November 20, 2014 (Taiwan) – Working with a few racers on the 7% graded highway at a hard though comfortable effort, I glanced down at my GPS. It registered 42km in distance of the 105km event, though only 450 metres for elevation! After starting at sea level in the eastern coastal village of Hualien, it was hard to comprehend the elevation gain left to finish at Wuling, Mt. Hehuan at 3,275 metres.
After the inaugural Taiwan KOM race in 2012, fellow ERTC club racer Greg Nicholson sent me a link to the personal account of Daniel Carruthers’ race with this message “Bucket list! Never knew this climb existed. Outstanding! Marg, I think this one has your name written on it.”
I was definitely intrigued by this event and was excited to be a part of it this year.
The rains began the night before. The racers staying at the Parkview Hotel were huddled under the hotel loading zone roof waiting for the last moment to ride the 8km to the beach location for the 6:30 a.m. start.
Forecast was 16°C, to cool to 13°C by the top of Hehuan. Since the air was humid and warm, most racers wore basic jersey and shorts.
I was contemplating clothing options with Nicole Cooke (GBR) who was here as a journalist. She was the only Olympic and Road Worlds winner in the same year. Will Routley (Optum/Kelly Benefit Strategies) from Abbotsford, BC offered his feedback that whatever he wears… he’d be too warm at one point and too cold at another.
With only a slight predicted decrease in temperature I decided to add arm warmers, and wore a lightweight Sugoi rain jacket to keep me dry for the start.
On-route riding to the race start, the spray from the roads and cyclists’ rear wheels already made my clothing damp.
I missed out on truly enjoying the powerful beat of the Taroko dummers as I was concerned how to keep my damp body warm before the start. Valuable energy was already burning to do so.
Despite the drizzling weather, the atmosphere was quite relaxed at the start line. I took a place near the front of the field for the neutral start.
Once the event began, the large peloton of 473 racers rode out the main road at a pace controlled by the commissaire vehicles and motorcycles. The constant bike wheel spray was tough to avoid.
Even though Cooke is retired from cycling, she instinctively was at the front of the peloton. Jo Hogan (Rapha Ambassador) and Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-lululemon), both Pro racers from Australia, were hovering near the front as well.
The pace quickened before the turnoff 18-km in. Once on the Central Cross-Island Highway, we rode over the official timing mat. Though damp, the humid air was warm. I wondered when best to remove my rain jacket to not overheat.
I hovered within the top 30 of the field. As the peloton squeezed onto the narrow road, the riders began to string out. The road gently snaked its way beside a tall rocky ledge. The slight grade of 3% allowed the high pace of the peloton to continue.
On the first gentle descent, I was spooked by my lack of braking power to scrub off a little speed. With the wet roads and closeness of the riders, I relaxed my pace dropping further back from the front group.
Within kilometres on this narrow highway, the marble walls in the Taroko Gorge towered hundreds of feet above us. I tilted my head back to take the full view in! Outstanding!! The height of the walls surpassed any photos I had previously seen and was eye-widening. The media described it as out of Jurassic Park.
Even while racing and with my raindrop-spotted eyewear, I was able to take in the magnificent views.
The road was narrow and occasionally undercut into the rock. Wherever a section was impassable, a tunnel had been built through the mountain. The highway is an engineering wonder that was completed in 1960 with enormous effort and at the cost of 212 lives.
Riding through the tunnels gave relief from the pelting rain. With no wind, there seemed little need to draft other than for moral support to be together.
The road surface was pleasantly smooth. With the recent rain, loose rocks had fallen in places with a human-sized one in the middle of the road.
On a tight left hand turn 25 km in, a few riders had collided just ahead. The group I was with managed to ease around safely. This reinforced for me to be cautious.
Soon after I heard “hello” from Nicole just before the first big increase in grade. The rain seemed to let up and I was considering removing my rain jacket.
Slowly, I moved up in the field and came by Tony, Will Routley’s dad, riding well. A few racers passed by which had Tiffany pulling strongly.
I figured the top women were up ahead with the lead peloton so I was surprised to see both Tiffany and Nicole.
