This article originally appeared in the December issue of Bicycle Club magazine.
This year’s Taiwan KOM Challenge was special. Not because of the ‘bucket-list’ route, the famed 3,275 meters of climbing and the silly steep last 8km. Unfortunately that was cut short because of a heady landslide just prior to the race on October 27th.
It was special, but not because of a famous high-level professional rider attending, nor international media. Due to time between the Covid restrictions being lifted and the event being short, there simply wasn’t enough time to secure any big names.
Rather, this year’s Taiwan KOM Challenge was special because of what it represented. The race stands as a cycling ambassador for Taiwan in many ways, demonstrating for all the world to see the outstanding natural beauty of this island, enticing cyclists from abroad to visit and cycle on this route and indeed all over the island.
And, like Taiwan during the Covid pandemic, the event represents a success story.
From humble beginnings in 2011, the Taiwan KOM Challenge has become a giant. People from over 40 countries have participated in it, and it has attracted world champions, Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winners, and King of the Mountain competition winners from all three Grand Tours. Arguably the world’s greatest cyclist ever, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, came and rode it, suffered and smiled at the end and was left amazed by the beauty of the mountain.
Image by Boris Chen
This year, John Ebsen took a record 5th title while Chiu Shengxin (Bryton Racing Team) won the women’s category, both having to fight hard for the wins. The overall feeling at the event was one of elation, of joy. As though a veil had been lifted. This was the first ‘post-closure’ Taiwan KOM Challenge, a race that had not halted either in 2020 or 2021, despite the pandemic that ravaged the world. Like Taiwan as a nation, the KOM Challenge fought on.
As the Communications Director for the event, a role I have had since 2012, I am always amazed when I cycle abroad and my fellow cyclists ask me where I live.
“Taiwan”, I reply.
“Taiwan?” They say. “Man, I really wanna do that KOM Challenge race!”
That’s not one person, nor two. That’s everyone I meet. The race has taken on a life of its own in the imagination of people around the world. Some say it’s the hardest climb on the planet. I say it is surely the most beautiful…
Image by Paolo Penni Martelli
The road, the mountain, the trees, the views, and the riders… each plays its part to make the Taiwan KOM Challenge unique in that you can experience in one day each part of what makes cycling such an incredible sport: the suffering, joy, pain, the release, the beauty, escape, hurt, the freedom. All these, when added to the mental and physical challenge the rider must overcome to complete the ride, culminates to take us on an almost transcendental voyage.
And yes, it ends in a car park, but the views are likely the best you will see from any carpark in the world!
Let’s hear from some others on what the Taiwan KOM Challenge means to them.
Image by Boris Chen
Robert Pinkowski, USA, 59
“It’s difficult, but I should do the Taiwan KOM Challenge before I’m too old to do it,” I thought.
In 2007 I made my first visit to Taiwan to visit my Taiwanese girlfriend (now wife). She took me from Taichung to Hualien via the Wuling Pass and introduced me to the road and the elevation. I was simply in awe of my first view of Taroko Gorge.
Image by Boris Chen
Having visited Taiwan a number of times since my first visit back in 2007, it wasn’t hard to notice the number of bicycles as well as the roads that looked so inviting to ride. One day a quick search on the internet for ‘cycling in Taiwan’ turned up a video from GCN about the Taiwan KOM Challenge. After watching the video and seeing how much effort it took, it looked like the kind of challenge I wanted to do.
I talked about the Taiwan KOM to my fellow cyclists in my home town in America, and some knew it and some didn’t. They all though that cycling 3,275 meters in 105 kilometers was crazy! They thought I was insane to want to do it, but all of them offered their encouragement. I then decided I had to do it
As I am nearing 60 years old, I knew to finish the KOM Challenge I would need to train for it. So, I got a coach and then we started training.
Bob at the base of Taroko Gorge
I arrived in Taiwan to visit family and then learned that the race would be cut short due to a landslide and that I would miss the part of the race that I had really been training for, but since I was already there, there was no question about doing it or not.
