By John Thomas, 13th November 2018
The alarm clock was set for 4am but as always before a big event I woke before that. I’d managed more than 5 hours of deep sleep, for me that’s fantastic before something like this. My sleeping in the days leading up to the big day had been quite sporadic and I woke relieved to have banked a few decent hours.
I had never been so prepared for an event, I was at my fittest and lightest that I’d ever been. My rides in previous days had briefly tested the engine and all was good.
Oliver and I indulged in coffee, cereal and a banana in our spacious room whilst doing my ritual fidgeting and faffing with my stuff. I get so nervous and worked up before events and this one was no exception. I’d prepared and looked forward to this day for months and finally it was here.
We rode the 4kms to the start next to the beach and joined more than 700 other riders all lining up to take on the challenge of riding from sea level up to 3275m. The weather was perfect, 22 degrees and clear. After a series of cloudy days we could now see the mountains that would keep us busy for the next 4 or 5 hours. This event has had some tough conditions in some years and Taiwan is certainly vulnerable to some dramatic weather at times. We were lucky. Dry, low humidity, perfect temperature, brilliant.
The start line was a free for all. No pens or reserved places, just start from where you think you belong. Elite riders were already huddling at the front and enjoying being able to rub shoulders with the big names like Laurens ten Dam. The bulk of the field seemed content to arrange themselves behind in an obedient ranking of anticipated performances.
As soon as I arrived at the start area I placed my bike in the second row next to top lady riders Emma Pooley and Hayley Simmonds. Once the bike is there your place is booked. I was where I needed to be and I could relax a little.
I was there to do well, I needed to be near the front when the timing started at the 18km point. I’ve learned from experience that neutralised sections can be messy, riders coming up the sides and trying to get to the front. The best and most stress free place to be is right at the front just behind the commissaire’s car. The first 2 or 3 rows of riders there seem to earn an immunity and respect from the riders in the hustle and bustle behind.
At 6am we were off, after months of anticipation it was so good to be pedalling. As expected the neutralised section was fairly stress free. I chatted away with Jessica Evans who was destined to come 7th in the ladies event. I looked down at my Garmin bike computer and saw no read out from my power meter. This was annoying but not disastrous. I’d been plagued with issues with it in the days leading up to the event and now it had failed completely. Heart rate would now be my measure for the day as to how things were going.
The timing would start just after passing the Taroko Bridge, I knew that things would kick off there and the pace would ramp right up. I needed to be well positioned at the front before this happened. I knew that the road would narrow in places an the field would string out. I couldn’t afford to be chasing at this point, being at the front here would ultimately give me the best chance of hanging with the strong guys for as long as possible and exploiting their strength.
As we crossed the Taroko Bridge I was precisely where I wanted and planned to be at that point, front right of the peloton, the best position for the upcoming left hand bend and the start of the timing that would follow a few hundred metres later. Oliver had already made up his mind that he wanted to attack early in the race and get a bit of fun and glory at the front of the race. He knew he wasn’t a contender to win the event but he’s certainly a strong enough rider to lead the race for a while and he loves that kind of stuff. Oliver went to the front as soon as we’d turned left after the Taroko Bridge, he passed the Commissaires car and he was off. The race hadn’t started though! He’d misjudged where the timing started by about 500m and shouts from the Commissaire car window made it very clear that he needed to get back behind the car. Tail between his legs, Oliver held back and got ready to repeat the attacking process a minute or so later up the road.
I could hear the familiar whistle being blown by the start man, then his waving flag came into sight. Over the timing mat and game on! All my planning and training for 9 months was about this moment and the next 4 hours. As expected the pace was firm, I felt good, it was almost a relief to be riding hard after tempering my efforts over the previous warm up days. My body and mind were chomping at the bit to get on with this thing.
The road was flat and narrow with an ugly looking drainage ditch on the right. I was on the wheel of Sergio Tu, a young Taiwanese rider on the Sunweb pro team. This was crazy but fantastic. Proper racing with top flight riders….and me! It felt quite surreal, like a schoolboy dream. The pace was high and wheels were close, I lost my nerve for a moment and let Sergio Tu’s wheel go. I was uncomfortable with how close everyone was at what was probably around 50km/h. More confident riders streamed past me sensing my vulnerability. When a rider in front of you starts to drop back you get round them as soon as you can so that you don’t drop back with them. I glanced to my left, another black and white Sunweb jersey, Laurens Ten Dam. He’s a legend in the pro cycling world, he looked relaxed and chilled. What if I touched his wheel and was the one that bought Laurens Ten Dam down I thought. Bad thoughts, concentrate, you can do this and you deserve to be here I told myself.
