As 2016 draws to a close, many endurance athletes will already be planning what events to do next year. Second Wind Magazine would like to lend a hand with that choice by publishing a short series of articles on some of the epic, iconic or simply just great cycling, running and triathlon races in Asia. We’ll kick off with this account of the mighty Taiwan KOM Challenge by Lee Rodgers.
November 11, 2016
“That was the hardest single day I have ever had on a bike,” she said to me up at the summit of Hehuan mountain after the recent 2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge. Just about everyone who has ever taken part in this increasingly prestigious event, unless they’ve ridden in something mad like a 24-hour mountain bike race, says exactly the same thing. However, this statement was remarkable because of who it came from.
The person in question was Emma Pooley, who, if you don’t know, is an absolute legend in the world of women’s cycling. Former ITT world champion (2010), Olympic silver medalist (2008), a four-time British champion, and winner of the Flèche Wallonne classic among many more cycling triumphs, Pooley then moved into marathon running. She won in that arena too, and then onto triathlons, where – guess what? – she won again. And for good measure she is the current and three-time consecutive Powerman World Duathlon Champion.
So yes, she’s pretty darn strong, and if she were a man she wouldn’t have to work again for the rest of her life. That she was not bombarded with requests for photos and autographs at this year’s Taiwan KOM Challenge on October 28 is indicative of the poor regard in which women’s cycling is held compared to the men’s side of things, but that’s another article in itself.
My own involvement with the Taiwan KOM Challenge (I am currently the Director of International Communications) began five years ago, when I was foolish/brave enough (delete as applicable, I am never sure which it is) to enter. I had taken part in races on the western side of Hehuan before and found the 70 odd kilometres of pure “up” hard but manageable. But the eastern side was, I discovered to some considerable shock to my rather hefty body, a whole different kettle of fish.
I went home, my bruised and battered self just about beginning to recover, and wrote an article about my experience on the mountain. The Taiwan Cyclist Federation (who run the race alongside the Taiwan Tourism Bureau) read the piece and contacted me to ask if I would help them to bring in more overseas riders and journalists and promote the race as a world-class international event. Over the past four years the Taiwan KOM Challenge has become the world’s most prestigious hill climb and is on many rider’s bucket list. This year we had 385 participants with almost as many from overseas as locals, coming from 45 different countries.
Some 105km in length with over 85km of climbing, the Taiwan KOM Challenge rises from its start at sea level to a whopping 3,275 metres, though thanks to two descents on the climb, the accumulated measurement is closer to 3,700m.
It rolls off by the ocean at sunrise just outside the peaceful town of Hualien and then, after a neutralised section, turns up into the wonderfully majestic Taroko Gorge, with its brilliant clear blue rivers, waterfalls and overhanging rock formations, through which the race passes below, all framed by the imposing sheer rock faces that rise up like silent behemoths from the centre of the earth.
“Mordor,” uttered one of our photographers who was seeing it for the first time on a warm-up ride the day before the event; his Lord of the Rings reference is apt as the scenery in the gorge can be both stunning and terrifying. Every time I venture onto this wondrous place I half expect to look up and see pterodactyls swooping down to snatch me off for a light snack. It’s the kind of place where, if you cannot take a good photograph of the view that is laid out before you, then you should be banned from ever picking up a camera for the rest of your life.
Upon reaching the summit after my first experience of the Taiwan KOM Challenge, I dismounted, got down on my knees and kissed the ground, like the Pope does when he gets out of an airplane, for I was beyond grateful to get off my bike! The finishing stretch, after a relatively gentle first three and a half hours or so, is mind-bendingly hard, as Pooley experienced along with everyone else at this year’s event.
The road rises up near the end quite brutally in places, like a tsunami of tarmac, towering over the slender bike riders attempting to tame the beast, which, of course, no one ever does. You cannot beat a mountain like Hehuan. She simply allows you to come and experience her majesty for a while. She merely tolerates you and your human ambitions, overwhelming all your senses. That is one of the great features of this event, how intoxicated the participants become by the experience.
“I want to come back and do it again,” is a common refrain, albeit one spoken some hours after the race finishes! One of the professional riders who raced this year said to me that for the last hour he was praying to the cycling gods to make the pain stop, but that as soon as he had finished, he wanted to do it all over again.
This is one of the reasons I love to work for this event so much. To be able to be there, encouraging the riders and to see them reach the summit under their own steam, to experience the race and the mountain through fresh eyes, is something I cherish. In fact, we all do, all the staff of the event.
As soon as the Taiwan KOM Challenge ends, as I have to send out the press release to various international media outlets, gather the images from our photographers and to promote the event on our social media. This latter part goes on all year, as we try to keep the event in people’s minds and get them thinking about entering the next edition. After a short break, from about December I begin to reach out to top professional riders to see if they are interested in attending the next race. Each year we have also invited the male winner from one of the grand tours’ King of the Mountains classification, which is a challenge in itself as they are in high demand after winning those prestigious prizes.
I also have to try to find talented, well-known and professional journalists and bloggers to attend the race and to help us promote it though their articles. Next year we intend to look also to people on Instagram who have large 100k+ followings and to invite one or two of them. It’s pretty much a case of guerrilla marketing to create the buzz around the event, as we do not have a budget for marketing, with so much going into the prize pot (over US$100,000). It is, however, a labour of love for me.
The wonderful thing about this race is the way it brings people together and unites them through the experience of just getting up the mountain. Cycling, I feel, is about pain and suffering and beauty and joy, in fairly equal measure, and at the Taiwan KOM Challenge, each of these is doled out in very generous portions to one and all! Every rider goes through a very similar experience, and that is quite a beautiful thing.
Ride the Taiwan KOM Challenge and you become part of the KOM family. I encourage you all to come and ride this amazing event, and take a moment to say hello to me too. I’ll be there to cheer you on as you take on what I believe to be the hardest and most beautiful climb in the world – from the comfort of the lead car!
Feature and unaccredited photos courtesy of Daebong Kim/Taiwan Cyclist Federation.
Second Wind Magazine‘s Alan Grant took part in the 2015 Taiwan KOM Challenge; click here to read his account of what was a grueling but ultimately unforgettable day of riding.