The day of the race I was nervous but it went really well. Even though I didn’t climb to the top of Wuling Pass, it was a fantastic experience as my legs pushed me up the mountain from sea level through the thinning oxygen at 2000 meters and cooler air. I remember smiling and shaking my head as I climbed up through the beautiful terrain. “Finally,” I thought, “I am here!”
After reaching the finish line at the Bill Divine Tree I had the chance to think about all of the preparation that went into doing the KOM Challenge. At my age and primarily being a strong recreational rider, it meant a lot to be able to do it and I have to admit to some strong emotions standing as I took it all in. It was a wonderful event to have been a part of while meeting other riders from all over the world.
I will be back in 2023. I want to experience those famous last few kilometres!
And must thank my wife too, for this amazing Taiwan KOM Challenge birthday cake!
Melanie Chambers, Canada
I first visited Taiwan in 2016. As a visiting journalist, I was introduced to a taste of cycling in Taiwan—the gorgeous coastal path around Hualien, the frenetic but exciting urban tour through Taipei’s night markets, and then, a ride through parts of the road that feature in the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
As a cycling journalist and a weekend warrior who had just started competing in regional Canadian mountain bike races, I had a fire in my belly when I learned about the Taiwan KOM. Starting at about the mid section of our little ride on the KOM route, ride, I recall a bright red Buddhist temple on a rock, and the sound of water trickling off the rock in the Taroko gorge. When we fished, maybe only two hours of riding, I knew it then: I wanted more. I vowed to return one day and ride the event.
Two years later, I was on vacation when I get a call from my Canadian Cycling magazine editor: “Hey, a spot opened up in the KOM, do you want to go?”
Want to go? Of course! I looked at the calendar: the event was in three weeks. Three weeks? I didn’t care. Yes, sign me up.
That summer my mother had died unexpectedly of lung cancer; so, before starting the ride, I pasted a picture of her on the top tube. Early race morning, mingled with other amateurs like myself, and Olympic athletes, I felt part of something special. During the ride, I met middle aged French cyclist who had wine in his water bottle: “for the end, for a celebration!” he said.
As the hours wore on, looking up at the rock and never-ending ribbon of road, I also made sure to look down to see my mother’s picture. When I crossed the finished line, just two minutes under the cut off time, I cried thinking of her. That in everything I did, she believed in me. I felt like she was with me that day. I have never done something so hard, and yet so rewarding and meaningful, in such a beautiful place.
When I returned home, I rode a wave of accomplishment and confidence for weeks, maybe months; and, I wore my KOM jersey with pride everywhere I went. Commuting home through Queen Street in Toronto one day shortly after I got home, with my red KOM bag on my back, at a stop light, a fellow commuter, asks at a stop light: “Hey, did you do the Taiwan KOM Challenge?”
“Yeah, I just got back,” I said,
“No way! Wow, that’s something. That’s really something!”
He rode away, as I was left there smiling. That feeling has never gone away.
Jermyn Prado, Philippines, 27
The Taiwan KOM Challenge 2022 is the most memorable races that I’ve done.. It had been one of the races that I looked forward to joining but it was really hard to travel there due to financial reasons.
After winning the Tour of Matabungkay in the Philippines in 2022, several opportunities opened. I was then invited by a friend to join the Taiwan KOM Challenge. At first, I was not sure if I could go due to the fact that I wasn’t financially stable. But many people with generous hearts decided to help me, and luckily I was excused from my job in the Navy. Finally, my dream turned into reality!
The Taiwan KOM Challenge was a gruelling race, despite it being ‘only’ 55km – that is still long! Being a climber, it was such a privilege to race the challenging route. It was very difficult yet very fun. I enjoyed it very much!
Aside from the wonderful experience I’ve had in Taiwan, the love and support of my countrymen was incredible. I never thought that the Filipino cycling community in Taiwan is so huge.
If I were to be asked, I really want to go back and experience the infamous final section of the full 105km event.