The 5th Taiwan King of the Mountains race took place on the 30th October. This is a 105km race from sea level, starting from Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan by the Pacific Ocean, up to Wuling Pass at 3,275 metres on Hehuan Mountain, the highest road in North Asia.
Billed by the organisers as the “unofficial King of the Mountain world championships” and a race for “professionals and the world’s top amateur elite riders” last year Nicole Cooke and Tiffany Cromwell took part. This year’s star invited rider was Omar Fraile, winner of the 2015 KOM jersey in the Vuelta a Espana. Our cycling club, London Dynamo, was also well represented with me, Tor and Mark on the start list.
Mark and I had been up this climb once before, albeit in a car, when we were on a hiking/sightseeing holiday in Taiwan in 2011. The road seemed to wind continuously upwards for hours. I remember looking out of the window passing the occasional cyclist struggling up the steep ramps and thinking, “What a horrific climb. You’d have to be mad to want to cycle all the way up…”
Fast forward 4 years and I was standing in the start pen of Taiwan KOM at 6am with Tor and Mark and about 400 other cyclists, mainly from Taiwan and the rest of Asia but with a fair number from Europe and the USA. Already it was warm – over 20 degrees, so shorts and short sleeved jerseys sufficed. After the obligatory start ceremony of speeches, drums, local aboriginal dancers and a dancing bear (person in a costume, not a real one!), we rolled out at 6.30am. The first 18km along the main road from Hualien to the entrance of the Taroko Gorge was flat and neutralised but people were already jostling for position. There was a crash just 7km or so into the race when a man immediately on my left suddenly had a blow out and went down, taking a couple of others with him. I was lucky not to be caught up in that and found myself looking forward to the climb to get out of the pack.
As soon as the start flag was waved Tor, Mark and the pack were off. I tried to follow wheels when I could but as it was going to be a long day I backed off if the pace was too high – I didn’t want to burn too many matches so early on. The first section gradually followed the river up the gorge. In the daytime the road is congested by hundreds of exhaust emitting coaches transporting large groups of Chinese tourists to look at this top sight seeing spot. At 7am, it was beautifully quiet, no cars, a lovely clear river with steep overhanging rock on either side.
Soon the road narrowed and started going upwards. For much of the time I was cycling by myself, keeping to my own pace. Occasionally I would pass another cyclist but due to the language barrier and the effort keeping going there was no chit chat, just a nod to say hello. The road was generally between 5 and 7% occasionally going up to 10 or 12%. The first of 4 “feed” stations was at 48km…which did not provide much except for water, bananas and bread so I was glad that I had my Oreos, nuts and some energy gels. The narrow road snaked its way up the mountain and through tunnels roughly hewn into the rock with water dripping down the sides. I caught glimpses of the road below us and could see how far we had climbed…but then when I looked up I could also see how much further there was to go….
At around 70km I looked behind and realised that there was suddenly a large group of cars tailing me. Having read the race instructions the night before I knew that at the back of the race there would be a convoy consisting of official race cars, an ambulance and the broomwagon. As I had passed other cyclists I knew I wasn’t the last on the road but as these cars then stalked me for the next 10 minutes or so I became convinced that everyone else was already in the broomwagon and thought (hoped?) that I was next and was about to be pulled out of the race any second. Anyway it eventually transpired that they were just trying to pass on the narrow mountain road and so my suffering continued.
By now at almost 2,500m it was noticeably cooler and I think I was starting to feel the effect of the high altitude. My head was pounding and my heart rate seemed high for the power that I was producing.
At 85km was the only proper downhill of the entire race – a short section of 4km – the road had widened again at this point and so I enjoyed the brief descent and respite from climbing.
The last 10km were something else. Brutal and unrelentingly steep. Fellow Dynamo Andres had been up the climb the week before and had warned me that the last 10km was like an Alpine climb in itself. It was much much worse.
Every hairpin bend ramped up to least 15% with one apparently as steep as 27%; every time the gradient went up I could feel my quads quivering and threatening to go into a full on cramp. By this stage I was crawling along at 5-6kph. I knew that if I climbed off the bike I would not be able to get back on again, physically or psychologically. Whenever it was “only” 10% I was trying to spin my legs out and recover.
On and on the road wound its way up. The organisers claim that the last 8km average 17% – I think that’s probably an exaggeration but it was certainly steep.
The wind was starting to pick up and I could see ominous dark clouds in the distance. At 3km to go I started to feel a bit teary as I realised that I had probably beaten the broom wagon. At 2km to go I could finally see and hear the finish line above but my heart sank when I saw another short downhill section followed by what looked like the longest steepest final 1 km I had ever seen. That final kilometre was agony, not the usual elation that I usually feel when completing a long ride. My left quad was threatening to cramp up again. The last 500m took me over 5 minutes.
Mark had already finished over an hour previously and was waiting at the 50m to go sign and gave me a welcome push just as I was starting to see spots and develop tunnel vision. Finally, the finish and the heaviest finishers’ medal that I have been ever given.
With a climbing time of 5.56 I was the last person to finish before the official cut off time of 1pm. In fact, I declare myself the lanterne rouge (although looking the results, they kept the finish open for another half an hour during which another 30 people rolled in). Mark was 4.48. And Tor finished in an impressive 4.40 and got onto the podium as 5th woman. The overall winner, Damien Monier, finished in 3.34!
So would I recommend it? Yes. It was a real challenge, nothing like anything other cycling event I’ve done before, my first proper “race” and the scenery was amazing (we were lucky and had near perfect weather conditions, unlike last year when it was pissing with rain and very cold). Although other events like the Marmotte, Maratona or Etape may be longer and have more overall climbing, the climbs are spread out over 3 or 4 cols with downhills to rest and recover on; this was 87km of cycling uphill pretty much continuously.
Also, on Alpine climbs, I look forward to the hairpin bends as a chance for few seconds of respite; on the Taiwan KOM every hairpin ramped up, especially in the final sections bringing new pain to already tired legs.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not!
Here is a report of the race from velonews: Race Report.
(Note that the in race pictures were taken by Mark.)