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Saturday, October 25th marked the race day of the 2019 Taiwan KOM Challenge, an event known for being one of the more peculiar in the cycling race calendar.
This years King of the Mountain title went to young Danish cyclist Anthon Charmig in a time of 3:24:24 while the women's race was taken by Asheligh Moolman from South Africa (3:51:55)
The event has been attended by many professional cycling household names in the past; Vincenzo Nibali, Laurens Ten Dam, Cadel Evans, Marianne Vos and Emma Pooley to name just a few with a cool $500,000ntd (€15,000) up for grabs for the winner of both the men's and women's race.
The event, currently in its 8th has been gaining popularity worldwide with the latest push towards alternative cycling events such as Dirty Kanza, Cape Epic, RAAM and the Haute Route to name just a few.
The Taiwan KOM most definitely fits the alternative event bracket and is open to cyclists of all levels, from those just looking to finish it, all the way up to those looking to battle out the top prizes.
Taiwan KOM has historically started in the beautiful, sleepy city of Hualien (population of just 100,000 people) on the east coast of the island of Taiwan. A far cry from the bustling cities (Taichung, Changhua and Pinghu) on the opposite coast some 200km away, synonymous with high-end manufacturing supplying the bicycle industry, Hualien is surrounded with nature from the coasts bordering the Pacific Ocean to many of Taiwan's 240+ mountainous peaks over 3000m in the Taroko Gorge and beyond.
The race boasts a total length of 105km, starting at sea level. The ramp uphill really starts to hit at the bottom of Taroko Gorge (after approx 25km of neutralized riding on flat terrain) which is inevitably the start of the pain cave. This doesn't let off much, with just a couple of considerable downhill sections throughout the race. The result is an exhilarating finish on Hehuan Wuling Mountain at 3275metres after over 5500metres of vertical climbing and gradients which ramp up to over 27% !
Last year while planning my travel to Taiwan to visit our business partners & suppliers, I decided it would be a good plan to kill 2 birds with the 1 stone and throw my hand at the event for the first time. It was a must to see what all the commotion was about, having had my interest sparked from the GCN coverage of the race from the previous year.
Although my plans had not included a visit to Taiwan's East Coast last year, the infrastructure on the small island makes almost all cities highly networked and easily accessible. There are a number of short flights to Hualien from all major domestic cities along with a high speed rail system which is linked in an 'n' shape around the island.
I decided the "race" was purely going to be for experience purposes and I had no intention of posting a good time. It would also serve me greatly to better understand the course if I ever did decide to tackle it when my fitness levels are at a satisfactory level!
I wont go further with boring you guys further with details about my day or how it panned out for me in length. I will leave you however with some key takeaways from my experience of the race and a more varied approach consider a) it was not my primary focus in Taiwan and b) i most likely approached the journey a bit differently with an ability to fluently speak Mandarin. The below points are in no particular order but I would say each is a valuable piece of information, as basic (and often stupid) as some of them may seem.
1. Give yourself plenty of time to settle in Hualien
As mentioned, Hualien is a beautiful city. If at all possible, arrive at least 24 hours in advance to become familiar with surroundings. This will also allow some time to ride some of the roads around the Taroko Gorge which will give you a better understanding of the route.
2. Ensure plenty of fluids
For some peculiar reason I decided I would only need one bottle cage and bottle (I thought i was being smart considering it was uphill). I hadn't thought it through very well clearly but on the day there was just 3 water stops. Equip yourself with 2x 500ml bottles at a minimum. After all, you are in Taiwan. It will not be uncommon for temperatures to hit almost 30°C closer to sea level.
3. Check your bike fit
Once again a very silly mistake, my steerer was pretty well chopped and stem close to slammed. Normal riding conditions? No Problem. Riding uphill, hunched over and often out of the saddle? Most definitely a problem. Reason one being restriction of lung capacity and two because of the work your lower back will have to endure (not to mention your neck)
4. Bring a Cape/Gilet and a Rear Light
How many of you actually fully read through read through race debriefs?
The race starts very early. It is still very dark and fog can be very heavy near the top of the summit also. A rear light is absolutely essential for this reason, make sure to pack it. It also gets pretty cold up the top (even for an Irish guy like myself used to the cold, wet weather). Bring a light rain cape at a very minimum. Also consider light gloves and check the forecast of the summit on the day.
5. You are not limited to stay in the Race hotel however...
It will make life easier for you. I opted for something a bit more adventurous and found an incredible Airbnb downtown approx 10km from the Race Hotel. This was a fantastic place to chill out while spending a few days in Hualien but for anybody who would prefer to not have to deal with any unnecessary pressure it may be best to choose the race hotel or something else very close by. Note to self, theres not many Taxis around Hualien to bring you to the start line at 4:30am in the morning when you're a bit caught for time and not familiar with the roads -_-
6. Book your travel back from the summit
Theres a number of options available (You can go back to Hualien or alternatively get a bus straight on to Taipei or Taichung along with other areas). From the KOM website it is easily missed that this is a requirement and race organizers will most definitely not let you cycle back down the mountain (the descent takes almost 2 hours and will cook any rim brake wheels!) The last thing you want to do is have to worry about how you're going to get back down and end up waiting around because you didnt book a bus ticket on the website.
7. Get an effective gear ratio.
The ramps towards the top of the summit are pretty insane. Regardless of your climbing abilities I think its best to stay safe and run a Compact Chainset with a low tooth of at least 32t on the rear.
8. Pick your kit effectively
Apply some logic, dont try and do the superhero. Ask yourself if everything you're equipped with logically makes sense. Carbon Rim Brake wheels for example as a big no-no in my eyes and I've heard of many people cooking their rims up there. In particular there are two heavy descents which are very long and steep. The last thing you want is a buckled carbon rim! If you're looking for weight savings without compromise feel free to check out our range ;-)
9. Enjoy yourself!
Its most definitely the most spectacular cycle I can recall doing in my lifetime. Unless you're aiming for the cash prizes, take in the views and dont forget to smile, its probably not often you're gifted with views like this!