Insider: Taiwan KOM Challenge, Race Day
With the Taiwan KOM Challenge scheduled for a 6:30am kick off, an early start was on the cards. With Aeropress in hand, I was downstairs at the buffet at 4:30am buzzing with excitement. I knew what was to come but how that would unfold was a complete mystery…
Words and photos: Jay Dutton
Images: Daebong Kim (VELO PAPER) | Taiwan Cycling Federation
The buffet had a huge selection of pastries, cereals, pasta and staples from all over the world but I was happy with a plate of boiled rice and eggs. It’s become my staple when racing in Asia. Without too much time before we were actually racing, I knew saving most of my eating for on the bike would be the better option, so I made my way back to my room as I watched the line up for coffee inevitably grow!
The race had organised a convoy to guide the riders six kilometres up the coast to the starting point, leaving at 5:10am from the foyer. Confident that I wouldn’t get lost on the only road to the start, I saw the opportunity for a little more relaxation time in the room, and was keen to have toilet access without the usual fight that existed at the starting point of most cycle races!
With one seriously impressive sunrise providing us with sufficient light, Ben Dyball and I made the short journey and signed on just after 6am. Rapha were offering free coffee and rice cakes, both of which were gratefully accepted, and it wasn’t long before we were up with the first wave of riders on the start line ready to go. The atmosphere had a real buzz about it, with some 400 participant’s eager to set out to achieve their goals – ranging from a particular place or time, right through to just completing the challenge within the deadline.
A relaxed affair
Right on 6:30am we were off and racing! We had a relatively long neutral section of 18km, before turning left in to Taroko Gorge National Park where the official timing for the 87km ascent would start. It would have to be one of the most relaxed neutral zones I’ve ever experienced, undoubtedly a combination of the sunrise and excitement of what lay ahead. The scenery at the start was honestly amazing, clearly indicative of the terrain that was to follow.
I can feel the intensity rise as each kilometre passes. Official motorbikes and race vehicles have become as eager as the riders and the ‘neutral’ pace ramps up to over 40km/h. We cross the official start point and a number of riders immediately try their hand at a breakaway but there is restraint in the move. An attack on a quality field like this, with 87km of climbing still to come could be spell disaster just minutes up the road. Go into the red this early and it’ll be day-done for anyone with high finish hopes.
With the attacks more or less nullified, the pace stabilises – high enough for the lower slopes at least. I look back and notice another wave of riders have made the junction to our front group and there’s now a huge line of riders strung out as we ride along the more exposed sections of river.
The lower slopes keep us relatively close to the river’s edge. The noise from the powerful stream creates plenty of adrenaline yet at the same time producing a strange sense of calm. The speed remains as we navigate long bridges, dark tunnels and pass along some amazing overhanging rock formations.
Between the occasional glimpse of new scenery and the excitement of the race itself, it’s surprising to notice just how quickly we are getting through the Challenge. The Challenge itself is often considered to be two parts; the final 14km, and everything before it – a reference to the first 65km of the climb, or some 2,500m of climbing, which holds a reasonably steady gradient of just under four percent.
While the terrain on this section doesn’t feature any real pinch points, there is certainly times where I notice the pace increase. I had earlier been told how riders would quite literally disappear from the group as we gradually made our way towards the summit, and this soon becomes true! Personally, I believed the climb was fast enough to warrant going into the red just in order to stay with the front group as we hit the flatter sections, as settling in to a comfortable tempo alone just wouldn’t be quick enough. As we make it through the feed station at the halfway point, our group has already been reduced to around 30 riders.
Staying relatively relaxed and settled in this smaller group, I find it easy enough to focus on keeping a good cadence, eating and drinking, as the final 14km to the peak awaits. As we pass the third feed station, we had averaged just over 25km/h since the official start point – a relatively high speed for 2,500m of uninterrupted climbing!
All good things
We enter one final narrow, extremely dark and wet tunnel, and to my surprise the race as I knew it is about to change. We break through the sunlight on the other side and riders have already snuck off the front. We race down a short but technical descent in ones and twos and unfortunately, this would ultimately end my time in the front group. I hit the final climb to the finish and it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.
Until this point, I had covered the first 70km in under 3 hours, all that remained was 17km – with an average gradient of 8%. I had been warned on numerous occasions about this final section but it was time to find out how severe it really was. The brief respite on the descent meant I had also lost some of those sweet vertical metres I had accumulated until that point, meaning I now had another 1,200m of climbing left to reach the 3,275m summit. Spending the remainder of my time in my smallest gear, I somewhat deliriously make my way towards the peak. Fatigue hits me like a literally 18% pinch and I have no doubt it’s going to be a long way to the finish.
Glancing out across the mountainous geography, I start to realise just how high we have come. For the first time today, I’m not surrounded by waterfalls or rock faces but simply an expansive view across the valley. The air is crisp and thin – not quite enough for my liking. I’m able to remove myself from what I’m actually doing and momentarily enjoy my surrounds. Before I knew it, only two kilometres remain.
For the first time in what seems like forever, I have company. There are six of us are spread between the finish line and myself. It was apparent that some riders are in a worse state than myself, and cruelly, this spurs me on for the final push. It works. I pass another four riders only to lose one spot from behind. The final kilometres are one of the longest and hardest I have ever experienced. Crossing the finish line, I was instantly relieved that I had reached the peak, not wanting to do a single pedal stroke more than necessary. I’m done.
Down but not out
I dare say I showed little emotion, and blankly stared at my front wheel as I stood slumped over my bike. Feeling pretty lightheaded, it felt like forever until I could get my breath back, but I was more than happy to just stand there if it meant not having to move again. Kevin, on the other hand, was super excited and way too energetic for my liking, as he constantly repeated “you are my champion” – he was lucky I couldn’t move.
I guess I summed it up at the time pretty well when I was interviewed by Lee Rodgers, the International Marketing Director of the KOM Challenge; the final hour felt longer than the first three hours; the scenery is unbelievable and I’ll definitely be back again!
Following the race, the amount of riders gathered at the summit gradually increased for a number of hours, displaying different combinations of satisfaction, mental and physical exhaustion, and sheer disbelief as to what they had just experienced. Beyond winning, placing in your category or doing a personal best, it really is a special feat just to complete the event.
For the first time in event history there would be more foreign participants than locals, with some 400 riders made up with representatives from almost 50 nations. Additionally, the quality of the international field was the strongest to date, and it was little surprise when the race record would be convincingly broken in the closest finish in the event’s history. Both the quality and diversity of participants in this year’s edition are clear indications for the future growth of the event.
The Taiwan KOM Challenge is truly a relentless climb that showcases some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever witnessed. It’s honestly easy to see why Taiwan is fast becoming one of the most appealing destinations for cycling in the world. The cycling culture that has been fostered here is enviable, perhaps influenced by the industry, but undoubtedly a product of the islands natural beauty too. This seriously was one unforgettable and epic experience that I highly recommend to a rider of any ability. I know for certain I’ll be back again in the future, whether it’s for the challenge, or just to explore what else this cycling island has hidden!
Keen to have a go? Here’s how Jay did it. The scoop on all things Taiwan KOM Challenge related.