One of the great things about Anza Cycling is that pretty much every month of the year, members are out riding interesting and exotic races and routes around the world, and sharing their exploits through the RTI magazine…or over a post-ride coffee at CBTL. So there’s a rich vein of inspiration to tap into, and that’s how it was for me when I first heard about Taiwan KOM from the likes of David Cox, Seb and Glen Kenny after the 2013 edition of the race. Tales of cruising ever on upwards through stunning scenery along with a good serving of local culture as a side dish had me hooked after reading the race reports. On that topic, I’ve been rather stingy up to now and had not volunteered a report for any of the races/trips I’ve been on, so now you get a big one to make up!
Until the last couple of years, cycling for me was a commuting / cross training thing, so I don’t have the racing experience and pedigree that many others in the club have. I’m nervous and on the brakes too much on fast, technical descents. Whizzing through reverse-camber corners in the wet frightens the hell out of me (that was me in my first ever road race, Bintan 2013, just praying that everyone in the bunch would stay upright). I haven’t got much in the way of TT skills (as evidenced by my rather pedestrian results from two Changi Straight ITTs events). It looked at first glance that Taiwan KOM had very little of this … so this looked like the perfect race for me!
What is Taiwan KOM? I have heard it expressed as multiples of other climbs: in Malaysian terms, 2 Frasers followed by a Genting. Or in more local terms, 80km of SBV followed by 10km of Faber steep side. In these terms, and looking a bit more at the “pain and suffering” rather than the “spectacular scenery” parts of the race reports, it dawned on me that this was not quite going to be the quite the cruisey gran fondo ride that I’d initially thought.
It became apparent I needed to do some proper preparation for this event, but I wasn’t sure where to start. In training for Bintan 2013, I’d upped the number of rides per week from 2 to 5 (when I wasn’t travelling, that training interruption causing bane of any working athlete’s life). This definitely helped give me more comfort around dealing with longer rides, and raised my power levels by about 5% over the 6 months lead up, which seemed ok. But in talking to various folks around what would be the right way to train for KOM, there were a host of different views. “Ride heaps of Fabers and Southern Bumps, you need to get used to the climbing position”. “Faber and SBV are no good, gradient’s too variable, try Lorong Sesuai”. “What you really need is to do lots of low geared Seletar TT efforts”. And resorting to google just multiplied the confusing number of options out there!
In the end it was all too much, so I took a punt and wrote my own program. (At one point in time when I was playing a little bit of golf, a wise old golf coach told me… “as a beginner, never write your own program. It’ll take me years to undo all the bad habits you teach yourself”. Clearly that piece of advice didn’t stick!).
As I mentioned, cycling is not my background. So I went with what I know works for me in other sports, and supplemented the Wednesday and Saturday club rides with 2 high intensity longer duration interval sessions per week on the turbo, mostly FTP reinforcing work with a VO2 max session once a fortnight.
It felt like it got me ready. Probably if I’d got some formal coaching it could’ve been better still (maybe next year). I could feel it out on the road too – 0515 Saturday rides with PA and the gang moved from just hanging on to, if not laying down the hurt at the front, to at least laying down some mild discomfort from time to time. A bit of pilates to ensure the back was going to handle the climbing rounded out the week. As KOM approached, I felt like I was as prepared as I could be.
The reward for abstaining from kaya butter toast for 6 months
Weapon of Choice: The Armchair
I lived in the Netherlands for 4 years before moving to Singapore. While I was on the road bike just 2-3 times per month there, my previous machine (and my joints for that matter) were nevertheless being shaken to bits by the pavé and cobblestones that are so common in that part of the world. That’s where I bought the Roubaix, which comes with armchair-like comfort – as well as armchair-like aerodynamics and weight (8.5kg at the Bintan pre-TT weigh in). Not exactly a lightweight climbing machine but hey, you gotta work with what you got.
As we all made our preparations for the upcoming event, there was lots of talk of fitting ridiculous gearing to tackle Mount Wuling, which I jumped on with gusto. With much thanks to Mycle and his magic spanners at Bikeplus, a Frankenbike drivetrain was born! Ultegra compact front end, Deore rear mech shifting a Shimano chain held together with KMC missing links, across a SRAM 12-36 cassette. A truly ugly hack to match what is not the prettiest bike in the first place…my ride was ready!
