Travel: Taiwan KOM Challenge

THE PERSISTENCE OF THE EFFORT is what gets to you. The repetition, too. Pedal strokes on pedal strokes, meter after meter, without a moment to let off. The pressure in your legs inflates like a balloon. Just wait for the burst.

This is the Taiwan KOM Challenge, 105 kilometers and nearly 11,000 feet up into the heart of Taiwan. Sea level to the top of the world in one go. A brutal, seemingly Sysiphean symphony that builds over 90 kilometers to a crescendo in the final ten, where pitches over 20 percent stretch on forever and no gear feels quite low enough. It is one of the most spectacular rides in the world. One of the hardest, too. One of the best.

I arrived here a week ago, landing in Taipei to a shower-warm rain. The first ride went above the city’s eastern edge, leaving the bustle behind to enter a spider’s web of tarmac laid through a tropical forest. The climbs were steep and rarely straight, new pavement covered at its edges in wet leaves and a soft, slippery green moss. On one corner, a thousand blue and gray butterflies flitted between yellow flowers. On others were dogs. They raised their heads to watch but didn’t once chase. Perhaps it was just too hot.

You might know Taiwan as the source of a much of the world’s bikes and parts. Dozens of Taiwanese factories supply the world’s cyclists with everything from high-tech carbon to cheap plastic pedals. Taichung, in the south, is home to Giant and Merida, which produce carbon bikes not only for their namesake brands but also for much of the rest of the industry. Taiwan is more than manufacturing, though. Cycling culture here grows visibly by the year. It’s an island made of mountains, with over 200 peaks over 10,000 feet. Look down from above and it looks a bit like a bloodshot eyeball, where roads stream out from the cone of an extinct volcano, creating a network that would take half a lifetime to fully explore. I’ve been here for a week and have not even scratched the surface.

I came for just one of these roads: The one through Taroko Gorge, up to Wuling. It’s the route of the KOM Challenge, the world’s longest uphill road race.

Photo: Caley Fretz

THE TAIL OF A TYPHOON off the coast of Japan whips the beach where the the Taiwan KOM will begin in half an hour. The scene is much like any sportive, though perhaps a bit skinnier. An event like this is somewhat self-selective for a certain body type. Almost all races in Taiwan looking something like this — a lack of UCI or other sanctioning, and thus a lack of categorization, gives them all a fondo feel. Riders mill about, chat with friends, pass the time nervously. The fastest will be racing for about four hours; the slowest for nearly eight. It’s just before 6 a.m. and the sun isn’t yet up.

On the starting line to my left: Vincenzo Nibali and three Bahrain-Merida teammates. To my right: Emma Pooley, defending champion, and Cadel Evans, still looking fit. He’s only slightly better at retiring than Phil Gaimon, who is also here, decked out in his cookie jersey. Carlee Taylor of Ale-Cipollini in front of me, right next to and Leah Thorvilson of Canyon-SRAM. A thin, unknown professional runner-turned rider, Emmie Collinge, is behind me, slightly terrified of the wind and the group. The race promoter has made a point of inviting pros, and also of paying men and women equally (to the tune of about $16,000 USD to the winner of both races). Men and women race the same course, too, which is even less common. Little surprise that they get quite a female turnout.

The gun goes off. It’s 18km of neutral spinning along the coast, stuck behind a lead car, then a long bridge and a lefthand turn into the gorge, where the official timing begins. Here the car swings off, releasing the hounds.

Photo: Taiwan KOM

Let’s be clear: This is a race. It doesn’t have categories or the sanctioning of an international governing body, but those things don’t make a race. Racers make a race. And this thing is full of them. We have numbers on our backs will take no prisoners.

The first hour is a staccato of little punches held together by flat notes. The average grade is 2.4 percent, but the road is actually zero or 5-6 percent. The pace is semi-reasonable for a semi-fit rider, about 20 miles per hour, 3.8 watts/kg for the power nerds out there. That goes on for a little over an hour. Then Bahrain-Merida hits it, and suddenly my matches start burning.

