As the alarm went off at 4am I wondered what on earth I was doing. I’d barely slept the last two nights.
I’d promised myself once I’d retired from professional cycling there wouldn’t be anymore of these early wake-up calls for races or training. But here I was, less than a year after retiring, putting on my kit and pinning on a number. Okay, so it wasn’t a race, but the Road to Taiwan KOM sportive event; an opportunity to ride the same route as the infamous Taiwan KOM Challenge held annually in October, but without the six-hour cut off limit.
The Challenge has gained momentum since its inception in 2012 and now attracts some big cycling names. Last year, time-trial Olympic medallist and world champion Emma Pooley won the women’s event.
One-hundred-and-five kilometres with a vertical gain of greater than 3500m in less than 80km… This was never going to be a walk in the park for anyone, but I’d just finished over seven months of gruelling chemotherapy, consisting of three-weekly seven-hour treatments, less than three months ago.
After each session I’d feel exhausted, nauseous and unable to eat for days. I was diagnosed with stage IV cervical cancer in August 2016, at the same time as my nine-year cycling career was ending. The excitement of a new chapter of my life disappeared that very moment. With a very poor prognosis, my future remains unclear. All that is certain is that I have to make the most of every day and the opportunities I’m given. So that was how I found myself on a plane to Taiwan – a country I’d never thought about visiting, as a tourist or as a cycling destination, and it wasn’t even remotely on my wish list.
The day after my 43rd birthday, we rolled out from the Kadda cycling-friendly hotel (they even had hooks to hang your bike in the bedroom) in Hualien City to the small town of Qixingtan on the east coast of Taiwan. As the sun rose above the Pacific Ocean, I remembered that, once I’m out of bed, I love this time of day. The music was pumping, there was an air of excitement among the 400 or so participants, and memories of similar Cape Epic mountain bike starts came flooding back. After a condensed translation of the Taiwanese event briefing into English, we set off for the neutral 18km out of town on the highway towards the Taroko Gorge.
‘Taroko’ means magnificent and splendid in the Truku tribe’s language and we were about to appreciate this in good measure. We went over the impressive Tàil ge Bridge and took a left turn which signalled the start of the event.
Obviously, I’ve raced long enough to know how important it is not to start too fast and get carried away at the beginning of an event, but with a number on my back and the freedom of being released from eight months of simply turning the pedals, I felt like an unleashed coiled spring. Tucked in behind a slight Taiwanese guy, I felt the endorphins releasing as my heart rate soared to figures I hadn’t seen for nearly a year. The sweat was dripping from me. Although it was only about 26°C, the humidity was high.
I still had little hair following the chemotherapy treatment, so was wearing a buff under my helmet, as otherwise it was a bit loose. This was rapidly removed as I thought my head was going to explode. We sped along the valley, through tunnels, picking up or dropping riders as we went, in full knowledge that it wouldn’t be long until I dropped myself I had a masochistic fascination in how long I’d sustain this pace and elevated heart rate.
In less than 90 minutes from the start as the road started to kick up, I was, unsurprisingly, well and truly put back in my rightful place. As riders passed me, I had no hope of hanging on to anyone’s wheel now and settled in to my own, slow, sustainable pace.
Now there was time to absorb the incredible gorge of dense forest, the deafening sound of the cicadas, and the massive black and white butterflies, flying effortlessly above, as I struggled my way up the initial parts of the climb due to the earlier exertion.
The cliff-hugging Hehuanshan road from Hualien to Taichung city is listed as one of the top ten most dangerous roads in the world. Wuling, the saddle, sits at 3,275m between Mount Hehuan and the higher East Peak of Hehuanshan. It is the highest pass for cars in Taiwan. That was where we were heading.
This road is a feat of engineering consisting of numerous tunnels and bridges as it winds its way up and up. Some of the tunnels were lit, others were dim and some, pitch black. Many were dank with water dripping from the ceiling above, but when I emerged it was to more and more spectacular scenery. Subject to numerous landslides, resulting from the steepness of the surrounding hillsides, I saw countless construction workers dealing with constant landslides and rock face maintenance.
As I reached 1,000m of ascent, after about 50km, the temperature became a bit more bearable. This has been a magic number for me as, during my treatment, I tried to achieve it on my rides above three hours. The reality hit. I still had over 2,500m to climb in 55km. Brief chats with other riders were a welcome distraction and illustrated the diversity of the participants.