You think that’s a cassette?…this is a cassette (apologies to Crocodile Dundee)
But…. like a lithe young thing busting up a marriage to a faithful but frumpy partner, little miss Propel waltzed onto the scene in October and stole my heart. At the start of the year as a bit of motivation for training I had promised myself a new bike if I could raise my benchmark 20min W/kg number by 25%, which at the time I started seemed like a true stretch target and one that would take a couple of seasons to achieve (otherwise I wouldn’t have spent the $ and effort getting the Roubaix drivetrain sorted). But that mark was passed in September, the order was placed, and two weeks later she moved in. Tighter, more than a kilo lighter and a with an 11-32 cassette dropping straight in with only a change of chain length required, it was a no brainer. Poor Ms Roubaix was retired to full time duty on the turbo, which is where she has been ever since.
If one of the great things about the club is the world of great rides we get to hear about and get inspired to join, the thing that makes it all work is the selfless volunteering by a few individuals that actually pulls everything together. In this case, Glen Kenny did a fantastic job of herding 15 of us cats through the registration, logistics and other stuff necessary to make it all a reality. (At this point I feel compelled to mention that other champion organiser, Nicolas Chaste, who organised the Fraser trip earlier in the year which was also a fantastic weekend of riding up mountains).
One of a number of daily flights gets you to Taipei. Guillaume and I, who had along with half of the group elected to arrive the day before, shared a cab to Changi and lined up to check in, looking like two delegates to an Anorexics Anonymous conference. We were later joined by Vaibhav, Colin and Bev in what was an uneventful flight and movement to the airport hotel (apart from annoying some hotel shuttle bus passengers who couldn’t get on because we’d filled all available space with our bike boxes). We were greeted by cool, drizzly weather in Taipei.
After about 300 whatsapp messages to sort out the logistics of our vans being booked later than we thought alongside the limited availability of hotel shuttle bus transfers to the airport, on the Friday morning we finally met with our guide, Bau-yung, and the rest of the team and boarded the bus for the 5 hour drive to Hualien, the sleepy seaside town that is the base for the race. The first 45 minutes out of Taipei consisted of uninteresting miles of small industrial lots and brown apartment blocks, but in time the landscape became more rural, with some chunky mountains to remind us of what lay ahead. A quick stop for a spot of dipping feet into a hotspring was a nice way to break up the drive.
As we got onto the coastal road that runs down the sparsely populated eastern side of Taiwan, we were treated to scenery of verdant mountains jutting strikingly right from the ocean, with a thin ribbon of rocky beach dividing the two.
Um, what gradient are those?
We arrived at the town of Hualien early afternoon and stopped in at the local seafood restaurant. Somehow, without any need for conversation, the group naturally formed two tables, one of whose members all sat in the “part of my nutrition plan is to eat as much seafood as possible immediately before race day” category and another which was more along the lines of “I am not going to eat any of that slimy fishy smelling stuff, especially just before race day. I’m eating steamed rice instead”. To each their own!
At the race briefing that afternoon, Crankpunk Lee Rodgers introduced some of the star riders who would be competing – Will Routely (Tour of California KOM), Tiffany Cromwell (top Australian female rider) and Nicole Cooke (women’s champion of just about everything according to Crankpunk, so I’ll take that as read). Some bigwig from the Taiwan Meterology department assured us that sunny and warm conditions would prevail and that was about all the meaningful content I could remember. The rest of the short daylight hours were spent building bikes up and a short reconnaissance run around Hualien to ensure our machines were working properly for the big day ahead.
Race day started with a wake up call at 4am that our guide had kindly booked for each and every one of us after mis-interpreting Kathy’s by-the-way comment that she in particular was planning to get up at 4am. It was cool and drizzly and about 17 degrees as we made our way to the start point in the pre-dawn darkness for the 0630 start. A bit of a pre-race talk by the organisers (again forecasting fine and sunny weather) and then we were on the line waiting for the start to the 18km neutralised section.
The neutralised section kicked off well enough, with myself with Glen and Vaibhav somewhere in the middle of the field of 400. In between the riders I suddenly saw an official’s car parked about 50m ahead, right in the middle of the road…wtf?!! That thought must have been foremost in the minds of the riders about 40m ahead of me as maybe 20 or 30 bikes went down. I swerved off to the right, weaved through a few traffic cones and made it safely past as did all the ANZA riders, thankfully.
