Club stalwart and long time supporter Mark Hardy has recently completed the Taiwan KOM Challenge and he has been kind enough to write up a bit of a race report and perhaps open up the challenge to a few other members who may fancy themselves as a bit of a climber or perhaps just looking for a bit of a different holiday destination.
It was September 2014 and Alice Springs rider, Paul Darvodelsky and I were in Maui for a cycling and windsurfing holiday. Whilst there we rode one of the world’s great climbs, the 57km up the volcano Haleakala from sea level to 3050m. Paul also rode the 3360m Mauna Loa on Hawaii. We decided at that point that over the next few years we would try and knock off all the 3000m+ road climbs around the world.
Next on the list would be Mt Hehuan (aka Hehuanshan) in Taiwan. It’s the highest road in Taiwan and peaks at 3275m. There is a race up this beast of a mountain each October called the Taiwan KOM Challenge. It’s a Sportive allowing mad amateurs to mix it up with the pros who are chasing the TWD$1million prize money on offer.
Shortly after returning from Maui, Paul received the terrible news that he had advanced bowel cancer. His focus quickly shifted to the biggest battle of his life.
After navigating a few obstacles and milestones of my own through the year, I decided to do the race anyway. So in mid October my partner Gloria, our 4 month old daughter and I all packed up and flew off to Taiwan. After spending a few days in Taipei we hauled all our stuff, the bike and baby gear on the train down to Hualien where the race starts.
The scenery is amazing with 2000m+ mountains rising straight out of the sea into the clouds. The rail line variously hugs the cliffs and punches through tunnels down the coast.
Taiwan is a tiny country, less than half the size of Tasmania. But the population is the same as Australia at 24 million. It also has over 250 mountains that are over 3000m in altitude. So those 24 million are all crammed into what little land is actually flat. The mountainous areas are largely uninhabited, rugged and beautiful.
Now in it’s 4th year, the Taiwan KOM Challenge is building a reputation as one of the toughest climbs in the world. After a 18km neutral roll, the timed race is 87km of almost continuous climbing. The first 77km is mostly flat fast climbing but the final 10km rises 750m and consists of many steep ramps in excess of 20%. So keeping something in the tank is essential. My race plan was to try and ride to a steady power and lift things up at the end if I could.
The race day dawned to a perfect cloud free sky. After a multitude of speeches from various officials and politicians we rolled out to an uplifting drum performance from the local Taroko aboriginal tribe. The 18km neutralized start rolls though heavily urbanized Hualien city before crossing the Taroko Bridge and into the Taroko Gorge National Park where the start flag is raised.
The pace was pretty hot from the flag and I was immediately faced with the dilemma of sticking with my “steady effort” strategy or trying to score the “free kilometers” by staying in the bunch. The first 20km of racing only rose 460m so it was going to pay off well staying in the bunch. This part of the race goes through tunnels, across cliff faces and several bridges as it criss crosses the gorge. The road is carved into the limestone walls of it’s near vertical 2600m faces. But by about 10km in, both my legs and my power meter were telling me that my efforts were too hot. So I backed off and pretty soon was in a group of about 20 similar riders with a large fast pack disappearing up the road.
After 20km we were through the narrowest and most spectacular part of the gorge and the road steepens as the climb begins in earnest. The first feed zone at 910m was at 28km and I was still with my group of 20 or so. Shortly after that my group all disappeared bar for a couple, rider #188 and #534, neither seemed to speak English. We were pretty much on our own and I continued to chug along at 220W. Then things flattened out and we had about 30km of pretty fast flat climbing. We silently organized ourselves and took turns to drive a good pace and picked up stragglers every now and then. We passed though small aboriginal villages, producing fruit and veggies. #188 slowly vanished backwards. The vegetation changed gradually from tropical to temperate pine forest as we climbed and climbed. At 2500m we reached the Bilu Sacred tree, a massive pine tree by the road with a truly massive girth and is apparently thousands of years old. Immediately we passed through a disturbingly long, totally dark tunnel before pitching down a 200m descent. A good chance to give the legs a break. Now we are about 70km in and things start to get a bit harder.
I still felt pretty good and was able to stay on my target power. Now I was catching and passing many riders. Hoping for someone to jump into our group of two but it never happened. By 80km, the ramps got really steep and I found myself spending a lot of time out of the saddle and started to feel those little tingles in the legs that often mean cramps are about to appear. Most riders I passed now were going real slow or just standing by the road doing the “cramp dance”. By now the finish was visible but it still looked oh so high and oh so far away. I’m not sure that seeing it was such a good thing.
With about 3km to go I was no longer feeling so good. The steep pinches were relentless and the air at 3000m has you sucking it in as hard as you can. I passed the “500m to go” sign but the finish archway still looked impossibly far off in the distance. Does altitude affect distance perception as well? I punched out that final climb as hard as I could. The finishers medal was put on and I wondered how something so small could weigh so much. My time of 4h:58m was just under my target of 5 hours. But I was very happy to have just finished the race. Only 350 out of the 500 finished as the sweep allows a max time to 6.5 hours.
The bus trip back down gives you an even greater appreciation of the scale of this mountain. After about an hour in the bus we were still over 2000m and the whole trip down took 3 hours. And these Taiwanese bus drivers don’t exactly hold back. It was a pretty scary trip.
The winning pros did 3h:40m, with an Aussie on the podium in 6th place. The 1st woman was 4hrs and the winner of my age group was about 45min ahead of me. So a strong field all round.
Would do it again for sure. Special thanks to my partner Gloria for arranging all the logistics, champion effort. Paul’s battle with cancer continues and I really hope that next year I get to do this wonderful race with him back to full health.
Over the next couple days I rode the 150km or so down the coast road to Taitung with Gloria, her sister and bub in the support car. A beautiful stretch of coast in a very unpopulated part of Taiwan. The cycling in Taiwan is surprisingly good. The roads most attractive to cyclists are largely empty of cars as they are narrow, windy and run through the hilly remote areas. But the urban areas are as busy as anywhere.
Happy support crew
If you like climbing and enjoy riding in rugged spectacular areas, then this event should be on your list. Riders are mostly from all over Asia with a just a dozen or two western riders, mostly ex-pats living in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Shanghai. Entrants are limited to 500 with 250 reserved for Taiwanese and 250 for foreigners. So while it’s very tough to locals to snag an entry, for foreigners there are usually spots available almost up till entries close.
Taiwan is a 9 hour direct flight and things like food, accommodation, transport and even race entry are all pretty cheap compared with Australia.
Now what mountain is next on that list?