My rain-spotted eyewear gave limited visibility though I wanted to keep my eyes protected from grit as long as possible. I then noted that Tiffany had ripped shorts and it wasn’t just a rain spot on my glasses.
A few km later when Tiffany eased her pace, I asked if she needed anything. Her reply was “new legs”! The grade was steepening as I continued at my pace.
Countless number of long tunnel sections through the mountain also kept me wary of other racers riding skills. Fortunately, there was sufficient lighting in the tunnel to make out the road and riders.
Early on there were plenty of racers around. As the gradient slowly rose, I mostly rode my pace jumping in to follow another rider’s quicker pace every so often.
To help conserve energy, I backed off my effort when sporadic 12% grades popped up. Then I rode harder on the lesser grades suitable to my riding style.
Periodically, I ate some of the chopped up pieces of dates I had in the side pockets on my shorts. The humidity unexpectedly softened the dates to goo. I had to squeeze them out of the plastic bag like a gel.
Passing the first feed-zone offering food, only bananas were available. I hollered ahead “banana, peeled” as I wanted to grab the banana as I rode by.
The first couple of volunteers were caught by surprise with the request as I passed by. Soon, I had five feed-zone volunteers running to hand me a peeled banana! Big thank you for their effort, as I grabbed one.
The climb went on and on. In no way was I bored!
The guard railings painted red and yellow made a nice contrast with the green lush foliage brightening the limited rainy view. Though the scenery in the distance was hidden on this rainy day, the amazing road with its constant change in grade, twists and turns offered sneak peeks of the twisty road below on a switchback.
As the rain pelted down harder, I was glad to have kept my jacket on. Now, I was concerned for my finger dexterity. Over the years of endurance racing, especially 24-hour mountain bike racing and adventure racing, my fingers and wrists have taken their toll with overuse under extreme conditions.
My fingers were becoming numb. As I rode, I began to shake one hand at a time and do one-arm windmills. I even tried sitting on a hand while riding or warming my fingers under my armpit.
Fortunately, my body core was warm.
With my finger dexterity limited, it was more difficult to grab my food from my pockets. Passing the next feed-zone, I made the effort to slowly eat the whole banana welcoming the energy.
I had taped the distance and elevation points onto my top tube to appease the analyst side of me during the race. In the rain, I found I barely glanced at it.
At that time, I did notice 3 hours of duration completed from the start-line on my GPS. I guessed I had at least another 2 hours – two more hours to ride with frozen fingers!
Would my fingers keep mobile that long? I was also concerned with how much body heat would be zapped on the upcoming descent section. I was smart enough to not look at the temperature reading! I did not want to know.
I began playing distance games thinking once I had 35 km to go that this would be just like the climb leaving Penticton on Green Mountain Road going all the way up to the end of the pavement at the Apex Ski Resort.
I managed to grab a Vega gel from my rear pocket and wished I had a few more.
At the 85 km mark, the few km of descent began. I passed a couple of riders braking to a crawling speed. Only one guy zoomed by being brave enough to go fast.
My dexterity was diminishing. It was scary to gain too much speed on the narrow roads with limited braking power. I hoped my hands and wrists would not fail me.
The descent was over before I knew it. I welcomed a nicely graded climb to relax my grip and warm up. My pace picked up with new-found energy. At this time, a motorbike hovered behind me with a helmet cam. No smiles were to be had.
Within a few km, I was 95 km into the climb reaching Dayuling at 2,565m elevation. I was relieved to make it to this point with the “real climb” up next.
Even though the course so far was interspersed with short increases in grade, the 7% average grade for the first 95 km was quite enjoyable to ride. I was happy to be riding in my big chain ring of a compact crankset wondering why I even switched my cassette to an 11-28 for the race.
When I looked up ahead, I immediately knew the 11-28 cassette was a necessity. The road just rose steeply. It was time for the small chain ring! The way the road snaked up with steep pitches around corners was wowing with the exclamation each time “not again”.
The last 8-km was an average 17% grade with a short pitch of 27.3%! I passed a couple of riders traversing the road zigzagging. And a few walking, already.
