Mt Hehuan from Taichung to Puli up to Wuling 3,275 metres above sea level, the highest road pass in Taiwan

APRIL 10th, 2017

I was supposed to stay in Taiwan until around the end of April, but plans changed and I need to get going before the end of the week. After doing the 48-hour race 3 weeks ago I’ve been staying in Taichung and riding as much as I can, but due to a lot of work stuff not quite as much as I would have liked to, then again after a tough race like that it’s well okay to take it a bit more easy, though cycling in Taichung is almost never easy! My plan was to do some big rides towards the end of my stay when I’ve recovered well from the 48h race. One of the rides I wanted to do was to the Taiwan KOM mountain, if not from Hualien (like the race), then from Taichung.

Well, today was pretty much my only chance for this ride, so I went for it. The weather was absolutely perfect, I got out in the early morning and it was warmer than any of the previous days, air was crisp and clean, skies blue and bright, views over the mountains absolutely stunning like no other day before, you could see everything far and wide. My preparation though was far from perfect, I was not recovered and very very far from fresh and rested, as well as my bike was not in the most perfect condition as I would have liked (I’d ran out of my favourite chain lube and all the bearings would need a proper clean and regreasing after riding in some nasty conditions during the race — most wouldn’t bother, but I’m a big stickler for these types of things and can feel the difference).


THE DATA

4,636 metres of elevation gain over 213+ km and 9 hours

I had not slept well the previous nights, because of a lot of stress factors and I had been riding rather bit too strong and without a plan for most of my rides, just having a bit of fun, plus the routes here are always with a lot of elevation, even if you manage to stay flat for the most part, it will be windy to make up for that. So I knew it was going to be tough for today because I was far from fresh and recovered. I got to bed around 10:30 pm the night before, so I would get around 6-7 hours of sleep, which is way too little by my 9 hour norm, but I’d been getting 4-5 hours the previous couple nights already. It turned out I only managed to sleep 2 hours net (I use a wrist band with HR sensor to track my sleep at nights), the rest went for battling mosquitos all through the night, every time falling asleep for a minute only to wake up again after a nightmarish feeling of somebody nibbling at me and itching all over.

I got up feeling very far from fresh, cleaned the bike as quick and thorough as time permitted and re-lubed the necessary parts including of course the chain, I only had a chain lube that I hadn’t used before and it turned out to be not at all to my liking, it felt and sounded not as I’m used to, rough and dry for some reason. My legs were also heavy and I felt bit bad all over for not getting the proper rest and recovery. In order to get to the start of the 53 km long climb in Puli I would have to ride another 53 km to get there and as I mentioned before in typical Taichung cycling style it features another whopping 1,000+ metres of climbing already.

I was seriously considering postponing this ride as I realised that I was truly in no proper shape to ride this today as on top of everything else I also had a serious deep pain on the top outer side of my left knee on each pedal stroke I took — not good; and so seemed to be the bike, far from ideal. I climbed to the top of the first climb almost half way to Puli and checked my phone for the weather forecast for next days, it was much lower temps and rain/t-storms and at the same time as I looked at the view that opened to me there on the hill top I was quite shocked how amazingly clear and vivid it was compared to anything I’d seen before in Taichung normally. Clearly it had to be today! I was not going to get a better chance weather wise. I decided to just HTFU as usual and do it.

Ride to Puli was beautiful and the town of Puli seemed really nice as well, possibly the nicest town I’ve been to in Taiwan so far, I imagine I would be quite happy staying there for a while, there are actually some fast flat roads around there plus of course the mega climb to Wuling which starts out very nice and steady, not steep and tough as most climbs from Taichung outwards. I quickly found a nice GIANT bike shop, which are plentiful in Taiwan as you can imagine. Got the bike chain a quick clean relube overhaul plus derailleurs/cables just a tiny tad tuned and tightened up, after that things felt much smoother, more like I’m used to.

Took it easy for a bit to hydrate well and get ready at a Family Mart, which are also plentiful all over Taiwan along with others like 7-eleven, Hi-Life, OK Mart and so on, perfect place for cyclists road stops and stock ups! Since I was so unfresh and unrecovered I decided to go for some stimulants, took a small black americano coffee along with over a litre of coconut water, two energy gels and a can of coke (it’s extremely rare that I would go for a coffee and coke). I had also had a breakfast of prune juice and brown rice milk along with red bean jelly blocks and a good bit of dark chocolate (again something I rarely do). Obviously I’d also had a massive lunch and dinner of fresh fruit and vegetables and a kimchi dumpling soup the day before, so my glycogen tank was well topped up as usual. I filled up my 800 ml bottle with 2 parts coconut water and 1 part Red Bull (again, something I really rarely ever do). I didn’t take anything else for the climb exept that bottle, since similar strategy had worked great for me previously (at Doi Inthanon race for example).

