From someone who lived to tell the tale
By Christine Vardaros
I’ve just returned from Taiwan where I competed in the most grueling bicycle race I’ve ever done – in one of the strangest lands I’ve ever visited...and I’d do it all again. It was the infamous Taiwan KOM Challenge, a hillclimb event that starts on the Hualien beach, travels 105 kilometers through the most scenic views imaginable, and ends at 3275 meters altitude on the summit of Mount Hehuan - Taiwan’s highest mountain accessible by road.
I’d heard rumors about this event was but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. The race was so difficult that it literally broke 25% of the 412 entrants and maimed many others, forcing them to complete the journey by foot. And just when you reach the 10km-to-go mark and assume you’re almost done, the road takes a crazy turn to the sky, repeatedly hitting gradients well above 27%.
Hualien Hotel Room View
My adventure kicked off early Monday morning at the Brussels airport, where I mentally prepared myself for yet another discussion about how much I should pay for the bike. To my pleasant surprise, Lufthansa checked in both bike and bag at no extra cost. After two relaxing flights, I arrived in Taipei early the next day. Tucked into our luxurious hotel rooms, our group of twelve had a full 30 minutes to ourselves before having to reconvene in the lobby. I ended up spending 20 of those minutes on the toilet. Turns out the Taiwanese are really into their toilets, I thought, as I pressed each and every one of its random buttons. Water sprayed from every direction, at every speed and volume. I had to suction my butt off the heated rim.
The lunch spot they took us to was a Michelin-star dumpling restaurant called Din Tai Fung in downtown Taipei. It was amazing to watch the speed at which the cooks whipped up these scrumptious dumplings, every one of them the perfect size and shape.
Afterwards, we were driven directly to the first of many race conferences. In line with Taiwan’s reputation for extravagance when it comes to entertaining, they opened up the ceremony with a traditional drum performance, led by a female drummer. Later on we were treated to a trials show with GT Bikes’ legendary cyclist Hans Rey. I will never forget the organizer’s eyes bulging out of his head when Hans jokingly tapped the guy’s chest with the front wheel while he laid on the ground as still as possible.
That evening we visited a show-cooking restaurant where the food was beautifully served. Directly from there we took a stroll through Taipei’s most famous night market. I must admit that our collection of brightly colored compression socks fit right in with the neon backdrop of the market strip.
Tucked between the never-ending booths of snacks, trinkets, and fortune-tellers, I found a massage parlor. As my back pain was at its worst, I thought I’d use my allotted time to get a quick fix. A Taiwanese girl no older than 16 years old brought me into a back room, and strangely enough told me to leave my jeans on. Immediately I sensed this was not going to be the sports massage I needed, nor was it going to finish up with a happy ending, so I immediately left to join the others on their shopping spree.
At the end of the street was a beautifully ornate Buddhist Temple, built in honor of Mazu, goddess of the sea. It was a full moon that night so the temple was filled with worshipers delivering special offerings to the goddess. There were all sorts of prayer methods on display, the strangest of which were the folks repeatedly throwing what looked to be wooden chips onto the ground, their clacking sounds echoing throughout the temple. I later learned that they were asking questions to the goddess and the fallen chips gave them their answers.
The next morning our group was relocated to the race hotel four hours away in the beach town of Hualien. The one winding mountainous road to get from Taipei to Hualien that runs along the cliff - the type you’d see on Discovery Channel - was in itself worth the trip to Taiwan. The only downside to it was that they call it the highway of death because many people have lost their lives on this route where every type of transport is vying for space. I may have bitten my nails down a bit, especially when our driver passed cars and trucks in the middle of blind turns, but the Pacific Ocean and cliff views were worth it – I decided after we’d safely arrived at our destination.
Hot Springs near Taipei
The day before the race, on a Thursday, we rode over to a pre-race conference held right on the picture-perfect Hualien beach. We arrived early to the event so we decided to extend our ride alongside the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time I took my bike out for a spin since racing cyclocross the weekend previous in Kruibeke, Belgium and Contern, Luxembourg. Three days is a lot for me to go without riding, especially in the middle of cross season, so I felt like a little kid to be playing on the bike again.
It was also a great opportunity to test out my STEVENS Xenon bike’s new wheels and tires that were shipped directly to my hotel in Taiwan, namely 3T’s newest carbon clincher, Orbis II 35C LTD, and Challenge’s new Elite 25c tires – a combination that would impress even the most hardcore weight/quality weenies. Not only was I able to determine that my machine was ready for battle, but we got to take in many more stunning views along the way. The most exquisite of them all was a cemetery consisting of over a hundred mausoleums, a rarity these days in Taiwan where space is tight and cremation is now the law in many parts of the land.
