Friday, October 28, 2016, marks the 5th running of the grueling Taiwan KOM Challenge, beginning in Haulien, Taiwan. Organized by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, this race is one for the climbers – 105 kilometers / 65 miles in length, with the first 19 kilometers (11.8 miles) reasonably flat and held under race neutral. Once race neutral is over, the fun begins steadily – at first.
Averaging about six percent gradient for much of the way, the climb meanders through the spectacular Taroko Gorge, then onto Taiwan’s highest passable road atop Route 14A to Wuling Pass. But the Challenge really begins in the final 9.5 kilometers (5.9 miles) with gradients ranging from 10% to 22%, with a 27% wall in the final kilometer for one’s ultimate riding pleasure – charming.
To make this more of a challenge, I ordinarily reside in Gainesville, Florida, where the toughest “mountain range” is the much-vaunted Florida Flappalachians – a tongue in cheek homage to the Appalachian mountain range, but in reality a short hilly section of Old Bellamy Road -a dirt, gravel and limerock road that was the first Federal Highway in the United States- and a fixture of my local dirt and gravel road rides.
But my home locale’s rather flat nature matters very little as I am not a renowned climber anyway. However, I do possess good endurance qualities and know how to meter my effort. Nowadays, I ride and race almost entirely on dirt and gravel roads. Thus far in 2016, I have knocked out events such as the Bootlegger 100, Cedar Cross, Dirty Kanza 200, Gravel Worlds and most recently, L’Eroica in Italy. So, could an event with approximately 54 miles of endless climbing be any harder than 200 gravel miles of Dirty Kanza, undoubtedly the hardest event I have appeared at? Sometimes, ignorance is bliss – so I chose not to think about it. A split second decision later and I was signed up to report and ride the 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge on behalf of Bikerumor.
A wee bit of logistics
Taiwan is located just a little east of mainland China, but a long way from the Continental United States. A short flight from Gainesville, Florida, to Atlanta, Georgia, then 14 hours across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. Hurriedly make the connecting flight to Taipei, Taiwan, and sit on my rear end for the final four hours. Kudos to Delta Airlines for being bang on time, and serving up some tasty vegetarian friendly food along the way!
The Taiwan Tourism Bureau organized all of my flights and accommodations, and a driver to collect me from the airport. The drive to the hotel was a blur, but I was relieved my luggage was accounted for and in one piece. I was probably toting too much gear, including my bike for the event, a titanium Ritchey Breakaway CX frame kitted out with SRAM eTap – a bike I call my gravel travel bike, only this time shod with road tires and some very low gearing – more on that in a future installment.
After check-in at one of Taipei’s Fushin hotels, I ambled slowly downstairs to a dinner in progress with the Communications Director for the Taiwan KOM Challenge, expat Englishman, Lee Rodgers. Lee is also co-founder of Bond Bike, a new company offering full-custom aluminum bikes that won’t break the bank. The itinerary and plan for the next few days was outlined, along with a bit of name dropping of the better known riders attending the 2016 event: Omar Fraile, winner of the 2015 Vuelta a España KOM jersey; Emma Pooley, professional women’s cyclist and Olympic medal winner; and a lot of other talented riders, but mostly people who would ultimately drop me very hard come event day.
Before some much needed sleep, I assembled my Breakway. Packing my new S&S hard case involved a different procedure from the stock Ritchey case – in both cases think jigsaw puzzle and you get the picture. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has an important job to do, and I was pleased they inspected my bike and suitcase sans ravaging.
All that remained was to take the Breakaway for a quick shake down ride. Normally I would do this in the daylight hours, but the journalist group was doing a ride early the next morning. Thus, I rode around streets close to the hotel at 10pm in the company of countless scooters and reasonably light vehicular traffic. The bike performed as expected, and I returned to the hotel for a bit of sleep.
Taipei isn’t flat
I met the other journalist types for an 8am ride on Tuesday morning. My body clock was still on Americano East coast time which means I didn’t sleep well – guaranteed lackluster performance to happen on the ride.
Also joining us on the ride was one of the lads from Dimension Data’s Continental team, and Japanese women’s rider, Yumiko Goda. She finished 7th in this year’s Japanese national road race, and weighing about 44kg / 95lbs, is very handy whenever the road tilts skyward.
The short 32 kilometer/ 20 mile loop featured plenty of steep climbing and some tricky descents. As expected, I was at or off the back anytime the gradient went over 10%, but, it was great to be on the bike and riding in Taiwan.
International Press Conference
The Taiwan KOM Challenge was officially opened for business on Tuesday afternoon. Proceedings began with a traditional drum performance, followed by sponsor introductions, speakers from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, and finally, introductions of several of the invited riders.
For the 2016 edition, 386 riders signed up for the Taiwan KOM Challenge. The top five entered nations are Japan, Korea, United States, Hong Kong and Australia. For the first time in the event’s five year history, foreign-entered riders outnumber locals, a sure sign of continued growth for this event.
The Night Market
No trip to Taipei, Taiwan, would be complete without a visit to one of the area’s unique night markets. Filled with vendors offering clothing, electronics and unusual food items – at least to most Westerners – this experience is a fun and unique cultural opportunity! Pick an animal and it’s almost certainly represented in fried or grilled preparations. Throw in some wild fruits, bubble tea (in a plastic bag), and then it’s time to shop for knock off Legos, kitschy T-shirts and laser pointer pins that could burn a hole in your wall. Then try to sleep.
Coming next, look for 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge: Part Two – Preparation and Culture to see what goes into checking an event like this off your bucket list and other behind the scenes information.
Photos and article by Gravel Cyclist. Jayson O’Mahoney is the Gravel Cyclist: A website about the Gravel Cycling Experience.