It’s a blessing in disguise, really. When you’re following wheels the surroundings fade away, and Taroko Gorge isn’t something you want to miss. The geological relief is massive. To the left the mountain drops anywhere from a few hundred to nearly a thousand feet down to the river; to the right, steep, forested slopes rise straight into the clouds. The road cuts straight through rock that curves overhead like a great stone wave. As we head out of the gorge itself the pavement begins switchbacking, back and forth and back and forth, across the mountain’s face. Over and over again you spot a section far ahead and above and wonder how you’ll ever get up there, then you do, and there’s another just as high again.

Photo: Taiwan Cyclist Federation

The early slopes are a lure, hanging with natural beauty and pleasant grades. I tap away for nearly two hours with Simon Richardson of the Global Cycling Network, hard enough to hurt but soft enough for light conversation. Any harder and we’ll pay. The final 10 kilometers are masochistic.

It is here where Taroko separates itself from climbs like Haleakala in Hawaii, which also rises from sea level to 10,000 feet. That road sits at 5-6 percent for hours and hours and it stays there. Taroko saves its worst for last.

I’m not sure how to best describe the last 10km, about 45 minutes, of this climb. Like doing Alpe d’Huez at the end of a long ride? No, that’s nowhere near steep enough. It’s not akin to doing a hard climb after a series of hard climbs because of the consistency of the effort. For hours you sit right on the edge, with legs ticking like time bombs. But the timer is broken. When will they go? Little electrical twinges course through muscles, the early threats of cramps. What will they do?

Once again, average gradient is deceiving. It’s the ramps that get you. Pitches over 20 percent hit and over and over again. The brief periods of respite are not a respite at all. They drop to 8 or 10 percent, and it feels flat by comparison but offers no real opportunity to deflate the legs. And so the pressure builds. You look up the mountain, at what might be a finish truss, and wonder if your legs will make it. Because what if they don’t? There’s no faking it here. It’s full gas or walk. If someone turns off the gas you just stop.

It’s more than a bit evil. But, as is so often the case when we pit ourselves against things seemingly unbearable, the feeling at the top is pure elation.

Photo: Taiwan Cyclist Federation

I HAVE BEEN IN A MORE DIRE CONDITION at the end of a race, though only once. At Leadville, which for me was two hours longer in the saddle and all at altitude. But on a road bike? Never. No climb, not even Haleakala, was like this.

Nor has any climb I’ve done prior been as spectacular, able in its magnificence to lead me through even those dark moments when the body begins to reject the effort. At the top, twin casks of ginger tea await, and a cup of white rice and some sort of pork stew. Perfection for an emptied body, at least for mine. And then the stories begin, retellings of each rider’s most and least glorious moments; dark thoughts on the steepest slopes and light ones in sight of the finish. There is pride in finishing as much as winning, as there should be.

Somewhere far ahead of me, Nibali took the men’s win and Pooley took the women’s. They stood on a podium at nearly 11,000 feet, clouds swirling against the peaks behind them, and held giant novelty checks in the air like this was any other race. I assure you it wasn’t.

Photo: Taiwan Cyclist Federation

THIS IS A CYCLING TRAVEL PIECE, so you’re mostly interested in Taroko Gorge and high mountains and the ribbons of tarmac that course through this island. But allow me to pitch a longer stay here. There is great pleasure to be found in the new and different. Stinky tofu smells like someone just defecated on your shoes. And yet I’m glad I smelled it and glad I ignored my aching legs after the KOM and headed out to Taipei’s night market. The lights of Taipei hold an energy I’ve only found on this side of the world. The people move in enthralling patterns and speak with mesmerizing speed. They interact with tolerance and kindness that feels increasingly rare. Their sense of fashion, even, is something wonderfully unusual to the Western eye. I love it.

The Taiwan KOM is a bucket-list item. It was for me, now checked off, and it should be for you. A riding trip here is more rewarding than an outing to Alpe d’Huez, and certainly more difficult. It’s more adventurous than anything in the Dolomites, more rugged than the Pyrenees. I implore you: Make a week of it. The ubiquitous 7/11, a sort of national pastime and treasure in Taiwan, offers consistent food and drink options. You’re rarely more than a few kilometers from the nearest one. There is a string of bike hostels on the island as well, allowing for easy and very cheap credit card-type touring. In fact, Pooley, the women’s race winner, headed straight out after her race to do another 800km circumnavigating the island by bike.