Back at the beach ceremony, we were introduced to the key players of the race. One such cyclist was 2015 Vuelta a Espana’s KOM Jersey winner 25 year old Omar Fraile of Spain, of Caja Rural-Seguros RGA who transfers to MTN-Qhubeka next season. Another top cyclist was 27 year old Taiwan national road champion Chun-Kai Feng of Lampre-Merida. We also heard from 37 year old Neil Shirley, former pro cyclist for Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, as well as from 29 year old Mark Dowling of Ireland who rides for Dynamo Cover Pro Cycling.
On the women’s side, we met 24 year old Eri Yonamine of Japan, a professional road racer for Saxo Bank FX Securities and 2013 KOM Challenge winner. Another familiar face in the women’s field was 51 year old Marg Fedyna of Canada, an adventure racer who won the 2014 KOM Challenge.
That night, after a piled-high plate of Japanese inari sushi (fried bean curd stuffed with rice), sautéed broccoli, red beets, lettuce and taro buns, I went to bed early, in hopes of being bright-eyed in the morning. Well, my excitement for the unknown kept me up longer than I hoped. When the alarm sounded at 4 in the morning, I had clocked in maybe 3 hours of sleep. At 5:20 we were on our way over to the start.
The sun was just rising above the Pacific Ocean when the gun went off. Even without the sun’s warmth it was already a comfortable 22°C (72°F). As the first 17 kilometers of the 105km trek was neutralized along the water, it turned into social hour. But once we made a sharp left turn inland, it was friends no more with eyes on the prize. Top prize for the men was about $30,000 USD while top woman would earn about $6,000 USD. According to the organizers, the plan is to increase the women’s purse in the coming years to attract more top riders. As for my personal bid for gold, that ended five minutes into the race when my back pain shifted into high gear.
The next 5 ½ hours up the 87km climb felt like a dream. It could have been due to the extreme pain I'd had to endure, but I’d like to think it was because I was overwhelmed by the astonishingly beautiful surroundings. The views were simply unbelievable. My favorite section of the road was the legendary Taroko Gorge, a 19km long marble-walled canyon where the sheer cliffs face each other. The numerous magnificently sculpted tunnels carved into the mountainside were such a joy to weave in and out of. Even now, days after the event, I am still affected by what I’ve seen.
But views aside, I still had a job to do – I had to reach the top, a task that would be a challenge in itself in my current condition. It’s amazing how cyclists have this built-in survival instinct, which especially came in handy when I reached the last 10 kilometers. Except for the 1km descent located 2km before the finish, it was a continuous never-ending string of steep off-camber climbs, often reaching above 27% gradient. Luckily my husband Jonas had the foresight to equip my bike with a compact crankset just before I left. I had 34/50-12/28 gearing which was enough to keep me from walking up the steepest bits. I also relied heavily on cyclocross/mtb technique to “flip” the front wheel back and forth to effectively minimize the gradient.
Not everyone was as lucky as I was. If ever there was a race of attrition, this was it, I surmised as I passed at least twenty guys on foot in those last 10 kilometers. There was also another handful lying on the side of the road, writhing in pain while attempting to stretch out their cramped muscles. Of 412 entrants, only 306 finished which is a testament to just how hard it is. Last year, when mother nature was not on their side, only about half of the racers made it to the top.
Chun Kai Feng
The moment I crossed the finish a heavy medallion with 3D mountains on its face was strung around my neck. I looked at the medal, then took a 360° peek at my surroundings. Yep, it matched the medallion perfectly. What I saw from our vantage point of 3275 meters high were the tops of the other mountains – maybe not all 285 other peaks that reach over 3000 meters on the island, but quite a lot of them. It was such a surreal sight for my tired eyes.
Omar, Valenti, Dowling Marg, Eri, Rodgers
Moments later, I was whisked over to my top support crew of Lee Rodgers and Bauyung Gao, the superstar duo who took care of us the whole week. They scooped me up and set me into the van so I could get dry and fed. Minutes later I was at the finish waiting for the last of our group, Valenti Sanjuan, an adventure racer from Barcelona who has his own youtube TV show documenting his travels. Tears were streaming down his face – so happy to have finished. I knew the feeling. It was one of those races where you really feel like you’re in a dream state on one long exotic journey for those hours while you follow that same road all the way to the top. I must have died five times, if not more, before reaching the finish!