I then had a spot of misfortune when I reached into my jersey pocket to pull out a tube of Hammer Perpetuem Solids. As I pulled one tube out it caught on another, pulling it out so it fell to ground. OK I thought, 200 calories of the race nutrition down but no big drama, I was carrying a little extra. Flipped the lid, chomped on a block, and then slipped it back into my jersey pocket…or so I thought. Actually the race numbers were made up of a material that was the same width and feel as our jersey pockets. So actually I’d put the tube in between the outside of my jersey and the race number. 400 calories down, leaving me with about two thirds of what I had started with, 7km into 105km.
As the 18km neutralised zone finished, a left turn off the coast road took us from sea level to the start of the climb. I had gotten myself to a position behind the front 80-100 riders and quickly found the peloton stringing out as the climbing began. Guillaume and Raoul were somewhere right up the front leading the FR-ANZA charge; I had no idea where any other of my other teammates were. I found a bunch of folks who were about the same speed as myself and was happy to follow wheels and just enjoy the ride. I had time to appreciate some of the unique environments the route takes you through: tunnels handcut into the side of cliffs, plunging rocky gorges and pristine forest.
Some great outlooks early on. A few fresh rockfalls made it interesting.
My race plan was pretty simple: to ride at or just under 4.5 hour critical power (the time I thought I could finish in), adjusting for altitude as it got higher. No chasing wheels, no conserving energy, just steady as she goes all the way. It continued to rain and I felt a touch cool but otherwise comfortable (I had a lightweight longsleeve thermal on underneath my kit and uniquely amongst all the riders I saw, full finger mid-weight gloves). Over the next hour and a half my power/speed/distance/heart rate were exactly as planned, however the visibility worsened and the temperature started to drop. The scenery on offer contracted to the road itself and the immediately surrounding 20 metres, it was too misty to see much else. Not to worry I thought, the forecast was that the weather would clear up and actually we might be in danger of being too hot in the latter parts of the climb. Well all I can say is that reality turned out quite differently.
It just got colder and colder and colder. At about his time I caught up with young Nate Wallis, and it was good to have some familiar company to share the burden of the bad conditions, which at this time were definitely in the “uncomfortable” category.
I had hydrated well but not too much before the start (about half a litre of water sipped over the hour before the start) in anticipation of a long hot climb and taken on maybe half a bidon in the first hour. With the cold and barely doing any sweating, the bladder was giving stronger and stronger signals that it needed to be emptied. Not being able to stand up on the pedals and piss sideways while freewheeling along (as I had seen one of the pros do in the neutralised zone), I reluctantly pulled over and waved Nate on. Bladder must have been full because I lost a full minute on that stop. I think it took about 20 minutes to catch Nate up, but by that time I again needed a pit stop…unbelievable! Was I drinking the rain somehow? Because another full minute of pissing was required, and I had barely touched my bidon! It was a bit demoralising to see a bunch of riders that I’d overtaken twice whizz past, I must say.
The cold was really starting to bite now. The uncontrollable shivers had set in and it was really starting to get unpleasant. There was still 50km to go and at that point I gave up on the hope that there’d be warmer weather ahead, resigning myself to the likelihood it was actually going to get colder. That 10% bodyweight reduction and low body fat which I’d worked on for the past 6 months, which was meant to be such an asset for this event, was proving to be an absolute liability. I’m no stranger to cold – I rode year round in the Netherlands, I regularly did swim training in the bay in winter in Melbourne (12 degrees with no wetsuit), I’ve surfed in the North Sea with snow on the beach – but this was sucking the life out of me. If you’ve ever swum in really cold water, you’ll know the feeling that despite being fit and fuelled, you just can’t get your muscles to move properly. Some kind of mammalian cold-water dive reflex must’ve been kicking in because instead of an altitude-induced elevated heart rate (as per comments in ANZA race reports from 2013) I was finding mine getting lower and lower (70% of HRmax while doing hard climbing…huh?). There was no laboured breathing. Power was dropping away as well, and not just by the increments suggested by altitude correction. That also meant I wasn’t generating the heat I needed to maintain core temperature…my legs felt stiff and unresponsive.
In amongst all this unpleasantness, at about the 75km mark I was stoked to find myself riding beside none other than Tiffany Cromwell, one of the star pro cyclists invited to KOM. First time to ride next to a pro – how cool is that! I said hello and found out she had unfortunately taken a fall earlier in the race.
I continued to ride at what I felt was a sustainable pace and moved on ahead of Tiffany. I don’t know what injuries she was suffering with from her crash, but I ashamedly admit I felt a little bit smug that I could be moving ahead of a pro of her calibre.
