'If the length doesn’t get you, the gradient will. If the gradient doesn’t get you, the humidity will. And if the humidity doesn’t get you, it’ll be the altitude.
'And if none of that gets you, keep an eye out for falling rocks,’ says Scott J Ellinger as he strides across the stage of the conference room in the Parkview Hotel, Taiwan.
Ellinger is a former US Army officer, and his presentation for the Taiwan KOM Challenge has all the chutzpah of a 1980s gameshow crossed with the gravity of a UN Summit. However, the pronouncement is made slightly less harrowing for two reasons.
First, Ellinger peppers his grim warning speech with high-fives and hugs with a man in a bear suit. The bear is the ‘Task Force Commander of the Tourism Bureau’, whose job appears to be to rally the gathered crowd of riders and periodically maul Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Emma Pooley and Phil Gaimon, who have all been called up to the stage like quiz show contestants.
Nibali looks amused, Gaimon oddly bashful for such an outspoken ex-pro, and Evans’ Henson-puppet grin is unassailable. It’s only Pooley who looks like she might actually turn on the bear.
Secondly, in the three days since landing in Taiwan I’ve had the ‘Challenge’ bit of the KOM inscribed on my brain. My host, an insanely cheerful woman called Cecelia, seems to delight in reminding me that the KOM has an astonishingly high rate of attrition: typically, a third of entrants fail to finish.
Although she never says it directly, I get the impression she doesn’t expect I’ll end up in the other two-thirds.
Later, in my hotel bathroom, the dial on the scales whirls around to 83kg, my heaviest in years, and I start to doubt my chances too.
Tomorrow is essentially a 105km mountain time-trial that begins at sea level and finishes atop Mount Wuling, Taiwan’s highest paved road at 3,275m.
Nearly 1,000m is climbed in the final 10km, during which the road spikes to 27% in sections. Colonel Ellinger would have some harsh words about prior preparation and poor performance, no doubt.
To sleep, perchance to ride
The remainder of the evening is spent trying to remember some basic maths and locate a roll of masking tape, while the night is spent trying to sleep. Jetlag seems to have permanently peeled back my eyelids.
At some point I must have nodded off because the sound of my alarm drifts into the tail end of a recurring dream. I’m back working as a chef and can’t keep up with the orders; the head chef is ringing the bell louder and louder and all I can think about is why I’ve volunteered to work, when it’s not actually my job any more.
There is no hiding from my anxiety even in sleep.
I get up and, having found some tape, stick a small piece to my bike’s top tube and note on it my target times and speeds. To make the time cuts I’ll need to average at least 15kmh. I’ve optimistically given myself a 20kmh target for the first 80km and 15kmh average for the last 25km.
It’s 4.30am and I already feel like I’m overreaching just by being awake.
At the start line at Qixington Beach another edition of The KOM Challenge Gameshow is in full swing. This time Task Force Commander Bear is joined by a band of Taiwanese performers slamming away on huge drums while Ellinger describes once again the magnitude of what we’re about to do, and thanks all the brands involved for sponsoring our impending doom.
An easterly wind harasses the Pacific Ocean, just metres to the right of the start pens. Up ahead is Nibali, surrounded by his Bahrain Merida henchmen, with gaggles of local and travelling pros orbiting around them.
Nibali has probably been paid to turn up, but he will nevertheless go on to finish in first place in a time of three hours 19 minutes, thus scooping half a million New Taiwanese Dollars in prize money, which is around £12,500.
The race clock officially kicks in after an 18km neutralised zone, meaning His Nibs will average nearly 30kmh over the remainder – faster than I can muster over two hours riding in Kent.
The crack of the starter’s pistol is followed by hundreds of clicks as 500 riders snap into their pedals. The pace creeps up to a regulated 35kmh per hour, but after weaving through Xincheng township and over a bridge, we hang a sharp left into the yawning jaws of the Taroko Gorge.
It’s the quality of the air that’s most striking. Outside the gorge it was all arid bluster, but within a few kilometres between the rocks
the air is sodden and lifeless. The temperature has plummeted, and drops further still as our peloton enters the gloom of a tunnel, dimly lit and tinged with the smell of cellar-damp bricks.
