Taiwan KOM Challenge – arriving in Taiwan, final countdown to the big day

By John Thomas, 25th October 2018

My journey to Taiwan effectively started last November when I decided to commit to this crazy event. My physical journey would start though in Milan, not too far from where I’m based in France. A very pleasant Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong ensued. As we approached Taiwan I got my first glimpse of the big mountains that run north-south along the length of the island. In 5 days I would be on top of them….hopefully.

DSCN0776

Everything in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital was easy. From the moment I got off the plane to arriving at my hotel near the middle of the city I was struck by both the efficiency and the friendliness of this place. The train system in to and around the city was so slick. When I had any hesitant moments at ticket machines someone would always seem to rush over and help with big smiles and eagerness to make life easy for me. I wasn’t used to this level of hospitality where I come from!

I settled into my hotel and had a few hours to kill until Oliver would arrive on a later flight. My only tourist like objective was to head to the Taiwan 101, a huge 500m skyscraper that was the highest in the world for a while after it was built in 2004. My 3km walk to the it from my hotel got a bit more tenuous than expected.  I wouldn’t need a map surely to find such a big thing…..wrong….too many other massive buildings in the way for me to see the damn thing until I was basically at the foot of it. Anyway, at least a bit of extra exercise gets the metabolism going after a long flight.

DSCN0786

The view from the top was predictably spectacular and was followed by a swift, metro assisted return to the hotel. After meeting up with Oliver we headed out for a quick bite to eat at a local night market followed by a much needed deep sleep.

20181021_204059

20181021_204039

Next morning Oliver and I came down for breakfast, what would breakfast be? It was, as every meal has turned out to be, a pretty extensive selection of just about everything you’d want, plus lots of other things! Certainly a few mystery items and creatures that I was a bit unfamiliar with but enough recognisable stuff to keep me very well fed and happy. We had a few hours to kill before we’d head by train to Hualien. We had a good look round the touristy sights of Taipei and departed feeling that our 24 hours there had been a great start to our adventure.

DSCN0837

Early afternoon we headed south on the train from Taipei to Hualien. A little over 2 hours to the town that would host the KOM event. We were greeted by the shuttle and whisked away to our hotel . I’d paid for the very reasonably priced accommodation package provided by the organisers of the event. My expectations were somewhat exceeded when we arrived at the vast reception of the rather palatial Parkview Hotel. This place was seriously big and certainly spacious enough for a significant indoor ride if needed. We were going to be alright here.

The following day, well nourished by yet more great food, we headed out for our first ride in Taiwan. Hualien is big, an urban sprawl bigger than we expected. Wide roads and apparently sensible driving demeanour made riding through town comfortable and safe feeling from the start. As we headed out of town we encountered pretty lakes, rice fields, jungles and monkeys. It was noisier than expected too, with various small creatures in the jungle contributing to a very different cycling experience for us.

20181024_100653

Ride done, 80kms or so and a decent climb of about 6kms thrown in. Bikes running well and legs feeling really good. I put a big enough effort in on the hill to see my heart rate and power levels rising to numbers that gave me confidence that my legs were there and that I was not over tired. After a long journey and not riding for a few days that felt good. Also, it was our first exposure to riding in high humidity. It’s about 26°C in the day (not much cooler in the night) and humidity levels of around 95%. Even on the climbs it doesn’t feel particularly uncomfortable but maybe I’ll have a different opinion on Friday! We’ll see.

Our second ride was equally good. A good bit of route planning the night before culminated in another very enjoyable circuit of about 90kms with another 6km climb to keep us busy and providing to great sea views.

On our return to the hotel riders are starting to turn up for the event. We’d elected to come to Hualien on Monday, early to settle in, ride and get over jet lag but the majority of riders would arrive on the Wednesday with the event falling on the Friday. We just learned that there will be a record breaking 750 riders in the event and a large proportion of them will be in our hotel. The place is really starting to buzz. So many bike riders for whom this event is a major goal in their year, so much anticipation.

20181025_113154

One day to go! Oliver and I headed out for a gentle spin along the coast. The sun was out and we really got to see Hualien at it’s best. We cruised along to the start area to check it out in readiness for the next day before heading back to the hotel.

