The following account of the Taiwan KOM Challenge was written by Brett Lindstrom, who is the sales and marketing manager for the shoe manufacturer Lake. He’s a veteran racer and a gifted climber. Here at RKP, we often hear from our contacts in product management just how good the riding in is Taiwan and how difficult the climbing is. We asked Brett if he’d be willing to write an account of his experience doing the event. —Padraig
The island of Taiwan is essentially one massive mountain range, with a single ridge line bisecting the island. That ridge contains more than 200 individual peaks and many of them top out above 3000 meters (9850 feet). The climb on which the Taiwan KOM Challenge is based is HeHuan Mountain, which is often just referred to as the Wuling climb. It’s one of the longest continuous ascents in the world, a whopping 87km (54 miles); the total ride is 105km (65 mi.) thanks to an 18km neutral (but uphill) rollout. The ride starts at sea level and takes riders to a breathless 3275m (10,745 ft.). Amazingly, that’s not the ride’s most impressive feature; the climb averages a grade of 17 percent over the final 8km and features one pitch of 27 percent. By all accounts it is one of the toughest climbs in the world.
How steep is a 27 percent grade? A fellow Boulderite told me that portions of Flagstaff, a popular ride, are possibly that steep. Alas, its steepest pitches are only 14 percent. L’Alpe d’Huez has several pitches of 12 percent. Fargo Street in Los Angeles is 33 percent, but it’s less than 100 meters long; I’d hit this pitch after hours in the saddle. Vail mountain has a steep ski slope gradient that I’ve ridden during the Teva Games that rivals 27%, but the ominous incline rumored to be the heart break hill of the KOM Challenge was to be a first for me. I equipped my bike with compact gearing because I couldn’t imagine that wall to be insurmountable. At first, I resisted the necessary gearing, writing it off as only an amateurs gearing, though after speaking with Kim Steeds who rode the KOM last year, and reading articles about the event, it would seem idiotic not to run this gearing and then be unable to finish the race.
One week before the trip to Taiwan and the KOM Challenge I chose to ride the Mike Nosco Memorial Ride. It was a bit of a last minute decision to make the trek north to Malibu and ride with 500 of my closest friends, some past Tour winners and cycling legends also accompanied me. The 80-mile hill-plagued course proved to be good training for the KOM, the only problem being the sections of flat and downhills, which the KOM will not have. Neil Shirley warned me that Deer Creek would be the toughest of the three climbs, definitely the steepest (it averages 15 percent), and dropping my chain at the base of the climb would make it that much harder. What made the climbing on Deer Creek interesting and also exhilarating was riding with a groupetto that included current and retired pro cyclists.
When I left for Taipei I cringed when the counter agent told me it would be $200 each way for the bicycle. It plagued me for the flight to SFO. I scanned the plane when I boarded to find the largest passenger and compare the weight difference between me and my bags and that passenger and his or her bags. Cyclists should be given a break. They’re fit and typically slimmer than the average passenger, and bikes, unlike golf clubs, don’t require you to water acres of green grass just to play. I can remember the days when I went back and forth to Europe to race and the bike was free as long as it was one of the two bags you checked. Sometimes I even flew with two bikes, to do that now would cost a small fortune. As I said to the counter agent, “I guess this puts more pressure on me to win.” Not that I was factoring the trip fees on a gamble that I would win all the money back, but it might take some of the sting out of the bike fee.
Packing my bags for the trip must have looked like preparation for an Everest Expedition, minus all the down clothing. Here’s a list of everything I packed:
- Four pairs of bib shorts
- Four jereseys short sleeve
- Four base layers of varying materials and thickness
- One thermal vest
- One water proof jacket
- One pair of arm warmers
- One pair of knee warmers
- Two pairs of cycling shoes (packed in different bags)
- Two pairs of pedals (packed in different bags)
- One helmet
- One bicycle
- Tools to assemble the bike once arrived (pedal wrench, torx wrench set and hex wrench set)
- Five pairs of cycling socks, one pair of running socks
- One pair of running shoes (in case the weather is crap and I need to hang out in the hotel gym for a day)
- Four water bottles
- One bulk size bag of drink mix
- A freezer zip lock bag full of gels, bars, nuts etc.
