Continuing my story from Part One and Part Two, four o’clock in the morning on Friday, October 28, 2016, signified an early wake up to attend the fifth running of the Taiwan KOM Challenge starting in the beachside city of Hualien, Taiwan. I chowed down a modest breakfast as I made last minute checks of my bicycle and GoPro cameras, and loaded all of my nutritional goodies onto my person for the day. Was I ready? About as ready as a bloke who calls Gainesville, FL, home could be!
On the agenda was arguably the toughest paved climb on the planet. Approximately 10,700 feet (3,275 meters) of sustained climbing from sea level to the summit of Wuling. Somewhere along the climb is a short descent about 2.5 kilometres / 1.5 miles in length, but even with this taken into account, I was looking at over 80 kilometres / 50 miles of sustained climbing with nary any relief. Time to line up with 385 other cyclists and do my best…
The route to the Wuling summit begins along 19 kilometres / 11.8 miles of flat, beach front road. The mountains in the middle of the photo above are the gateway to the climb – the Taroko Gorge.
Like me, most of the riders in attendance stood no chance of winning the event, but were there to finish within the time cut or improve upon a previous best time. I fell into the former category – along with having a great time and enjoying the scenery.
A time cut of seven hours sounds overly generous, but to most mortals, time slips by all too quickly. This is compounded by stops at feed stations along the course and crawling on the steeper sections of the climb prevalent towards the summit. The clock never stops.
The race began promptly at 6:30am. Three hundred eighty six riders from 36 countries gently rolled out in a controlled and neutral fashion. I hung around towards the first and second rows for at least a couple of kilometres, capturing video with my front and rear GoPro cameras.
Looking around the field, it was clear there were many heavy hitters at this year’s race, all of whom were lean and in primo climbing form. The talent included former winners and podium-getters of the race. 2015 Vuelta a Espana KOM winner Omar Fraile was present, along with women’s professional cyclist and silver Olympic medalist, Emma Pooley. Incidentally, I spotted Emma toiling at the front of the group the entire length of the beach front road – her strength and power is uber impressive.
The group was ticking along nicely at around 35 kilometres per hour / 23 miles per hour. Despite the neutral pace, a split had formed, providing an opportunity to slot myself to the rear of the reduced front group, enjoying an armchair ride before the left turn and the start of climbing mayhem.
And thus began my long day in the saddle. The speed shot up and I was ungracefully shot out the rear of the front group. I followed the same advice I gave myself at the 2016 Dirty Kanza 200 mile gravel race – ignore the pace of everyone else – drift to the right side of the road, out of the way, and began tapping out a controlled tempo.
A little ahead of me, the front group was already setting a rapido pace. Note Emma Pooley about five wheels from the front.
But with views like this, who doesn’t mind a little suffering?
Multiple tunnels line the Taroko Gorge. All are well lit but a little damp in places.
Forty six kilometres / 28 miles into the route I stopped briefly for refueling at the Xibao feed station. The one thing about scaling a mountain for over 100 kilometres that rises 3,275 metres is the requirement for regular food and hydration. I began the day with two bottles loaded with water and GU’s drink tabs. Drink tabs reside nicely in their handy carrying tube until called upon, and perform even better when dropped into one’s bottles at the appropriate time. Gels, bananas and the ever handy Pocari Sweat type energy drinks also helped maintain my caloric intake.
The professionals and other big name riders were riding a fierce tempo, but I was rolling along at a moderate speed of around 16 km/hr / 10 mph. With so far to climb and no “tribal knowledge”, I had zero intentions of putting myself into the red zone early.
My more relaxed pace provided plenty of time to admire the scenery which changed as the elevation got higher. Thick, dense bush, gnarled and twisted trees, tall forests of pine and towards the summit, barren mountain tops – all of it, absolutely stunning.
