Taiwan’s Grand Riders

“I Didn’t Stop Riding Because I Got Old, I Got Old Because I Stopped Riding.”

By Peter Starr, Photography by Richard Greer

John Lennon once said, “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” Following a two-week trip to Taiwan, I’m inclined to say he was right—and that Lennon likely cribbed the saying from Buddha! Going to Taiwan was a purposeful mission: to ride with the Grand Riders. Many know of these venerable motorcyclists through the TC Bank commercial that went viral on YouTube last year (search "TC Bank Dream Rangers" on YouTube to see it yourself). It’s in Chinese with English sub-titles, but it’s eminently understandable and emotionally potent regardless of language. The short film shows a group of geriatric, dis-contented men who decide to turn their lives around and relive a defining moment of their youth: a motorcycle ride around the island of Taiwan.The theme is about having a dream and a purpose for living out your years productively, and after watching the video I was left with a gargantuan lump in my throat and far-from-dry eyes. To give you some perspective as to why I was so taken with the accomplishments of these aging riders, it helps to know that I am 69 years old (with 53 years of motorcycling under my belt) and a 7-year cancer survivor. Possessing a motorcyclist’s attitude and vinegar regarding my diagnosis, I chose the road less traveled with my treatment, much as I have done with my motorcycle film-making career.

Imagine a group of octogenarians contemplating what would normally be a predictable and unappetizing future of becoming incapacitated and, finally, passing away. Then, out of some indefinable source, they acquire a thunderbolt of inspiration and decide to do something that really makes them happy, and makes them feel alive. If that sounds inspirational, I’ve just scratched the surface of what the Grand Riders are all about. What they embarked upon wasn’t a casual day-trip; it was a 12-day tour around the island of Taiwan, a journey of nearly 700 miles along roads that some had never travelled before. It was a genuine adventure.

In November of 2007, 17 expectant riders balanced their aging bodies over their two-wheeled vehicles and bravely set out on an adventure that many riders half their age would be wary of undertaking. They had ignored many who told them they could not do it and likely would not survive. The skeptics weren’t referring to traffic accidents, either: Some of the riders had cancer or degenerative heart disease, and all of them suffered from arthritis. Some believed that the only reason they were still alive was due to their daily intake of prescription drugs! Yet they all whipped themselves into sufficient shape to take the trip, many following a holistic regimen, as I did with my cancer.

The trip served mainly to prove to the riders—but also to others in the same predicament—that chronological age is merely a number. As Emma Huang from the Hondao Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly, told me, “For many, getting old means becoming useless. The elderly are stereotyped as doing nothing well. These people worked hard to take care of their families for almost their whole lives, and then when they got old their children and society prevented them from doing things that may be adventuresome or risky. To have the different imagination about the elderly, that is what we are about.”

So these 17 men cast aside the aspersions of their naysayers in challenging themselves to ride. This was no simple commitment to pursue or extend a lifelong hobby, because not all had been riding all their lives. There were some with years of experience, but that was decades in the past. Not only was physical training necessary to bring them up to the level of fitness necessary, but all had to pass a riding test.

Prior to that original ride in ’07, none had a current motorcycle license. Jhong Tian Wang said that for him, life started at age 70. That’s when he learned to drive, and to master good penmanship. At age 83, he learned to ride a motorcycle.

Their uplifting story made the Grand Riders celebrities in Taiwan, and thanks to the Internet they have inspired people all over the world. TC Bank’s commercial doesn’t have much to do with finances, but it carries a powerful message of hope, which is its own kind of valuable currency. The video’s nearly 4 million views and countless comments attest to the riders’ inspirational potential, speaking to those who feel their best days are behind them.

The Grand Riders have continued to gather annually to relive the ride and enjoy the morale boost it offers, and thanks to the Hondao Foundation and the Taiwanese tourism office in Los Angeles, I was able to join them on their most recent outing. The 11 of the original 17 riders that made this latest journey are an amazing mixture of personalities, with an uncommon-yet-infectious sense of humility, reality and humor that was palpable even without the luxury of a common language.

