The scary, exotic event that is the Taiwan KOM

KOM back to TaipeiBy Dione Wang

I first heard about the Taiwan KOM after having crashed halfway down Faber on a wet and slippery weekend morning last October. Barry Davies came to my rescue and explained that he was doing hill repeats to prepare for a 105 km race up a 3,275m mountain in Taiwan. I shook my head in dazed disbelief at such a mad exploit and ducked into a taxi, certain I’d go nowhere close to something so unfathomable.

Fast forward a few months and I joined ANZA Cycling, reading the RTI and hearing about all kinds of intrepid two-wheeled adventures. The healthy pool of strong cyclists generous with sharing their experiences meant that stories like those of the KOM were circulating, and at some point by some osmotic, subconscious process I had ignored my better judgement and decided I’d sign myself up for the 2015 race.

This was of course in complete disregard of the fact that up until that point I had never climbed more than 1,500m, and certainly never attempted anything steeper than the “steep” side of Faber. Of course, being in Anza Cycling means you absorb craziness and bunch riding skills in equal doses [If only it were in equal measure. Ed.], and I told myself I’d somehow make it through.

And so it was with this in mind that I set out to better educate myself, reading the rich online literature out there about training and nutrition and the scary, exotic event that is the Taiwan KOM. Indeed, many evocative words have been written about this race (including Hish’s RTI piece), turning it into somewhat of a cultish event gaining in popularity and mythical status.

Accounts of the race are generally potent mixtures of the brutal and the beautiful, painting the KOM route as a captivating, cruel mistress stealing hearts and sometimes crushing dreams. Last year’s edition was particularly dramatic, with abysmally cold weather sending the brave few who persevered and finished into uncontrollable hypothermic shivering. So when Andrew asked me on Tuesday to offer a woman’s account of this year’s race I was a little hesitant, wondering if I might be able to offer anything interesting at all. But the chance to write for the RTI was all too tempting, and I agreed [If you keep up the flattery, we’ll have to ask you again. Ed.].

While I’d like to say I took advantage of my flexible student’s schedule to put in tons of solid training hours on the bike, the truth was that I have been too unfocused with conflicting triathlon and cycling goals. And so I was very glad for the monthly ANZA outings to Malaysia and Indonesia to log some decent traffic-free road bike miles. Neridah’s Frasers trip in March was especially helpful, giving a taster of what a sustained climb would feel like.

Along the way I also joined Arrivo Primo Singapura (APS), feeling rather out of place and tremendously lucky to kill myself holding the wheels of machine triathletes. The trips to undulating Bintan certainly gave me some endurance and strength, and slowly but surely my FTP crept upwards towards my 4W/kg goal. My training schedule typically involved 3 trainer sessions during the week and 1 or 2 long weekend rides.

It wasn’t however until I met my current coach, Barry Ziza — a top Israeli triathlete— in Jerusalem this summer that I started training semi-seriously for the KOM. The never-ending hills around Jerusalem were perfect, and I found myself back in the Holy Land in September for more rides climbing 1,000m in 40 km — the fact that I rode a Peter Sagan-autographed Cannondale didn’t hurt. Back in Singapore with the haze in early October, Barry put me to work with ankle weights on the trainer and some very dull dark hours of strength training.

By this time APS had formed a team of 6 going to the KOM, and we’d get together riding all the hills we could find in Singapore. This little island actually isn’t as flat as you might think once you start getting deliberate about finding climbs! Batshit crazy haze one weekend also meant that pro triathlete Kathryn Haesner and I tackled an epic 5.5 hours Coach Troy DVD together….misery loves company.

The last week before the race was terribly stressful for me, and tapering only meant lots of pent-up nervous energy. Thankfully Bruce Swales was a huge help, very generously lending me his lightweight wheels and a brand-new bike case. With that and a 32-tooth cassette (paired with a compact, being the weakling that I am [I’m sure somebody once said that the true mark of strength is knowing ones own weaknesses, or some such motivational *&^%. Ed.]), I was ready to go.

