Held in late October each year, the Taiwan KOM Challenge is arguably the toughest and most prestigious hill climbing event in the world. Billed as "The King of the King of the Mountains," it climbs from sea level to 3275 metres (10, 800 feet) over a journey of 105km (65 miles). Interestingly, the first 18km (11 miles) is a neutral zone on flat roads, so the actual climb takes place over the remaining distance, with the final 10km (6 miles) averaging a gradient of 17%, with the final kilometer at a heart-stopping 27%.
What does it take to complete this epic challenge? Strong legs, a great training base, plenty of courage and perseverance... and a bike. The BikeRoar crew were in Taiwan to check out the race and some of the bikes that made it to the top.
Young West Australian rider Jai Hindley took most of the field by surprise to snatch second place in this year's Taiwan KOM, coming home a mere five seconds behind winner Oscar Pujol Munoz of Spain. He and Pujol are the only two riders to ever go under the magical 3 hours 30 minutes.
"I knew it would be tough, of course," said Hindley after crossing the finish line, "but nothing can really prepare you for this race. The climbs, the tunnels, the altitude. They all come together to make it unbelievably difficult. The altitude is definitely the hardest thing. I was feeling good, just sitting in that lead bunch and tapping away and then somewhere between 2000m and 2500m altitude I started feeling a bit wobbly. You look down and your power is just dropping away and it's so hard to breathe."
image: BikeRoar | Marcus Speed
Riding for Attaque Team Gusto, the 20-year-old has had a stellar season, with the highlights being this performance at the KOM and his win at the Gran Premio di Capodarco in August.
Hindley's Gusto RCR carbon Team Limited runs a full SRAM Red mechanical 11-speed groupset, including brakes, shifters, derailleurs, chain and cassette.He stuck with the standard 53/39 chainring, opting only for a 32-tooth rear cassette to tackle the brutal climbs that reach up to a staggering 27%.
The alloy bars are Gusto's own, and are attached via a Zipp carbon 110mm stem with a downward angle of 7 degrees. The pedals are Shimano Ultegra, and he and the rest of the team use Quarq power meters to keep track of their output. The Zipp 303 wheelset comes with Vittoria tubular tires, which he ran at only 100psi to go some way toward cushioning the sections of rough road and gravel on parts of the KOM course. A Selle Italia SL Friction Free saddle sits atop the Attaque Carbon seatpost. Weighing in just under 7kg (15 pounds) for Hindley's 54cm frame, this is definitely not a lightweight bike - which just goes to prove it's just as much about the rider as it is about shaving grams off the bike.
Climbing specialist Yumiko Goda from Japan came into the 2016 Taiwan KOM with high expectations and didn't disappoint, finishing second in the women's category behind Olympic silver medalist and former World TT champion Emma Pooley of Great Britain. Goda, 23, recently finished 7th in the Japanese National Championships but rues the fact that it was on a relatively flat course which suited the bigger, stronger riders.
"Climbing is what I do best," she said before the start of this year's KOM. The only woman on her BH-sponsored team in Japan, she is keen to find her way onto a pro team in Europe for the 2017 season.
image: BikeRoar | Marcus Speed
Goda rides a BH Ultralight in an XS frame size with a mechanical 11-speed Campagnolo Chorus groupset with a regular 53/39-tooth chainring and an 11/27 rear cassette - a rather daunting combination for these towering Taiwanese mountains, one would think, but it doesn't faze Goda in the least. "I ride that gear combination all the time," she said, "and so far it's been OK so I'll stick with it."
It turns out she was right, handling the torturous climbs with relative ease and finishing the race behind Pooley in 4 hours 31 minutes, looking composed and happy.
"It was very tough," she admitted after crossing the finish line, "but I just rode at my own tempo and stuck to the pace I had set. When I reached 2500m altitude it became very hard to breathe so I had to slow my pace a little bit more, but that's where the road is steepest so I would have had to slow down anyway!"
"Good, comfortable shoes are important in races like this, where there is constant pressure on your feet as you climb," she said. Goda uses last season's women's-specific Specialized Zante road shoes with Shimano Dura-Ace pedals. She uses an alloy 40cm handlebar from Deda, and a carbon 3T ARX Ltd 80mm stem angled down at 6 degrees. The seatpost is also by Deda, and her saddle is a Bontrager Ajna Elite. And one final detail that any climber will envy: Goda and her bike combined weigh less than 50kg (110lbs)!!
The Philippines is not somewhere that immediately springs to mind when one thinks about potential cycling hotbeds, but if Team Dimension Data's Jun Rey Navarra is anything to go by then it might just be a wellspring of climbing talent.
