November 14, 2013 – Taiwan, “the heart of Asia”, is a very interesting little country just off the southeast coast of China. It’s a tad bigger (35,980 sq km vs 31,284 sq km) than Vancouver Island, has half the coastline (1,566.3 km vs 3,440 km) and has a population 33 times greater at just over 23 million people. The east coast is gorgeous, full of steep 3,000-meter mountains dropping off into the coast with few people scattered over the natural environment.
The west coast on the other hand is a pure gongshow with urban sprawl and developments congesting the area. In our short 5-day tour of Taiwan we drove down the “highway of death” along the east coast to the quiet town of Hualien. This drive was unreal with countless tunnels, and curves as the highway swings itself around ocean cliffs and through mountain valleys. Once in the quiet town of Hualien we competed in the Taiwan KOM Challenge and rode 100km inland, up the Taroko Gorge and eventually topped out at the 3,275m finish line. This ride was one of the most beautiful routes I have ever done. It is amazing to think just how much work went into the construction of it with all of the tunnels, tight switchbacks, bridges and navigation along steep mountainsides. All this and the surrounding scenery was 100% natural as the area is in a National Park.
My first day in Taiwan was interesting, as a Taiwanese family came up to me while I was slowly eating my lunch in a jet-lagged kind of way, and offered to take me on a 2-hour tour up the mountains. I was tired as hell from the flight but have a tough time turning down cool ideas. The hike up the mountain was great, we saw a sweet waterfall in the jungle and a small temple. The 55-year-old mother in the family was running around, doing pull-ups on bars and jumping into swimming holes like she was 16 years old. She reminded me of my Grandma on my mom’s side, who had the same type of tireless energy.
The race itself started with a 18km neutral start down the coastal highway before turning a sharp left up a very narrow looking valley. At times the valley would disappear and we would be taken through a tunnel to continue riding in another canyon. The grade was very relaxed as the 400+ cyclists cruised under perfect weather conditions. Road racing is weird in this way, as large parts of the race you ride along like it’s a Sunday ride.
There were all kinds of riders in the peloton, it was rather sketchy in that sense as some of the guys had bike handling skills that resembled that of a fluttering leaf stuck in a windstorm. At one point, a rider started weaving across the road as he was unable to control his handlebars at 20 km/hr up hill. He bounced off my front wheel causing me to put a foot down, and then swerved straight into the guardrail, winding himself. He’s lucky he wasn’t going 40 km/hr or he would’ve launched himself right over the guardrail and down a 200-ft cliff. I’m not sure what the hell he was doing, but it wasn’t proper riding technique.
Soon after that, the fired-up Iranian team started pushing the pace at the front. I didn’t know any of the riders in the pack except for Grand Tour KOM winner Simon Clarke and David McCann (3rd place finisher from the 2012 Taiwan KOM). I figured if I stayed by these guys, I wouldn’t miss any important breaks. It worked for a while as David seemed to know the route really well and a couple times would drift off the back of the pack and then cruise back up on the next descent. His efficiency was great and gave me great confidence that he knew what he was doing and saving his legs for the steep climbs to come. Nope, wrong, he was here unfit and soon got dropped. So was Simon Clarke. All of a sudden, my two guardians were gone and I was stuck chasing like a devil behind the lead group of 15 that was now cruising away at a blistering pace.
I nearly got back up to them, but didn’t quite have the closing power to get there as the Iranians leading the charge were riding like they were on something. Probably some extra special pasta or something. For the next 1.5 hrs I would ride a lonely race in no man’s land. The climb wasn’t very steep at this point, but rather a gentle uphill grade as the road snaked around some massive canyon walls and through some amazing vistas above the ocean. It was an unreal ride and made it tough to concentrate at the task at hand. The task at hand was a little discouraging as there was no way I was catching the hard driving Iranian lead group, but at the same time there was no one anywhere near behind me.
It led to a rather enjoyable ride as there really weren’t any positions I would readily gain or lose. Near the top, the grade pitched up, more like a mountain biker’s climb. Here I caught a couple hurting riders before rolling across the finish line at 3,275m, in 16th position. Not the result I was hoping for, but a solid ride nonetheless and one I will remember for a long long time.
Now I just need to come back and do this ride while not racing so I can see what kind of scenery I missed. In fact, after seeing this ride, I’m very inspired to come back to Taiwan for some weeks in the spring to do some base training. Likely pop a small backpack on and cruise around the countryside until the body begs for mercy and the camera card is full.
After the race, we drove downhill forever to the town of Puli. Here we spent the evening in a “typical” Taiwanese town buying fresh tea from the mountains and trying to identify the different sorts of street food being offered up. Some of the “meat” was pretty rank and questionable, although the chicken was very tasty. The hotel food the next morning wasn’t identifiable. Luckily there were some Asians with us that could help sort through the piles of food and give us labels for some of it. In fact lots of it was really delicious, and then again lots of it was horrid. After a quick pray session to the food gods for the piles of food, and for luck in not getting sick, we headed to the grocery store to get some treats for the drive back up to Taipei. Here we found loads of different rice crackers, seaweed and coconut water. There were a couple aisles full of dried “food” which we avoided.
The drive back to Taipei was a huge contrast to the stunning mountain scenery we had witnessed the previous two days. For three hours we drove through a deep haze, with buildings and concrete lining the highway pretty much 90% of the way. It looked like one continuous city from Taichung (5 million people) to Taipei (11 million). There were also numerous temples poking up out of the haze creating some surreal images. It was a pretty cool drive to get to see the “other” side of Taiwan.
Back in Taipei we checked into the Fushin hotel. A lot of the riders took off downtown to see the famous Tapei 101 (2nd highest building in the world at 508m), while others checked out the local markets and subways systems. I’ve been fighting an uphill battle since racing the 24 Hour Worlds and Crocodile Trophey back-to-back and am just starting to come out of the foggy hole. As a result I lay low and took advantage of the spa and 5-star buffet dinners in the hotel.
The next morning I met up with my local Taiwanese adoption family and we hiked around a lake up to a Buddhist temple. The temples in Taiwan are mostly built up on hills so there is a more direct communication to the gods. They are beautiful buildings with incense candles burning around, which help relax its visitors. After this we went for $3 haircuts and then to a shopping mall to load up on snacks for the overnight flight back to Australia. Here I bought a load of cheap electronics and a pile of cool food for the flight. Not quite sure what it all was, but it would keep me entertained on the flight trying to figure it out. I also managed to pick up an $11 sleeping bag and $22, 4-person tent for the next race back in Tasmania. Not really sure what sort of quality the stuff is but the price was right.
The epic race year is now down to two races. The 4-day Hellfire cup in Tasmania, which I will race with Croc winner Mark Frendo, and then a year-end celebration type race, the Jet Black 24hrs in Sydney. This one I will be racing the new format of 6hrs x 6hrs. (12pm-6pm Saturday, 6am-12pm Sunday). Looking forward to emptying whatever is left in the tank and then a couple weeks of proper off-season time down under!
Visit Cory Wallace’s personal website at www.corywallace.com.