Most of the APS team — Timothy Cosulich, Matthew White, Marcin Szot, Kathryn Haesner, Luca Ronsisvalle, and myself — took a red-eye Scoot flight landing in Taipei 24 hours before the race. We deftly manoeuvred our bike cases and ourselves into taxis for the main station where the KOM organisers had shuttles to take us 170 km to our race hotel in Hualien. Scott Ellinger, the KOM’s international campaign director, filled the 4-hour drive with his larger-than-life personality and vignettes of cycling and his Green Beret days, but mostly I hid in the back and dozed. I did however catch some of the gorgeous scenery along the way — verdant greens and the blue of the Pacific ocean.

After checking in at the race hotel I got to work unpacking my bike — being a poor mechanic I struggled with the less straightforward parts; thankfully there were helpful cyclists all around. Not always a bad thing being a woman! A quick spin around town with Kath in the mild 24C weather to check that everything was working and we were down for a solid, boring pre-race dinner made less boring by the presence of the defending champion John Ebsen. John looked every bit the climbing specialist he is — all muscle and bone and a serious, soft-spoken nature.

APS was supported by our sponsors Argon 18 and Vision, who went out of their way to explain how our team cars would work. With the rosy weather predictions of 24C at the start and 10-12C at the summit I stashed a bright blue bag in the team car with arm warmers, a vest, and a light rain jacket.

The rest of the evening was spent making sure bikes and gear and nutrition were all in order for the mad day ahead; by this time I’d seen and spoken to quite a few of the other 45 women cyclists, all of whom seemed stronger and more experienced. Thankfully the day’s travels had tired me out and I fell asleep without too much trouble at 10 pm.

KOM pre-race APS
Once an ANZA cyclist we’ll take credit for your endeavors whatever kit you wear!

Race day
Race day dawned crisp at 4 am and after another solid boring meal we rolled our way to the start, where organisers had already gotten a show going with dancers and music. We checked our day bags with warm clothes for the summit, took some team photos, and lined up at the starting line in the first third of the 412 peloton.

The first 18 km was a flat, neutralised coastal section giving everyone a good warmup before the road rose (gently at this point) at the start of the climb. So far I had kept to coach Barry’s firm instructions to stay in the small ring and below 80% HRmax, but as the peloton began to thin out it seemed the whole world was going by me and I had trouble keeping my anxiety and heart rate in check. I forced myself to calm down and enjoy the twisting mountain road curving calmly up at an average of 3,4% for the first 20 km.

Amateurs have the luxury of soaking in the majestic views of plunging cliffs, massive boulders, and pristine forests….that is, if they keep it rubber side down through the pitch-black tunnels. After the race I heard of a few crashes as cyclists hit the metal grating (a bit similar to the one at Keppel Viaduct) going in and out of the pitch-dark tunnels, and a professional cyclist (Brett Lindstrom) quipped that he’d shut his eyes just to make things more fun.

KOM 2The next 8 km averaged 5,1% and before you knew it you’d climbed 915m to the 46 km mark where there was a water stop but no bathroom. By this time I was in desperate need to pee, and after some anguished debating with myself ducked behind a hut a few km’s down the road and congratulated myself for a smart move — the next 18 km rose over 700m, with the steepest pitch at 12%. It was only around this time that I finally settled into a rhythm keeping a good cadence and a steady heart rate. I managed to catch some who’d passed me earlier by the 80 km mark and thanks to the caffeine and sugar didn’t quite feel the 2,150m ascent. The air was cool, the views gorgeous, and it looked like it was going to be a perfect day ahead — lucky us! Even the absence of the team car didn’t dampen my good spirits; I focused on breathing, on switching between holding the tops and the hoods, on eating and drinking, and the back pain which bothered me in the first 40 km vanished.

