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Commentary: Behind the scenes at the Taiwan KOM Challenge

Every year the Taiwan KOM Challenge gives pro riders an opportunity to suffer alongside amateurs up an 11,000-foot climb. This year, WorldTour pro Nathan Haas and his partner, Laura Fletcher, gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the event.

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This year’s Taiwan KOM challenge fielded 700 riders. From the top level of the sport, CCC-Liv team brought a six women squad. Katusha-Alpecin brought Australian rider Nathan Haas, whose sponsor, Katusha Sports, organized a series of events. Haas’s partner, Laura Fletcher, also traveled to the event, and provided a behind-the-scenes look at the race week. 

The signs said “Welcome to Taiwan” as I crossed through the immigrations and customs hall, into arrivals with another photographer to cover the Taiwan KOM Challenge. In the sea of faces and signs, we picked out one “Zac Williams,” and approached our driver. The man looked back at me with puzzlement. He was there to pick up only one guest of the race. I pointed to my name, listed for a 4 p.m. arrival, and then checked my phone, which said 11 a.m. After 14 hours of travel, I was anxious to get to the hotel.

“No, no,” I tried to explain. “The organizers confused my arrival time with Nathan’s and I am here now and would prefer not to wait five hours.” After some frantic phone calls, we were on our way.

The Taiwan KOM Challenge is unique in how it works with its mix of pro riders into a mass-participation event. The event attracts big name professionals, however it’s hardly the Giro or the Tour. Thus, the riders leave their detail-orientated mastermind director sportifs, the caring soigneurs and the skilled mechanics at home.

The Taiwan KOM Challenge was the off-season adventure for pro Nathan Haas. Photo: Laura Fletcher

Nathan arrived at the hotel around 6 p.m., completing our delegation of invited guests for the pre-event activities. We were 13 guests in total: two filmmakers, three journalists, two pro continental riders and their helper, one influencer, the PR manager for the event, as well as our translator, who was also our tour guide. Our schedule laid out a series of press conferences, pre-event rides, and meet-and-greets. After a quick dinner in the hotel, we headed to bed for a must needed rest after the travel.

At 10:45 the next morning we were herded into shuttle busses, bound for the Taipei 101 skyscraper, a famous landmark, for lunch at the Michelin guide Din Tai Fung, a world famous dumpling house.

“These are some tasty ass dumplings, I’ve always swayed towards Japanese style Gyoza, but this could change my mind” Nathan told me as he bit into a a fresh vegetable bun “Holy hell that’s thermo nuclear though!”

And the dumpling was out of his mouth as soon as it was in, to the eruption of laughter from Bauyung, our translator.

As quickly as we arrived we were off again to the transportation ministry bureau for the first official press conference of the week. A small stage was set up in the foyer of the brutalist building, and the affair was comprised of 20 minutes of speeches from local dignitaries and bureaucrats, the flimsy backdrop barely covering the clinical grey walls of government busy work. Three of the guest riders eventually were called up to the stage, to give their remarks, (subsequently translated) between shows of drums, mascots and the other accoutrements of the official ceremonies.

Sampling the local cuisine was part of the experience. Photo: Laura Fletcher

We caught a glimmer of time as the fanfare ended to sneak away to the alleys of Taipei, adventure in the Asian arcades and experience the night markets. We were still four days out from the race,and with the nature of the cycling calendar, Nathan wasn’t shooting for the win.

He echoed what he said on stage earlier: “I race hard 10 months of the season, I barely see the places I’m in. I’ve travelled the world and mainly only remember the inside of hotel rooms, and the wheels in front of me. My bike is also a way to see the world, I’m here to spend some time in my off season capturing the love again. I need this to reset and remember before January why I do this.”

An hour of attempting to extract a stuffed animal from a claw machine later, we were sampling the offers of street food. “I keep trying to amp myself up to try this stinky tofu stuff that is famous here” Nathan said as the acrid smell arose from a steaming street vendor. “But I just cant do it.”

Haas and Fletcher also took in the sights in Taiwan. Photo: Laura Fletcher

Of course, not all the end-of-season events are like the Taiwan KOM Challenge. Take Japan’s Saitama Criterium, an exhibition race put on by the ASO, where miraculously the winner of the Tour de France discovers criterium prowess and battles with a local rider for the win. Events like the Saitama Criterium feature starting cash, five-star hotels, and penthouse dinners. It’s a bubble wrapped experience for the participants.

By contrast, the Taiwan event is built for the masses, not the pro riders. Yet, the event has always attracted a handful of top -evel talent, not least because of the rather sizable prize money, which is equal amongst men and women. Due to the event’s focus on the amateur riders, we were left with one translator and one PR organizer, all frantically working to keep the VIPs happy, while the rest of Taiwan’s federation handled the 680 participants. Our resources were, thus, limited to what we could manage independently, due to the jet lag and language barrier.