DSCN0905

In the afternoon we did all the official registering and bib collection followed by a presentation in which all the ‘spotlight’ riders were introduced to us all.

DSCN0895.JPG

We then had a briefing from the event organisers followed by a commissaire’s briefing. Although it was only Oliver and I who were representing Alpine Cadence we’d entered as an official team. It was assumed that we’d have a team car so we graciously accepted the team car stickers and deliberated over how we’d get Martin, our support driver, and our car, over from France in the next 12 hours!

DSCN0911

We retired to our rooms where I was able do my usual pre race faffing and nerves before enjoying a really good night’s sleep.

 

Advertisements

Taiwan KOM Challenge – final preparations, the bike, the course and getting there

By John Thomas, 16th October 2018

Just 10 days to go now until the big day and preparations are all going to plan. Last weekend I returned from our Alpine Cadence Giro Sardegna trip, my last big block of riding before Taiwan and what a fabulous block it was! In a big week covering the northern half of Sardinia we racked up nearly a 1000km and a very significant 16500m of climbing.

DSC_4707

DSC_4453.JPG

It was a very enjoyable week as usual with several returning Alpine Cadence riders contributing to the great riding on the island. Doing a trip like Sardinia is always varied. The terrain and the strength of the riders on our trip meant plenty of quality kilometres with some big efforts mixed into most days. Without really trying to manufacture a ‘training week’ it ends up being so in a very natural and enjoyable way. The only real difference compared to the same trip last year was reducing my intake of Ichnusa beer a little, I bought a crate of the stuff to enjoy at home in November instead!

DSCN0723

On my return from Sardinia I’ve spent the last week doing shorter rides of 2 hours or so. Saturday was my last big ride before Taiwan. I headed up and over the Col du Petit St Bernard, over into Italy and then went hard up the Colle San Carlo, 10kms @ 10% before heading back over the Petit St Bernard and home. A chunky 135km with 3250m of climbing. That ride into Italy was absolutely stunning. The autumn colours are reaching their peak right now and it really is such a pleasure to be out there. I feel so lucky to have found passion in a sport that is so beautiful. It is a fabulous environment to do the  hurt and suffering that is necessary to get better.

20181013_123418

I’ll keep riding in most of the next few days before I travel to Taiwan but the volume of riding will come right down. Still a few intense efforts to remind the body of what the top end feels like but shorter rides to make sure I’m not too fatigued before travelling.

 

The bike

I’m not one for having a selection of bikes. I love the idea of N+1 being the ideal number of bikes to own (being the number of bikes owned already) but in reality I don’t need more bikes. I ride the same bike all summer, in the winter if I get a chance to ride I use an older, scruffier version of the same bike, they are my 2 bikes. When people ask me what bike I ride my answer is usually ‘a black one’. It’s plain and unbranded and I quite like it’s anonymous and mysterious look. I put it together myself, the frameset is from a Chinese manufacturer called Hong Fu, they also trade as Avenger bikes for the Asian market. When I tell people I’m on a Chinese frame there are sometimes some raised eyebrows, I know there are lots of sceptics out there, perhaps rightly so as I suspect there are plenty of poor quality frames and bike equipment made in China. With Hong Fu though I am a very happy customer, 3 frames purchased from them now and can’t fault them. They are light, certainly strong enough for me and my style of riding and their bargain price means I can devote money to a decent groupset and wheels. All in all I’ve created a bike that works for me and doesn’t cost a fortune. I quite like the fact too that it’s unique, all the components I’ve put together make it my black bike.

DSCN0745

So, is it good enough for Taiwan? It’s been my trusty steed for many events and I succeeded in my 12 hour climbing World Record on the same bike a couple of years ago so it’s proved that it’s pretty fit for purpose. For Taiwan though I wanted to make sure I’d done all I could to maximise my chances and my confidence so I had a good look at every aspect of the bike and made a few small changes.

