By Troy Templin
The details for the trip were a bit vague, but what I did know was that we would be riding to the top of Wuling Mountain, the same one that is used for the grueling Taiwan KOM Challenge. Long-time readers might recall the story that former RBA editor (and pro racer) Neil Shirley wrote (RBA, March 2016) where he described the same climb as one of the most difficult, sustained climbs in the world. I was left in a panic, as fitness and training have not been my priority lately. I also didn’t have much detail on available bikes to ride, just an assurance that a “nice bike” could be supplied if needed.
MADE IN THE USA
While I’m not one to worry too much and normally go with the flow, the prospect of riding over 10,000 vertical feet in around 40 miles is no normal day on the bike (for me), so I wanted to be sure to ride a bike that I would enjoy. Being a long-time fan of titanium frames, I queried Litespeed about testing a new Ultimate Disc Road, and they sent one to the office built up with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 drivetrain and a pair of American-made HED Vanquish 4 GP wheels (RBA, April 2019.) Overall, the blue-hued bike looked to be a great platform for a multi-day tour with some epic climbing mixed in.
As the days counted down, I had my bike lined up and had been doing as much research as I could about the riding the island offers. There seem to be two main subjects—the Taiwan KOM Challenge and then a 900-kilometer route that circles the island’s outer edge. The latter looks to be fairly flat, and most take about nine days to complete the route known as the Formosa 900. Since I knew we had multiple days of riding, but that we also had the infamous climb, I had little-to-no idea what was in store. I wasn’t sure who was going to be there or what the level of riding experience would be, either.
“The route is only 12.5 miles, but we would gain just shy of 5000 feet before hitting the peak that sits at 10,700 feet.”
The weather was reported to be hot, but in the mountains, things change quickly, and every day there was a different forecast up on the peaks. I packed some arm warmers and a rain jacket, as well as my normal riding gear, jerseys, bibs, riding socks, base layers (warm and cool weather), helmet and shoes. I was as ready as I could be with the supplied resources.
THE TRUTH IS REVEALED
Upon arrival I was whisked away to a downtown Taipei hotel for the evening before driving a few hours south along the western coast to Yuanlin in the morning. This is where the bikes were built and where everyone assembled to learn what we had signed up for.
As each group member introduced themselves, I realized that most were travel writers or photographers from all over the world. Our guide, Min, from Giant Adventures also had two additional guides along, as well as a tour bus driver, as the support team. Min explained that our tour was a custom tour that would include the Taiwan Come BikeDay event around Sun Moon Lake, as well as the climb up Wuling Mountain. Unlike the Taiwan KOM Challenge, we would be splitting the climb into two days and also going up the more populated west-side route. Min went over each day’s route and logistics. It was all well-planned after all, with hotels, food, transport and fairly short days on the bike.
Unlike most trips that provide a dedicated photographer, on this trip we were all tasked with having to create our own images. The group was split about 50/50 between road bikes and e-bikes, since only one of the days was truly flat. The riding pace was fairly easy, with a lot more stops than I was accustomed to.
Min would lead the group, and we were free to stop for photos. However, stopping for every photo opportunity left the rest of us waiting longer than expected at a few of the scheduled pit stops. Overall, the e-bikes were a great option for those less experienced riders, because they could stop and get caught back up a bit easier, as well as manage the long, sustained climbs. For those of us who often ride, taking images while moving was the most efficient.
COME BIKE DAY
I had no idea what Come BikeDay was, but it was probably one of the highlights of the week. Turns out, it’s a big deal for the island, and thousands attend the event that rides around Sun Moon Lake. Many don’t participate in the ride, but just enjoy the festivities and added activities the event offers over the normal tourism offerings. It is also one of the only days that traffic is controlled around the lake, offering riders of all levels to experience more than just the bike-path routes offered in sections of the lake.
The event is held at the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area on the west side of the lake. The 18-mile route around the lake consists of undulating roads and two distinct climbs for 700 feet of climbing. On the right side are stunning views of the lake, while the other side is a huge mountain and rainforest. A few of us from the group rode with the lead riders for one lap, then decided that a second lap was in order. It was at an easier pace, and we stopped on the opposite side of the lake for a waterfront coffee break.
Once back to the venue, there was no shortage of activities and music. The highlight had to be the seemingly endless number of kids’ races. There were two courses set up in the middle of the venue, and hundreds of kids participated. There were podium ceremonies for the different age groups of the kids’ races, too. Overall, the event was very fun, and the different styles of bikes, as well as levels of riders, made for a friendly vibe.