Well she completely smashed me in the next part of the race. While KOM is pretty much a continuous ascent, at around 80km in there is one descent of about 4km in which you drop 200m. As I started the descent the cooling effect of the increased windspeed had me shaking violently and uncontrollably. On top of the rain and winding corners, a nice slippery layer of leaves covered the road. I was on the brakes, not daring to go much above 30kmph in case I couldn’t stop in time for the corners. It was at this point that Tiffany flew past me at what I am guessing must have been 45-50kmph. In the few corners that I saw her go through before I lost sight of her, she absolutely carved her way through them. It was great – and humbling – to see those bike handling skills up close.
By the end of the descent I was suffering massively from the cold and just glad to get climbing again in the vain hope it might warm me up. I was alongside a local fellow who was shouting at me passionately in Chinese as he pointed to my full fingered gloves. It could have been “I will pay you $1000 for those!” or perhaps just “you know I’ll have to kill you if you don’t hand them over!”. Anyway he didn’t speak any English so I guess I’ll never know.
By this time I had seen a quite a number of dejected riders on the side of the road, having abandoned in what were truly shocking conditions. Bent over with cramps, wheeling their bikes back down the hill, or just sitting on the side of the road.
Support car conveniently labelled with large, internationally recognisable symbol in case you couldn’t read Chinese
Now I was at the 90km mark – still 15km to go – and although I hadn’t had a drop to drink for an hour the bladder was crying out for release again. So for the third time I stopped and watched riders go past me. Now in my younger days as a surfer, you learned to treat urine as a valuable resource in the cold winter ocean. So, as I’d completely lost feeling in my feet…’nuff said.
Now at the 95km mark, 10km to go and into the real steep stuff, with 800m of vertical left (ie an 8% average gradient for that whole 10km). The way it appears on the KOM website, the profile is a lot of 7-9% gradient stuff with the short infamous 27% in the middle somewhere. Maybe it was my mental state but it all just seemed like one long never-ending tortuous section. I couldn’t even tell you where the 27% section was.
Somehow I rallied in that last 10km though. I’d taken in only 400 calories in four hours of cold hard riding (I’d turned down the bananas on offer at the feeding zones, love them before and after but they don’t agree with me mid-ride) but after 15 minutes of frozen fingered fiddling (believe me, it was that difficult), I managed to get one last gel out of my pocket. It worked. And the good thing about climbing a steep grade at 6kmph versus a shallow one at 24kmph is there is quarter of the windchill. I started to pick up a bunch of places – satisfyingly, a lot of those who’d passed me during my bladder breaks. I started to think about the warm clothes at the finish line – the cycling gear I’d used to get through 4 hard Dutch winters – which were sitting uselessly in the team van, instead of on me. Damn that weatherman!
Alex Brause on the cold road to hell.
Getting up those steep climbs was hazardous. The slope and rain meant a careful balance between front and rear wheel weighting was required to avoid either pulling the front wheel off the ground or slipping the rear. Slick road-wide metal grates appeared at regular intervals (to allow sub-road drainage from the upper slopes) on which loss of traction was almost inevitable. In the middle of the road there were golf-ball sized hemispherical protrusions designed either to separate the flow of traffic and/or flick a cyclist’s front wheel over. At one stage I had to unclip after my rear wheel slipped too much and I slid back and stalled. Even going almost horizontally, it took a few goes to safely to get going again, it was that treacherous.
With about 1km to go (bearing in mind myself and the riders around me were doing about 5kmph), more than 30km since she had flown past me, in a broken gaggle of riders I again saw Cromwell, now aggressively grinding her way towards the finish line. The fact that it took me 30km to make up for 4km goes to show that superior ascending capacity is completely useless in the face of inferior descending capability! The tortured facial expressions on every rider said everything.
To add to the already mentioned hazards, with the pros all finished we now had public traffic coming down the narrow single lane road, with the clear belief that the riders were nuisances who should be getting off the road for them. I actually had a very low speed collision with one of them who insisted on crossing into the path of riders coming up the road. I was furious and channelled all that anger into a last 100m sprint for the line (if 7kmph can be called a sprint), and managed to pass another 4 riders including one on the line by 0.04s, according to the official finishing times .
Our guide Bau-Yung was an absolute trooper and had been waiting in the rain and freezing cold at the finish line for over 6 hours, and helped me steady the bike as I crossed the line. Raoul, Guillaume, Alex and Stale had finished ahead of me, the others were still to come. I was completely wrecked, I was so cold I couldn’t even get off the bike for a while. I couldn’t hold the cup of steaming ginger tea steady that Bau-yung handed my because my hands were frozen and I was throwing the tea everywhere with my cold-induced convulsions.