Gearing and weight were my priorities. My present gearing of a compact 50 – 34 crankset combined with a 11 – 29 cassette on the back has served me well in every type of ride I do, should I change? Reading some of the reports of people who had done the Taiwan KOM I started to worry. A section of 300m at 27% was advertised on the course profile as well as plenty of other steep ramps towards the end of the event. I went through a period of convincing myself that I’d need a bigger cassette on the back. This was annoying, I would needed a longer caged derailleur to get a 32 on the back and bigger gaps in my bottom end gearing. As I investigated more I found that most of the blogs and reports that had scared me had been written by riders of a lower level level than myself, maybe I’d be ok with what I’d got. GCN presenters Matt Stephens and Simon Richardson rode the Taiwan KOM (great video report here) and they did it on 11 – 28s as did Emma Pooley who has won the ladies event twice and will be there again this year. I’m not suggesting I’m faster than those characters but I’m in the ball park for climbing speed. Listening to them talk about the course being tough but no regrets on gearing helped me. I decided to man up and stick with my 11 – 29. Maybe I’ll curse that decision in the latter stages of the event but I’ll deal with it. I stuck on a nice new chain and a new Chorus cassette (I cannot justify the expense of Campy Super Record cassettes).

Apart from my Chorus cassette the rest of my groupset is Super Record, can’t improve much on that. I’ve used Campagnolo Bora One 35 clincher wheels for the last couple of years, can’t fault them and at 1400g a pair they’ll do just fine for Taiwan.

I started to look at any ways in which I could make the bike lighter without compromising reliability. My bike had weighed in at just over 7kg but with a few relatively inexpensive modifications I’ve managed to get it under 6.8kg. New skewers, lighter inner tubes and new bottle cages were the main contributors to shaving off about 250g. Not much difference perhaps, the maths says that 1kg of weight costs the rider around 1 minute over an hour’s climbing. My 250g was only going to save a few seconds but the psychological advantage felt in it being lighter makes me feel good, another stone that I’ve not left unturned in my efforts for some useful gains. Incidentally, the Taiwan KOM even is not a UCI sanctioned race so there is no minimum bike weight. The UCI limit of 6.8kg would normally render make my bike marginally illegal and I know that many of the rides in the event will be on bikes much closer to 6kgs. My 250g saving has cost less than 100 euros, the money required for me to get my bike from 6.78kgs to 6kgs would be exponentially astronomical, just not worth the gains, I’m happy with what I’ve got.

New tyres, skewers, tubes, bottle cages, cables, chain and cassette…….my black bike is ready.

 

The course

And on to the event itself, what do I know and what’s the plan? A combination of course profiles, Google Streetview and Nicolas Raybaud’s video of his race in 2016 have given me lots of insight as to what to expect on race day.

The first 18kms of neutralised, flat start along the coast looks quite brisk. I’m used to some painfully slow neutralised starts to some amateur events I do in Europe but this looks like it’ll be a good warm up that only take about 30 minutes. As the race enters the Taroko Gorge the timing starts and the pace will wind up. The next 66km up to the 84km point gains 2400m of altitude, a relatively humble average gradient of less than 4%. At 84kms there a short descent of around 4kms before the real race starts, 15kms to the top with far steeper gradients that seen earlier on the course.

tbx-kom-challenge-profile

The last section is tough, that’s for sure, but it’s not the bit that concerns me most. That final section will certainly sort everyone out and separate all the fitness levels in the field, the challenge for me though will be to get to that point in the race without having burnt too many matches earlier on. The earlier parts of the course will be fast and the adrenalin and the atmosphere of the event will make it very easy and tempting to hang in there with the top guys. How often do you get a chance to ride and race with the likes of Laurens Ten Dam, Jan Bakelants and Emma Pooley?

The first half of the event is going to be a discipline test for me, knowing when to let people go, knowing when to let the elastic break and not fighting it. Of course it’s a balancing act, on flatter sections of a huge climb like this there’s a huge benefit in draughting stronger riders. It’s crucial however that getting a pull from the strong guys doesn’t turn into a struggle for which the price will be costly later on.

I want to ride strong at the end, I want to be one of the riders who is working my way through the field at the painful end not one of the riders ‘going backwards’ and haemorrhaging time due to excessive efforts earlier on. Ultimately it will all come down to decisions on the day but I’m determined to be realistic and respectful to the better riders and let them have their race. Better I let them go sooner rather than later so that I can dictate my pace. We’ll see! I always have a good plan but it doesn’t always happen! My power meter will hopefully help me to behave myself with my efforts. There’s no question of riding the whole thing ‘to power’ or a fixed number, it’s too irregular a climb for that. The power figures will help though in warning me when I’m going into an unsustainable ‘red zone’ for too long and helping convince me to back off.