We hit a hard right turn in a potentially awkward dip. I’m through safely. A few metres behind me I hear that horrible and unique sound of a bike crash. A hip, an elbow, a shoulder, a pedal, a rear mech. A combination of horrible sounds, followed by the usual shouts of pain, blame and frustration from those involved. I cringe and grimace at what might be happening behind me. No chance to look back, just relieved to have been near enough to the front to have avoided it. It would turn out that Hayley Simmonds went down. 2 time British Time Trial champion, not seriously injured but her race was over.
The peloton continued up the Taroko Gorge with its immense vertical limestone cliffs creating an incredible confine for our efforts in the slot in between. Dark tunnels, drips from the ceiling, glassy ‘cat’s eyes’ in the middle of the road all requiring 100% concentration. At this point I was hanging in there, the pace was fast, I was still in touch with the leading group but the fast flattish early kilometres were quicker that I would like. With my failed power meter, heart rate was my alarm mechanism . I was seeing plenty of 170 beats per minute on my little screen. I wasn’t going to sustain that for 4 hours. Relief for me came as the road started to ramp up more. Some of the bigger riders that might have forced the pace a little on the flats all started to calm down. For me at least it was more comfortable to stay with the leading group as the road went up more. I was more at home, slower speeds, more space to ride in, at last a hill where I can start to relax!
I looked behind me, no one. In front, maybe 80 riders. The first major selection of the day had happened. The early pace had been overwhelming for over 600 riders in the field and the game of attrition was already down to 80.
I was aware of a lot of heavy breathing around me. I was feeling comfortable but plenty of riders around me were struggling having been right on their limits to make this initial selection. I was in a dodgy place being surrounded by so many strugglers who were destined to be victims of the next and inevitable selection further up the road. I moved up through the pack to a safer place.
All the subsequent surges of the leading group gradually whittled down the numbers. I looked around and made a rough head count, 40 maybe 50 riders left. I was pleased to be one of them, so far so good. I would see Laurens Ten Dam and Jan Bakelants both drop back for ‘comfort’ breaks before riding back to the front. I couldn’t afford that luxury, a comfort break for me would mean the end of the ride with the all important group. I carried on uncomfortable.
I didn’t have a rigid plan for where I would get drink on board if I needed it. I was self sufficient for food with my 3 energy bars and 3 gels in my back pocket but I knew I’d need to stop for drink at some point. I started the race with two 500ml bottles and I cruised past the first feed station at 46kms without having made much of a dent in them. Prior to the event I’d heard a few stories of high humidity and needing to drink plenty but I was running fine on my usual, fairly low fluid intake. I knew there were 3 more feed stations at 64, 79 and 90kms so I planned to grab a bottle at one of those.
60kms into the race and all is still going well, almost 1500m climbed, I’m in the leading group of around 45 and I’m chugging away at a just about sustainable 165 heart rate. I’ve stayed in touch with the leaders for longer than I’d anticipated and without burning too many matches. I look around me to see who’s there in the group. The big names are all at the sharp end with the exception of Oscar Pujol who seems very chilled and riding near me at the rear of the lead group. I think his new duties working with GCN were a bigger priority today than his race performance. Oliver is there too, after his early exploits at the front he’s now settled in the second half of the group.
I’m looking for old blokes. I’m scanning all the riders ahead of me and looking for any numbers between 661 and 750, the 90 or so riders in my 50 years and over category. I’m hopeful, I’m going well and every number I can see is low, I’m surrounded by ‘Elite’ riders and younger riders it seems. I can’t see any old blokes. If I could win my category in this event it would be a massive thing for me, it looked on the cards.
The road pitched up a little and I’m starting to get concerned about the pace. I was determined before the event that I must be disciplined and know when to let the elastic break, when to let the strong boys (and girls) go. It was reaching that time. The pace was still firm, maybe another couple of minutes and then I would drop back deliberately. I wasn’t on my limit but I knew I was just eating into reserves a little too much and I would pay later if I didn’t make the right decision. I stayed with it, another few hundred metres, I still feel just about OK. Then, it splits. To my relief the decision is made for me, gaps appear in front and I find myself in a group of 9/10 riders who get dropped from the leaders. That suits me fine. I couldn’t have really ordered it any better. 60 odd kms with the big names and now I’ve still got some company to ride with to the finish. I’ll take that.