A DAY AT THE LAKE
With much of the event over for us at noon, we took the rest of the day to explore the lake’s many other features. We got a ferry pass that allowed us to jump on a boat and see all the small communities around the lake. We crossed the lake and hiked to the top of the peak to visit the Ci En Pagoda, just above the Xuanzang Temple. The pagoda was built by former President Chiang Kai-shek as a memory to his late mother Wang Caiyu and was finished in 1971. Visitors can climb the stairs to the top, which offers a stunning view of the lake.
LET THE REAL CLIMBING BEGIN
With the festivities over, we aimed for thinner air. The weather had been perfect, sunny and 75–85 degrees up to then, but the mountains were where the reports said things could turn on us. Since we were heading up the west side of the mountain, there were small villages and houses almost the entire way up. As we gained altitude, you could look over the edge into the valleys that were full of small farms everywhere.
We stopped a few times on the ascent, one of which was at a local teahouse where the owner offered a sampling of the local leaves. The general hospitality and friendliness of the people everywhere was amazing. On the bike while grinding out steep switchbacks, drivers and locals would express encouragement with a shout of “jia you,” meaning more gas or go on with a thumbs up or wave.
“Most of the roads, while congested, are a cyclist’s dream. They are clean and among the smoothest roads I’ve ever ridden and shared with very considerate drivers.”
To make things even better, most of the roads, while congested, are a cyclist’s dream. They are clean and among the smoothest roads I’ve ever ridden and shared with very considerate drivers. You see, scooters are the main mode of transport, with thousands of them zipping around. Drivers are accustomed to the task of navigating around slower traffic, and they give almost too much room, as they seem to treat the centerline of the road as a suggestion. This is even true on the narrow roads of the mountains where tour buses consume 70 percent of the space.
The short 32-mile day had taken its toll on the group, with about 15 miles of relentless climbing where we gained over 5000 feet of elevation. Even the e-bike riders were feeling the effects, and a few even exhausted their first battery and had to call for a backup. At the hotel, Min reminded everyone to get their rest, because while tomorrow would be the shortest route, it was also the hardest.
The next morning, as usual, Min gave us a comprehensive briefing on weather, road gradients, expected stopping points, as well as landmarks to look for along the way after our synchronized stretching. This briefing was unique, though, as Min for the first time said we could go at our own pace and stopping was not required. The route is only 12.5 miles, but we would gain just shy of 5000 feet before hitting the peak that sits at 10,700 feet
We all started out at a fairly easy pace, but it didn’t take long for people to separate, leaving me riding with a few of the strong fellows from New Zealand. They were the perfect pair to pace with, because they had been consistent, strong, but also a great source for conversation. As we climbed, we paused on a few sections to capture images, but overall I was mostly grinding in my 34/28 gear. My average cadence was 63 rpm over the route, which included a short descent that was near the beginning. This was the hardest part for me, because I prefer to be much higher and rarely ride more than a few minutes in low cadence.
AND LIKE THAT, IT’S OVER
Two hours later we had made it to the top, and I felt pretty good. It was nice to have gone my own pace and to have eliminated the unnecessary stopping. As I sat at the top watching the others finish, all I could imagine was how difficult the KOM Challenge that goes up the other side would be. I’m not sure the one-day event is what I want to do next, though. I want to experience the trip around the island, so I’m going to work on a route that could incorporate both the east and west climb, as well as the route around the island—maybe a figure-eight loop would work!
Overall, no matter what kind of riding you prefer, Taiwan delivers some of the most unique experiences I had ever encountered on a bike. The big cities are clean and while congested they are still very easy and safe to ride in. The rest of the island offers stunning views with the most well-maintained roads and friendly people. I know riding in Europe on the famous climbs that are highlighted by the WorldTour is awesome, but I think I would choose Taiwan for my next riding trip. Having Giant Adventures to help navigate and support was priceless, too, and when discussing custom route options with Min, I was blown away at how reasonable their packages are.
WHEN TO RIDE?
I will say that if you want to hire a guide, do it early, as Min said they sell out fast. October to December offers the best riding weather, but do plan for some rain. We got very lucky with only a few showers in the evenings. As for a bike, my Litespeed Ultimate was almost perfect. When I come back, the only change will be a slightly larger cog, making the steep climbing easier to hold my preferred cadence.
If you aren’t planning on hitting the peak, then I would say my setup would have been spot-on. Now, I just have to plan a route and book it before someone beats me to it, and I’d love to plan it around the next Come BikeDay event again.