Hualien is a good place to base yourself for a few days. The Kadda Bike Hotel caters specifically to cyclists and can get you pointed in the right direction. There is plenty of fantastic riding right out of Taipei as well, particularly to its eastern side. There are multiple hotels in Taroko Gorge itself, including Silks Hotel, which sits about halfway up.

The roads straight out of Taipei are wonderful, and even the riding inside its bustling center can be fun. The drivers are used to mopeds buzzing around like flies and are thus relatively predictable. Bike lanes come and go with confusing randomness, but if one simply goes with the pack, flows with traffic, treats wing mirrors like elbows in a peloton, then even riding in the city is highly enjoyable.

Taiwan KOM FAQs:

Where does it go?
Here’s my Strava from the day.

What should I wear?
Taiwan may be on the Tropic of Cancer and you’re entirely likely to spot jungle monkeys on your journey to the top, but that top is still at more than 10,000 feet up from the sea. It’s cold up there even on nice days, and highly volatile. If it’s wet, hypothermia is a distinct possibility. Given that mountain weather is unpredictable, bring along clothing capable of protecting you from an errant high-altitude storm. A packable, wind and water-resistant jacket is a worthwhile insurance policy. If weather looks questionable, add a vest and perhaps some arm warmers.

How should I eat?
The consistency of an effort like the Taiwan KOM can make it difficult to get enough calories in. There is only one long-ish downhill break and it comes after more than 85km — if you wait to eat until there, it’s too late. Plus it’s twisty and fast and not a great place to eat. Quick-hit type foods — gels, gummy blocks — are usually easiest to deal with for a stomach under duress. I took along five packets of Cliff Bloks (180 calories each), a pile of off-brand Twizzlers (a favorite ride-food of mine. It’s just sugar you need after all!) and a light-calorie hydration mix (Nuun Active, 30 calories per bottle). I drank three bottles of the Nuun and two more bottles of water from neutral hand-ups. The grand total across about five hours of riding was a bit over 1,200 calories ingested, plus some electrolytes. I don’t do well drinking more calories, but some do. Experiment before you go.

What gear should I run?
It doesn’t matter how strong you are, you’re going to want a lower gear in the final 10km. Your legs are fried, often cramping, and the course throws pitches at you that are frankly obscene. I ran 50/34-tooth front chainrings and an 11-32 cassette, giving me a 34/32 low gear. I used it.

For those who want to go full weight-weenie, the course does suit itself to a 1x drivetrain. Max speeds are barely more than 25mph (except for the one downhill, where you will coast). In fact, for much of the first 30 miles of the climb, where grades are still low and speeds hovered around 15-20mph, I found that I was cross chaining quite a lot. The big ring was too big and little ring was too little. Something like a 40-tooth front ring with a wider cassette would work well.

Lighter is better, obviously. I rode a Scott Addict Premium with SRAM Red eTap HRD discs and Zipp’s new 202 NSW wheels. It comes in under the UCI’s 6.8kg weight limit and was perfect for a week on Taiwan’s twisting roads. My exact bike will be on sale soon with all profits going to World Bicycle Relief. Also, sign up for a chance to win $700 worth of Scott gear: www.scott-sports.com/velonews

Consider going clincher instead of tubular, and bringing a repair kit. There is neutral support but you might have to wait a while to get it. Better just to fix the flat and get on your way.

How should I pace myself?
Carefully. The large front group goes faster and faster and slowly spits rides out the back in ones and twos. That means that there are no large second and third groups to hide in.

The first two-thirds of the climb are shallow enough that riding in a big group is highly beneficial, but you need to balance that benefit against your own abilities. The key question is when you should swing off that front group. If you hang on as long as possible you risk blowing early, and blowing on an uphill doesn’t provide much room to recover. Remember that the last 10km are by far the most difficult, and don’t stay in the front group until you’re fully in the red or you’ll pay for it later.