There are many epic hill climb challenges dotted around the world that capture the imagination of riders, but there is, perhaps, one hill climb challenge that surpass them all – the toughest, the most beautiful, with the highest elevation gain on a paved twisting road that snakes its way through a jaw-dropping Toroko Gorge, through some dense forests and eventually up to one of the highest points in Taiwan, at an elevation of 3,275m!
380 riders took part in the 2012 edition of the KOM challenge that featured highly respected KOM Grand Tour riders like Anthony Charteau (Team Europcar), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), and the legendary Francisco Mancebo (KTM) all attracted to the epic Taiwan mountain challenge. The race also featured many top Asian riders all vying for the KOM title, including defending 2010 and 2011 champion Yung Yi Fan of Taiwan.
Once the race started at the base of the Toroko Gorge, the lead pack was quickly whittled down to 60 odd riders after a fast tempo set by local Taiwanese riders. This largish group was further reduced to just 12 riders by the time the first feed-zone was reached at the 46km mark. Italian riders, Orrico Davide and Tedeschi Mirko (Atlas-Enervit) were seen setting the pace for long periods of time with David McCann (RTS) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ) also nudging off the front. It was a constant battle between the leaders as they climbed steady towards the summit of Wuling; in the end it came down to an epic duel between Danish rider, John Ebsen (CCN) and famous hill-climber Peter Pouly (Bike Net Singha). Ebsen showed an effortless style of riding to dance up the final slopes that were often in excess of 20% to win by 30 seconds over Pouly in what was a stunningly quick time of 3hrs27mins. This makes the average speed for the 3,275m climb just over 25km/h!. Irishman David McCann, who is a prolific stage racer in Asia, took the third spot and is likely to end his long career of Asian racing this year.
Francisco Mancebo was the fastest of the super-stars that were present coming in 8th overall, 12mins 37secs behind the winner. Jeremy Roy was a further six minutes back in 12th position while Anthony Charteau finished 19th overall and was the last rider to go under the four hour mark.
My personal account
I had heard of the famous Toroko Gorge climb to the summit of Wuling a few years ago and had always dreamed of doing the ascent to the clouds and beyond; but never found time to go down and do it. This time, I was back in Taiwan competing in the Tour de Formosa, an invitational seven day stage race for international Deaf riders. The only caveat was that the KOM Challenge was the day after my 800km race around the island of Taiwan concluded and I would already be very tired, however the allure of climbing the “blood-stained beast”, as termed by Taiwan expat pro rider Lee Rodgers, deeply gripped me and I was going to do the climb no matter how tired I was. As a 85kg cyclist, I am by no means of climber build, nor do I profess myself to be a good climber – in fact I dread hills in bike races as they are the places where I am dropped by the lighter weight riders. Despite confronting what seems to be ‘every cyclists nightmare’, I was attracted to participating in the epic climb. I also knew that the road that we would race over is featured in the world’s top 10 most dangerous roads (mostly due to the numerous landslides and the way the road snakes its way around the edges of the gorge with a gaping drop opening below). It is also billed as one of the most stunningly beautiful roads to cycle over. In short, it is a climb that should be on every cyclists bucket list!
With 800km of racing still ravaging through my legs, I lined up near the front alongside the Tour de France stars and the other top riders in the elite category. The first 15km was a neutral roll-out before the gun was sounded at the start of the climb. The pack just surged forward and I found myself racing up near the front and, perhaps foolishly, attempted an acceleration at the very front, and then launching one of my trade-mark “suicide” attacks going up a steep grade into the tunnel. Orrico Davide from the Atlas?Enervit team responded to my attack by chasing me down. I turned and saw him coming, as I sat up I saw that he had a smirk on his face and continued his acceleration. From this point on, I was content with riding comfortably in the pack. Well, not exactly comfortable, we were ripping along at an average speed of 33km/h in those opening 20kms going through the gorge. When I got dropped, it happened quickly. One of the top Taiwanese riders had punctured (Feng Chun Kai) and the other top Taiwanese responded by revving the pace several notches. This injection of speed, coupled with the 8- 10% grade section we were riding up, I found myself unable to close the gaps that were opening up by riders popping left and right. I was left floundering on my own, till I was able to catch my breath again to ride at a decent tempo.
Attempting a 100km climb that gains over 3,000m at race pace requires regular drinking and eating. To maintain the intense effort for over four hours, you need to eat and drink at regular intervals. The feed-zones were located perfectly as I was able to grab a bottle of water and Procari Sweat each time and during the latter feed-zones was able to get some gels and bananas. The riders in the front group were constantly eating at every opportunity to keep their energy levels up. I made sure that I was re-fueling regularly and despite the intense week of racing, I was remarkably consistent with my pace setting up the mountain. Once I had re-grouped myself after being dropped, I found myself picking off blown riders one by one, passing almost a dozen riders. It is a good motivating point when this is happening. I also had time to check out the scenery on the way up and just could not believe my eyes at how fantasticaly beautiful it looked. There was such contrast too as I rode higher and higher. From the lush green dense native bush to large twisted gaunt old trees that were straight out of the Goblin forest and the large pine forests in the drier alpine climate areas. Finally at the top, it was a pretty barren wind-swept landscape.
My Garmin recorded a total ascent of 3,500m and within the magnificent climb there was one 3-4 km descent that was welcomed after 70km of solid climbing; it was a great technical descent perfectly cut out for those speed demons. But, after all that hard work, you have to regain your elevation. In some ways, it kind’ve throws your legs off a bit as the downhill ends abruptly and you are faced with a 15% straight up pitch that brings more pain to the legs. However, pain is a temporary thing and the experience of the climb will remain with you forever.
Just when you think you got a good tempo going and right in that Zen like state for the first 90kms, boom the road goes straight up for the last 13kms with impossible gradients of up to 27% showing up on my GPS. Even the 28t sprocket I installed on my bike especially for this event was not enough as in some sections I found myself zig-zagging. The one good thing happening in those closing stanzas was that after every impossibly steep section, the road would briefly flatten out before dishing out the punishment again. I averaged an excruciating 10.6km/h for the last hour of the race. Those countdown signs I saw, as each kilometer passed by, for the final 5kms only served to remind you that each 100m covered will take an eternity. I focused on turning those pedals and kept myself steady as I climbed higher into the mountain thin air. Finally, the 1km sign appeared, but the gradient just got even steeper and what made matters worse was traffic was allowed to pass by and since I was zig-zagging a bit, a car nearly clipped me causing me to yell insanely. The onlookers also yelled at the car that went by as they understood my plight. I could see the finish banner looming up the top with a large crowd of people gathered to watch the finishers. Still I had 300m of steep hill to climb, but I had renewed energy and pressed on the pedals harder and even sprinted in the last 100m – free-wheeling past the head commissionaire who gave me a high-five. He was also the head commissionaire for the Tour de Formosa that I had just completed and he knew what a week I had gone through and yet mustered enough energy to finish in a respectable time of 4hrs 34mins in 57th position overall. I was giddy in the head with the effort and had trouble walking straight – I later realized it was the thin mountain air at the 3,275m summit.
I’d like to see another climb in the world that can rival this magnificent beast rising out of the island of Taiwan. At 100km long, even factoring in some short downhills within, it is possible that this is the longest and most varied beautiful climb in the world. Put it on your bucket list of cycling events to do in your life-time, come and do it in 2013. Every keen cyclist I have spoken to about this KOM challenge has gotten excited as the allure of the mountain has gripped their imagination.