A pitch-black Bilui Tunnel at the 85 km mark opened sharply into a 5,3 km descent at -3% — although I had the route taped to my top tube I was caught off guard and took a while before I focused on cutting clean lines rather than hanging on to the brakes. The descent was a welcome, very fun break and it was only 80m of elevation lost. At this point I’d caught the amazing vegan pro Christine Vardaros twice but she looked too serious for chitchat — later I found out she was riding through crippling back pain!

The 91 km mark at GuanYang was the start of the end for me. After another pee stop (this time behind a team car with a Taiwanese driver — speaking the local language saves you lots of time and effort!) I realised I was out of food, having stupidly left 3 gels in the team car. Thankfully the 4 km after this rose only 200m, and the insanity didn’t start until DaYuLing at 95 km. The finish was 10 km away at an average of 11%…I was beginning to lose my mind. Zigzagging up a 15% pitch  in my lowest gear I crashed into the barrier at an inglorious speed of 3 km/h and took forever to regain my composure while the whole world went past again. My teammate Matt saw the hilarious moment from behind and pointed out it’d make a great video for the APS awards dinner.

I might be ruining it all for the masochists out there, but while the supposed 300m climb at 27,3% had planted fear and trepidation deep within me, it seemed this pitch never materialised. I did however hug the outside of a hairpin which read 17-18%; masochists are free to choose the shortest way up. The last 5 km was nightmarish for me — I didn’t notice the altitude, but my legs were completely shot even though my heart rate stayed within 75%. I knew I’d finish well within the cutoff time, and mentally shut down. Another APS teammate Marcin whom I saw bravely struggle through cramps earlier gave me a very welcome push, but even that mental and physical respite couldn’t get me to focus for long. Crossing the finish line was therefore anticlimactic for me — I’d envisioned giving it my all in the last 20 minutes, but instead my brain was fried and legs just refused to cooperate.

KOM finishAfter a few quick team photos at the summit — I had held everyone up, especially Tim C who finished 50 minutes ahead of me — we put on our warm clothes and rode the very dodgy 2 km downhill dodging cars and people to get to the hotel shuttles. Kath however had no time to celebrate her remarkable 5 h finish — she jumped into a van taking her south to Kenting, where she’d place 5th in the pro field of the Taiwan 70.3 fewer than 48 hours later.

We all found it odd that the awards ceremony wasn’t held the evening of the race, but the next day 170 km away in Taipei. Left to our own devices, we went out to a local restaurant where I translated badly, and were entertained by a thoroughly excitable taxi driver on the way back. I explained in Mandarin that we were in town for a “competition” with no detail as to what sort of competitive endeavour, and he immediately started raving about how stunningly brilliant it is to be in a “competition”.

The fun and drama didn’t end then — the next day’s shuttle ride to Taipei was interrupted by a mudslide closing off the mountain road. Kudos to the organisers who handled the situation with finesse, putting 400 cyclists on the train while the bikes stayed in the shuttles…it later transpired that the drivers had to make an epic journey up Wuling and down the other side! As for the cyclists, there was plenty of beer and good company on the train and nothing to complain about, and we arrived at the Fushin hotel in Taipei for the awards ceremony and a fantastic buffet dinner afterwards.

After being nicely fed we were taken to the excellent La Maison hotel where we were reunited with our bikes. Determined to drink more beer, the decision was made to head to the Brass Monkey downtown for Halloween and rugby world cup finals. After enjoying more cycling talk and a brilliant rugby match with Alan Grant and the few APS left, I finally collapsed into a coma-like sleep at 2 am.

Thank you and see you next year!
All in all, it was without doubt the most rewarding bike race and overall experience I’ve had in my (admittedly short) life. The Taiwan Cycling Federation pulled off yet another successful event, and Lee Rodgers and Scott Ellinger did a great job of herding cats all of whom had expensive bikes and unique needs. My gratitude to APS and ANZA for the invaluable support and encouragement, I always learn something new on a group ride or chat. And certainly I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish any of this without my coach Barry, whose knowledge and patience I have drained again and again. My only recommendation to readers is to train for the endurance and strength, and to sign up for the 2016 race!

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