- One pair of jeans
- Two pairs of shorts
- Five tee shirts
- One hoodie
- Five changes of underwear
- Laptop computer
- Sleeping mask and ear plugs
- Flip flops
Planning to travel to Taipei, which I had done before, required some preparation. The good news is that I knew what to expect from the balmy climate to the nutritionally challenged diets of most of the Taiwan natives (which are heavily reliant on MSG). Though I was looking forward to a hearty bowl of beef noodles and some tasty dumplings, I was going to need to shop for supplemental items. I brought my own granola, even though the breakfast buffets at some of these hotels includes just about everything including whole fish. I also brought a lot of on-the-bike foods that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find easily once in Taipei.
When I lived and raced in France in the early ‘90s I relied heavily on the local tradition for on-the-bike nutrition. Figs and dates wrapped in foil to shove in my jersey pocket. Water bottles filled with fructose and l’acohol de mint, or black tea and sugar. Also popular at that time was sugar tablets and fruit paste. I can even remember getting a feed once that was a baguette sandwich with ham and cheese.
A friend who did the KOM Challenge last year warned me not to take hand outs of products labeled with Chinese Characters, he apparently took in a mouthful of chamois butter a volunteer was handing out thinking that riders would appreciate the mid race relief of applied ointment. I knew that I’d need to replace 4000 calories during the race and even if I couldn’t stomach that many calories during the race, I’d at least be prepared to ingest that amount. What is that saying about bringing an umbrella even if it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain? I used to—and still do on occasion—pre open all of my bars before shoving them into my jersey pocket so that I didn’t have to mess with opening them during a fast descent, which meant that sometimes I threw away unfinished bars.
Some of the pre race preparation has been researching the other riders competing in the KOM Challenge. Facebook is a great tool when it comes to spying on your competition. It was clear who the ringers are in this race: the Canadian National Road Champion Will Routley and stage winner at the ATOC, and a Danish rider John Ebsen, who won the race two years ago. Soaking wet this rider looked to be all of 100 lbs and 5’ 2″ at the tallest. When he wrote that his workouts required him to push 250 watts for different lengths with periods of higher power, I realized that meant his strength-to-weight ratio was better than mine, I won’t be looking to stay on his wheel. My FTP (functional threshold power) is around 300 watts, but I’m also a third bigger than he is.
Other preparations included, installing a compact crank set, an 11-27 cassette, lighter carbon wheels and deflating my ego. It also meant losing some of what I call surf mojo weight. During the Summer I put on some extra pounds, but not all of it was fat. Some of it was upper body strength from paddling the surf board to catch some tastey waves. My time on the bike was definitely lacking, though from a core strength perspective I was good. RKP contributor Tim Jackson has been constantly reminding me to eat a sandwich due to my appearance. But I can say from experience that when that magical climbing weight is reached, suddenly going uphill seems to be like riding on the flats. There is a gravitational shift that occurs, a certain levity in loosing just a few pounds.
Not my first rodeo, Taiwan. This was my fourth trip to Taiwan and after having visited three times, I was looking forward to this trip the most. One can not help but reference the movie “Lost In Translation” when traveling to Asia. The jet lag, culture, change of diet, foreign language, mopeds in the thousands, beetle nuts et al is a challenge to any Westerner no matter how many visits. I embrace my time abroad. Anthony Bourdain mapped the culinary landscape in a way that I can now navigate those foods I truly enjoy. I even like stinky tofu, which was not even on my road map the first time I visited Taipei.
