Cycling: King of the Mountain

Exotic routes, local culture and tough conditions were the name of the game at Taiwan KOM, says Hish Scarff.

One of the great things about ANZA Cycling is that throughout the year, members are out riding interesting races and exotic routes all over the world. The other great thing about the club is the bunch of selfless volunteers who pull all these trips together.

I first heard about Taiwan KOM (King of the Mountain) after the 2013 edition of the race. Tales of cruising ever upwards through stunning scenery along with a good serving of local culture had me hooked.

Billing itself as the unofficial road bike world climbing championship, Taiwan KOM is short at 105km, but is an almost unbroken ascent up to 3300m with some hair-raising gradients, the steepest being almost 28 per cent.

From Taipei, our 17-strong team boarded the bus for the five-hour drive to Hualien, the sleepy seaside town that is the KOM base. The first 45 minutes out of Taipei were mainly industrial scenery but in time the landscape became more rural, with some chunky mountains to remind us of what lay ahead.

Along the coastal road, running down the sparsely populated eastern side of Taiwan, we were treated to scenery of verdant mountains jutting strikingly right from the ocean, divided only by a thin ribbon of rocky beach. After the race briefing in Hualien, the rest of the day was spent building bikes and checking they were working properly for the big day ahead.

Cool, drizzly weather greeted us as we made our way in the pre-dawn darkness to the 6.30am start point. As the 18km neutralised zone finished, a left turn off the coast road took us from sea level to the start of the climb. Teammates Guillaume and Raoul were up the front leading the charge, while the rest of us were spread out through the peloton. Happy to enjoy the ride, I soaked in some of the stunning environment en route: tunnels cut into the side of cliffs, plunging rocky gorges and pristine forest.

My race plan was pretty simple: steady as she goes all the way. It continued to rain and I felt a touch cool but otherwise comfortable. For the next hour and a half everything went exactly to plan, though visibility worsened and the temperature started to drop. Ever mistier, the scenery contracted to the road itself and the immediately surrounding forest. We had been assured that we were in for a long, hot day of climbing so I looked forward to emerging into bright mountain sunshine soon.

In reality, it just got colder – and we were all in summer kit. At about this time, I caught up with teammate Nate, and it was good to have some familiar company to share the miserable conditions with. With 50km yet to go, the shivers set in and it really started to get uncomfortable. I gave up on the hope that warmer weather laid ahead. In amongst all this unpleasantness, at about the 75km mark I was stoked to find myself riding beside Tiffany Cromwell, fellow Australian and pro-cyclist invitee. First time to ride next to a pro – how cool is that?!

While KOM is pretty much a continuous ascent, at around 80km in there is one descent of about 4km for a 200m drop. The freezing descent had me shaking uncontrollably; leaving me glad to get climbing again in the hope it might warm me up. A Taiwanese fellow 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 ‘You know I’ll have to kill you if you don’t hand those over!’ but I guess I’ll never know. I then noticed the increasing number of dejected riders, having abandoned on the side of the road. (40 per cent of riders would not make the finish…)

In time, I found myself at the 95km mark, the start of the real steep stuff. 10km to go, at an average 8 per cent with the infamous 27.8 per cent in there somewhere… Somehow I rallied, maybe the gels helped, and bit by bit picked up a few places. At least climbing a grade at 6kph versus one at 24kph means that the wind-chill factor is much less. On the other hand, the insane gradients and slick road conditions meant many sections were ground out at barely walking pace.

Finally, the finish was in sight. Our guide was an absolute trooper, waiting in the rain and freezing cold at the finish line for over six hours. Raoul, Guillaume, Alex and Ståle finished ahead of me with the others still to come. I was so cold I couldn’t hold my steaming ginger tea steady and ended up throwing the tea everywhere with my cold-induced convulsions. Riders all around were in similar states of hypothermia.

ANZA Cycling finished with some credible results on the day, although in the end it was just about survival. When a seasoned pro comments that the conditions are ‘completely insane’, you know it isn’t just you! It was late afternoon when we finally got to our scheduled pre-dinner activity, a local hot spring visit, which was complete heaven!

Bike race over, the next day part of the group took the opportunity to 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, are all made out of cardboard). Those on the longer five-day tour took advantage of the beautiful sunshine to explore the surrounds by bicycle.

While the conditions were horrendous, what we love about this sport is the opportunity to dig deep and explore our limits, and we got that in spades!

Thanks to our sponsors Team Direct Asia and Hammer Nutrition for providing kit & fuel for our bodies; Taiwan Cycling Federation and Taiwan Tourism for a well-organised event and local guide; my teammates for working together for another great trip and lastly my wife, who got up at 2am when I arrived home and helped me unpack my bag of wet, stinky clothes, and then kissed me goodbye three hours later as I left for a weeklong business trip – you’re a star Jessie!

To find out more about ANZA Cycling, please visit the ANZA Cycling homepage.