The grades were very inconsistent. The minute time in between allowed for a brief rest. Each time the grade ramped up, I hoped I was in the proper small gear.
With 8 km left, my hands were still an issue. I was furiously shaking them to bring back feeling.
The rainy weather was playing games with the GPS gradient reading so I did not get to see the unbelievable 27.3% grade show up! It reminded me of a road going up a steep driveway to a house on a hill with a plateau, before it rises again.
On the steep pitches, I was spooked each time my rear wheel spun in one spot over the intermittent metal grates across the road. It was hard enough to focus on keeping momentum going let alone to give an extra pedal stroke to get over the grate without toppling over as I was climbing out of the saddle.
Finally seeing the 5km to go sign, I was mentally confident I would be able to gut it out with ice block fingers to the end. Physically, I was feeling fine. The grade lessened for a couple of km until the last vicious km.
Maybe it was a good thing the top was not visible with the rainy clouds.
With 500m to go, the course was marked with a sign every 100m. Time ticked in between each sign as the road rolled through more open rocky terrain.
The finish line popped out of nowhere. As I approached the finish, I was told I was the first woman! That did not register quickly with me as I had pictured Jo working with the peloton ahead and wondered how far back I was.
Early on, both Jo and Tiffany had been directly behind a rider that fell. It was inevitable for both of them to crash. Both women courageously finished which is a statement of perseverance. Jo made her way back to 4th place.
Nicole was riding as a journalist and successfully finished. She stated she would rather attempt such a challenge with the appropriate training.
Next women to finish were from Taiwan with Qin Xin (ECT-Specialized) just over three minutes back and Guo Nian Wen (YCCAA Yilan Cycling Team) another 12 minutes back. Cool to have ridden my best and bonus to come out on top!
Five Canadians finished the event with just over half the field making the time cut off of 6.5 hours.
Top Canadian male was Will Routley in a competitive field including the previous winner from 2012, John Ebsen (Atlas/Black Inc.) from Denmark. Ebsen also won the 2014 event breaking away on the challenging 27.3% grade to the finish.
Will came to this race already settled into his off-season, though gave it his best effort. Battling the altitude was a factor for him. He stated “it would certainly be nice to show up with better form, and with the experience of having done it once. All in all it was a great off-season adventure I got to share with my father.”
Tony Routley, Will’s dad placed 6th in the 50-59 category. Knowing Tony had previously ridden the road up Haleakala in Maui, a 52 km climb from sea level to 3,037m, I asked how it compared. Tony stated, “Haleakala is a consistent and gradual climb”. Taiwan KOM Challenge “is definitely more difficult”. Tony also mentioned “the altitude and cold combo absolutely killed me in the last 5km.”
Dylan Cunningham (Russ Hays’ Accent Inns Cycling Team) from Victoria who finished 31st at the men’s National Road Race Championships in Lac Megantic, QC this year, placed amongst the top of the field in 19th.
Fraser Young, originally from Victoria now living in Taiwan, who raced for his 3rd time placed 28th worked his way to a higher placing and time in the more inclement weather.
Gearing choice is a major factor for this event. While standard gearing is possible at a deathly effort, compact gearing reduces the effort. The choice of cassette matters as well. My selection was limited with the rear derailleur. I was quite happy with using an 11-28 as I climbed mostly out of the saddle.
Prior to the race, I noticed the large cassette on Tony Routley’s bike. After the race he said “the 32-tooth cog was perfect. I was really happy with that choice.” Even with his perfect gearing choice, Tony found the altitude and cold combination haunted him within the last 5 km.
This mountain climb needs a strategy to conquer. After the 95km “warmup”, the last 10 km of the course is the toughest part. That final section is unique in its steep undulations to create the average 17% grade. No other climb I have done compares to it. I definitely want to ride this course again in dry conditions.
The scenery alone puts Taroko Gorge on the Top 10 Best Things to see in Taiwan.
Taiwan KOM Challenge is at the top of the list for Top 10 Epic Hill Climbs in the world!
Special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and Taiwan Cyclist Federation, as well as Race Organizer Gary Shu and Director of Communications Lee Rodgers for the opportunity to experience the hospitality and beauty of Taiwan.