My team mate Oliver is there in the group of 10 with me. Seeing him there is another marker for me that I’m in the right place. We are very different types of riders but nethertheless get from A to B at about the same rate, certainly on climbs. Seeing him there was another boost for me.
The gradient eased and I made perhaps my only error of judgement in the whole day. I was riding about 8th wheel and I saw Oliver on the front of our group and apparently riding hard. I was looking for a few ‘cosolidating’ kilometres and wasn’t looking to chase hard. Oliver and 4 other riders rode away without any resistance from me or the three young Taiwanese riders I was left with. I was determined to be disciplined and wanted to do everything I could to make sure I had a strong finish. I let Oliver go, playing my own pacing game.
The three riders I was left with were not strong enough for me. They were smaller than me and as the gradients became more humble they struggled to push a bigger gear and really get things moving. By the time I realised that they were too slow for me on this part of the course Oliver and his small group were out of sight. This was good terrain for Oliver, he’s bigger than me and he would be relishing the chance to get into a big gear and push ahead while he could. In retrospect I maybe should have gone with his group.
I lead my Taiwanese trio for a few kms before it became clear that they would be no use to me. I gently squeezed up the effort and they were gone. I was on my own in a section of the course where I would certainly have benefitted from some company. I was ok though, legs still feeling good. The road meandered through the forest, for a while I was totally on my own, no one else in sight. Quite weird in an event of 750 riders but quite nice too. Plenty of time to think, to reflect and to plan. I was in about 40th place and I’d climbed well over 2000m, I was feeling strong. If offered that scenario at the beginning of the event I’d have taken it all day long. I was getting low on water but I knew that I had a feed station coming up soon at 79kms. I could see on my digital profile that the gradients stayed steady for the next few kms. I knew the road topped out at 84kms followed by a 4km descent whose twists and turns I’d researched well. Straight after that descent the ‘real’ race would begin.
I wandered up through the forest with little but my 165 heart beats per minute to keep me company. I looked back on the straighter sections to see a familiar figure in the distance. It was Edwige Pitel. For the last 4 years she’s won the Etape du Tour by a big margin and usually overtaking me on the last climb in the process! She won the French National road race in 2016 too. I knew she was a very experienced athlete and a very good judger of pace. She was a fair way back from me and not gaining significantly. This was another good indicator that I was in a good place.
The feed station at 79km gave me another first ‘pro experience’. I loosened the top of my drink bottle in readiness to decant water into it. I’m used to being handed bottles of Evian or even having to stop at a table and wait for volunteers to fill bottle for me. This time my grunts of thirstiness were met by a smart, brand new bidon with fresh water. For the first time ever I had that ‘pro moment’ of throwing my old bottle away. I really hope someone in Taiwan is enjoying my smart Alpine Cadence drinks bottle!
The road topped out at 84km and into the only descent of the day. 4kms, a couple of hairpins but then open and fast. No real respite though. Descending on 5% gradients meant still needed to forge ahead and pedal hard so as not to lose time.
Through the dip and into the last 14kms of the race. About 1000 m to climb in that distance. That equates to an average of about 7% but that average could not be more misleading from the reality of what was ahead. I crossed the intermediate timing point at Guanyuan Gas Station. Nibali had got to the finish from this point in 33 minutes when he won in 2017. I was expecting a pain filled 50.
This was now a very different bike ride. The early part of the climb was all ‘big ring’ territory and even on the steeper ramps there had been plenty of very redundant gears that we’d hauled up to 2500m for later use. Now those previously unused gears were busy. Whatever a rider had as their smallest gear is what they would be in. Most of the field were armed with compact, 50-34 chainsets with plenty of riders employing 32’s and 34’s on the back. I’d contemplated changing my trusty 29 on the back for something bigger. Glad I didn’t though, for me at 34 – 29 combination was the perfect compromise between getting up the very steep ramps that followed but enough resistance to force me to work and not contemplate getting too comfortable! I’m totally convinced that with more teeth on the back I’d have been slower in those last few kms. Gear choice is crucial, not too big or too small…if you want to do well.
The pitifully slow speeds of all the riders on the steep ramps were having a concertina effect on the field. The strung out field on the more gentle gradients was now much more compact in the final, brutal kilometres. One minute behind a rider in the middle forest section was a rider out of sight. A minute’s gap on these horrible ramps and you could easily hear the groans and anguish of the rider in front.
