By John Thomas, 27th October 2019
All images courtesy of Taiwan Cycling Federation
At last – race day! So much anticipation and preparation, now it’s time to convert the work we’ve done into a result. I got a good 6 hour sleep, woke up as per usual 10 minutes ahead of my 4am alarm. I’m pumped up for this thing as much as my first ever bike event in 2005.
Oliver and I grab a coffee and breakfast in our vast hotel room, plenty to eat the day before and about a 4 hour effort ahead of us, no need for a huge breakfast. Muesli, yoghurt and a banana is enough. We head down to the hotel lobby to meet the rest of the team and ride the flat 4km to the start. It’s raining! This isn’t what we ordered. The forecast had been dry, we didn’t need this. A couple of minutes up the road the rain abates to our relief, a dry road, looks like we’ll be alright. This is a tough enough day without rain. In 2014 riders had to deal with rain for the whole event. Not nice.
We arrived at the start in perfect warm conditions. Dropped our bags off with stuff for the finish and got ourselves in position near the front. We were earlier than we needed to be but that was cool. Looking out over the Pacific Ocean, there are worse places to wait for the sun to come up.
The 6am start time approaches. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Fitter and stronger on the bike than I’ve ever been. A great bike to ride that runs sweetly and is lighter than most. I know the course from last year and I know what I’m capable of. Everything points to a good day.
Off we go. 18km of neutralised riding. This event is run well and the commissaire leads us at a decent 35-40km/h pace. Perfect to warm up the legs. Alastair, Ruari, Stephen and I are all near the front. The rest of our team not far back. The Team CCC ladies are in the front row and I stake my claim for territory on the right side and make it hard for anyone to get past me. I’m getting better at this type of riding. You need to be bold and confident, even in a neutralised section. Relax too much or leave a gap available and you find yourself swamped and going backwards. There are 700 riders behind you that want to be where you are. There’s a definite skill in being able to stay at the front.
Taroko Bridge apporoaches, the iconic gateway to the Taroko Gorge. As we cross the bridge I’m in a good spot, on the right, just a couple of rows back, similar to last year. Good for the hard left hander coming up at the end of the bridge. The commissaire has his head out of the sun roof, shouts some warning to us that I can’t hear properly. This is cool, just like a stage start in a Grand Tour, kilometre zero is just around the corner.
Round we go and the flag comes down. Game on. 86kms to the top from here. The pace is hot but I can live with it. I’m about 30 riders back as the peloton strings out. I remember this point last year, I was shocked at the pace and struggled to stay with it. This time I’m on top of it. 3km up the road there is a narrowing, a dip and a hard right. It caught riders out last year and riders went down just behind me. This time we all got through smoothly.
I’m happy, the pace settles to a swift but consistent tempo, doesn’t seem like there are any attacks off the front. Alastair is just behind me, Ruari, Stephen and Oliver just ahead. We negotiate the first of the 16 damp and dingy tunnels that make up about 6km of the total race length. Alastair and I exchange a few words, taking stock of what’s happening after a few minutes. The pace has already split the peloton, we are in a group of about 100 riders, 600 have found the early stages too hot to handle.
Km 35, the road starts to ramp up a little, nothing severe but 5/6%, enough to cause problems for some of the 100. At this point it’s crucial not to be too near the back of a group like this. It can easily sever in a matter of seconds and you need to be on the right side of the split. I’ve learned to my cost of the importance of positioning in a group in previous races. I’ve often found myself too far back. Stephen is the most experienced racer in our team, he’s a good marker for me. He gets himself in good positions, if I’m nearer to him I’ll be safer.
At this point there are Team CCC riders who are dictating the pace. It’s smooth and steady. I’m happy with where I am. Constantly looking ahead to make sure I can react quickly to a change of pace. I’m comfortable but I have no idea how long it that will last. I have a chance to take in the moment. I’m in the thick of a lead group of about 70 riders now, with World Tour pro riders dictating the pace on the front. All happening in one of the most dramatic, deepest gorges in the world. It’s all a bit dreamy, one of the those ‘pinch yourself is it real’ situations. This event is like nothing else. No where else can I get an opportunity to race with these people. And I’m part of it, not just making up the numbers, but I can do more than just hang in there. I feel part of how things might play out today, as I’ll discover soon my team mates are going to be an even bigger part of this fantastic game I’m immersed in.
