranked 1,000 among the contestants. The champion did the race in about three hours.

Zhang later concluded that the cramp was caused by insufficient sleep and being unaccustomed to local food.

Without rest, Zhang and another seven teammates from the club started their Alps tour the next day, riding for six days through Germany, Austria and Italy.

"It takes three months to prepare for the Alps trip, from organizing routes to coordinating teammates. An interview is conducted to select suitable members and when we set off, all team members become one," Zhang said.

The eventual group was made up of three Germans, a Briton, two Shanghai natives and a Hong Kong rider. Although there were cultural challenges now and then along the way, such as different ways of dining, all went smoothly.

Zhang feels compatible personalities are most important when exploring the outside world as a group. If there's an emergency, group members can help each other with encouragement to get through things.

Dressed in Expo-themed clothes, the group took the friendship and best wishes of Shanghai wherever they went and in their own special way. Zhang led the team from the front and preferred to arrive at a destination in advance where he waited for take pictures of the others arriving. They dossed at inns along the way and made friends with the locals.

"It was so amazing that we even found a club member who used to work in Shanghai and moved to Germany," Zhang recalled.

"He's an Italian, who was riding with a team of 200 people in the Alps. We said hello, talked for a few minutes and then left each other to go our own way. But it was exciting because it let me think of the club as a big family of bicycle fans wherever we are."

Life on the road featured Italian wine, ice cream and coffee, all of which made Zhang think more of home.

"It was a long and hard journey during which we had to get up early and go to bed late to follow the schedule. We joked that the first thing we should do when we get home is to sell our bicycles," Zhang said. "But first I decided to eat as much Chinese food as possible and sleep for three days and nights."

The Fujian Province native found his first job in Shanghai in 1998 after he graduated from Xiamen Arts and Design College.

Zhang said his cycling story is directly linked to a really "crazy" boss from his first job. The man was an all-rounder in horse-riding, taekwondo, drum playing, bike riding and rock climbing, among others.

As a result of this influence, Zhang started the same hobbies and practiced with him. Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, he usually went to taekwondo practice. Tuesday and Thursday he did rockcraft. At weekends, he went biking.

In the end, his boss turned out to be the one who dropped out of the classes while Zhang persisted.

In 1998, bike riding started to become hot as a sport and Zhang was among the first batch of cycling enthusiasts in Shanghai.

"As a fresh graduate, I didn't have any money. So I borrowed 1,600 yuan (US$234.43) from my boss to buy my first bicycle," Zhang said.

Since then, he has bought tents and sleeping bags and started cycling trips. He has everything necessary for a trip and can carry it on his back.

"It's like travelling with a mountain on your back. It's really interesting," he said. "Sometimes we will ride 200 kilometers to Hangzhou from Shanghai. If tired, we can pitch a tent anywhere, get a good sleep and then continue."

Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces boast popular mountains where bikers can enjoy riding. Whenever there is a holiday, Zhang takes every chance to go biking and Moganshan Mountain in Zhejiang Province is his favorite destination.

"At the start of 1998, bike trips cost me 200-300 yuan each month. Compared with today's cost of around 700 yuan, it was rather cheap," Zhang said.

"But it was expensive at the time. So I thought that if I could provide guidance for newcomers, I needn't outlay so much expenditure. What a good idea!"

So he started the cycling club in 2003 and it is now home for many fans. Several thousand people have participated in its events and their wheels have left marks in domestic and foreign lands. Its membership is quite international, comprising half expats and half Chinese. Female members account for 20 percent of the total.

"Expats usually don't stay in one place for too long so it's common that they come and go from the club," Zhang said. "Having made friends with expats for a long time, I have been introduced to a number of best routes in their own countries."

In Zhang's eyes, people have different personal goals to meet, so Prodigy Mountain Bike Club tries to take them to a new limit. "In the past, we went biking only for the sake of it," Zhang said.

"But nowadays, riding becomes a medium through which we can do more things such as swimming, climbing, boating and jogging along the journey."

More than six months ago, the advertising man resigned from his job and now is completely dedicated to the sport of biking.

Since Moganshan is one of Zhang's favorites, he has taken a 20-year lease on a farmer's house, turning it into a base for outdoor sports. The house will provide dining and accommodation for people with the same interest and passion for mountain biking. It will open in a month.

"I'd like to bring more people into the two-wheeled world to help them explore its unlimited nature," he said. "I also want to try some new routes that others haven't done. The more places I go, the more I feel that the world is big. Cherish time and let's start now."


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