Somewhere between the second and first feed stations, I came upon this section of dirt and gravel. This climb is known for its sometimes treacherous conditions including rockslides or notoriously bad weather – cue the 2014 edition, a veritable rain-fest. But my Ritchey Breakaway Titanium CX bike – aka my gravel travel bike – shod with some wide and comfy tubeless road tires, shrugged it off.
The leaders didn’t enjoy such a smooth ride, logjamming through the dirt and gravel. One or two riders hit the deck but continued on, sans injuries.
The descent I’d been waiting for after feed station three at approximately 70 kilometres / 44 miles into the climb finally appeared. I may not be a great climber but I’m a pretty handy descender. The tricky, technical descent is fabulous for those who like to push the limit a little. Trouble is, the descent is short and ended far too quickly. Once the road begins climbing again, riders are greeted with a 12% – 16% gradient that levels you like a hard punch to the gullet. Charming.
But what lay in store for the final push to the finish – 13 kilometres / eight miles of heinous gradients averaging 10% – 22%, reaching a maximum of 27% in the final kilometre – all remind you the mountain is boss.
My bike was fitted with a low gear of 30 x 32 – read more about the bike at the bottom of my Part Two article. I thought that 32 tooth cog would be low enough. But the fatigue of the first 90 kilometres took a toll, and I wished for an even lower gear. 36 teeth anyone?
I began tacking up the steepest of the grades in the last 13 kilometres / eight miles. Slowly zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other, in between the few cars that were heading up and down the mountain.
A silence fell over me, broken only by the steady pounding of my heart interspersed with heavy breathing.
I swear I didn’t feel the effect of altitude like others, but I wasn’t exactly killing it in the speed department. Above, Brett Lindstrom of Lake Shoes did feel the altitude, requiring oxygen at the finish. He rode strongly to finish in a time of 4:15:25.
I was forced to walk at least twice, after vehicles disturbed my less than perfect line as I tacked along. Thankfully I came prepared, my feet shod with high-end, lightweight MTB shoes.
As every kilometre passed, I nervously glanced down at the clock on my Garmin navigation device. A little out of sorts, I neglected to load the course I had prepared for the event into the device. Thus, I had no idea of my expected ETA. My brain, already taxed with everything else going on, did a reasonable job in calculating my expected arrival – under the time cut with a good margin to spare.
I rolled past the sign for the final kilometre, undoubtedly the most difficult stretch of the entire climb. I could see the finish line, but it seemed so distant, like a mirage just out of reach. A passing car disturbed my tacking on the 27% grade, forcing me to walk one final time.
With about three hundred metres remaining, I grit my teeth, and ground out towards the finish line. I passed another rider in slow motion with under 50 metres remaining. There was no challenge from him – we were both equally spent – but happy to finish. It wasn’t a fast time, but I was stoked – 6:10:55 finish time and just over 49 minutes to spare.
Others were relieved just to finish – everyone received a medal – well deserved I must say.
Meanwhile, just a little bit earlier, the battle for the win had unfolded. Three riders escaped from the group of twelve who entered the final 13 kilometres together – Oscar Pujol of Spain and two Aussies, Jai Hindley and Benjamin Dyball.
In the final kilometre, Oscar cut out a slender six second lead to take the win over Jai Hindley, with Benjamin Dyball rolling in for third place. This was the closest finish in the event’s history.
The women’s winner was Emma Pooley in a blazing fast time of 4:08:40 – 48th fastest overall! Yumiko Goda was second, with a local Taiwanese lady – Zi Yen Cheng – taking 3rd place.
I am no gifted climber. But if you are and you’re looking for a challenge, check out the KOM of KOM’s -the Taiwan KOM Challenge. Not a great climber? Take the challenge for yourself – and while you’re at it, enjoy the stunning scenery and culture that Taiwan has to offer.
There is far more to this island nation than the manufacture of bicycles.
The fourth and final part is coming soon: 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge – The Event Video
Photos and article by Gravel Cyclist. Jayson O’Mahoney is the Gravel Cyclist: A website about the Gravel Cycling Experience.