I can’t win this race outright, I’m too old and not good enough, simple as that. There are 20 or so riders surrounding me now that will ride at a different level to me at the end of this day when it hits it’s tough, steep climax. But I’m in another race within the race. I came narrowly second in the over 50 category in this event last year and I want the win this time.
Our race numbers pinned on our jerseys are sequenced as per our category. All the oldies are numbers 667 through to 775. I’m scanning for those numbers, in my group of 70 I can’t see many. We are ranked on previous KOM performances so I get number 667 as the fastest previous competitor in my category. Juergen Eckman who pipped me by 9 seconds last year is not on the start list. There are loads of riders doing it for the first time though so the numbers don’t tell the whole story. I can see number 668, a Japanese rider, Shingo Nakagome, bit of a legend in this event, has won this category in the past. Looks confident and keeps moving up near the front. 702 is Stephen. I’ve raced with Stephen in the Haute Route Pyrenees earlier in the summer. Very experienced and strong. Very capable of getting on the podium here but I know I’m a shade stronger than him on previous performances when it gets to the business end of the day. The only other old bloke I can see is 752, smooth looking rider, long greying curls spilling down his neck. No idea who he is but he looks handy. Could he be the rider who spoils my party?
The kilometres pass quickly, this does not feel like a chore. I’m in control. Alastair is right with me. In the same way I use Stephen as a marker I think Alastair’s doing something similar with me, that’s cool with me. We see a moto with a board help up with ‘50”’ on it. Unbeknown to me someone has ridden off the front in the last few kms and has 50 seconds on us. No one is chasing though, no one in the pack seems concerned. Our pace remains very steady, almost feeling slow at times. Who could be up the road? I move up through the pack to see if I can see Oliver and Ruari. I get it in my head that maybe they’ve both gone off the front. Oliver loves to breakaway and get a bit of glory, has he done so and towed Ruari with him and maybe set up a chance for Ruari to win this thing? The top riders here don’t know who Ruari is, maybe they’ve let him go not realising how much of a threat he is?
Then I spot Ruari, tapping away near the front. No Oliver though. Looks like he’s away. I’ll discover later that he’s part of a three man break that he bridged across too in spectacular, photogenic style!
I’m excited for Oliver. He, like me, isn’t capable of winning this thing outright but he’s super strong on these moderate slopes and certainly capable of ruffling a few feathers and staying away for a long time. The gap gets bigger, up to nearly 3 minutes at one point. Still no concern from the pack. They are clearly still convinced that whoever’s up the road is not a contender for the win.
All the time we’re climbing through changing light and conditions. We ride a few kilometres through damp cloud, a wet road and moody light. Soon we will emerge above to stunning views of the sea of cloud below us. The air and road is dry now.
55km in and I’m still comfortable. Sure I’m working hard but it’s sustainable and I’m confident. I move closer to the front of the pack. To hell with it, I’ll go on the front for a while. No one seems bothered and I get a few minutes of being in charge. We’re on gradients of about 6% at this point, cruising at around 20 km/h and it’s nice to be on the front and riding at a pace that suits me. I know that will change soon but at least as riders come past me now I can monitor who they are and be on the look out for any oldies who might have escaped my radar scanning earlier.
We’re approaching the point where I got dropped by the lead group last year, about 64km in. It gets a bit steeper for a couple of kilometres then followed by a stretch of about 8km of much easier gradients. If I can get through this steeper section with the top guys I could get a useful tow from them on that flatter section. I stuck with them, my power numbers are nudging over threshold but I’ll be alright for a while. I’m about 30th wheel in the group of 70 here, unaware that I’m just ahead of a significant split. Stephen and Alastair have been jettisoned and I get to carry on in the lunar landing craft!
The pace is hot. As we reach Km 68 the gradient eases but the intensity goes the other way. Past winner Jon Ebson and other contenders start attacking and testing each other. It’s ‘pulsey’ and fast. All I can do is hang on. I’m close to losing touch. Big numbers required. Hang on man. If I get get a tow to the end of this section it could be a fantastic launchpad for me. The fun and games at the front is a blessing in disguise for me. That injection in pace means we’re putting a big gap into the other riders behind. I look around when I can. No Stephen, no Nakagome, I think I’m the only old bloke left in the pack. I’ve made a very good decision and I’m getting a fantastic pull from my young playmates at the front. The CCC ladies, including Marianne Vos and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio have gone too. It’s just the men left now. Ruari’s right up there. On a few loops in the road I look back down below to look for chasers. No one in sight. This is really good.
