Author: Lee Rodgers
Published: 11/21/11 18:36
‘This just can’t go on... I can’t go on... another 8km still left... my head is going to explode... No! Come on fight through it, come on! You’ve never let a hill beat you... but this isn't right... and I paid to be here?! What am I? Crazy? OK keep going, but if the next rise after that corner is the same as this, I am getting off the bike.... let’s see... oh... no... way.... it’s even steeper...’
And so it went, corner after corner, pedal turn after pedal turn, lung-burning head-crushing eye-popping kilometer after kilometer. I had been told that the last eleven kilometers of the Maxxis Cup race up Taroko Gorge were the hardest of the race, but I could not have imagined anything like this.
In comparison, the western side, up from Puli, at only 50km or so and with a last 3km of somewhere in the region of 8%, is nothing. A baby. A newly-born labrador pup. It’s a garden full of flowers and the scent of late summer. A lover’s caress!
The eastern side, however, is a blood-stained beast. A Dark Lord. A Spanish Inquisitor with a taste for burning flesh. It is, in every sense, a cyclist’s worst nightmare...
There was an air of menace in the air even the day before the race. After a solid day of rain we were told that the organizers would leave the decision whether to start the race or not til ten minutes before the scheduled commencement, 6am. We were told to expect temperatures of between 4 and 6 degrees at the top of the mountain, along with rain, and to watch out for falling rocks and parts of the road that had been washed away.
“This,” said one of the guys, “is going to be epic.” How right he was.
As we gathered next to the raging ocean, finally on the start line, it was pitch black. The wind blew a gale and the sea churned. We would be going from sea level to 3,275m, in 90km. There was a nervous giddiness amongst the riders, whose number had dwindled as a result of many having decided not to compete.
We set off slowly and it wasn’t until we hit the first tunnel that the action started, with two Korean riders hitting the front and upping the pace followed by Shinichi Fukushima from Japan and then last year’s winner,Fan Yung-i of the Centuple team.
All the favorites were there, and the high pace soon cut the lead group to about ten riders, with one Giant rider striking out alone. We were content to let him go and settled into a decent pace, catching him after about 6km.
Then a few kilometers later .Chang Wei-Kei of Hong Kuang team attacked, and at one point had a two minute lead over our group. He is a great climber but this is not a ‘normal’ mountain, and knowing that our reserves of power would be needed in the last 11km, everyone in the lead group, now down to seven, decided to continue at a steady pace.
I was feeling good, following quite comfortably a series of attacks from Lin Huan-tse of KMT and then another set from Yabe Shusaku of Kizuna Cycling (Japan). I was enjoying the 4-6% gradient, ideal for my style of climbing, and put in a couple of efforts myself at the front.
Fan of Centuple though was not content to follow a wheel, his experience on this mountain telling as he set a punishing but steady pace at the front. He is not a very small rider but his style looks effortless and I suspect he must climb this hill often. His eventual winning time, 4.04.44, was almost identical to last year.
His pace though was too much for me and I felt myself beginning to go too deep, too early. Aware that I often push too hard and then blow up later I dropped back, watching the remaining three riders cycle away from me. With Kei up the road and these three ahead, I was looking at 5th place.
From there on in I settled into my own rhythm. I concentrated on counting my breath, tried to forget how wet and cold I was and to not look behind me but to just get through the kilometers, meter by meter.
I barely got a chance to take in the view as I was beginning to suffer with 15km left, aware only too starkly that the last 11km were thought the worst. I must have heard 20 people say that to me at the start, and now I was repeating it to myself in my head like a mantra...
As I moved above the tree line I was really tiring. There though was the lead commissaire. He shouted to me “Only 11km to go!”
The dreaded 11km...
I doubt I will ever suffer as much on two wheels as I did over that last 11km. It just never ended. And when it did go down, well, that meant that you’d have to climb back up again. It was a purely mental battle to keep going. My legs felt pretty good still, but each effort at that altitude felt three or four times what it would be at a lower height.
The percentages were outrageous. 15% rose to 17%, 19% up to 21% - and not just on the corners but for whole uninterrupted stretches. Had it been just a 11km climb at near to sea level it would have still been a killer, but this wafter some 60km of climbing and at over 2800m.
The 3km to go sign was more mocking than encouraging, because I could see the last kilometer going impossibly up from the top of the rise I was on.
I knew I was looking at another 20 minutes or so of hurt. At the top of every pedal turn the bike almost stopped. I grimaced, gurned and churned my way up that devilish road, closer to the sky with every meter but descending further into my own private hell every millimeter.
At the end Michael Carter, who has ridden as a pro since 1984 and ridden all three Grand Tours, turned to me and said, shaking his head, “I have never seen anything like that... Just incredible.”
Quite how Fan won in that time is beyond my comprehension. I was 16 minutes behind him. It was a brilliant ride and I feel privileged to have been there for a lot of it. However, everyone who finished that day is a hero. Plain and simple. This is a race that more people should know about, because it is absolutely unique.
Survivors of the 2011 Maxxis Cup - I salute you!
I would like to thank, on behalf of all the riders, the organizers of the Maxxis Cup and all the moto-riders, first-aiders and other helpers for their fantastic effort in very difficult and challenging conditions.
To those thinking of taking a trip to Hualien and the Taroko Gorge: this area is astonishingly beautiful and I thoroughly recommend a trip there. Breathtaking, in every sense!
Author: Lee RodgersPublished: 11/21/11 18:36