QOM of the Summer Road to KOM Sportif in Taiwan
My mind and body are working separately. There is a pep talk each time I get out of the saddle; “Okay, we need to stand up now, we can do this, just a few pedal strokes”. After a few tired, wobbly jello-leg rotations, I’d collapse back into my seat. Sweat dripped from my overheated body, face crusty with salty residue, and lungs gasping for breath, struggling to fill with the thin mountain air at nearly 11,000ft above sea level. I pass the 5k to go sign in slow motion and wonder how long 5k could possibly take to finish. Too long. Much too long.
I’m participating in the Road to Summer KOM in Taiwan. The KOM (King of the Mountain) Challenge is THE cycling event in Taiwan; respected, feared, and praised. The official race takes place in October and has a strict cut off of 6 hours. NBD right? Well sure, until you look at the details: 65 miles, 10,700+ ft of climbing, potential landslides, potential severe weather, and pitches that reach a grade of 27%. There are so many cyclists that cannot make this daunting cut off that two more dates were added, a spring and summer KOM challenge, with less strict cut offs of 9 hours.
Would 9 hours be doable? It still seemed uncertain. I made my goal of 7 hours. Surely I could finish 65 miles in 7 hours!! I’d been in Taiwan for 2 days only before the event and had quickly learned that the miles were tougher than they seemed; hot, very hot, and the climbs were harsh. In my typical fashion, I did not research the event much before hand. I knew the mileage and overall climbing. It was only at dinner the night before that I learned of 27% grades. Part of me thought that was a joke, surely it can’t be that steep, I mean is that even rideable!? I couldn't seem to focus on any possible hardships because the trip to Taiwan had been unimaginably amazing thus far. Everyone was so friendly and the accommodations were top notch. Just check out the KADDA hotel we stayed at to prep for this ride. It was a full on cyclists dream hotel with bike pumps in the lobby, bikes on display, a hanging station in each room, a full on spin room as a hotel gym... like, yes please.
I still was unsure of how this would play out. Would it be a ‘race’ effort? Or a ‘ride’ effort? It was hard to tell from the crowd at the start. There was a huge mix of intense, pro looking cyclists and more casual recreational riders. There was even a someone with a fat bike which made me think, 'oh this can't be so bad'. Although I couldn't understand anything the riders were chatting about, the vibe seemed upbeat. No one seemed stressed or anxious. After some enthusiastic announcements from the ride directors, the start whistle sounded. It was only 6:30am but the air was already hot and humid. My main concern was having others to ride with. I did not want to be alone, trudging along, wasting energy for the first portion of the ride that was a relatively low average grade 2-4%. The first 18k of the ride was neutral and stopped at traffic lights which was unusual for a sanctioned event. This portioned just increased my anxiety to get moving! I was ready to go! I tried to move up in the crowd and was somewhere in the front third when the neutral scooters left us to ride our own pace. I wasn’t so concerned with taking off or being at the front at this time. I just wanted to stick with my group and see how things would go. To my surprise I was riding just fine. My mind was happy and body energized. I kept pace with the others around me, taking time to look around at the breathtaking waterfalls, bridges, and mountains around us. My face was all smiles. My legs pumped up for more and I found myself driving the pace a few times. Come on guys!! Lets GO!! There were maybe 8 of us together for a while. The road winded through tunnels, through mountains, and over bridges. The incline was relatively low, ~4% and the group held together quite well. We were moving and caught up to some riders ahead including Sharon Laws. Google her. This was cool. I was having fun. I got a little over zealous and moved to the front, controlling and driving the pace. At 46k in was the first water stop. I knew I’d have to stop for water. It was hot. At this point in the ride, I was already getting worried about overheating. The temps and inability to evaporate sweat had been difficult for me to adjust to. I was sweating much more than I ever would back home and was completely wet and salty after just 40k of riding. I was thankful for being smart and proactively taking a KLEAN athlete electrolyte pill at the start. No way I’d be making the 65 miles on 2 bottles! Before starting, I figured I’d pull in, stop, rest, get water, no real rush… That went out the window. Danny, an Australian from Cycling Tips said he’d be stopping to wait for his friend who had only recently dropped off our pace. I considered doing the same for a millisecond, but then quickly vetoed the choice in favor of continuing on. I took a bottle hand off and kept riding, sure that they’d come up and catch me soon enough.
Getting the cold bottle of water was a game changer. I dumped a bit on my head and instantly felt refreshed and able to keep on. From the first water stop our group of cyclists broke up, some ahead, others choosing to stop. I was riding alone. I hate riding alone. More than that, I was unsure for a while if I was even on the right road although I don’t think there was another road to take, it seemed possible as there was no one around. Not a person or bike in sight for miles as I winded along a mountain ridge. I was taken back to being in the grand canyon and the intense feeling of being exposed to the elements and alone in the vast setting. Finally there were riders catching up to me. While mentally it was helpful to see others nearby, physically the increasing grade made it difficult to ride as a group anymore. There came a point where 2% felt like I was riding downhill and 15mph felt fast. It is difficult to describe how it feels to just be climbing, steadily going up and up, for 65 miles. It is also difficult to explain how beautiful this ride was. It would be tough returning to Ohio to ride bikes. The scenery was simply amazing. Words cannot capture the awe, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Another water stop came and again I got a handoff and kept riding. There were 4 water stations on the route so I figured I was about half way. The road surfaces were shockingly good quality for a winding mountain road. Only a few sections had landslide rocks or potholes. There were, however, several narrow portions with cars, scooters, and hikers to navigate around which was tricky and even scary in some parts. Another scary part were the tunnels. I’d never before ridden through such long, dark tunnels. Lights were mandatory for the ride for this reason. Some portions were pitch black, no ability to see the ground surface or light at the other end. I braced myself and rode harder, eager to immerge on the other side and be out of danger. In one tunnel, I was halted to a full stop as two cars were attempting to pass each other with just centimeters between the vehicles. They inched slowly around each other while I was angry for being at a standstill and fearful of being crashed into in the darkness. Another rider joined me in the tunnel as I waited and when we were able to ride on, the two of us stayed together for quite some time.