My course knowledge from last year is invaluable. Knowing exactly where things get easier and harder on this mid section of the race is crucial. My Garmin computer confirms the profile ahead for me too. 2 or 3 more fast and easy kms to go and then sustained up for about 7km at 6/7%. I need to stay with this group until the foot of the next pitch and then it’s time to let go. I know my abilities and my limitations. Too long on a harder section with riders of this level and I’m going to burn myself out. Let them go at km 77 and be thankful for the launchpad they’ve provided but don’t bite off any more.
I let them go. The rest of the 30 ride away from me. I’m happy. I’ve dropped myself on purpose. I’m sure it’s the best place to do it. Several of those 30 were looking pretty weary, I was confident that I’d reel them in later. Time now for me to find my own rhythm and get to the finish as efficiently as possible. From this point group riding would not affect things greatly. Steeper gradients now, everyone against the mountain.
At km 79 I came through the feed station at Bilu Sacred Tree on my own. The total pro experience continues as I’m handed a fresh bidon by neutral support and get to throw my used one to the spectators for a souvenir! I wonder who’s got that Alpine Cadence bottle now!
A timing mat at that feed stations would confirm later that Oliver had just been caught by the pack in front of me and I was about a minute behind. His breakaway and glory had come to an end but not without dozens of fantastic photos showing for posterity how he was a leader in the Taiwan KOM for a long time!I ride on. On my own up though the forest. 7km of steady up until a descent of 4kms. Well over 2000m above our sea side start now. Time for me to review, check, monitor the engine. All the dials in the cockpit are giving the right readings. I’m running well. The tiniest twinges of cramping are there but nothing much. I’m in better condition than the same point last year and in a better position in the race. It’s all about not blowing up now. Manage the engine and respect any changes. Through the forest ahead I can see the weaker members of the group of 30 getting closer. There are some tired legs in there. I get the feeling that I’ll pick off a few of them before the finish. I don’t need to work to catch them though, they’ll come to me. My big mileage on the bike this year has seen me stronger at the end of big rides than ever before. I’ve had a trend this summer of overtaking plenty of riders on final climbs, I’m confident it will happen again.
As I top out on that section I’m close to 3 or 4 riders ahead. The short descent that follows offers respite to some but perhaps an opportunity to others. I push hard over the top. A little too hard into the first hairpin, almost locking up and running out of road. Concentrate! Don’t blow it now with a stupid mistake. Next bend is smoother and then all good, pedalling hard through the rest of the open bends. Later on Strava I’ll see that the descent went well for me, more time into rivals who perhaps cruised it a bit.
Up we go again. 90km done, 15 to go and all up. 1100m of altitude to find. The average gradient of about 7% doesn’t remotely tell the story of what’s to come! Super steep ramps ahead of us approaching 20%, with flatter stretches and a short descent corrupting the average gradient and making it a useless figure. This final stretch is hard and it’s what the Taiwan KOM is all about. About 55 minutes of managed pain remaining!
I start to pick off riders. Still no one in sight behind me but plenty in front as the steep gradients and slow speeds bring the field more into view. I tap away in a small gear. I mix it up in the saddle and out, still no cramp. Brilliant, I was cramping at this point last year and incapable of getting out of the saddle.
Then, Oliver! At the side of the road punctured! ‘oh no, mate!’ I shouted. I was so disappointed for him. He had a neutral support moto helping him so I couldn’t help. He would puncture again before the finish, a hard way for him to finish his day but nothing could take away his glory from the early part of the ride.
I rode on with mixed feelings, really happy with how I was going but disappointed for him. The vicious ramps were just as hard as last year. My 34/29 gearing set up was enough for me, just. Lots of riders there will have been regretting their gear choice I reckon.
5km to the finish, still plenty of work to do but I know I’ve got this in the bag. Still passing riders and not feeling like a rider that was about to blow. I’d nibbled away on 3 energy bas since the start and a couple of gels on top in the final stages, I knew I was on top of my energy needs. One of the race vehicles goes past me and I can hear on the radio ‘race leader 50m from the finish’. That put some context into my humble effort. The winner of the race, a young Anthon Charmig from Denmark, was just about to cross the line and I was still 5km back. The speed in which those top guys finish is incredible.