By the time we emerge, the peloton has thinned to a string, and the race leaders and commissaires’ car have long disappeared into a future I won’t encounter for some time.
The gorge is in essence one almighty block of limestone crust and tectonically compressed marble, patiently chiselled away over millennia by the Liwu River. It has done a sterling job.
The Liwu’s gushing water has scythed deep to create thousand-metre-high cliffs that reduce the sky to a mere slit. Yet being water, the river has also brought abundant life.
Great sweeps of green pop luminously against the grey backdrop every time the steadily climbing sun manages to peek over the gorge’s fortress-like walls.
We’re climbing steadily, and as my Garmin logs its 500th vertical metre I begin to think I’m actually in quite good shape. So good that instead of letting the next rider pass me, which thus far it seems they all have, I make for his wheel.
You should never judge a rider by the size of their calves, but I estimate this guy’s turkey drumsticks are just thick enough for him to be dangerous but not impossible for me to keep up with. I also, shamefully, rather like his back. It is wide, and I tuck behind its generous draft.
I try to do the decent thing and come round from time to time, but each manoeuvre is met by an immediate and equal manoeuvre from him. He doesn’t smile, but nor does he say anything. I therefore assume he is OK with his English parasite, and our acquaintance remains amicable.
Considering the incredible beauty all around, it seems inconceivable I should be staring at a man’s sweaty backside, but I do so for nearly 20km more, until the road rises successfully enough that my companion’s track-level bulk overcomes his legs, and I’m momentarily alone.
I’m one bottle down with one to go when a ghostly rider wheezes into view. He seems in bad shape and says he’s out of water, so I offer mine. Half a dozen glugs and my bottle is returned, empty.
That wasn’t quite the plan, but my masking-tape checkpoints tell me there should be a feed station soon.
I pass a couple of excited stewards bouncing up and down at the extremities of a hairpin. The sun has nearly flooded the gorge, and the tarmac, once stained with drifts of condensed water, has become a lighter shade of grey.
It is now officially hot. In fact it’s baking. It’s a bit like being in an oven, only an older type with no fan assistance. At 5km too late I realise the bouncing stewards were the feed station. I am cooked.
I plug on, not entirely sure what to do. It’s too far to go back, but the road has been devoid of riders for some time. I finally decide to risk my insides and fill up at one the myriad miniature waterfalls that teem from the gorge’s rock faces.
The water is cool but tastes like a mossier version of how the tunnels smelt. No matter, I figure my body would be hard-pressed to get sick before I get to the top. Although that’s still a sizeable if.
Thinking too much
After what seems like an age the next feed station comes into view. To the titters of the helpful staff, I overfill bottles, guzzle back Coke in plastic cups and stuff unknown cakes into as many Lycra orifices as possible, including my shorts.
It’s amazing the effect food can have on a tired body, let alone a tired mind, so feeling refreshed if not exactly rejuvenated, I plough towards my self-imposed 80km waypoint.
It ticks by; I’m elated. My average speed is above my most optimistic projections: 20.5kmh. I feel I’ve finally broken the back of the KOM. I feel like I’m winning.
There’s even a brief descent, and I’m back in a group of riders, working harmoniously and managing to circumvent the language barrier – there must be at least six – by communing through elbow flicks.
Then I tentatively peer down at the digits beneath the salt-dripped crust that has encased my Garmin, and I’m dealt a significant blow.
At the back of my mind I knew this already, but I’ve tried to banish it from my thoughts. There are still 1,200 vertical metres to climb.
I try to put that in perspective and it’s a bad move. I surmise we have already climbed the equivalent of the Galibier and still have an Alpe d’Huez and a bit to go, during which time we’ll get several hundred metres higher than the Col de l’Iseran.
And that’s all before we hit a final slog that promises to deliver roads of a steepness not dissimilar to the Hardknott Pass.
In another life I would be stunned by the splendour that has unfolded. We’re high enough now to get a pterodactyl-eye view of the Jurassic limestone castes.