Somewhere in the second half there was a 4k descent, the only real downhill in the entire ride. I had been warned about sharp turns, wet roads, and high potential for crashes at this point. I wanted none of that and took the portion pretty conservatively. While the roads were wet, it was not as daunting as described. Any relief my legs felt here was instantly taken away at the first climb out of the descent. That moment hit hard. Legs ached and the realization of ‘oh we are really doing this again’ set in. From this point on 4% felt like a relief the time spent out of the saddle increased. I was doing a good job of staying on top of my nutrition and still feeling relatively strong and energized, trying to keep up the cadence and even get some photos along the way. My goal of 7 hours was out the window. I could do 6! Was 5 possible!? I thought maybe it was. I actually thought 'this is easy'. I take it back now (keep reading), but I do remember thinking, 'this isn't so bad...' 'whats all the fuss about...'.
A huge motivating factor was that I was currently first female. I knew this because of how many cameras were on me. My photo has never been taken more in my entire life than during this race. At times there were 3 scooters surrounding me taking video and other rider’s team cars would come up by me for photos as well. It was fun at first but I was losing patience. Sweaty, gross, tired… not really camera ready!! But it definitely added to the experience! For a long portion I was riding along with a man who I learned would be Taiwan’s first finisher. We kept each other going, trading off wheels and attempting to communicate with smiles and hand gestures. He was definitely pumped to be representing his country in the lead.
At 10k to go, I lost him. This is where things got really steep. My legs ached. My back ached. I didn’t actually know it was 10k to go at this point. I just knew things were getting rough and I was starting to hurt bad. It became harder and harder to pedal as my energy levels faded and the incline increased. Before this point I was beginning to think they were lying with the whole 27% portion. It hadn’t been so bad! They were not lying. I was in trouble and cursing myself for recently switching to a standard from compact gearing. Note to self, compacts only at the KOM challenge. My previous delusion of this being a much easier ride than expected was gone in a flash. This was rough. I never imagined how difficult the last 10k of a 65 mile ride could be. I ate a rice ball and gummies. I poured water over my head. I saw a cyclist ahead of me with a can of coke in his back pocket and I seriously considered stealing it. I had a mental image of myself just riding up and ‘yoink’ its mine, riding away happily gulping down my stolen beverage. I had never wanted a coke more. But I would have to ride on without it. I ate handfuls of gummie bears that were in my own pocket and tried to keep on. Note to self, for uber hot races, bring a cold coke.
5k to go. There was actually a sign for this. 5k. Not bad…. Refer back to the first paragraph. What I am I doing? Why did I choose to torture myself in this way? I'd never hurt so bad on the bike. 4k to go. My legs struggled to move. My lungs struggled to take full breaths as the elevation increased. My mental state was in and out. I had to tell my body to move. To pedal. Each pedal rotation was something I had to convince my legs to do. I would not being finishing in under 5 hours. That ambition was gone. This last portion was a crawl. Suddenly the 2k sign appeared. These signs were not properly spaced which gave me a great deal of worry to how far really remained. 1k. I looked up and saw white tents off in the distance, up a long winding ridge. No way that was 1k. Freaking lying sign. I wanted to kick the sign, tear it up, through it off the mountain. I kept going. I was having a hard time staying on my side of the road, zig zagging due to steepness and loss of mental concentration I was on the brink of a bonk and just doing all I could to hold it off for a little while longer. 'Reach the white tents', reach the white tents I chanted in my head, 'just get there, you're so close'. I was so focused on getting past the finish area that I completely went past the finish area. Seriously. I missed the coned off alley on the far right that turned into the finish line and kept going straight past it and was retrieved by spectators and turned around to the right location. Oops. Got it now. Ha. Crossed that line in 5:35 and wanted nothing more than to collapse.
There would be no collapsing. I had just crossed the line as first female at an international event. There were media crowded around, cameras, a drone, video, microphones… Interviews taking place with the first male finisher, Keir from our group (who set a blazing fast time!) and the first finishers of other nationalities including the Taiwanese man I rode with for a bit. We were photographed giving tired smiles and thumbs up for roughly 30 minutes before I was able to put my bike down and look for food. There was a tent with local grub including ginger noodle soup, rice, cabbage and mushrooms, and pork mixed with tofu. I settled on rice with the vegetables and sat down in the shade to recovery and cheer in the others as they crossed this grueling finish line.
I instantly decided I would love to come back and take part in the real race in October.