For me, Taiwan isn’t one of those places that springs to mind when picking out ideal cycling destinations. Due to sheer ignorance or stupidity on my behalf I’d always imagined Taiwan as a land jam-packed with industrial estates and high-rise buildings. This was until last year when fellow CyclingTipper Andy covered the Taiwan KOM Challenge, an event that captured my imagination and put Taiwan on my must-do list of places to ride a bike.
Jump forward to mid October this year and an email asking if I’d fancy taking on the mammoth mountain challenge in a few weeks. It was an easy question to answer — I fired back a resounding and excited ‘yes’ and all was put in motion to head the 18 hours from little old Blighty to Taiwan. I’d soon learn that this small island has climbs that can best any in Europe. In fact, Taiwan would have to be one of the best locations I’ve have the pleasure of turning the pedals over in.
I’d been invited over by the people behind what could easily be classed as the unofficial world championships of mountain climbing. The Taiwan KOM Challenge is exactly what the name suggests: a challenge. It’s held on 105km of spectacular roads that rise from the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean to a quite literally breathtaking 3,275m mountain summit.
World-class athletes, locals and international nut-cases who clearly fancy themselves as mountain goats all converged in the small town of Qixingtan, Hualian on the east coast of Taiwan ready to take the winding road to the top of Mt Hehuan. It’s not a mountain that is famed in cycling like Alpe d’Huez or the Passo dello Stelvio but give it time — I promise you it’ll be up there once more people learn about this savage beast.
I’d arrived six days prior to the event along with several other lucky journalists and some superstars of the cycling world. Even though each of us had arrived foaming at the mouth and with the singular goal of wanting to conquer the mountain, the Taiwanese Tourism Board wanted to show us a good time in the build-up to the race.
A coach quarter-full of cycling journalists and a sprinkling of pro athletes was a first for me; the disco-lighting mixed with crocheted net curtains added to the atmosphere. Being relatively new to this whole journalism lark I’d expected egos and intermedia rivalry. Again, like my initial thoughts about Taiwan, I turned out to be wrong.
The days leading up to the event saw plenty of bonding within the group. Jokes were plentiful, local cuisine — as tasty as it was — came in quantities none of us apart from Adrian, the slightly built Malaysian photographer, could handle. This unexpected bonding would come in pretty handy on the big day, but more of that in a moment.
The green hills of Taiwan were a perfect wake-up call for a few of us. Here on the slopes we soon realised that the gearing we’d come prepared with was seriously inadequate. I’d listen to accounts from people who’d tackled the roads here and they’d said it was steep and tough. Fitting a 28-tooth cassette had been my plan; that matched with the 39 up front, I presumed, would see me out of any serious trouble.
Halfway round the hills on the first day I knew I needed to find a back-up plan. As chance would have it a flash-looking VW van was sitting at a junction just moments later, the huge “S” of Specialized splashed down its side. A group of cyclists all on the latest Tarmacs were to be the answer to my gearing prayers.
Cutting a long story short Specialized came to the rescue for not just me but Jo Hogan, an Australian pro cyclist — she’d also made the foolish gearing mistake. Within a day we were kitted up on the latest Tarmacs with lightweight Roval wheels and all-important compact cranks.
The drive from Taipei to where we’d be spending a few nights leading up to the race takes in some of the most spectacular costal roads I’ve seen, even considering the dim drizzle that we saw them through. They have to be up there with the all-time classic roads such as the Great Ocean Road or the Atlantic Road in Norway.
The roads twist and turn, winding their way around the mountain edge and hanging over the beaches and cliffs below. Vans navigate the narrow yet busy route. The contrast from the city of Taipei is as stark as any you’re likely to encounter.
As the sun attempted to show its face, what had been a picture-postcard scene the day before had transformed into a grey ocean backdrop. This was the start line. Bikes and damp cyclists littered the start area and the local tourism mascot — a huge black bear — stood by the start line getting soggier and soggier by the minute.
With the rain already falling many of us predicted that we’d be in for a tough day. Several others though were obviously of the optimistic variety — they seemed to be carrying little excess clothing in their jersey pockets. This would prove to be a huge mistake later on.
An 18km neutralised zone saw the 470 riders slowly roll out from the beach front. The calm and relaxed start soon gave way to a few small attacks as soon as the flag had dropped. The experienced guys clearly knew that moves like this were destined not to succeed; instead they sat there watching the hopeful riders burn themselves out before we’d even climbed a metre above sea level.
From the main road we swung off and immediately hit what would be 80km of grovelling and suffering, with the odd spectacular view thrown in.
I’d taken multiple KOM veterans’ advice and approached the climb at my own pace, knowing that I’d pay for any little bit of excess effort when we hit the really tough stuff: the final 10km.
The peloton soon strung out, riders littered the road. Up front the pace was obviously high and out back you could already hear gasping and wheezing. Attaching myself to a group that I felt comfortable in gave me an opportunity for a bit of a respite.
After plucking out a locally made energy gel that had been in the race pack with our race numbers I hastily ripped open the packet. A snap discussion to check if Taiwanese gels came in similar flavours to back home was to save me from waterproofing the inside of my mouth. Where I expected it to say something along the lines of bubble tea flavour I instead spotted “friction gel”. A lesson learned — just because it looks like a gel doesn’t mean it is.
As I chuckled to myself about the close call I noticed that, not far up the road, something was going down. The road lead up to a red bridge that forked left over a rocky river bed. From where I was I could make out a few scattered bodies on the road. The closer I got the more I could make out the bright orange jersey of Jo Hogan.
