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HUALIEN, Taiwan (VN) — Asia, Africa, North America, Europe, Australia. Professional riders from around the world have gathered in Hualien, Taiwan, to take on what could arguably be the world’s most difficult hill climb, and one of the toughest single-day races going.
The Taiwan KOM Challenge isn’t a UCI-sanctioned event, and it comes after the European season has officially ended, but the 62-mile race, from the eastern coast of the island, through the picturesque Taroko Gorge, to the peak of HeHuan — taking the cyclists from sea level to 10,745 feet — is able to attract WorldTour riders with its serious prize purse of nearly $80,000.
Francisco Mancebo (Skydive Dubai) has previously made the trek around the world to race here, as have Jeremy Roy (FDJ.fr) and Anthony Charteau.
This year, Canada’s Will Routley (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) is being touted as the race’s major player. He had a breakthrough performance at the Amgen Tour of California in May when he won stage 4, while taking each of the points and KOM prizes on offer that day; he held onto the KOM jersey from then on. He’ll face challenges from Feng Chun Kai (a recent signing by Lampre-Merida), John Ebsen, the 2012 winner, as well as members of the Kenyan national team, among a host of others.
“I think particularly this time of year, I’m in for a world of hurt, and I know myself, regardless of the form, I’m going to go as hard as I can,” said Routley. “I think I’ll be following these seasoned vets for the majority of it before I can try to jump off their wheel.”
On the women’s side, last year’s runner-up, Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-lululemon), will look to go one better than last year when she came second to Japan’s Eri Yonamine, who has not returned to defend her title.
Her Australian compatriot, Jo Hogan (most recently with Swiss-based UCI team Bigla, now riding as a Rapha Ambassador), the silver medalist from the 2013 Australian national road championship, also hopes to bring Oz the queen of the mountain title, and along with it, substantial winnings of over $6,000.
“Realistically, I don’t know how I’ll fare, but I’m very competitive so I hope to win,” Hogan said. “But as much as I think I know what the competition is like, with Tiffany being here, you can never underestimate anybody in these kind of events.”
Hogan first learned of the race after speaking with the retiring Emma Pooley (Lotto-Belisol); Pooley, who had planned to race, will not start due to a family matter which has prevented her from traveling to Taiwan. The organizers were quick to bring Hogan to the KOM Challenge to see how the tall Aussie would fare on the intensely steep final pitches of the climb, which average 17 percent over the last eight kilometers.
Which begs the question: How did Routley come to be the featured rider at this year’s event?
“It’s a number of things,” he said. “Even though it’s the offseason, it’s not necessarily doable for everyone. But [winning the] KOM jersey at the Tour of California was a big result and carries some weight. I think the anti-doping factor — I wrote an article about it and I got a little interest that way — that is a nice tie in with the race. The fact that I was able to bring over my father [who will also be participating — Ed.] was interesting to [the organizers]; it’s just sort of a neat story. And they also want to change up who they bring over to keep it interesting.”
The organizers of the KOM Challenge, the Taiwan Cyclist Federation, have indeed kept the race interesting, especially with their stringent stance on doping.
It is likely the only event in 2014 that does not allow anyone who has served a suspension to take part, no matter when that suspension took place.
“We’re always talking about the sport getting cleaner, and I believe it is, but it really sets an example of, here’s an event that’s obviously a success and they can make a statement like that. I’ve been outspoken about this issue and I think it’s great to see,” Routley said.
Neither Routley or Hogan has ever raced a climb of such stature, but on November 15, they will be two of nearly 500 racers who aim to tame the precipitous slopes which top out at an ominous 27 percent.