The Taiwan KOM Challenge / A Reflection

It’s something that brings me real joy and a sense of fulfilment, helping to organise and promote the Taiwan KOM Challenge. When I first started working on the race back in 2013, in just its second year, the event was not known much at all outside of Taiwan. In just 7 short years the KOM Challenge has become one of the world’s premier amateur events and has been graced by thousands of amateur riders and many famous pros alike. In this article, which appears in the current November edition of Bicycle Club Magazine here in Taiwan, I take a look at the history of the race and its development, and how the Taiwan KOM has become a bucket-list item for many a cyclist worldwide.

Incredible views greet the riders after they emerge from the jungle below

Introduction

For many years, when people in foreign countries heard the word ‘Taiwan’, their first thought of this small island nation would be of the Taiwan Miracle, an era of agricultural and industrial developmental change that led to Taiwan being known for its manufacturing excellence. This was instrumental in Taiwan now being ranked the 21st largest export-oriented industrial economy and 15th in GDP per capita in the world – quite a feat for a nation of just 22 million people.

Taiwan has also gone from strength to strength in terms of increased political and civil liberties and ranks highly in education, health care and human development. In business, Taiwanese brands have take global markets by storm, including such huge companies as HTC and Acer. 

Thanks to bicycle brands Giant and Merida, Taiwan has also become synonymous with bicycles, but never so much with cycling per se. However, this has changed too of late, in large part thanks to one particular event, a race that features one of the longest and highest passable mountain routes in the world. This is one of the toughest one-day challenges available to cyclists on any continent, and may well just about be the most beautiful.

It’s a ride that promises the cyclist a uniquely breathtaking adventure from the very first push on the pedals, all the way to the very last. 

This is the world renowned Taiwan KOM Challenge.

Taroko Gorge

The Idea

The initial idea for a cycling event that headed through Taroko Gorge all the way up to the summit of Wuling Shan came about in 2010 and was inspired, quite simply, by the outstanding natural beauty that attracts tens of thousands of tourists, bird-watchers and hikers each year. Imagining hundreds of brightly dressed cyclists on their human-powered machines, testing their will and character on the winding tarmac whilst dwarfed by the towering cliffs of the Gorge, then emerging out of the lush, mysterious jungle forest hours later, onto the near-Alpine like peaks of the summit – this was the dream that became reality. 

“When the idea for this event came up, and we went to inspect the route, seeing it for the first time as a potential race course, we knew this was special and hoped that this could become a big event,” says Rita Ho, Chief Secretary for the Taiwan Cyclist Federation, who host the Taiwan KOM Challenge. 

Mt. Wuling

The initial event, in 2012, attracted sponsors quickly, and from those first co-partners, the Japanese bicycle components producer Shimano and Taiwan’s Merida Bicycles have remained as sponsors every year since that first edition, recognising the Taiwan KOM Challenge as one of the world’s premier one-day cycling events. 

Furthermore, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau also came on board for the very first edition and has been a partner ever since, utilising the Taiwan KOM as the spotlight event in their year-long series of events that make up the Taiwan Cycling Festival. 

The route cuts through the towering marble cliffs

Development and Highlights

Last year, 2019, the Taiwan KOM Challenge was held on October 25th and attracted 730 riders in total, with 242 riders coming from Taiwan and 488 coming from abroad. A total of 42 different nationalities were represented. If we consider that just seven years ago only 79 foreigners rode in the first edition, representing just 19 nations, we can see that the Taiwan KOM Challenge has truly become an international event.

From the very beginning the organisers decided to attract top professional cyclists, starting in 2012 with Jeremy Roy (then Team FDJ) and Anthony Charteau (then Europcar), as well as inviting the world’s leading cycling media to cover the race. Undoubtedly these initiatives began to raise the profile of the event abroad, with more and more foreign riders expressing an interest in an event that they had never heard of before. 

2017 was the year that truly saw the Taiwan KOM Challenge make a breakthrough thanks very much to the world’s leading cycling media company, Global Cycling Network (GCN), attending and filming the event. Viewing figures for GCN’s main video from the 2017 edition currently stand at 1.5 million, and their total KOM series has attracted 2.8 million viewers. 

GCN at the KOM

Combined with GCN coming, former World Champion and Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and winner of all three Grand Tours, Vincenzo Nibali, also participated in the race, which was a massive coup for the event. Riders of the highest world class calibre had never raced in Taiwan previously, and no other one-day non-UCI event in Asia could have hoped to attract these riders. 

2017 was also significant for another and equally important reason: it marked the first year that the Taiwan KOM offered equal prize money to men and women. No other race in Asia had this policy, and indeed there were very few in the world at that time that had it either. Former World Champion Emma Pooley, of the UK, said, on receiving her winner’s cheque, that despite winning several major European races as a professional, she had never before earned so much money in one day from racing. 

Emma Pooley with 2018 winner Lucy Kennedy (Michelton – Scott)

In 2019 arguably the world’s greatest cyclist ever, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, rode the event with her LIV Cycling team. Vos’s team-mate, then World Champion Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, won. 

“I’m really happy to win the KOM Challenge,” said Moolman Pasio. “It is something that has been on my bucket list for quite some time now. As a climber, I love climbing, and this is the hardest climbing race in the world with a climb that lasts for over 80km. It was really special to take part and tick it off my bucket list with a win. It’s even more special that it’s in Taiwan. To be able to win for Liv in their home country was really special.”

That’s me! Riding with the Legend

That each of these riders actually expressed an interest in riding the Taiwan KOM before being invited says a great deal about the incredible qualities that the route possesses. In a sense, the true star of the Taiwan KOM is always the road itself, always Taroko Gorge, the frothing waters in the river below, the towering cliffs, always the jungle, forever the twist and turns, and, eternally, the last 8km, where the road rises up as if the mountain is personally offended that such skinny, exhausted humans dare to ride up it. 

Epic is an overused word these days. But this event is indeed epic. And that is why people from all over the world want to come and ride it. This mountain, this road, this event, this has put Taiwan firmly on the world cycling map.

International View

Despite having ridden in every famous bile race in the world and on almost every continent, Cadel Evans had this to say about his time at the Taiwan KOM:

‘A magic climb up. You’re really riding up on the side of these precipices which is quite incredible. When I looked around and looked at the mountains, it’s just like a scene out of a movie or something. It’s so spectacular. Some of the scenery, the old temples, the waterfalls, the section with all the trees going over the road, like a natural awning covering the road, the vegetation itself is something I’ve only ever seen in Asian movies.’

Epic views in Taroko Gorge

Moolman Pasio mentioned that the race was on her ‘bucket list’, and a quick google search results in a finding of 398,000 pages with the words ‘Taiwan KOM’ and ‘bucket list” in them. Simply put, the race has exploded in recent years and in the best possible way. That it’s mentioned these days frequently in articles about the world’s toughest and most beautiful climbs is testament to its raw beauty. 

In a way, Taiwan’s best kept secret is out of the box. Even 5 years ago, had you mentioned an 85km climb that went from 0m to 3250m, from ocean to summit, the vast majority of foreign cyclists would not have believed you – for how could it be that they had not heard of such a huge, massive beast of a climb before? 

Well, now they know, and many wish to come to Taiwan to see if they can ride the behemoth that is the Taiwan KOM Challenge.

Author: crankpunk

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist.

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