Words by: Kasper Ankers
The obsession started 2 years ago when I spend 6 months in Taipei, Taiwan as an exchange student. Studying during the weekdays, and riding the jungle-like mountains around Taipei on the weekends. Normally you would not think that Taiwan and cycling goes hand in hand, but, actually, Taiwan is one big mountain range. Around 70% of the island is mountainous, with over 200 peaks above 3,000 meters in height – it truly is a cycling heaven.
Battling the small peaks and exploring the tea-fields around Taipei on the weekends was amazing. A beautiful rural countryside with steep nicely paved roads, surely it could not get better than this? It could. I have always searched for the hardest, steepest, and longest climbs. When I looked at the profile of the Taiwan KOM, I was anxious. It went from sea level to a breathless 3275m in 105km. The first 95km averages 7%, with a 4km descent, before the “real” climb starts at Dayuling – at 2565m of elevation. The last 8km has an average of 17%, with a short pitch of a massive 27.3%. Unfortunately, I did not enter the race in 2013. I saw the grueling pictures of riders suffering in the rain and cold going up the mountain. I left Taiwan without having done the race. Seeing riders suffer that much, I was in doubt whether I would ever come back and do it. 2 years later I was back.
Race Day: 30th November, 2015
I woke up at 04.00 to a crystal clear sky. I did an extra morning check on my C59 – I guess that is a pre-race habit. Reminiscing on the weather two years ago, I was nervous about my choice of tires. As the weather looked clear, I kept the 23mm Challenge Criteriums on. The fallen rocks in the gorge pose big risks of punctures, so I brought some 25mm Gatorskins with me just in case. Other than that, I relied on my Campagnolo Record compact chain set (50-34) and a 12-29 cassette on a pair of Zipp 303s to spin me up and over the steep ramps.
Having anticipated this race for over 2 years, I was actually looking forward to get started. Normally I hate the early morning race starts and find myself uneasy, but here I was relaxed and just wanted to get started. Being 12000km away from home (Copenhagen, Denmark) means it’s difficult to get the usual breakfast. I had bought some rice balls, bananas, and yogurt the night before and tried to get as much down as possible. Race start was at 06.30. I left the hotel at 05.15 to sign in. It was still pitch black outside and a fresh sea breeze greeted us at the sign in. I warmed up for 40 minutes with the sun rising over the sea and the enormous mountains waiting in the horizon.
More and more riders gathered at the starting line – everyone looking either focused or frightened. This year the Taiwan KOM had invited the likes of Omar Fraile, two-time winner John Ebsen, Taiwanese road race champion Chun-kai Feng (Lampre-Merida), and Lasse Norman Hansen (Cannondale-Garmin). The mixed atmosphere of professional riders, dedicated amateurs, and everyday cyclists taking on this race truly makes it special. With €28,000 for the winner, there is also good reason to be focused. The first 18km was neutralized, but still a very nervous pace – with scooters going up and down, passing the peloton. As soon as the race flag dropped, the first attacks sat in. My race plan was to approach the climb at my own pace and try to stick with the lead group for as long as possible – not burning out before those final 8km. The peloton strung out fast, with riders falling off the back. The road up the through the twisting gorge creates many bottleneck situations where riders in the back come to a full stop. This turned the peloton into numerous groups. I found myself in the front group next to the pro Lasse Norman, another Dane. We had a small chat and he warned me that the steep section was coming up. Just as we were going into the steep part I dropped my chain. I recovered and joined up with the group again – Lasse had a grin on his face and laughed. That was the last time I saw him.
The pace was high, and I could already feel the first 35km of steadily climbing. After riding through another of the countless tunnels, we hit another steep part. This time I decided not to push, and to conserve energy. I lost the lead group and was soon reunited with six other riders, along with last year’s women’s winner, Marg Fedyna. The six of us started pulling, and we had a good bit of teamwork going on. This gave me some time to take in the spectacular views and actually try to enjoy the amazing scenery. The marble walls in the gorge towered hundreds of meters above us, and the drop was massive. It was just as the media described it – as something out of Jurassic Park.
Every time we hit a tunnel, a certain nervousness arose in the group. There were no lights in them, and rocks and water were falling from the ceiling. After the first water station, we were joined by a fast Japanese rider who managed to split up our teamwork and chopped our group into to 4 riders. The pace went up a notch, and suddenly we were racing again. We rode together for the next 20km, eating up some of the riders who were burning out in the leading group. Just before the 84km mark, the Japanese rider from our group attacked and went full all out on the descent. I did not follow, and tried to eat and drink on the downhill. Thinking that the descent would be of much needed convenience, it was actually the opposite. 4km of descending after 84km of climbing just kills the legs completely. Moreover, the descent proved to be rather technical, and I had a big scare around one of the switchbacks. After all that climbing, with a pace of 24-27km/t, to suddenly hit 60km/t really confused me physically. I barely got out of that corner staying upright, and from that point on I decided not to take any chances on the descent. I lost the group and was now riding alone. Approaching what many of the experienced riders called the “real” climb, that is the final 10km, I was feeling battered. I kept thinking in positive ways and tried to enjoy the magnificent views of the many peaks and twirling gorges.
The final heartbreak miles
The last 8km was a nightmare. I was zigzagging my way up the inconsistent gradient. Looking down on my Garmin it was always reading between 12-16%. There was little rest before the next ramp suddenly kicked up again. My way of thinking completely changed. I was now in survival mode. I just wanted to get to the top. I could not think of anything else. On the small descents or flat sections I could see the peak and actually hear the commentators announce something. Each 100m was marked with a sign, and I remembered them counting each one down. The finish was right there, but it felt like a lifetime away. I crossed the line in 4 hours, 10 minutes and 10 seconds, making it 53rd overall and 6th in my men’s age group – 20-30. I was completely exhausted, physically and emotionally. The Taiwan KOM is the cyclists’ Everest, and should be on every cyclists bucket list.