Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has raced enough criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time on a bike. He has set out to find pain and pleasure at the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions. Follow along with his experiment to ride the best and most difficult courses, the most punishing and most promising races, on- and off-road, on Instagram and Twitter, @chrisjustincase. Questions or concerns for his health? Send him a note at email@example.com.
It was pissing rain.
It was the type of day that gave you a simple choice: sulk, or smile. I’ve learned a lesson from years of racing in inclement weather: it’s always advantageous to stick with the grins; pouting only makes you colder.
We were in Taiwan, far from home, in an exotic landscape that I had quickly fallen in love with, about to race bikes up one of the longest hill climbs in the world. The choice was made for me.
I embraced the dreary, soggy conditions, absorbing the wet, the cold, the foul soup of mist and misery and turning it on its head.
I made a case for suffering.
It would have been easy to mope and complain. But a simple flip of the switch in my brain and it was just as easy to tell myself, ‘This is the weather that only the hard thrive in; these are the conditions that make for great stories; these are the days when pain is my friend, and the harder I shake its hand, the more pleasure will come my way.’ I shook vigorously.
It’s not as if it would have been an easy day even if the weather had been tropical. Today, I, along with 472 other intrepid and/or insane cyclists, set out to ride to the top of Taiwan, in the KOM Challenge, all 62-miles of climbing, with its 17 percent average gradient over the last 8 kilometers. The route was famously picturesque, a warped canyon of ancient marble accented by clinging carpets of green, known as Taroko Gorge. You couldn’t imagine a more beautiful route for a race, and on this day that’s exactly how you had to experience the Jurassic decor, since the folds of fog had settled deep into the cut.
We, invited cycling journalists, had been in Taiwan for a week, tasting the flavors of a country rich in sustenance. There had been glorious jungle climbs, through thick, ripe foliage on ribbons of chalkboard black tarmac. Each night we were fed heaps of food, platter upon platter of things we could not necessarily identify, and which we knew we could not finish, but which were offered to us by a people bursting with generosity. We ate heartily. Shrines and temples dotted the hillsides, and stinky tofu stands peppered the curbsides of many a town and city corner.
But now the royal treatment was over; the Taiwan Travel Bureau had invited us here to experience the nation, its culture, this devilish race, and had pampered us in so many ways, but they forgot to talk to the rain gods about our final mission.
The KOM Challenge is, arguably, the hardest hill climb race in the entire world. From zero to 3,275 meters to the summit of Hehuanshan mountain. One road. One direction: Up.
We rolled out to the click of nearly 1,000 pedals popping with the sound of cycling.
The rain, it continued to drop. My teeth chattered; I looked over at Will Routley, an invited professional who claimed the KOM competition at the 2014 Tour of California, whose lips were a pale shade of not-right. We had 18km of neutral rollout, and that was 20km too much. We wanted to race, to generate fury and warmth and spirit. But we had to wait. It was best just to think ahead, to know that it was all about to detonate.
Once we turned into the mouth of the gorge, it was immediate. The racing became racing, and a universally familiar feeling washed over the peloton. We’d all done this before; find your home and settle in for the long climb into the heavens.
There were small rocks scattered on the edges of the gleaming darkness of asphalt from the incessant rains. You notice these things when you’re following unfamiliar wheels; you hope the others notice too and kindly indicate which side to take warning. You notice all these things, and hope.
Then it came. The singular sound of a cycling crash. The shriek of frightened voices and the noise of impact instantaneously register a warning. Sometimes the speed with which your brain can process the information is helpful; you slither by. Other times, you have no choice. Down.
My brain helped me now, and only a slight dab was required to avoid the chaos. But I looked to my right as I tiptoed to safety, and I saw the pained face of a fallen friend, a fellow journalist and professional rider. Down.