Craggy peaks daubed thickly with trees tickle the belly of the sky and disappear into ethereal weaves of cloud. The sun is so bright the tarmac appears iridescent, and every sound seems at once dwarfed by the vastness yet amplified ten-fold in our elevated peace.
But it is not another life. It is sinew-tearingly, lung-rippingly this life, in which my legs have given up screaming and are just rocking back and forth in the corner.
My knees buckle intermittently, my neck wants to snap and my heart feels like it’s being gently steamed. I’ve called on every muscle I know of, and one by one they’re handing in resignation letters.
And I feel sick. Not nauseously sick, but rather some weird pseudo-euphoric variant, like a second pint on a hangover. It’s the altitude. We’re over 2,700m.
I cover what I assume is the 27% section. Peering sideways from my bent double position I can see riders pushing their bikes, and one just standing in the road, draped over the top tube like a pile of washing. I have a wave of schadenfreude-fuelled gladness.
That could be me. I have a secondary wave of pity. I wish I could help, but I don’t know what I could do.
I’m so very, very near the top, but the road has become poisonously undulating, still climbing overall yet dipping insidiously every hundred metres to offer tantalising reprieve.
Many of the same riders I cycled jerkily past as they pushed now overtake me, and I begin to wonder at the sense of it all. Could it really be better to walk?
Then, as quickly as my energy drained, I experience one last boost. It’s not from some forgotten magic gel or hitherto unknown quadricep. It’s much simpler: I see the finish line. It’s probably still 1km away, but it’s enough.
Crossing it is a strangely muted affair. In the lead up, spectators were running alongside, pumping fists and shouting themselves hoarse with encouragement, but as soon as I stagger to a standstill and have the obligatory medal draped over my neck, and the thrumming of blood inside my skull abates, everything is uncannily peaceful.
The quiet is because there is precious little energy left for speech. We have spent every ounce getting to the top.
I finish in five hours nine minutes, a time so average it will not appear until the sixth page in the results list. Yet once my brain kicks back in over a bowl of surely the highest-altitude noodles in Taiwan, I realise this achievement is anything but average.
It exists distinct, unconditional on any thing in my life, unwitnessed by anyone I know. Sweaty, ugly and thoroughly isolated, but like so much in cycling, beautiful in its pointless endeavour. Task Force Commander Bear is nowhere to be seen.
What Taiwan KOM Challenge
Where Hualien County, Taiwan
How far 105km, 3,275m ascent
Next one 26th October 2018
More info taiwankom.org
The rider’s ride
Trek Émonda SLR 9, £8,500, trekbikes.com
If it’s a hill climb bike you’re after, look no further than this top-tier Émonda. Furnished with the lightest parts Trek has to offer, the SLR 9 weighs just 6.08kg for a 56cm.
I was incredibly grateful for every saved gram, but it would have been worth nothing without a stiff chassis to make the most efficient use of power. And the Émonda is very stiff for a frame that weighs a claimed 640g, an incredible figure on its own.
It’s not the most comfortable bike. Uncovered, with wafer-thin carbon edges on display, the saddle was a pain in the backside after 100km. That said, the frame’s compact geometry exposes plenty of the seat mast, which did help to dampen road buzz.
How we did it
There are plenty of direct flights from the UK to Taiwan, but we opted for EVA Air (evaair.com), which proved to offer fantastic service and decent food. Flights from Heathrow to Taipei in October cost around £550 return. Trains from Taipei to Hualien take just over two hours and cost around £15 each way (railway.gov.tw).
Accommodation and food
We stayed in the Fushin Hotel in Taipei (fushin-hotel.com.tw) and the Chateau de Chine Hualien in Hualien. Both served up some incredible food, although it’s hard to find a bad meal in Taiwan.
We’d have had our feet up in the UK were it not for Caroline Bollrich at the Taiwan Tourist Board (taiwantourismus.de and eng.taiwan.net.tw), and we’d still be wandering lost around a night market without the wonderful hosting and guiding by Cecelia Chen and our driver, Mr Jinn.