Wednesday, May 29, 2013
It goes as it goes.
I had been signed up to do this Wuling ride for a couple of months and was not going to pull out of it after all the hard work and preparations Rocky and the folks at T-Mosaic had made for an assault on, quite possibly, the highest road in East Asia.
At 3275m. the Wuling Pass is a natural marvel that seems to hang on a cloud bank over the whole of central Taiwan. As a cycling route, Wuling has cemented its reputation, not only for its scenery, but also for its quad splitting ramps. In Taiwan, Wuling is the standard against which everything is measured. Among Taiwanese cyclists, the single mention of Wuling is guaranteed to bring forth a toothy grin that is part smile, and part pained grimace... in both recognition and remembrance of a suffering that is only cut by a mixer of equal parts success.
Without even the courtesy of a morning cup of coffee to fuel the neurons, we drifted out onto the Highway 14甲 from the Family Mart parking lot on a one way ticket upward.
I have been suffering a little bit from a recurrence of my knee issue, and all the rain hasn't helped in getting me ready for a major climb. Still, I threw caution to the wind and spun gingerly up the road toward Wuling. My one condition for the ride was that I would stop as soon as my knee felt less than perfect.
For climbing, and for this mountain in particular, the best advice is to stay relaxed.
I had been feeling pretty good. Without really trying to, I had put a sizable gap between myself and the small group of riders behind me.
The scenery spilled out below in a wash of light and shadow. It was a picture perfect day on Hohuan Shan, and a great way to break the screaming case of cabin fever that most Taiwanese cyclists have been suffering for the past eight to ten weeks.
Our quarry lay off in the distance, and I was all too well aware of what it would take to get there. The average ascent over the 55km course is only 6%, but there are several ramps that pull up to 12%. The majority of the real nasty parts wait at the very top-- the sting in the tail of an already formidable beast.
I took a few photos and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. I really couldn't believe I was back on that mountain.
Then, just before the great big Ching Jing Disneyland Eatcateria, I felt a light ache in my right knee. At that point I pulled myself off the bike and calmly waited at the 7-11 for my ride. My day in the saddle was over and I would have to enjoy the rest of the day from the air-cnditioned confines of a light bus.
I knew that was a probability and simply sat back to root for the other guys in the group.
Lots of cyclists try Wuling on the weekends, and it is not unusual (cue Tom Jones) to see someone's new take on biking Taiwan's modern day cycling monument. If riding Wuling on a bicycle has been done, then someone wants to try it on a folding bike. Another wants to do it on a fixed gear, and maybe another on a Penny-Farthing.
This brave (or foolish) soul decided to make the climb on a recumbent. My only concern is that it might be dangerous to be so far below the sightline of most drivers. The roads are already narrow enough and drivers routinely misjudge the corners on the Highway 14甲.
By midway through the climb our team started to crumble. Riders pulled up and retreated for the plush comforts of the team bus. A few more riders waved off refreshments and continued toward the top.
On this day I was rooting for one particular rider. I was rooting for my good friend, Dom. Dom had never ridden Wuling before and he has really dedicated himself to his training regimen that has seen him transform into an excellent rider by any measure. This summer will be Dom's swan song in Taiwan as he prepares to head back to the USA. It would have been a shame if a rider like Dom had been denied a go at Wuling before leaving.
The major road hazard of the day may have been the number of mountain bikers along the route.
Several riders made fools of themselves mugging for pictures on one of the more dangerous parts of the roadway.
Before long, my man Dom was chipping away at the mountain from the lead position. We would lurch up and down the roads in our bus delivering refreshments and support to our riders. Each time I would look out of the window to see Dom steadily making headway with his eyes glued to the road ahead.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to shout mock cat calls at him for leading the group from a "heavy", steel frame that could never be stiff or light enough to make time up to 3275m... all with a knowing wink in my inflection.
The grind of the climb was obvious. Each strained turn of the crank rippled through the faces of our riders.
Bikes wobbled and swayed before retreating to a more favorable gear.
The good doctor Wu was clearly suffering as he hauled himself upward.
Despite the cracks, our riders held it together as they disappeared around the bend.
By the Yuen Feng Rest Area the riders are not only forced to contend with a day of gravity defying climbing, but they must also fight for oxygen in the thinning air. At those heights there is 10% less oxygen in the air to fuel tired muscles already screaming out for more.
At this time of year the weather is entirely unpredictable. The glowing morning sunshine can quickly give way to rain showers in the course of an hour.
Far below I could see the distant scenery submerged beneath a thick bank of clouds that was rapidly ebbing toward us.
The possible change in weather painted our morning with a little more urgency as you really don't want to be up on that pass in sloppy conditions.
After a few shaded turns, the trees thin out, giving the final three kilometers a feeling of excitement and danger as you balance on two nickel-sized patches of rotating rubber along the fog line of a razor's edge.
Our bus revved and lurched between Wuling and Kunyang. There were several occasions where we were all thrown forward as the driver had to bury the brake pedal into the floor boards to avoid a collision.
I could see Dom fighting his way around a train of mountain bikers with their full loads, stereo speakers and swaying mirrors that threaten to gore a passing rider like an angry bull elk.
The road creates a ladder of tight hairpins just before the final ascent. It is enough to signal an and to the ordeal, but enough of an obstacle to force riders to call it a day and walk the remaining distance to the top. This is also the section that forces many riders into the red or succumb to the hypoxic effects of thinning air.
When I looked out the window at Dom, he was completely oblivious to our bus as we skimmed past his left ear on the narrowest crimp in the road. He was completely focused on reaching the summit.
As we passed I was just able to take a few quick iPhone images of Dom practically flying up the ramp. It was an awesome sight. He was there... and then gone.
On Wuling, I have either been in the mix or simply there for my own leisure. I have never had the opportunity to take in the spectacle of a single rider's battle to the top. It was an inspiring scene to witness that also put a dent into this competitor's heart. I truly wished I could have been out there on the edge of that cliff with the wind blowing off the rocky walls and into my salted face. I couldn't help but feel a shiver of jealousy in the sight of a rider suffering and dying along an exposed mountain pass. Instead, I was a simple witness viewing Wuling the way most people do; through the dead, dull corners of the picture frame of a car window.
The final kilometer seems like an eternity. It is always hard to believe you are in Taiwan when looking down from an alpine clearing.
The last few meters of roadway level off into a parking lot at a scenic spot. It offers the rider a chance to look back over the mountains with the assurance that they have just conquered a world class route. The accomplishment of riding from bottom to top is worthy of admiration from anyone.
Dom led the way, arriving a few minutes ahead of Dr. Wu and a handful of other teammates. For the guys who finished, cursing under their breath, and for those of us who could only watch, it was an amazing day on Hohuan Shan.
Just as we were about to depart, I noticed a woman in 80's running shorts weaving her Specialized bike up the other side. She fought and twisted that bicycle up the final ramp to the top... all with a knowing smile on her face.
Our eyes met as I took a picture as I cheerfully quipped, "I totally understand."
Congratulations to all of our guys who made it to the top. I promise to lead the way next time. This rabbit ain't finished with Wuling.