I still felt good. I had riders in my ‘cross hairs’, strung out on the road taking every conceivable line up the road to try to reduce the gradients. I was the same, taking advantage of different lines, especially keeping to the outside on some very steep hairpins.
I looked back briefly, no one in sight, I’d put time into Edwige Pitel on the descent and she was no where to be seen. Lots of riders ahead though. Lots of riders to catch. This was still working out the way I wanted it to. After passing a few more riders I saw Oliver ahead. My conservative riding earlier on when I’d let him go had cost me more that 2 minutes as he’d powered up though the forest. That 2 minutes was shrivelling now though. I caught Oliver with around 7kms to the finish. For a moment I had this nice idea that we might ride to the finish more or less together. I asked him how he was going, a fairy enthusiastic ‘OK’ came back. It wasn’t going to work together though. I was going really well and I think he was paying a little for his antics in the early part of the race. I said something about this having been one of the best paced rides I’ve ever done and that I just needed to convert it over the last few kms. With nothing else said I rode ahead.
As I rode ahead I felt something on my right leg. I knew what it was. I hoped it was something else. I hoped it was the cool wind on my skin, yeah that might be it. We’re getting high now and things are cooler, maybe what I just felt was just the wind. The feeling spread though, both hamstrings, I was starting to cramp. Fuck it! I’ve come all this way around the world and ridden what I thought was an almost perfect race and now cramp could end it all. I’ve got plenty of experience of cramp, what causes it for me and how to deal with it. Forget dehydration, electrolytes etc, I’m on top of that sort of stuff. Cramp for me is simply through over exertion. Although I’d ridden sensibly, 3.5 hours of constant climbing at close to threshold was taking it’s toll. I can usually ride through cramp and get to the ‘other side’. It’s only beaten me once in 12 years of riding in races. On easier terrain one solution would be to ‘spin it out’, ease off for a bit and let it subside. It was too steep though. I stood up to stretch the hamstrings as much as possible. No worries, all ok, I’m on top of this I thought.
I passed the 5 km to the finish marker and all was going well. Someone, not sure if it was a rider or spectator shouted to me on a bend. ‘How old are you?’ They must have seen my number 738 or maybe just my old face! I was mixed up with riders with much lower numbers and younger faces. ’51’ I proudly spluttered. ‘Brilliant ride, keep it going’ the voice came back. That made me feel so good. More often than not in events that finish uphill I’m counting down the kilometres to the finish, I want it to be over, 4.9, 4.8, 4.7……This was different though. I was overtaking people and never getting overtaken. I was revelling in the moment and for a while I had a weird feeling of wanting everything to last for as long as possible. If this kept going on for long enough I would pass everyone and win! At this point the winners had already crossed the finish line but I think you’ll get my sentiment.
With 3kms to go I could afford myself moments of taking in the view and contemplating what I was achieving. All still feeling good albeit with the constant reminder that cramp was just around the corner all the time. The profile for the event indicated that there was a flat section for about 1.5kms followed by a fairly steep 1km up to the finish. With 2.5kms to go I’m going fast down hill, it’s not flat. I can see the final stretch going up to the finish. It looks brutally steep. The descent is fairly straightforward but I’m irritated by the lack of accuracy in the information we were given. I ride hard and low in an effort to carry as much speed into the final climb as I can find. The final 1.4km was uphill at an average gradient of 12%, the hardest kilometre of the race, compounded by the fact that it was at the end too. No ramps, just a painful 12% all the way.
I was still overtaking riders but now it was a desperate struggle for all, including me. The road was wide enough to give lots of line choice. I’ve never used up so much road on a bike ride. My cramp started to affect my quads and calves. Standing properly and sitting were both impossible without some muscle going into it’s contracted spasm.
I haven’t seen any footage of me on that stretch but I must have looked so weird seeking a kind of ‘mid position’ on my bike, neither standing nor sitting in an effort to survive to the finish. My usual power source was gone, the bigger muscles were useless, all that was left was ‘ankling’. Toes up and down, it was the only way I could pedal. I was struggling big time, definitely counting down the metres. Still overtaking people though, they were in a worse state than me.