So if I let all these top riders head up the road away from me what am I trying to achieve? Well, simply to deliver the best ride I possibly can and be strong at the end. The race has around 80 elite riders and then the rest of the 600 strong field will be categorised by age with me being in the oldest category 50+. I don’t mind admitting I’d love to win that category. It’s a realistic goal looking at previous results and times but it depends so much on who else turns up! Doing well in my category needs to be a by-product of a well paced ride and not a goal in itself. Saying that, if I see a few grey hairs on a rival rider as the event progresses I’ll certainly be watching them more than the young ones!

 

Getting there

taipei-101

At the end of this week I’ll fly to Taipei, the big city at the northern end of the island of Taiwan. I’m heading there from Milan with a brief touch down in Hong Kong. I’ll arrive on the Sunday with 24 hours in the city to be a tourist, I can’t wait! I plan to head up the Taipei 101 tower at sunset and just take in the atmosphere of being somewhere so new and different. Oliver is going to meet me there and then we’ll train it down to Hualien on the east coast on Monday.

hualien photo

Hualien is the start town for the event and we’ve decided to get down there early to relax, soak up the atmosphere and hopefully get rid of any jet lag effects before the event on Friday morning. Most of the riders, ourselves included, will be staying in a big, international type hotel that will be the administrative headquarters for the event. It should be quite a buzz with riders arriving each day from all over the world.

I expect we’ll do a few short rides in the 3 full days that we have there leading up to the big day. Just enough to keep the engine revving but nothing big enough to tire us out.

Once I’ve arrived in Taiwan I’ll keep writing about the lead up days to the event, in the meantime here are the links to my previous Taiwan blogs if you’ve missed them:

Taiwan KOM – Overview

Taiwan KOM – Training and preparation

And for more information on all the cycling experiences that we offer at Alpine Cadence please have a look here: www.alpinecadence.com

 

 

 

 

Taiwan KOM Challenge – training and preparation

By John Thomas, 8th October 2018
logo-taiwan-challenge

taiwan-kom-challenge-2016-2

To have a goal for 2018 of riding competitively up a mountain for about 4 hours at the end of October has certainly created some changes to my normal yearly routine. Those folks who know me well are used to the non cycling version of me, ‘October John’, who emerges from ‘Cycling John’ every autumn as I basically hang the bike up at the end of the summer, let my hair down, have a few drinks, eat what I like and turn back into the person I was before I discovered road cycling in 2005. I always look forward to being October John, a healthy interlude (for the mind at least) before winter sets in, followed by around Christmas, the pangs of needing to ride the bike again in readiness for spring.

It’s a cycle I go through each year, a good one, one that gives me some down time from my cycling passion and helps me stay hungry for more when I resume.

This year there is no October John, there will most certainly be a November John, his stint will begin on the evening of October 26th after I complete the Taiwan KOM!

Through September I typically ride in the Dolomites and Sardinia on our Alpine Cadence tours and I’m usually already gently transitioning into October John. No more races to worry about, a few Moretti and Ichnusa beers help me get a little bit bigger and happier as I round off the season. This September is different, for the first time ever since I took up cycling I’m actually thinking about what I eat and drink in an effort to stay in good condition for Taiwan. I love the racing aspect of cycling and I love to do well. All the events I’ve done in previous years have been in the spring and summer. The riding I do as an Alpine Cadence guide means I’m in pretty good condition from May through to September simply by the riding I do. I naturally come down to a ‘race weight’ of around 66kg in late May and it seems to stay that way through the summer as I ride and race enough to not have to worry too much about what I eat and drink. Typically in September my extra beers and less volume of riding takes me up a couple of kilos.

I need and want to go to Taiwan strong and light. The strong bit is probably the easy bit, staying light until the end of October needs a definite effort. I’ve certainly not got obsessed with the eating thing but since the middle of the summer I’ve drunk less alcohol than I normally would and taken more notice of what I eat. I am a binge eater and drinker normally, I have a sweet tooth and my usual eating and drinking habits would probably cause outrage to many of the people who I race with who I suspect generally look after themselves a bit more carefully than I do! This summer I’ve been heading to the fridge as per normal but stopping for a moment and more often than not grabbing for the San Pellegrino in place of the chocolate. I read somewhere that fizzy water is the pros choice to fill themselves up a bit and keep the weight off. Not sure if it’s true but it’s working for me!