One particularly struck me. Nico, a Filipino, explained he worked night shifts in order to send money home to his family so he didn’t have that much time to train. Everyone, no matter their background, had been lured to this event that was becoming renowned amongst cyclists worldwide seeking a unique challenge.
After nearly 85km I reached the long awaited 4km descent. The technical, twisting, wet downhill with dark tunnels and car-driving tourists meant that full concentration was necessary. I’d found myself alone by this section and my heart skipped a beat in one tunnel, as I fumbled to get my light to work with a car coming towards me, worried he hadn’t seen me. Despite the relief of no longer climbing, I despaired at the elevation loss – not without reason. There was still my magic 1,000m left to climb in only 15km…
I grabbed water from the final feed station and then the road kicked back up. After 95km I was now facing the hardest part of the event – the remaining 10km. At an elevation of 2,565m, only 56m lower than the Gavia pass in Italy, I hit a ramp with a gradient of 13 per cent for 400m. At 97.6km I reached the notorious wall of 27 per cent for 300m. This proved a challenge on a 53-39 crankset and 28-12 cassette – the majority of participants were wisely riding compacts.
I weaved my way up, zig-zagging wildly and breathing heavily. I contemplated getting off the bike, but decided the option of walking in bike cleats was not a better alternative. Miraculously I managed to stay on the bike despite the front wheel lifting off the ground a couple of times. I’d been told the last 8km was difficult but nothing quite prepared me for this. I’ve raced the Stelvio and the Mortirolo in the Giro Rosa and climbed a number of European cols and mountains, including the Tourmalet, the Gavia, Passo Giau, Hautacam and Luz Ardiden. This incredible mountain is in a league of its own.
The 5km to go sign. FIVE KILOMETRES?!
With the numerous tunnels I knew my Garmin distance recording was going to be inaccurate. Unfortunately I’d been far too optimistic and, thinking I must only have around 3km left to climb, my heart sank when I saw this sign. 2km difference on the flat is nothing. 2km at an altitude of nearly 3,000m, in double figure percentage gradients, was a big deal. On approaching this sign, I’d been slightly distracted by avoiding a butterfly net wafted in front of me as a young girl darted across the road in hot pursuit of her target.
In addition to being a road cyclist’s playground this area attracts nature lovers and budding scientists complete with notebooks and cameras. But now there was nothing that could distract me from the pain in my legs and my back. I tried to stand, but with tell-tell niggles of cramp, I sat back in the saddle immediately.
With 2km to go the gradient eased and there was a brief almost 1km of downhill. Dodging cars and tourists I used it to my advantage, the summit now in sight. At this high elevation the scenery had changed from dense forest to alpine-like meadows. It was beautiful and reminded me of the Pyrenees. Nowhere in Taiwan appears to be without people or some form of development. At 3,000m this was no exception and there were many Taiwanese tourists taking in the incredible vistas they’d reached by car.
We, however, had not taken the easy option. The last 1.5km was so hard; the air was thin, I was breathing hard and my legs were screaming. However, the white tents and flags at the finish were in sight and I found a final ounce of energy, cheered on by friendly Taiwanese onlookers. I crossed the line with fellow Brit Alan Grant. We’d kept each other company for most of the final 15km, barely talking but silently sharing the pain. It had taken 5h46m. I would have only just been inside the cut off in the KOM Challenge. The only time my body had ached so much was after completing my first (and only) off-road running marathon.
As I crossed the line, a medal was placed over my head. I’ve taken part in numerous sportive events around the world but this was one of the only times the medal really meant something. For me it had been a real challenge. Not only the enormity of the ride, the altitude, the height gain and the fact I’d only recently finished chemotherapy. I had for nearly eight months lived as a bit of a recluse, trying to avoid public places for fear of infection, and because I had no hair and hated the way I looked. For this event I’d travelled for 24 hours, I’d met new people who didn’t know what I was going through, or why I had a silly hairstyle, I’d laughed at jokes and I’d had brief moments during the climb when I forgot I had cancer, especially when I was initially charging up the gorge hanging on to someone’s back wheel. I finally felt like I was ‘me’ again.
Then I laughed at myself – I wasn’t quite ‘me’, as earlier (before the last 10km) I’d had grand plans of riding back down to meet some of the others in our group and riding back up with them. Since I could barely move, this wasn’t an option. Instead I drank in the incredible endless views that you only get at such elevations, reflected on what an amazing day it had been, how much Taiwan had to offer cyclists, and waited to exchange stories.