I took a good amount of time to lace up my Giro Empire SLX shoes, not too tight and not too loose, all ends tucked away neat and nice. Went to the toilet and made sure well I was ready to take on an almost 3 hour climb with no issues in that department. I wasn’t feeling great, but apart from the pain above my left knee everything else was starting to look not too bad any more, certainly the conditions seemed awesome and bike felt good now too. I’d done a quick “Strava recon” looking at other people’s rides and it was clear that the best strategy for this climb and going at it solo was to pick a steady target power overall that I could keep for the whole length no matter what the gradient as it was mostly smooth with a few little kick-ups and short downhills in the mix. Of course you need to push a little more on the flatter slopes to make up for the slight downhill parts as well as go a little higher on the steeper sections with a slight easing spinning on the main steady parts. Power will naturally start to drop somewhat over time and more drastically after you get up to higher altitudes, but if you start off with a good rhythm of certain watts in mind that you know you can theorotically hold for the necessary time, it’s easier to keep to the same output in relative terms overall.

The main Strava segment for the climb starts off inside the town with a false flat, but looking at others in the top 10 you need to start this with a good pace around 40 kph, which meant I had to run at least two red lights, luckily they were smaller roads with a clear view and nobody coming. I felt good and strong for the start, minus the painful knee, but far from fresh at all. My legs, especially my thighs were screaming pain right from the start and not the good kind of strong fresh going hard “let’s do this”, but the “uh oh, why are you pushing, we’re not recovered”. I managed a surprising 308 watts for the first hour with a 94 avg cadence, only dancing on the pedals for two short kick-ups in between, HR steady around 160 bpm, my threshold, which I know I can sustain for quite many hours. Second hour avg was 276 watts with a cadence of 84, things were getting more tough in all ways possible, but I was still doing a solid 292 watts on the whole and 90 cadence on avg with 40 km of the 53 km long climb done already and ~1,800 metres climbed, but the hardest part was of course yet to come.

By now the temperature had dropped from a sunny and pleasant 31 centigrade to a cool and crisp 16. There was a slight head wind for the most of the climb and it was picking up more the higher up I got. I was getting into above 2,400 metres of elevation above sea level now, I’ve never been up higher than 2,500 metres having cycled full gas for over 2 hours (Doi Inthanon stops at 2,500), I’ve only ever been up that high on the ground for less than a handful of times realistically, never lived anywhere above 300-400 metres, much less usually, so naturally things were starting to get next level tough now.

During the next 40 minutes temps dropped down from 15 to 11 and while the climbing was still pretty steady there were slightly more steep ramps than previous and my cadence averaged only 76 with 208 watts power, that would be still a good 272 watts overall and 86 cadence for the first 200 minutes with 48 km and ~2,350 metres of the climb covered (that’s roughly 90% of the distance and elevation combined) leaving 5 km to go and ~450 metres to climb, certainly the toughest part of the climb with an average gradient of 9% compared to the tad less than 5 previously, and of course climbing from an elevation of ~2,800 metres up to 3,275 which would end up taking me almost a whole whopping hour having no idea of what was lying ahead.

Things were really starting to get nasty now, temps dropped from 10 to 8. I was wearing only a super thin and small aero jersey, so basically almost nothing. There was a thick mist everywhere and strong wind blowing, it looked like the whole mountain was blowing up steam from down below. You could barely see the road a few metres up ahead and the road got a lot more narrow at times, there was still quite a lot of traffic on the road as this is a quite busy and popular route, even some huge trucks passed me in both directions not holding back on their speed as is typical in Taiwan’s quite aggressive though very orderly traffic. All of this was not really causing me any issues though.

The issue was obviously the increasingly more thin air the higher the elevation and the fact that my organism had run out of glycogen stores and my bottle was empty as well, a big mistake and miscalculation though it’s always a gamble of taking exactly as much as you need and not more (to save on dragging up any unnecessary weight), I had expected to finish under 3 hours and make it exactly with what I had in the tank, but I know now that I should have prepared more for the unexpected, perhaps also I would have not slowed down so much towards the end of the first 90% if I had taken a good amount of energy gels with me (like 6 or more) and another bottle of coconut water. I was getting increasingly dizzy and weaker and weaker, I had to force myself to breath deeply, strong and loud mouth open wide while trying to do a bit of lung packing technique as well, since otherwise I would have dozed off and stopped moving, at least so it felt.

I made my first quick stop, I was moving so slow and felt so weak anyway, so I figured I might as well, peed a little, nice and clear, at least I was not dehydrated at all, but lacked some sugars for energy very surely. I was now relying only on fat burning, which I am very well adapted to, but you cannot do maximal intensity, far from it. I started moving again, wind gushing all around me, just putting my mind over everything — not feeling cold, weak, dizzy and lacking of energy, just keep on moving, it’s only 5 more kilometres yet over 400 metres of climbing. It was a blur. I made three more short stops just catching my breath and gathering my mind and kept on going slow and steady.

