Iʼve mentioned this hill-climb before, but permit me to drone on. Itʼs a 90km beast of an event that lives in central Taiwan, and goes from a sleepy town that goes by the name of Hualien, meanders through the rather magnificent Taroko Gorge amidst and sometimes through enormous slabs of ancient rock so delightful that entices riders even mid-race to utter ʻooh wow!ʼ and up and up and up to a small makeshift stage where a septuagenarian Robert Plant look-a-like is doing an acappella version of Stairway To Heaven in a string vest, leather speedos and Uggs — and then up a little more, all the way up to 3,275 meters.
I mentioned this climb (named Wuling) to one of my Peloton Buddies the day before the stage up to Genting and he actually said that he found my tale hard to believe — as if Iʼd make it up! Ok, there is no septuagenarian Robert Plant look-a-like is doing an acapella version of Stairway To Heaven in a string vest, leather speedos and Uggs. Heʼs actually 64, but the rest is true.
I raced up it late last year alongside Euro-peloton veteran Michael Carter, and he, of the Grand Tours of Spain, Italy and France, said he had never seen anything like it.
So Gending, Stage 6. I suffered, yes, and my time wasnʼt knockout, but it wasnʼt really that bad. I have, as maybe you can understand if youʼve tried even jogging for a few hundred meters at close to 3,275 meters, had worse days. Yet it wasnʼt easy by any means. Itʼs very beautiful up there in the Highlands and the mountain deserves respect, with the bottom 8km close to 16% average and the same for the top 4km or so.
Serpa won, besting me by some 14 minutes, a performance I heard one wizened scribe term as “from another planet.” I thought Colombia was a little closer than that. …
I hung with them through the foothills to the climb in a group of about 25, crashed twice when others went down in front on the wet and winding approach roads, got back on but overextended myself, then blew, then regathered my dwindling resources before they deserted me forever like undernourished Incas, then banjoed up the last 5km, huffinʼ and aʼpuffinʼ, like the 78kg of Great White Bloat that I truly am.
A vacationing English kid came up to me as I sat by the cars at the end.
ʻNormal people couldnʼt do that!ʼ he said, possibly parroting something heʼd heard from his dad.
ʻNormal people wouldnʼt do that,ʼ I thought to myself about 40 minutes later when my brain rediscovered the use of language.
Back at the very grand hotel, romantically embedded between manicured greens and the rampant, oversexed jungle, I stood by two Pure Black guys (nice lads, the lot of them) on a terrace watching golfers. One of them turned to me, face lined and wearied beyond its 24 or so years, and said, “Man, we chose the wrong sport.”
Yeah. And right then I agreed with him. But we did choose the most beautiful. The most epic. The daftest. The most furious, the most poetic, romantic, brutal, life-affirming and soul-destroying sport of all, the sport that drives its flawed geniuses to destruction and its devotees to distraction. Itʼs the simple love affair of man with machine, human-powered machine, and itʼs the one toy from childhood we get to keep, that grown men and women still get to play with, all over the world, no matter how old, no matter what culture, race, creed or ideology. Itʼs the thing that gave you the freedom to leave your neighborhood and to explore the world around and when we race, itʼs the same barnstorming thrill you had when you sped down your block, racing home from school against Pete Barnes to see who could get to the edge of the cul-de-sac first. It’s that same rush, that same freedom, the same Breath of Sheer and Unadultered Life.
The sport of kings, kid. Beat that.
Back to the action. Stage 5 was actually more brutal than Gending. 189km is not the longest of the Tour, but that first 90km saw us average near 50km/hr and an endless stream of attacks that left many men crushed. I punctured at 65km/hr on the second downhill and went to do a bit of flora foraging in the jungle, somehow coming up unhurt but left with a chase that was pointless. Limped home well down with the grupetto. Serpa won, Papthorne (Drapac) took Yellow.
Before I close this entry I want to pay some praise to some people you never see on television, and the ones who inspired the title of this piece. They are the helpers, the staff, call them what you will, that see us through these races. They who massage our varicosed legs, supply our rooms with liters of water and drive for hours though unknown streets in often forlorn searches for oatmeal and anything that might resemble Nutella. They are the men and women who glue tubulars well into the night, hand out bidons, stand under midday suns with feed bags, shove ice down our shirts post-race and fulfill just about every role from wet-nurse to mother to father to confidant, and everything else in between.
The guys who do these jobs on the WorldTour teams might get a decent salary, but when you are talking about Continental level teams you are dealing with people who often do it just because they love this sport so much, love the thrill of the race and the sense of belonging that being a part of a team can bring.
Lord knows they see little in the way of sights which might offer something in the way of compensation, and they work far longer than us riders. On our team we have Wa-Wa, from Taiwan. She is a masseuse, drink-preparer, food-giver, photographer, nurse and mother to the lot of us, a little island of sanity and estrogen in a very testosteroney world. She doesnʼt get paid a bean to be here.
Then we have Chaiya, from Thailand, our excellent mechanic. A smile always on his lips, a twinkle in his eye, he deals with our stroppiness and last-minute pre- race panics with a calm that says ʻIʼve seen it all before, sonny lad.ʼ
Finally we have Daryoush, from Iran, masseur extraordinaire who, judging from his ability to flow through a convoy was a gifted F1 driver in a past life. Hot-headed, funny and completely genuine, heʼs a man Iʼd want in my corner for any scrap.
The crap we give them! I am laughing as I write that, because it is so true. We dish it out like it grows on trees. Yet they take it, and they forgive us the next day. Always.
This entry is dedicated to them. Thanks for reading, and Ciao!
17 years after stopping racing as a junior in England and traveling and working around the world, Lee Rodgers started cycling again 4 years ago “to lose a bit of weight” and now rides for UCI Continental team, RTS Racing Team, based in Taiwan. He works full-time as a journalist and part-time as a cyclist. Check out Lee’s previous diary entries