Eventually I got some tea into me, put the bike somewhere and got changed in the van. And this is how the climb ended for all of us – miserable, frozen, just glad to have made it up the mountain in one piece.
Not happy campers. Michael Keedle with the thousand yard stare. I’m not sure what to call Barry’s expression.
Results and Statistics
Some statistics for those of you who like numbers. I finished in 5:07:12, more than half an hour over target. Average speed about 17kmph. Average temperature 13 degrees C (I think Michael Keedle’s Garmin showed 3 degrees Celcius as he crossed the line), with windchill it would have been closer to freezing if not sub-zero especially at the top. Normalised power a feeble 3.1W/kg over those 5 gruelling hours.
Here are some abbreviated results, apologies to those I missed out.
Overall KOM was won by Jon Ebsen from Denmark in a mind-blowing 3:40:05. Women’s winner Margaret Fedyna finished in 4:39:52. Guillaume Causse was the fastest ANZA on the day (4:32:30, 17th in Mens 30-39) with Raoul Berthillon 4:44:44 coming in 24th in the same category. Chapeau FRANZA!
The northern Europeans (NANZA?) were next with Alexander Brause clocking 4:51:23 to come in 26th and Stale Grindflek 4:54:18 in 29th again in the M30s. Clearly we need some more Antipodean climbers in our club, as I was the first Aussie for ANZA, crossing the line in 5:07:12 to come in 17th in the Mens 40-49. Nate Wallis achieved the highest age group ranking for the club, placing 9th in the M16 category with 5:23:37, gutsy effort from the young feller. Kudos goes to anyone who took on the mountain that day, regardless of how far they got up it or how long it took them. I’m not sure if I’m reading this right but the start list had over 400 riders, but the results list showed only 252 completed.
Down the other side
The original plan (in line with the official race process) was to descend on our bikes down to a place where we could meet the vans that held our bikes boxes, pack them and proceed to our next destination. But descending in our state, and with the traffic and rain, was off the cards. So we found a way to pack the bikes into our people-carrying vans without the boxes and tried to defrost ourselves inside. None of us were in any hurry to do anything, we just wanted to sit inside and try to warm up. It was late afternoon when we finally got to our scheduled pre-dinner activity, which was to visit a local onsen ie hot spring. It was just heaven – lying in the hot water, or taking a beating from various water jet massage nozzles – I couldn’t think of anything that would have been better. I would have had my dinner sitting in the hot bath if I could, I just didn’t want to get out. I think Glen actually asked if we could have beers sitting in it but it appeared from the body language of our host like that was not the done thing in Taiwan. Winner of the sartorial prize for the trip goes to Vaibhav, who had left his swimmers behind and so, channelling Borat I thought, used his ANZA bib instead.
Those of us staying for the 3 day tour (as opposed to 5 day) had no desire to rise early for a ride despite beautiful sunny weather on offer Sunday morning, given we had to have breakfast and pack everything for the airport by 10am. So instead we took a stroll down to the magnificent Sun Moon Lake and had lunch at the Cardboard Restaurant (in which chairs, tables, plates, and even the pan in which you cook your hotpot over a burner, is all made out of cardboard). A nice dose of local culture to finish the trip.
Sun Moon Lake, a little bit of Switzerland in Taiwan
Fortunately the food didn’t taste like cardboard
Wrap and thank yous
Thanks to the Taiwan Cycling Federation for putting on an epic event, it was very well organised and despite the weather (and the weatherman) was still an amazing event. It truly lived up to its “Challenge” name. To our Taiwan Tourist guide Bau-yung for essentially being a mum to 16 children all of whom wanted different random things at different random times throughout the trip. To the club for supporting the event, our sponsors Team Direct Asia and Hammer Nutrition for providing kit & fuel for our bodies, and Glen Kenny for initiating and organising the whole thing. To my clubmates for making this another fun, safe trip and looking out for each other. And lastly to my wife, who got up at 2:00am when I arrived home from Changi and helped me unpack my bag of wet, stinky clothes, and then kissed me goodbye 3 hours later as I left for a weeklong business trip – you’re a star Jessie!
Just like the tables at the seafood restaurant, there was some division between us all about whether we’d come back next year. For some, it was enough to do it once and swear never again. For me and a few others … well … let me just say, there is unfinished business, and a rematch with Mount Wuling may well be on the cards.