I had to stop again, this time next to a car, I asked for something to drink, I meant something sweet, but my mind wasn’t thinking clearly, they gave me a bottle of water, I thanked them and gulped it down, knowing that it would not help me much, but rather make me half a kg heavier, though I probably forgot to think about the weight at that moment. I kept pushing on, it was nice to have people passing me on cars and motorbikes giving me a thumbs up or shouting at me positively to keep on fighting towards the top.

I stopped again, sixth time, this was a long one, almost 10 minutes, next to a car and asked for something to eat this time, they gave me a pack of small white bread buns which were really sweet and then a small bag of fresh cut apple pieces, which were really sweet as well, I gulped it all down with a bit more water, thanked them so much for their kindness and they told me to be careful at least more than five times. I noticed that this was a parking lot, hard to make it out with everything covered in mist and wind roaring around, I realised that I only had 2 km of 9% left now. Another car pulled up and filled my bottle with hot water as well as quickly snapped some photos while giving me a thumbs up. It’s always nice when people appreciate and show positivity like that. So I kept going and started feeling life coming back to me having had some calories again finally!

Altogether it took me 54 minutes for the last 5 km and roughly half of that spent on stops, this was certainly not what I had had in mind, far from getting a top 10 result on Strava, which I know I should be technically capable of. Better luck for sure next time with a proper preparation and fresh condition, but a valuable experience to learn from nevertheless, now I know much better what to expect and how to approach.

I took some quick photos at the top, but nothing much there to see today unfortunately as the mist was all around so thick like being inside of milk. I started going back down with the temperature now down to 4 degrees only and the windchill on a layer of wet ultra thin clothes. I only got down less than 8 km when I was forced to stop again, this time by a construction worker, I was wondering what was going on here suddenly, there was a long long line of cars waiting both ways, there was nothing like this moments ago when I was going up from here, of course I didn’t realise that it was well more than an hour ago when I had gone up from here, almost two even quite possibly by now. Apparently there was a rock fall, not sure if it was accidental or caused by the construction workers on purpose.

Had to wait for almost 8 minutes again, I was shivering so profusely by now. Finally I was given the clear to go. I started pedalling and using the brakes for resistance to allow myself to work on the downhill, just to keep myself from going hypothermic. I soon got back out of the mist and clouds and reached the village with the first 7-eleven on the way down. I had to get warmed up a bit, so the only option I could think was a big hot cup of coffee americano again (not really ideal with the caffeine, which I normally never have), I grabbed some Oreos and energy gels as well, not able to drink anything else as it was all chilling ice cold of course.

I made myself a windblocker jacket with two thick and strong plastic bags and was on my way downhill again. It always amazes me how one with the bike you suddenly get at these moments after extreme efforts, controlling things with such added confidence. It’s an awesome downhill. I was moving fast, faster than cars and even big motorbikes (though they were just going way too slow for big bikes, being honest). It truly was an awesome downhill, specially the lower slopes with wide and winding curves as well as some sharper ones.

I got back to Puli and realised I needed some bike lights to make it back home over the last 2 hours. I went straight back to the GIANT store and was greeted happily again there, I shared a bit about how my ride went and showed them some photos, of course they were surprised I had been to the top in between that time and as well that I came from Taichung and was now going back there. I got a nice set of Topeak HighLite Aero Combo front and rear lights, lightweight, inexpensive, battery powered, that got me through very well enough and you can never have too many pairs of bike lights.

I still had to do another 53 km and about 700 metres of climbing over some steep bits to get back home of course. I topped up on calories before that and got it done like I always do. Good thing the temperatures were up now even after dark, but of course the air was full of all sorts of bugs with many of them nasty biters that leave long lasting itchy and painful spots, but it’s all worth it after all! Pretty awesome day overall and somewhat of a success in a way, though far from the ideal.

To finish things off I had a huge dinner with litres of coconut water, pineapple juice and smoothies with some fresh ginger, turmeric and ginseng, 7 good sized roasted sweet potatoes, brown rice milk, some red bean blocks, fresh salad with kimchi, bearled barley and pasta with green bean chili and some sweets made of jujube (Chinese dates), tapioca and walnuts, plus a non-alcoholic organic malt drink made with hops. Good times!

Oh yeah, another one of my Gramin’s so called Premium HR straps failed completely after the first hour of the climb, it’s been failing for the last month or two actually already. Anybody know a good reliably working ANT+ HR monitor/strap? I’ve been using cheap Chinese straps with the original Garmin monitor, but they are quite hit an miss, seems like 1 out of 3 or perhaps much less keep working for a decent time.