Alarms will ring early in the Taiwanese city of Hualein tomorrow morning as 400 racers and hundreds of event staff, organisers and government officials get ready for the 6 a.m. opening ceremony of the fourth annual TaiwanKOM Challenge.
A truly international field of riders from 32 different countries will tackle one of the longest paved hill climbs in the world, taking riders from sea level to 3275 meters of elevation in just 105-kilometers with pitches of up to 28 percent gradient.
For the top riders, a prize purse of $1,000,000 NST ($43,273 AUD) for the men and $200,000 NTS ($8,654 AUD) for the women awaits at the top, for others a 6.5-hour time cut will be breathing down their necks. In the three previous editions, less than 50 percent of the riders successfully completed the challenge, which French magazine Le Cycle named among their top 10 toughest races in the world.
The race has gained international esteem quickly, and the Taiwan Cyclist Federation are pushing to turn this into a UCI event. Previous editions saw participation from world-class racers like Jeremy Roy, Simon Clarke, Anthony Charteau, Nicole Cooke, Tiffany Cromwell and Jo Hogan. This year’s event has no less than 200 foreign riders, triple the number of last year.
In fact with a 500-rider limit, local Taiwanese cyclists are required to qualify during a similar event called the Road to the TaiwanKOM in July before being allowed to register for the TaiwonKOM Challenge.
“The road is always here, and we welcome all cyclists to come and challenge yourself on this road year round. But less than 50 percent finish this event. They don’t know how hard it is. To compete in the TaiwanKOM you must complete the self-challege (the Road to the TaiwanKOM) first,” said Liu Hsi-Lin, Deputy Director-general of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.
Mr. Hi-Lin explained that there is a significant difference in the caliber of competition at the TaiwanKOM versus the Road to TaiwanKOM. The fastest time in the TaiwanKOM is around 3.5 hours. In the qualification event, the times are closer to 6 hours.
“We see the TaiwanKOM as an opportunity for our best riders to show what they can do. We want this event to be a window into the international stage,” Mr. His-Lin said.
This year 44 women will take on the challenge with among them, 2013 TaiwanKOM winner and pro rider Eri Yonamine (Saxo Bank FX securities).
“I come back because I love to ride in Taiwan,” Yonamine said. She also wouldn’t mind adding another victory to an already highly successful year. The 24-year-old is the current Japanese national hill climb, time trial and cross country mountain bike champion. She’s also been the runner up in the national road race the last two years.
“I don’t know if I will win but I will try,” she said smiling. “To be successful at this mountain, you need to ride an even pace. The last bit is very hard. You have to stay patient and safe power for the end.”
Yonamide’s main competition will likely come from a woman twice her age. Last year’s TaiwanKOM winner, Marg Fedyna, 51 years of age, has returned to the TaiwanKOM in the hopes of better weather.
“Last year it rained the whole time and I was so cold. It was a survival race,” said Fedyna. “I plan on enjoying the scenery this year since I didn’t get to see any of it last year in the bad weather.”
Despite the cold and despite just having turned 50 at the time, Fedyna outclimbed pro riders like Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM) and Jo Hogan (TIBCO-SVB).
“It is the longest climb I have ever done. And the last 8km is unlike anything I have ever experienced anywhere,” said Fedyna, a former adventure racer and current endurance rider with three Haute Route wins to her name.
She came just a little short at the Haute Route Dolomites last month, coming in second behind fellow Canadian and former national road champion, Véronique Fortin.
And while everyone keeps asking if she can defend her TaiwanKOM title, Fedyna is not focused on winning nor afraid of losing.
“I am going to give it the best I can,” she said. “That’s all you can do, really.”