I’ve also cut down on carbs. I typically consume lots of them, perhaps more than I need. in recent months I’ve tended to go for a bit more protein and moderating the carb intake. Certainly not to any Atkins diet extremes but just changing the balance of what I eat a little. I’ve realised also this summer that I tend to eat a lot of sugar in my diet. Again, I’ve moderated that, lots of Cokes have been replaced with San Pellegrinos.

So, to sum up what’s been going in, no extreme changes, just keeping an eye on what I eat, not stuffing my face whenever I feel hungry and keep the alcohol down to a sensible level.

 


 

My training to do well in Taiwan would need to be focused and oriented to the needs of the event. Disregarding the first neutralised 18kms of the event I needed to be prepared for a more or less constant effort for the next 85kms which was going to take me a little over 4 hours. I would have to be prepared for a final 10kms or so that would be very steep at times and between 2500m – 3275m in altitude, certainly high enough for an altitude related performance drop. Another major factor would be the timing of the event, late October, by far the latest event I’ve tried to do well in, deep into my usual ‘October John’ phase.
So, where to begin. Any rider preparing for a big event needs volume, miles on the bike. I’m lucky, my self created job with Alpine Cadence provides me with lots of miles, and importantly, miles of every type. I seldom ‘train’ as such, the vast majority of my riding is done with Alpine Cadence guests, leading them around the beautiful roads of Europe.

When I ride in big events in the summer I often do well off the back of the major trips that I’ve guided during May and June which is our biggest concentration of Alpine Cadence trips. I’ve already had my ‘summer peak’ this year with plenty of good performances in races, now I would need to either prolong the peak or peak again to be able to race well in late October, a new experience for me.
Late summer, as mentioned earlier, is usually a wind down for me, I ride the few trips that remain in September but there’s less motivation to ride any more than that. The last few weeks have followed a different pattern to previous years. On the trips themselves such as the Giro Dolomiti, I’ve been riding extra miles at the end of big days with the guests. After making sure that guests are safely checked into their hotel I’ve been heading off to hurt myself. Looking for climbs and riding hard. Trying to simulate Taiwan and having to ride hard after having done plenty already.

I recently did a loop from my house known locally as the Savoie Chicken due to the route shape on Strava. 250kms in total but the main climb, Col de l’Iseran, hit after having already ridden 180km. Again, riding hard up that after 6 hours of work already made me think it was good practice for Taiwan.

Screenshot (22)

 

I also used the Iseran a couple of weeks ago to satisfy my altitude concerns. I headed to the top from my home, 57km and 2000m of sustained climb, not dissimilar to the demands of the first half of Taiwan. Once at the top I headed down the other side and rode up the final 2.5km @ 10% five times to put myself into plenty of discomfort between 2500m and 2770m, the highest riding around where I live.

DSCN1084
I’ll most likely head up there again and do something similar in the next week or so. It’s as much training the mind as it is the body. Convincing myself that I can work hard at altitude and that I can work hard after already having worked for a few hours. I’m also very aware of the fact that I’m very lucky where I live and with the lifestyle I’ve created. Through taking advantage of all that I would be better prepared than most in Taiwan.

The goal of doing as well as I can in Taiwan has certainly kept me very motivated. Having a goal in endurance sport is vital for motivation, things can get very boring and tedious very quickly without a goal. Fabulous, enjoyable bike rides can rapidly turn into boring chores when the motivation fades and the rider wonders what they are out there for. This summer I’m loving every minute on my bike, I generally always do, but this summer perhaps even more. Being strong and lean feels good. Regardless of what happens in Taiwan I’ve really enjoyed the process so far. Staying strong and light further into the Autumn has not been as hard as I thought it might be. Body and mind are feeling very good! I think riders who have come on regular Alpine Cadence trips have noticed my increased enthusiasm and staying on top of my game through September has perhaps improved their experience with our trips too, I hope so.