3km to go. An open descent of 1.5km ahead of me. I rode it well and carried plenty of speed around the spectator lined right hander at the end that would signal the start of our final 1.5km up to finish. The crowd support from the local people is incredible. So much enthusiasm. I’m not sure what they keep shouting at me in Mandarin but it sounds like ‘JEE OH’, whatever it is it make me ride faster!
The finish is hard. A fairly constant 11% for 1.4km. Put that at well over 3000m when you’ve got 4 hours of hard riding in your legs already and it’s hard. I found myself on my own. I’d overtaken 7 or 8 riders in the last few kilometres but now there was no one in sight, ahead or behind. I was where I was in the race. Nothing was going to change unless I blew up or punctured. I count down the metres, 1100, 1000, 900. It’s so steep and slow. A commissaire’s car follows me up to add to the atmosphere. I’m all over the wide road. Zig-zagging my way up in an effort to create virtual hairpins and the relief that they bring. 600m to go, loads of noise. I can hear the commentator on the PA system at the top and crowds ahead of me. 400m to go, so hard. The crowds are bashing the hell out of the hoardings and shouting their ‘JEE OH’s’. The support is amazing. They have no idea who I am. I suddenly get emotional. A mix of relief, pride and excitement overcomes me. I’m goosepimply all over, my eyes are teary. It’s amazing how those people at 400m made me feel. I finished so strong, the last 200m seems easy with what that crowd gave me. I push all the way to the line with a little hand in the air to celebrate my personal victory.
I’m in good condition. I stop, get a medal draped around my neck and take a few moments to think. This time last year I was ‘peeled’ off the bike by marshals as I was in the depth of massive cramp spasms. This time was different. I’d given it my all and the body had delivered everything I asked of it.
Ruari is there, ‘How d’you go?’ He was 4th, Superb result, so pleased for him. Alastair came over the line just 3 minutes and 4 places behind me. He’s had a strong finish too and I was so happy to see how well he’d done. I headed over to where the timing was set up. Leaning over to get a glimpse of the laptop with the results coming in I could see I’d finished 25th overall and confirmed as 1st over 50. I was shocked to see my time, 3 hours 45 minutes, way quicker than I thought I could do.
The leading ladies, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Marianne Vos came in a few minutes later. Again I was surprised. I often joke about how I’m one of the top lady riders as I almost always finish around the same time as the leading lady. To finish a fair margin ahead of these girls was another indicator that I’d gone really well.
More of our team came over the line. Oliver got there in good spirits despite a difficult finish. Stephen rolled in under 4 hours and would be second to me in the old blokes category. Michael finished strongly followed by Pete who’d also suffered a puncture scuppering his hopes of joining us on the over 50 podium. Duncan finished in his usual, reliable manner and an ever cheerful Fenton meant that we were all safely finished.
The atmosphere at the podium presentation at the top was a lot warmer than the foggy chilly conditions we were greeted to. Our team of riders had well and truly performed. There was a fantastic buzz around what we’d done, no doubt fuelled a little by the dozen beers that Oliver had made sure wthere for us to consume as our recovery drinks!
Between us we collected 6 trophies, Ruari 4th overall and first in M20 category picked up a handy cheque for 50,000 TWD. Stephen and I enjoyed being top of the tree for the M50 division. Alastair podiumed in M30 and Oliver podiumed in M20 despite his calamitous finish.
So, to reflect. As a team, we have had the most incredible day and indeed the most incredible week. Taipei and Hualien have provided us with amazing memories. A trip that has culminated in a wonderful world class event, but a trip that is much more than just that. An exciting adventure into a new culture. Sights, smells, sounds and flavours that have certainly invaded our senses! Of course we need to let the dust settle from the excitement of all this but I suspect a few of us will be coming back for more.
The event itself is epic. Totally unique. A challenge to complete and an opportunity to share the challenge with top riders that I certainly haven’t found anywhere else in the world of cycling. I can’t recommend this event highly enough. However long your cycling bucket list might be, this has to be on it. Well organised, spectacular and wonderful support from super friendly people. Hard to beat.
For me personally, ah, where do I start?! I’m proud, I’m relieved, I’m satisfied, I’m excited. So many things. This cycling journey that I’m on continues to deliver amazing emotions and experiences. I knew I was going well this year but to convert my fitness and abilities into a result in Taiwan makes me feel on top of the world. I keep surprising myself with what can be achieved and it make me very excited for the future too.
Last year in Taiwan was superb, this year though was even better. To share the experience with a team has been wonderful and I’m proud to be part of the team success.
The results for this event are available at
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