To stop, or not to stop? As quickly as your brain can process myriad tactical sensations, it can bog down with moral dilemmas. Conflicting thoughts. I wanted to stop and see if she was okay. She’d probably want me to press on. She could use my help and encouragement if she was able to return to the race. She’s in good hands here; someone will stop to help.
I was swept up the road, allowing myself to be taken farther from a place of decision. It pained me to press on. But I did, knowing that there were only people as hard as diamonds in this race. She would have some story to tell, one way or another. She would come back stronger.
I patiently made my way back through the field, to the pointy end of the race, settling in and finding a rhythm amongst the gathered tribe. This was elite company: small bikes, small people, big engines. I felt like Stijn Vandenbergh among a fleet of Rigoberto Uráns.
We pierced through the floating waters of the atmosphere, concentrated air that combined with the falling rains to create a mobile sweat lodge. We smoothly flowed slowly upward, losing riders one by one, until a finite group of 20 coalesced. And, then, we pedaled on, waiting for the moves to come. I drifted off the front, more so to spawn warmth than to elicit counterattacks. Will tried to bridge to me to make a North American tag-team. His team-issued orange helmet would go nowhere without passengers.
We pressed on. For hours. Only up.
I dangled at the tail of the snake. I sensed the dawning of the drop; any lift in pace, after three and a half hours of climbing and I would drift away, behind and beyond. Sometimes the solo effort is a more comfortable place to be, and so a small part of me was eager for the fall.
And then, nonchalantly, it came. They floated away, softly, silently, and I searched for signs that would help me understand just how much longer I would have to endure this growing ache. Eleven kilometers. Maybe 20 minutes of torture? Deep sighs. Eleven kilometers of torture.
The closing eight kilometers are touted as the hardest of the race, but when you’re numb, or dumb from the bonk, it’s easy to consider them impossible. Unnecessary. Contrary to sane.
But if you’re lucky, inspiration comes to you, and you push on. I received a gift in the shape of small cyclists emerging from the fog, just up the road from me. They were going slower. I knew I was going to catch them. I was better than them at this moment. Momentum. Mental momentum. I rode it.
I had become so cold that my hands no longer functioned. They were catatonic. Hands, in fact, are important for riding a bike. They allow you to shift, and brake, and steer — and also eat. You might call them essential. And when you lose the ability to tear open a wrapper to feed your starving cells, and fear shifting to a harder gear knowing that you may never be able to downshift when the road tilts skyward, you know it is time to hurry home. Grip and ride. Hold on tight. Turn the legs. Churn skyward.
Then, sometimes inspiration comes on a grand scale, such as the sight of a bright orange helmet and yellow socks, the distinctive kit of an Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies professional cyclist named Will. He’s moving so slowly. I’m very much catching him. He is paper-boying so bad that I think I could be hallucinating. ‘I’m going to drop his ass.’ Giddy with the thought. And then, in painful, grinding, slow motion, I passed the pro who was colder than me, only 500 meters from the line.
I know my brain function was compromised at the summit. Some form of hypothermia-meets-fatigue syndrome. I say that now. Then, I was delirious, crawling around looking for warmth, seeing familiar faces but not saying much. Did I smile? I’m smiling now, thinking back, but then I was a shell. Will came across the line moments later; we tried to embrace, the sheer camaraderie almost overwhelming us. But it didn’t go so well. We were pathetic. We were done. Our arms wouldn’t rise for the occasion and we bumbled around and uttered only guttural sounds.
There are times in life when everything blends to perfection like a spritely, summer cocktail: the right people, a captivating place, and profound, collective enjoyment are the only necessary ingredients. This was far from summer, but the satisfying taste of success was effervescent in the whirlwind chaos of a mist-shrouded summit on the other side of the world.
This cocktail, on this day, was made in Taiwan.
Editor’s note: Chris participated in the Taiwan KOM Challenge as a guest of the organizers and had his flights, food, and accommodation paid for. VeloNews would like to thank the organizers for the invitation and their hospitality. A full list of the 252 successful finishers can be seen here.