I’d later learn that Jo, one local rider and Australian Specialized-Lululemon rider Tiff Cromwell had tangled coming into the bridge and all had come down pretty hard. Tiff had got off relatively lightly, ruining a pair of shorts but remounting her bike pretty quickly and continuing. The local rider and Jo, though, were at the side of the road looking in pain and being attended to by race staff.
I rolled past in two minds, wondering whether or not I should stop. Instead I decided to slow a little. Before long Jo had caught me; she was looking like a woman slightly possessed. Clearly the adrenalin from the crash was pulsating through her. This was where the group bonding of hanging out in Taipei, riding in the mountains and talking each other into eating bizarre food would come into play.
I picked my pace up and told Jo that I’d ride with her to the top. She looked in pain, grimacing and wincing every time she had to get out of the saddle. I put myself in her shoes and thought that I’d want an irritating Brit to pester me for the remainder of the ride. So this was to be my plan — I’d be Jo’s domestique for the day.
With the weather getting worse and the temperature dropping steadily, we, along with the rest of the field, were in for a tortuous ascent.
We’d been told that the valley road had breathtaking scenery but unfortunately, with the way the weather was, I had to believe it as I sure couldn’t see it. The thick mist hugged the rock face and filled the valley below. It was all a little eerie.
Jo and I sat tapping the pedals over. Due to the long and thankfully well lit tunnels that cut through the hillside, our Garmins were not letting us know the exact distance we had covered. Instead we had to guess how far from the next feed zone we were.
Even with the rain lashing down and the road steadily getting tougher we kept each other’s sprits high, chatting with the aim of keeping Jo’s mind off her sore ribs and mine off how unfit I realised I was. On the odd occasion Jo groaned when she didn’t even stand on the pedals. I soon came to realise that it was the quality of my jokes.
The roads that we had the privilege to be riding on were like nothing else; the gradient just kept coming and at no point did the road level out. Always a slight kick up. The rock face soared up and was as gnarly as anything that Europe has to offer. It had an almost “lost” quality to it — we were riding this seemingly endlessly mountain through the cloudy grey mist. It was a land that you’d expect a dinosaur to be roaming about in.
With each fuel stop I’d dive off my bike, fill my pockets with grub and water and make the effort to dash back up to Jo who by now was clearly in a world of hurt. As she got quieter I tried to get louder; the aim always to keep her from focusing on her injuries.
With the mist clearing for a few moments at a time it revealed small glimpses of the stunning scenery that was unfortunately being hidden from us. This gave us a little hope that the rain might ease up and allow us to take the second half of the race in some sort of half-decent weather.
Instead, with about 40km to go, the temperature dropped. You could feel it plummet with every pedal stroke. Jo and I had left it just a little too late to wrap up warm. Unfortunately Jo had handed her jacket to Daniel the photographer just before the crash.
Luckily I’d packed like a boy scout. Along with my super-lightweight gillet I’d stashed a rain jacket in my back pocket. Both Jo and I stopped together for the first time in the race. Shaking from the cold, we shared what clothing I had. I’d later manage to acquire an extra large T-shirt and a plastic bag, stuffing the latter up the front of my jersey to keep the wind chill off.
As we passed riders you could see that each and every one was up against their own mental as well as physical challenge. The weather was now what most would refer to as epic.
When looking at the profile of the climb the previous day everyone had agreed that the 3km downhill stretch at about kilometre 90 was going to be a welcome stretch of road. But with the weather the way it was it was completely the opposite. This short stretch of tarmac sapped any remaining heat from our bodies — no matter how much I forced my now-numb fingers to grip the brake levers the slow speed down the hill whisked away any remaining heat. The sharp ramp at the bottom of this descent was greeted with the thought that it’d help warm the body a little.
By now I was feeling the 90 or so kilometres in my legs and the nearly 3,000m of elevation. Jo, on the other hand, suddenly had a magical second wind. As she launched out of the saddle I knew I was cooked. I hollered to her that she should leave me and continue alone, that she should drop me like the old banger I felt like I was.
From here I was pretty much on my own. This was where the road seriously ramped up, with gradients of up to 27 percent waiting for us in the final kilometres. This is where all that energy I’d hoped to have saved would have come in handy. Instead all that rain and cold weather saw me crawling up the final roads leading to the summit.
Passing guys walking and shaking from the cold didn’t make me feel good. But by this stage it was every cyclist for themselves. It’s not until you are really suffering that you find out how far 10km really can be. It seemed to never end. It was only when I could make out the muffled sound of the finish line that I knew I was home safe and sound.
Crossing the line and having the finisher’s medal thrust around my neck was enough to allow my body to start its uncontrollably shaking. Up until this point I’d been battling it, forcing myself to not shake. But with friends and race staff on hand it wasn’t long before numerous hot ginger teas were being glugged down. The heat from the tea scorched my insides in a way that I was most grateful for.
With each mouthful and with my hands wrapped around the paper cup I took in what I’d manage to achieve. I’d suffered a ton but I’d had a blast in equal measures — the ride was one that would go down in the personal storytelling archives that’s for sure. Something that I’m sure I’ll dredge up and tell when sat in a coffee shop trying to impress mates.
The event was so much more than I’d expected. The atmosphere, even in the conditions that we rode in, was professional and like very little I’d experienced before. Climbing a mountain for 105km and raising all of 3,275m is impossible in most places. Here in Taiwan where they have more than 200 mountains above 3,000m it’s a place that I’d happily suffer day after day to take in roads like I did.
It’s an event that I seriously hope I can take on again. The nature of it is something that is quite addictive: it’s part gran fondo, part race and all challenge.
And if you’re wondering how Jo got on, she took home a surprising fourth place in the women’s race. I took home some amazing cycling memories and a bag full of soggy cycling kit that I’m sure I’ll never manage to get the dirt out of.