The people of Taiwan are very generous, welcoming and embrace a sentiment similar to most islanders living around the globe. The Hawaiians call this Aloha. Blame it on the jetlag. My inaugural trip to Taiwan was a haze lasting three long days with less than seven hours sleep for the entire time. My last voyage abroad was more successful in regard to nipping jet lag. It’s part of the Brett Lindstrom Travel®. It can work for anyone. It’s a simple plan. Arrive three days prior to your adventure. Once you set foot in Taiwan or anywhere else that has a substantial time difference (crossing the date line), you’ll need to clear your calendar, making outings from your hotel to a coffee shop, the hotel gym and just venturing out during day light hours. Knowing that you have given yourself three days to acclimate also takes the stress away from forcing your internal clock forward several hours (14 hours difference for Taiwan). My friends and colleagues at Zero Sport Taiwan, my hosts for the KOM, also mapped out some rides prior to the actual race day for some shake down rides, a must when ever traveling with a bicycle.
Race Day: November 15, 2014 (Hualien, Taiwan)
The day ahead was simple. Ride from sea level to the top of a mountain with a peak of 10,745 feet. Add pouring rain and darkness and it’s a daunting thought. It was a mass start format with both the men and women competitors lining the start followed by a neutral procession through the village before making a sweeping left turning starting the climb. It had been raining so hard that it was almost impossible to see the rider in front of you from the wheel spray and the falling rain. For this reason I was prominently located at the head of the pack, free from spray and harm of accident which proved to be a good move.
Within the first 20km a crash involving Tiffany Cromwell and Jo Hogan occurred, stirring up the women’s field. I almost hit the deck after my rear wheel came into contact with the light domes which are used as a center divider, which prove to be very slippery when wet. The road surface was also very slick and once the pavement steepened my rear wheel lost traction. At one point I was riding shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan’s famed Pro Tour rider Fang Jun Kai , Will Routley and John Ebsen. However, after a quick assessment of the competition, it became clear to me that I was the biggest rider in the pack (both in height and weight), I would surely be at a disadvantage when it came to strength versus weight ratios. Additionally, I had most riders beet by almost ten years of age, thus recovery would be a bit of an issue as well.
Unbeknownst to most it wasn’t the pace that would make the selection of those joining the podium, but the three plus hours in the pouring rain and climbing above 10,000 feet would eliminate many of the riders before the finish. I watched as what I thought would be victors in the race, climb into support vans or standing on the side of the road with uncontrollable shakes. I was fortunate to have a support vehicle carrying water bottles and a thermal vest. The only problem was that I asked the vehicle to meet me after the third feed station seventy kilometers into the race and what would prove to be twenty kilometers too late.
I finally received the vest just before the only descent on the course. Thanks to the vest, combined with steady eating, almost force feeding at times (or so it felt), I was able to recover and climb through the remaining kilometers. The final portion of the climb was said to reach a grade of 27 percent. Anticipating that mythic pitch was constantly plaguing my thoughts. I knew that I needed to save enough energy to make it past this sector on the climb, that this would not be the most challenging section on the course. In fact it was during the final five kilometers in which I felt as though my bike had gained fifty pounds and my legs were no longer capable of turning the crank. I felt as if I had just started riding bicycles and hadn’t developed the necessary musculature.
It now seamed as though each kilometer would take an additional half hour, though in reality is was not this long. I used a tactic that has worked many times to stay positive and perservere, which was to remind myself of the little victories of the day and to focus on one pedal stroke at a time. I finally crossed the line and saw the few who had finished strewn about and being tended to like fatigued soldiers, sipping a delicious ginger tea and shivering under a borrowed jacket. I soon learned that a veteran and former victor of the race, John Ebsen, would once again claim the place atop the podium; come to find out that he had relocated to Taiwan from his native Denmark, a year ago, to train specifically for this race and claim the prize of one million Taiwan Dollars (or $40,000 US dollars). Marg Fedyna of Canada would claim the women’s win and everyone who crossed that finish line (approximately 450 riders) would feel the victory of accomplishment by enduring probably their toughest day ever on a bicycle. I hope to make the trek back to Taiwan next year, hopefully bringing with me a handful of fellow cyclists to experience the great challenge and majestic beauty of the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
Images: Taiwan Cycling Federation