With about 500m to go I heard an encouraging ‘good ride John’ from another rider. I’m not 100% sure but I think it was Dan Evans who had blown up badly in the final stages after staying with the leaders for much longer than myself. With 300m to go my ankling technique was still working. I knew I was going to finish, I can hear all the noise at the finish and the commentator on the microphone. There are spectators shouting in Chinese and I think they sound like they want me to do well! I’m feeling quite emotional as I realise that the job is nearly done, so many months of riding and planning and I’m seconds away from my goal. One more potential victim in my sights, 200m to go and he’s about 40m ahead of me. It’s really steep but I’m hungry for that extra position in the rankings. I totally empty myself over the last few metres and pip this poor bloke on the line. I’m not sure if he saw me coming until it was too late for him.
My legs did not like that late effort I put in at the finish. As I crossed the line, my legs went into uncontrollable spasms and I was crying out in a combination of pain and needing help. I couldn’t get my feet out of the pedals so I was cruising around at the finish with straight legs and unable to stop and get off! Eventually I was rescued by a couple of marshalls who grabbed me, unclipped my feet and hauled me off my bike. My embarrassment and pain was short lived though and soon overwhelmed by the euphoria of what I’d managed to achieve.
Oliver came over the line and I remember Emma Pooley, he and I chatting at the finish but I’ve got no idea what was said! I remember wondering why their jerseys were caked in salt when mine wasn’t. I remember having a quick look at my watch and working out that I must have gone under 4 hours, I hadn’t expected that. I was buzzing. There were very few riders around up there, the one’s that were there were really good! The podium guys were having their drug tests and the Edwige Pitel came over the line as 3rd lady on the day, first time I’d beaten her in 5 attempts so I must have gone ok.
Oliver and I got certificates printed off with our times but no other information on our placing at that point. I’d managed 3 hours 56 minutes. Far better than I believed I was capable of.
Oliver and I then headed down the other side of the mountain for a couple of kilometres to where we’d get fed and have the podium ceremonies. The clouds rolled in and we were glad of the change of clothes that we’d had sent up there. I got a sneak look at the results just before the podium ceremonies. I was second in the over 50’s, pipped by just 12 seconds by American Juergen Eckmann. I’d convinced myself that I’d won the oldies’ category so I was initially a bit disappointed that my old bloke radar had not picked up Juergen. He’d stayed with the leaders for longer than myself and had established a lead of a couple of minutes on me, I’d been catching him in the final stages without realising there was someone to catch. A 12 second gap doesn’t sound much but I’d given it my all and even if I knew he was up the road I’m not sure it would have changed anything. I proudly stood on the podium with him. On reflection I’m almost happier to have come second to Juergen with both of us posting really good times than perhaps winning with a lesser performance. Juergen’s 3.55.55 and my 3.56.07 were the fastest times ever for over 50’s in the 7 year history of the event, and by some margin. We’d both finished ahead of any of the over 40 riders too. Very proud, no regrets at all.
Performance wise, it’s hard to see how I could have done much better. I maintained a heart rate of around 165 bpm for the first 3.5 hours, building to deep into the 170’s in the final few kms. I completed the final tough section in 43 minutes, well ahead of my anticipated 50. I would love to have had power figures to look at and reflect on but I can guess fairly accurately what they would have been. VAM figures (a measure of climbing speed) told a good story too. In the last 7 minutes of finishing up that 1.4km ramp I was still climbing at nearly 1200m VAM, at the end of an event like this and at well over 3000m altitude that’s a very healthy number for me. I had come into this thing well prepared, well trained and I’d executed the job.
Oliver had managed a brilliant 3rd place in his over 20 category too, so Team Alpine Cadence had the wonderful problem of dealing with how to get a couple of weighty trophies back to Europe with our baggage allowances.
As I reflect on the whole experience of the Taiwan KOM I can’t stop smiling. Every aspect of the experience has been incredible. The kindness and helpfulness of the Taiwanese people has been overwhelming. The country is spectacular in so many ways and the event itself is really special. To be able to properly race with top calibre riders in such a dramatic and unique venue was incredible. Without any doubt at all it’s been the highlight of my 12 years of cycling.
The full and official result list wasn’t available on the day but when it came out the next day I was thrilled. To be on the first page of an event like this, with my name among such quality riders makes me immensely proud.
Thankyou Taiwan KOM, you were fabulous in every way!
If you missed any of our other blogs in the lead up to Taiwan KOM here they are:
For more information about what we get up to when we’re not doing the Taiwan KOM: