Continuing where I left off earlier – 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge: Part One – Showing Up – myself, along with invited journalists and riders woke early on Wednesday morning for the trip by people-mover van to Hualien, Taiwan, home of the KOM Challenge. Even this early into the trip I was impressed by the organization of the event’s staff.
The logistics associated with moving around luggage, bikes and other gear for 14 individuals is no easy undertaking. Yet, I was treated like a professional cyclist! My luggage and bicycle were loaded by the drivers and helpers into the assigned vans, leaving me to relax and focus my worries elsewhere; like how was I going to ride my bicycle up what is possibly the longest and toughest climb on the planet?!
The drive from Taipei to Hualien is one of beauty. Once clear of Taipei proper, a city that reminds me of Bladerunner with its futuristic skyscrapers and signage (thanks Brett Lindstrom of Lake Cycling Shoes for that observation), our route took us away from north central Taiwan, to the eastern coastline that butts against the Pacific Ocean.
Empty beaches and rockfaces provided a feast for our eyes as our four van entourage steadily made its way southbound along Route 9 to Hualien. Nearing Hualein, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful Tarako National Park. The Taroko Gorge forms the base of the climb that is the Taiwan KOM Challenge – so, no matter how I would ride come event day, I knew my eyes were in for a real treat.
It is scenery like in the image above that has the Taiwan Tourism Bureau making a big push to cyclists the world over to consider Taiwan as a cyclo-tourism destination. There is more to Taiwan than the manufacturing of bicycles and brutal KOM challenges – once away from the hustle and bustle of cities and manufacturing centers, the Taiwanese roads are well maintained, wide and relatively free of vehicular traffic. There’s also the mountains – 268 of them summit over 9,800 feet (3,000 meters)!
Taiwanese Cycling Culture
I’d heard through the grapevine that cyclists in Taiwan hold a mutual respect for each other, akin to a cycling family in the case of some. I was curious about this and spoke with Scott Ellinger, American expatriate, avid cyclist, master of the Mandarin language and translator assisting the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and organizers of the Taiwan KOM Challenge. Scott has lived in Asia for 19 years, nine of them spent living in Taiwan. Scott belongs to a local cycling club called OBG (歐北共), which in the Taiwanese dialect means “talking non-sense”. Scott’s club has 150 members, including three foreigners.
In Scott’s words: “Taiwan has an abundance of open-amateur cycling races rivaling the best in the world. But most of all, you will find the cycling culture of Taiwan to be the most friendly and open to accepting anyone into their cycling clubs. This culture is unique; there is always someone to assist you in time of need whether it be roadside motivation during a race, an extra energy gel, water re-fill, help changing a flat tire, or just stopping to take a photo with you. I find the camaraderie to be unmatched from anywhere else in the world”.
Scott continues; “Taiwan bicycle races are well organized, have well stocked feeding stations, finisher medals for all who cross the finish line, and warm and friendly post-race reception. Unlike races in the United States or Europe, the Taiwan racing circuit is not based on a points system / stepping ladder. The racing circuit is set up for everyone to participate and enjoy without the stress of trying to move up. This gives riders the opportunity to challenge themselves with support from friends and fellow riders, and can lead to long lasting friendships. During my time in the United States, I found meeting some clubs or groups of riders for the first time is akin to a pecking order contest. I am sized up and stared at from head to toe, riders wondering if I am faster or slower. On the flipside, clubs in Taiwan greet with open arms. Should you meet with multiple cycling clubs, be forewarned and prepared. They will most likely shower you with kindness, making your decision very difficult – which club to choose? Regardless of the club you join, you will be joining a family.”
Taiwanese Aboriginal Culture
Not long after our arrival into Hualien, the invited journalists and riders gathered for a short media ride. I’m uncertain how the rest of the media party was feeling, but the legs were a bit dodgy and my body felt jetlagged. I was relieved there was another full day before Friday’s KOM Challenge.
The short but spirited media ride – in the company of Omar Fraile of Dimension Data (2015 Vuelta a España KOM winner), Ibai Salas of Burgos BH, Emma Pooley (Silver Olympic medalist and winner of La Flèche Walloons Feminine), and other top notch riders, would take our group to a media press conference at a discreet location on the outskirts of Hualien.
It was here we met with the gentleman pictured above. Please forgive me, as I do not recall his name, but he is a well-known Taiwanese Aboriginal man who provided a short history on the area and his people.
After a brief meet and greet, he performed a ritual steeped in the traditions of his people.
He also gave blessing to the race – on the proviso the cyclist chosen to represent our party, Willy Mulonia of Bicisport Magazine / organizer of the Mongolia Bike Challenge / L’Eroica Hispania, shoot an arrow to hit a generously oversized target. After only one practice shot, Willy made the target – it wasn’t a bullseye, but it was a hit. Our group was now blessed with a guarantee that anyone in our party who started the Taiwan KOM Challenge would finish. Brilliant!
As alluded to in Part One, I was riding a relatively unique bicycle at the Taiwan KOM Challenge – a titanium Ritchey Breakaway CX bike with SRAM eTap and eeegads!.. cantilever brakes! I fondly refer to this bike as my gravel travel bike, although I would be sticking to paved surfaces for the duration of this trip.
Because I had no time to train, or anywhere to train for this event in Gainesville, Florida -imagine some nice rolling hills but no serious mountains of any kind- I thought it best to adjust my gearing to suit my pedaling style. I favor low gearing and a high cadence, mostly because I generate almost no power, so turning a gear over relatively fast works nicely for me 🙂
During my recent trip to Interbike 2016, I met with Alec White of White Industries, where he showed me the latest version of the company’s venerable VBC crankset (variable bolt circle) – the MR30. Done with the square taper standard, the revised crank sports a 30mm axle and mates to the company’s 30mm external cup bottom bracket. But the VBC part of the MR30 crank is what makes it so appealing. The big chainring attaches directly to the crank using a spline-type interface. The small ring attaches to the big ring, using a set of self-centering sliders – this design ditches the notion of a fixed BCD (bolt circle diameter) allowing for some major flexibility in gearing choices. One can choose an outer chainring from 38 – 52 in even increments and an inner chainring from 24 – 38 in even increments.
Paired with my 11-32 cassette and SRAM eTap rear derailleur, my 46 / 30 tooth chainring configuration provided a high gear of 110.3 inches (46 x 11) and low gear of 24.7 inches (30 x 32) – perfect for scaling a monster KOM Challenge and possibly the perfect chainring configuration for gravel cycling. SRAM politely advise that a 28 tooth rear cog is the biggest an eTap rear derailleur can accommodate. Wrong. Simply turn in the B-screw a good way and you’ll be shifting with no worries onto a 32 tooth cog. I am reviewing the White Industries MR30 crankset long term on my own website, see link at bottom of this page.
With a bicycle setup for scaling the Taiwan KOM Challenge, my strategy was thus: don’t go hard early, don’t crack, and ride fast enough to make the time cut. Enjoying the ride and scenery were also high on my agenda.
How did it go? This and more coming in 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge: Part Three – The Event
Photos and article by Gravel Cyclist. Jayson O’Mahoney is the Gravel Cyclist: A website about the Gravel Cycling Experience.