As such, our transfer day started at 7:30 am, into our mini vans for the four-hour drive to Hualien, the base and start of the actual race. When we arrived, we were only 30 minutes from the time slot of the scheduled “recon” ride, a chance to check out the start of the course ahead of the race, which was by then just two days away.

“We can just grab some snacks at 7-11” we were told when we slumped out of the vehicles, slowly stretching our legs. “No,” I replied back sternly. “Nathan needs to eat a proper lunch before he goes training.” In this world, we revolved around the race’s schedule, the schedule did not revolve around us. The rest day rides of a grand tour couldn’t have seemed further away in that moment.

The race began at sea level. Photo: Laura Fletcher

Our hotel sat on the edges of Hualien, the provincial capital city of just over 100,000 residents. The large golf course hotel echoed the style of a fading western resort.

“Guys, there are go karts in this hotel,” I said. I let the boys know when I saw the sign, and I then ventured to go check them out. The Go Karts were actually three-wheeled electric contraptions that drifted around a 70-meter indoor gym course lined by old tires. The entire course had a lighting setup that brought back memories of a high school dance.

With no massage schedule to adhere to, or director sportif imposed wake up calls, our evening activities were sorted. Another formal riders event and tourism board speeches were followed by a taxi drive into town to meet fans and present the Katusha Sports range through local distributors.

We slipped back in just in time for dinner and 30 minutes of ripping up the go kart track.

“Who needs to be out drinking when we’ve got this?” Nathan hollered as he overtook Zac. Well, everyone has their own style of race prep.

The alarm went off at 4:15 am – a quick pack of the bags, coffee in, and off to the start. The first chances of light in the sky slowly filtered in as the riders lined up. Nathan was called to the front line, and brought his two local teammates in tow. They were the competition winners, riding under the Katusha brand for the day.

“I’m pretty sure these two are going better than I am” Nathan said. “Perhaps in the future we should be auctioning my services as a domestique for events like this instead.”

I climbed onto the back of my motorcycle for the day, with my cheat sheet in hand—it featured the words for stop, go, slow down, faster, written in Chinese characters. It was the only communication I had for the ensuring four hours. We zipped off ahead through the neutral and turned into Taroko Gorge. The rice paddies and desolate fields melted away into the beginning of one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Riders pedaled through Taroko Gorge. Photo: Laura Fletcher

The race began and the riders sprinted away from the start. The Taiwan race starts at sea level, climbs through the Taroko Gorge, and then finishes atop Mt. Wuling after approximately 105 kilometers. Along the way, the race climbs more than 11,000 total feet of elevation gain.

After 60 kilometers of racing, Nathan wanted to pull over to do some sightseeing. There was a sign that pointed out a 3,000 year-old tree, plus a man was selling hot coffee.

“There’s two ways to do this race,” he said. “One is to try to win, or do the best time, the other is to take it as an opportunity to ride up one of the world’s most epic climbs, on closed road in the camaraderie of other riders.”

The weather was wet at the start, and as Nathan climbed higher, he rose above the mist at cloud line. We left behind a jungle and emerged into Alpine vistas. After more than four hours in the saddle, Nathan finished the race, more than an hour after the official winner.

Conditions were rainy at lower elevations. Photo: Laura Fletcher

“The neutral was surprisingly fast, it felt like the race was from well before km zero,” he said. “I was so not ready for this in the off season.”

Nathan pulled on his jacket at the summit and opened a bag of chips. Hot tea and coffee were on offer, but with no team bus in site, it was going to be a long day back down to home base before he could shower and eat a proper meal.

Nathan talked about the effort required to climb the hulking mountain. “5,000 kilojouls, that’s like double a stage at Tour Down Under, that’s a hard day in a grand tour,” he said, warming his hands with ginger tea.

Riders climb up to Mt. Wuling. Photo: Laura Fletcher

Yu-Liang, one of his teammates approached- he had finished a good ten minutes earlier than Nathan.

“Shit mate, great ride!” Nathan said, giving him a firm Aussie handshake and back pat. “Pull up a seat!”

“That was unbelievably hard but worth every second,” he said. “Firstly, just the views, but secondly, the reminder that the cycling scene in Asia is generally so far away from us. It’s a really special thing to come connect with the fans and riders here. It breaks me out of the euro bubble, and it connects me with what is truly global about what we do.”

Conditions were clear at the higher elevations. Photo: Laura Fletcher

The cameras snapped away in his face and he wrapped up his post race interviews. “Every single participant in this event is a hero. It’s a big thing to take on and I’m bloody chuffed to tick it off the bucket list.”

The podium ceremonies completed, we piled back into our van for the three-hour drive to the hotel, straight back down the way we came up. Only an hour into the descent did we finally see the broom wagon, trailing behind one sole rider, valiantly forcing on.