By Brett Lindstrom
In the past five years the Taiwan KOM Challenge has never had the perfect weather conditions it had this year. An average of 77 degrees at the start line in Houlien with perfectly blue sky all the way to the summit and a temperature reaching 70 degrees at the summit (10,653 feet) . When speaking to Landy Shu the promoter of the the KOM and English Speaking representative of the Taiwanese Cycling Federation, he explained that every year has been different at the summit and each year bringing new challenges, this year being that several riders succumbed to the heat. Cyclists crossing the finish line needed no extra clothing in their sweat drenched cycling kits. While sipping the sweet ginger tea prepared by locals of the region, the finishers, many of them depleted of energy, liquids and oxygen, some had to resort to supplemental oxygen, Mark Dowling, last years third place finisher was sitting in an ambulance just past the finish with an oxygen mask on complaining of an asthma and short breath. It turns out, many of the finishers today would require supplemental oxygen, including the author of this article.
Though the start list had been posted online a few days prior and printed in the pre-race program, no one had been talking about the three riders who stood atop the podium today (Oscar Pujol, Jai Hindley, Ben Dyball), it would seem that the focus was on previous years’ competitiors winning the day and not the unannounced riders looming in the field, new talent, travelling from as far away as Canada but many just off the coast from Australia, Japan, Korea and the growing local talent of Taiwan. In the past five years the cycling community of Taiwan has doubled and cycling events have filled the calendar with two or even three events a weekend throughout the year creating a new talent pool for the sovereign nation of Taiwan.
Challengers this year at the KOM saw returnees, Omar Fraile, John Ebsen, Fung Yung-Yi (Taiwanese Favorite Rider), Mark Dowling and Thomas Lebas. Fraile, the climber’s jersey winner in the Vuelta attended the KOM Challenge in 2015; however, he hadn’t prepared for the single most difficult climbing race in in the world, finishing out of the top ten. Dowling finished 3rd and Ebsen 2nd after having won the race two times. The 2015 victor, Damien Monier, was sidelined a week prior to the event with a broken collarbone. Fraile returned on a mission to put his stamp on the event and collect the victory. The event pays the first six finishers in the men’s elite field. Ebsen having won twice knew coming back this year would be a mounting battle, both Dowling and Fraile were also coming back for redemption.
In the Women’s Elite field saw one of the most accomplished athletes, fresh from the Olympic Road Race in Rio, world champion, known for her ability to climb, having won mountain top stages in the Giro, Emma Pooley was the favored rider of the day. Pooley, who spends a good portion of the year in Switzerland arrived to a warm muggy climate, different from the fall like temperatures of Zurich. She arrived without a bike of her own and would resort to a rented bike for the race as she is currently without a bike sponsor. Pooley rode at the front of the field for almost three quarters of the race, finishing ahead of many of the top male competitors of the day. Composed at the finish line, she spoke of the difficulty of the race and uniquely majestic quality of the terrain. The day would not be without challenge for her or even most of the riders. A recent typhoon left the road conditions rocky in parts from fallen rocks and debris along with dark tunnels and water drenched roads creating a thin mud coating the riders as they ascended the steep incline.
It wouldn’t be until the last 10 KM that the final selection occurred, experienced riders like Ebsen and Dowling knew that attacking just as the road steepens would be the final move; however, their attempts would not work and Oscar Pujol, a seasoned climber and World Tour Pro, the most animated contender of the day would come out ahead, though he too would succumb to the heat and altitude at the finish just before mounting the winners step and hoisting the one million NTD check high above his head. Freshly off a win at Mt. Fuji Pujile proved the strongest and most qualified to tackle the King KOM Challenge, and arguably the best climber in the peloton as determined by the course, level of riders and duration of the test.
The field limit of 500 registrants would not be capped (386 riders from 36 countries) this year, though the depth of talent would be the greatest of the past five years. It would appear as though news has traveled of a prize purse making this the single richest one day event on the Pro Calendar. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau combined with the Taiwan Cycling Federation are working to create a network of KOM Challenges on each continent making a year round calendar of races culminating with the KOM Challenge in Taiwan as the final and King Challenge, at over 13,000 feet of climbing over 60 miles and percentage inclines topping out at 27%, no mountain challenge compares and the climber who can arrive on top of Wuling Pass ahead of the best in the world deserves the monastic title. That title today would go to Oscar Pujol, but those who made it to the summit high above opulent shores of the Pacific Ocean (at the start of the race) do feel a sense of honor, some having spent almost seven hours (time limit) climbing, some even taken to walking the final steeps of the race, arguably the toughest section.