Miao Guei Jhu, 94, a grandfather and the oldest Grand Rider, told me that “riding around the country is the best present to myself.” He toured Taiwan for the first time when he was 63, long after many riders hang up their helmets. Ying Mei and Hong Dao were the only couple on the ride and the youngest among the group, and they each rode their own scooter. Ying Mei is a grandmother who has undergone breast-cancer treatment, but that didn’t stymie her ambitions or her spirit to live. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she rose above her affliction and now helps others who struggle with cancer.

After several months of trading E-mails with Doris Lin and Emma Huang of the Hondao Foundation, who organized the ride, my adventure started in the southernmost city of Koahsiung at Kymco’s scooter factory. There I picked up a new MyRoad 700 and was baptized into the traffic of the city’s busy streets. Joining up with a contingent of the group, I headed south to the coastal town of Taitung, where we met the Grand Riders and set out on the official journey. This leg of my eventual 650-mile, eight-day journey was only about 140 miles, but it took us the better part of 5 hours due to the mountainous roads.

My group consisted of tour guide “Paul” Hsiao, Kymco executive Devon Wu and photo-grapher Richard Greer, and when we arrived at the meeting place we were totally overwhelmed. The warmth with which the Grand Riders welcomed us was incredible,

and I spent a couple hours talking with them through Chrissy, our English-speaking, American-educated translator. Through our parsed conversations I learned about their lives, their motivations and their hopes for the future. This initial meeting was full of subtle perceptions of a society about which I was completely ignorant. As I have gotten older, I have often wondered how I would handle the aging process. I just hope I can be as gracious, energetic and outgoing as these Grand Riders.

That evening there was a dinner and party with a rock band, attended by 60 motorcyclists from the Cruiser Riders Club. This was turning out to be a much bigger event than I had imagined! The Grand Riders are stars, and there were numerous TV and newspaper reporters on hand to cover the event. The Cruiser Riders Club, most of whom rode Harleys, had traveled all the way from Taipei (12 hours and 325 miles distant) and Taichung (8 hours and 200 miles) to take part in the ride.

Following a departure ceremony, the 11 Grand Riders mounted their machines, and along with the 60 big-bike riders—30 of whom were carrying elderly passengers—set out with a police escort through the streets of Taitung into the tropical countryside along the east coast. There were no towns along the road that first day, but rather many small settlements and villages. The undulating pavement was very good for motorcyclists, offering a bounty of sweeping turns and great ocean views. The procession of scooters and Harleys wound their way north to the delight of the local inhabitants stationed along the way, waving their approval. Due to the reports in the newspapers and on television, everyone was aware of what was happening.

We ticked off about 100 miles a day, and spent the evenings in deep conversation about motorcycles, life and aging. After what was a beautiful, fulfilling-but-uneventful ride, everyone peeled-off into a parking lot at the AnTong Hot Spring Hotel in Yuli Township for a final meal and farewell ceremony. Unbeknownst to me, the Hondao Foundation had prepared a birthday cake and gifts for me, four days ahead of my actual birthday. All of the Grand Riders received a certificate of participation, which I was honored to present. Then the Harley passengers hugged their chauffeurs and everyone went their separate ways.

As I should have expected, this was more than a simple ride. It was a celebration of life, and of what life can be as we enter the autumn of our existence. The Hondao Foundation sets a wonderful example of taking the original impetus from the 17 Grand Riders and growing it with worthy affection so that the dream never gets old. I know firsthand the value of understanding that life is finite. And while we may not be able to relive our youth, there’s no reason we can’t continue to live youthfully.

Later this year, I intend to return to Taiwan to join the Grand Riders on their annual ride. I hope the 11 men I met in 2011 will again be there, and I am looking to take 10 Americans of appropriate age with me. What I experienced in Taiwan deserves to be shared, and the inspiration of the Grand Riders spread far and wide!

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By Peter Starr
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