“There really is no way of sugar coating it, this ride is a long way from a pootle around your local lanes. The Taiwan KOM is a challenge with a capital C, in fact it is challenge with a capital C H A L L E N G and E. Now I’m not here to scare people off, I’m just here to lay it all out, this will take some training to prepare for and some guts to complete, but hey, that’s what us cyclists love, right? It’s all about the challenge, of pushing ourselves further and higher, in this case, much higher, it’s what we live for.
The event was first run in 2012 and right away grabbed cyclists attention as they learned what was involved. There were some big hill climb races out there, in the Rocky mountains in America or in the Alps, but nothing, nothing even close to what this ride offered. The thought of a 105 kilometre ascent up to an altitude of 3275 metres to many seemed insane but to others a dream come true and it has quickly become one of the must ride events in an increasingly global sport.
Starting in the city of Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast the 105 kilometre route travels the length of the Wuling Pass to its atmospheric height of 3275m which is a massive 473m higher than the highest paved road in France, the Cime de la Bonette. Or for further comparison it gains almost the same altitude as climbing three times up Alpe d’Huez, or if you prefer 25 times up Surrey’s Box Hill. Yes it’s a LOT of climbing but it’s not just the climbing that will get you, altitude plays a big part in this event as it takes you into territory you will simply not be used to. With the summit closer in height to Everest base camp than to sea level you will likely be riding higher than you ever have before and even if you have spent a lot of time in the Alps or Pyrenees, this is a leap into the unknown.
Last year British hill climb Champion Dan Evans flew out confident that he could compete on it’s slopes. Although he won his British title on the insignificant 1900m long Headley Hill in Northumberland, he is no stranger to riding in the big mountains. If you take a look at the all time fastest ascents of Alpe d’Huez on Strava you will see him sitting in 11th place just a couple of minutes behind a certain Roman Bardet so there is no doubt he has the pedigree. However, once he got over 2400m he says his body just stopped working. He was simply unable to put produce the power he needed with the limited oxygen and his speed plummeted. Of course normal people won’t be trying to ride at 450 watts all the way up like Dan so maybe the altitude won’t have as much effect, but still, the great height must be treated with the great respect it deserves.
Unknown to Dan at the time though, it turns out that all the top guys actually spend time at altitude before the event, training in places like Hawaii, then also sleep in altitude tents to acclimatise their bodies. This kind of prep is way beyond the average competitor, so his advice, like mine, is to just ride well within yourself, don’t go trying to hold the wheel of stronger riders and be conservative with your effort so you don’t pop when the air thins.
Starting on the coast you are actually treated to 18km of flat to begin with (which just leaves 87km uphill!) and the race is neutalised so you can let the body warm up and take in the excitement of riding in a large bunch which may well contain some of the world’s best pros. The Taiwan KOM is a mass participation event open to anyone but one that also attracts real talent, and believe me, if top European pro’s like Vincenzo Nibali make the effort to line up on the start (appearance fee or no appearance fee), they are in it to win it. For a few moments there at the start, as you clip in relish the fact that you are in the same peloton as them, and yes you have every right to go up to the front and try and set the pace. Just don’t, and to quote ex-pro Phil Gaimon, “Don’t ever try and attack Nibali at 9000 feet, it doesn’t end well.” Oh and Nibali, he holds the current course record with a time of 3 hours 19 minutes set in 2017 which obviously is pretty extraordinary and way quicker than most could ever dream of. With the rest of the elite riders aiming for sub four hours I’d say a time of five hours is a more sensible target to aim for, but as it is such an unknown event, maybe targets are best to be avoided altogether, just make finishing the priority.
After the flat opening kilometres it’s when the course heads inland that the fun begins and Dan says it goes crazy at the front with the top guys going full gas from the off. The slope is relatively tame lower down but gradually builds as you head into the cold claustrophobia of the Taroko Gorge. This narrow slit in the earth letting in a scant amount of light is by all accounts both wonderful and eerie to ride through. Then once you escape you continue up through the rain forests in search of steeper slopes and before long you’ll be riding on a substantial 6% gradient then at just over half way you’ll hit a stretch of 12% which brings you up to an altitude of 1644m.
Now if you look at the stats, at this point you will have covered 64.8 kilometres and climbed 1585 metres from the start which works out at an average of 4.1%. Therefore over the next 40.2 kilometres you still have to climb another 1631 metres, the last ten of which average over 10%! Yes the second half is MUCH tougher. If you are a fan of pro bike racing you may whilst watching a time trial have heard of the term negative split. This is where a rider paces themselves below their maximum over the first half of the course in order to push that bit harder through the second. Well, this is something you could well take note of when planning your strategy although I’d advise a 9/10ths – 1/10th negative split and only open the tanks, if you still have it within you once you reach the final 10 kilometres to go.
With 84 kilometres covered you reach the intermediate peak on the profile from where you are rewarded with a blissful five kilometre descent, which although welcome, is actually robbing you of over 200 metres hard earned elevation! Sitting at 2453 metres, this crest roughly the same height as the mighty Col d’Izoard, marks the start of the final stretch. From here you’ll really start to feel the altitude and as the road rises again and there is still a formidable 1032 meters left to climb, (about the same size as your typical mountain!). To make matters even worse, hidden in the remaining slopes are stretches of gradient that peak at over 27%. Climbing 27% at sea level is difficult enough, at close to 3000 metres, it’s just madness and honestly I have no idea what it must feel like. Dan says it’s simply a case of preserving forward momentum here as you’ll be so tired, but it’s not actually quite as long or as steep as the fearsome race graphic suggests.
Would Dan recommend riding it? “100% yes, it’s a mind blowing experience to go out there, Taiwan is a sensory overload and the event is up there with the best I have ridden. I’d go back at the drop of a hat, as I have unfinished business, but if I do I’ll have to invest in an altitude tent so I can compete over the final few kilometres.”
So there you have it, still want to ride? Of course you do and I must say as a climber, as someone who has tackled all the giant passes in Europe this event has always tempted me since I first saw it and I must take up the challenge one day, or my reputation as a climber may be in question.”
If you’re tempted it’s also worth watching GCN having a go in 2017 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxfd2xzlM6k
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