The next morning we all piled back into the vans with our baggage in tow, direction Taipei. What should have been a quick four hour trip back through the highway of death, turned into a real odyssey thanks to a landslide that closed the road. So halfway through our drive, we were turned around and taken instead to the train station. From train, to bus, to taxi before reaching our final destination seven hours later. Every one of us walked away thankful for the detour as it gave us a taste of Taiwanese culture that we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Who would have known that Taiwan is so “wired” that they even have WIFI on their buses.
The only downside was that we showed up to the post-race banquet a few hours late. We walked in just as they were handing out awards to the folks responsible for holding this top event. After receiving their tokens of recognition, there were group photos – one hand on their award, the other in the thumbs-up position as is apparently done for all photos in Taiwan.
That evening, we wrapped up our week with a night on the town. Lee took us to a pub called Carnegie’s..on Halloween of all nights. I spotted a mutant ninja turtle, vampire, little red riding hood, nurse, and gypsy, and those were just the ones dancing on the tabletop. I also spotted a Bernie Sanders head, Minnie mouse, mermaid, fairies, joker, avocado sushi, tiger,witches, and devil headbands. Our favorite was the nun in neon green sequined stilettos. She looked and acted so much in character that we took bets on whether she was the real deal…that was, until her friend, a mummy with her mouth sewn shut with black paint, showed up.
The next day I got to play tourist, courtesy of longtime friend Ryan Liles and his girlfriend Emily. Ryan works for a Taiwan bicycle company that sells bikes to Walmart. His job is to make the bikes rideable so that peoples' very first bikes will be a positive experience and they'll stick with the sport. What an admirable job.
National Palace Museum
Our first metro stop on the tour was the infamous National Palace Museum where we viewed 8000 years of art, from Neolithic age to the Qing dynasty, all in under two hours. It was strange to see the actual pieces that were taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing, China to Taiwan back in 1949 when the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan – leaving Mao Tse-tung’s communists in control of the mainland. Kai-shek transported the art in three US military vessels across stormy waters and somehow the precious cargo arrived entirely intact.
Next was an exquisite tea house where I learned how tea is really supposed to taste. I ate my first green tea leaf tempura, courtesy of the strong Japanese influence on the island. Our last stop was an authentic bun vendor. I bought 5 huge buns, three filled with red bean paste, one with sweet potato shreds and one with raisins…all for only $3.27 USD which was a great price considering each bun is a meal in itself.
On my last day in Taiwan, Bauyung brought me to a very special temple called Hsing Tian Kong. Before entering, we first had to visit the “offerings” store next door that sold items solely to be used as offerings at the neighboring temple. For sale were mainly edible items like candy, dried noodles, cookies and other baked goods. Knowing beforehand that we get to keep the items we purchase as offerings, I chose a few vegan treats like yummy moon cakes and sweet rice with dried longan berries in the shell.
Inside the temple was a large open room filled with praying folks. Some were throwing those wooden chips on the ground, others repeatedly bowing with palms pressed against each other, and the rest kneeling on cushions. We first got in line to receive a special shoujing “summoning the soul” ritual conducted by a woman waving three incense sticks around our bodies. Next we kneeled on a cushion, treats on the ground in front of us, and asked the gods for what we wanted – good health is a popular one amongst the Taiwanese. I prayed for lower back health, in particular. Upon exiting the temple, we cracked open the longan berries and ate them, as is traditionally done.
Next was a trip to an authentic tea shop owned by Bauyung’s tai chi teacher. Tea is stored there in oversized cylindrical metal containers that came up to my waist. What impressed me most were the exquisitely hand crafted tea cups that cost in upwards of $3000 USD each. Nearby we shared our final meal at a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop where I paid a whopping $3.50 USD for three dishes of peanut noodles, spinach and bok choy. No western utensils in site.
While I may have sacrificed a couple of cyclocross races that normally would have been on my calendar that week, I can easily say that my trip to Taiwan was well worth it. The race was like no other, the Taiwanese atmosphere more colorful than I imagined.
Taiwan is really the perfect place for those who are in search of some good climbing on impeccably paved roads…all under warm sunny skies. For those up for the adventure, there is a Taiwan-based organization called CrankPunk that holds training camps and bike tours throughout the island. They handle everything so all you have to do is focus on riding the bike. For more information, contact them at www.crankpunk.com .
Christine in a noodle shop
Bus stop view