I’ve never been someone to follow rigid training plans, I’m quite a disorganised person in many respects and it doesn’t work for me to stick to rigid plans. I ride when it suits me and I listen to my body and mind and I ride accordingly. When I ride outside of the organised trips that I guide on I’ll often go for a 20 minute warm up and then I decide what ride to do. I do what I feel is necessary. Perhaps I need a long ride, perhaps I’m overdue for an intense 30 minute effort, perhaps I’m feeling tired and need to chill and recover, perhaps I need to ride the flats and get away from the hills close to home, perhaps I just need to go to explore a new road. Whatever I end up doing it’s like I’m filling in the gaps. Doing what I think I’ve not done enough of as well as, most importantly, doing what I want to do. I love every ride I do, it’s never a chore. I love going easy and I love battering myself to oblivion and everything in between. This year has not really been any different. Just riding hard for a bit longer in the season and enjoying it for even longer than normal!

Quite a number of the riders that I ride with have set and rigid training plans. I appreciate that their busy lives sometimes require that so as to make effective use of their available time. I can’t help but think though that it effects their enjoyment of the sport, are they really loving every ride like I do? Not sure. I’m lucky with the time I have available, I know that. I’m also convinced though that you need passion to really get good at something. Understanding training principals is important of course but enjoying the process has got to be there to truly realise your potential. If I do well in Taiwan it’s down to my sustained love for the sport of road cycling rather than a conjured up training regime.

Cycling has lots of numbers, so much data to be able to quantify one’s efforts. I’m not ruled by the numbers at all (plenty of people are) but I enjoy the maths and find the numbers aspect another fascinating side of the sport. So what numbers would I need to be good in Taiwan?
Firstly power. The magic number that so many cyclists want to increase is their Functional Threshold Power, the maximum amount of power output that a rider can sustain for one hour. For climbers and time trial riders it’s an indication as to their ‘threshold’, beyond which an effort becomes unsustainable, the rider having ‘gone into the red’.

My FTP in recent years has reached a peak each summer of around 300/305 watts. This summer has been a strong one for me reaching an FTP of around 310 watts. As soon as a rider goes uphill that FTP figure means very little outside the context of the rider’s weight. This summer, as in previous years my weight came down and stabilised at about 65.5 kgs. Watts per kilo is basically the equation which determines how fast you’ll be up a hill. For me this summer my 310 watts/65.5 kgs gives me a figure of just over 4.7 W/kg, about as good as I’ve ever been since starting road cycling in 2005. To put that figure into some context, a Tour de France winner needs a figure of between 5.5 – 6.0 W/kg. Most male pro cyclists in their different guises (sprinters, rouleurs, climbers etc) would all comfortably be above 5 W/kg. Another reference  perhaps more applicable to the amateur cyclist reading this is that a rider needs a sustained figure of 3.8W/kg to achieve a sub hour time on the famous Alpe d’Huez climb (Tour de France finish, 13.9km, 1160m of ascension).

The graph below is brutally accurate. My best time up Alpe d’Huez is just under 51 minutes, a couple of years ago when my W/kg figure was around 4.55 for an hour. If I went there now I’d expect to convert my  current 4.7 W/kg into a sub 50 minute time. I pretty much know if I went there well rested with no wind on the day that’s what would happen. The maths of cycling up hills is very predictable.

 

Alpe D'Huez Ascent times

Another way in which the numbers reflect the rider’s level is through VAM, (velocità ascencionale media). This is a figure that expresses the rate at which someone goes upwards,  the number of vertical metres climbed every hour. This figure is not definitive as it varies on different gradients but it gives a good indication as to where a rider is. Those top Tour de France contenders with W/kg figures approaching 6.0 can get expect VAM figures in excess of 1600m/hour on 8% climbs. My 4.7 W/kg equates to about 1250m/hour. My VAM figures in races and big efforts within rides have been higher than ever this summer. For 20 minute efforts I am now capable of climbing at around 1350m/hour and 10 minute efforts see that figure rise to over 1400m. In the latter and toughest part of Taiwan KOM I will not be achieving figures anything like that but knowing that my capacity and threshold efforts are better than they’ve ever been before makes me feel confident and that I’ve prepared well.

In the next part of this blog I’ll talk about my bike and what I’ve done to maximise it doing the job for me and the tactics and planning of riding the event itself.

If you missed the first part of this blog click for my overview of the Taiwan KOM Challenge