Weighing in at just 47kg (103lbs), the 24-year-old former mountain biker from the South Cotabato region won the climber's award at Le Tour de Filipinas, coming in 12th overall in the General Classification. Considering he has only been riding on the road for two years, the general consensus is that the diminutive climber is destined for greatness.
image: BikeRoar | Marcus Speed
He rode his own race at the Taiwan KOM, choosing to ride with the main bunch for the first 95km (58 miles) before dropping off slightly and riding at his own tempo to the finish line. Along the way he hauled in some notable riders who were struggling to come to grips with the effects of the altitude, finishing in a creditable 15th place.
Jun Rey is his own man, and his Dimension Data team-issue Cervelo R3 is a reflection of this. The 48cm frame runs a combination of SRAM and Shimano Ultegra 11-speed mechanical running gear; SRAM supply the chain, brakes and the 53/39-tooth chainring, while the derailleurs, shifters, brake levers and Ultegra 6800 11-28 rear cassette are courtesy of Shimano.
His Enve SES 7.8 carbon race wheels run DT Swiss 240S hubs and 25mm Vittoria Corsa Open CX tires. Power readings are delivered via Rotor Power 3D with accompanying LT crankset, and are delivered to a Garmin 1000 mounted out in front of FSA Energy Compact carbon bars. FSA also supply a carbon headstem spacer and the SLK carbon seatpost, and the bars are attached via a 3T ARX II 70mm stem with 6-degree downward drop. The saddle is one of my favorites, the Fizik Antares.
"The weight of this bike... I'm not quite sure," Jun Rey told BikeRoar prior to the race. "Because I'm very small and light, I need a very small bike, so it's always light. I just ride, I don't really worry about that stuff." He reached down and grabs his own legs. "These do the work, not the bike."
Former U.S. pro rider and hill climb champion Brett Lindstrom had a tough day at the Taiwan KOM, suffering severely from altitude sickness in the final 10km. Upon crossing the finish line he was given oxygen by paramedics and was transported partway down the mountain to a lower elevation.
"I was feeling great for most of the race," he said later. "It's just that last 10km that gets you; it's so tough, so unforgiving and so unbelievably steep. It averages 17% but it feels even worse than that. Even so, I finished nearly 20 minutes faster than last year so I'm really happy. I just pushed myself a bit too hard, and a combination of a really fast pace set by the lead bunch, unusually warm weather, dehydration and the altitude all combined to mess me up a bit toward the end. But like I said, I was with the leaders for most of the race and I had a really great ride. I've done some tough races all over the world, but this is the hardest."
Lindstrom rides a Lightweight Urgestalt in a large frame. The German manufacturer puts together a beautiful frame that lives up to its name of being truly lightweight. The high-modulus carbon fiber is bonded perfectly, and the finish is quite spectacular. The internal routing for the cables is particularly neat, and demonstrates the attention to detail that Lightweight are renowned for.
His bike runs Shimano Di2 electronic 11-speed shifters, Shimano Dura-Ace brakes and cranks. He couples this with a standard 53/39-tooth crankset, but runs a Dura-Ace 12/32 rear cassette to deal with the brutal climbs of the Taiwan KOM, one of which tops out at a leg-destroying 27%.
His wheelset is also by Lightweight - in this case, the Gipfelsturm low-profile version with Vittoria tubular tires. The SLR carbon saddle is reportedly far more comfortable than it looks, and sits atop Lightweight's own carbon seatpost. The 90mm carbon stem is by 3T, and drops downward at a 7-degree angle. Finally, Lindstrom uses Speedplay pedals paired with Lake's new CX301 road shoes, which weigh in at a meagre 181 grams.
Overall it's a stunning bike, with the white decals and steer tube offsetting the charcoal matt carbon finish. The finish is elegant and understated, with some clever touches: the slim Di2 junction box fits under the stem and functions as a spacer, and the seatpost binder is neatly tucked away under the top tube and the bar tape plugs, brake pads and quick-release skewers all have the Lightweight logo discreetly emblazoned on them.
Nicolas Raybaud is a special kind of athlete; a talented cyclist and multi-sport competitor with no intentions of turning pro, he travels the world taking part in the most inspiring gran fondos and iconic races he can find.
"I am very lucky," he admits. "Thanks to Specialized, Salomon, Cycliq, and my other sponsors I get to take part in some epic events. But nothing - absolutely nothing - is harder than the Taiwan KOM. The climbing is relentless, and the two tiny descents are over before you have a chance to enjoy them. I filmed the entire event this year on my Cycliq Fly12 so everybody could get a grasp on just how challenging this race really is."
image: Paolo Martelli | Taiwan KOM
Raybaud managed to pilot his S-Works Tarmac Disc Di2 to a well-deserved 18th place overall, finishing the torturous 105km (62 mile) course in 3hrs 45.31. The time vs distance equation doesn't add up, right? Shouldn't an elite rider be finishing in well under 3 hours? Not when the ride starts at sea level and finishes at 3275m (10,88 feet) altitude. Because there are a couple of minor descents thrown into the mix, the riders actually climb a fraction more than 4000m (13,123 feet).
His bike is fully decked out with Shimano equipment, although for the brutal climbs of the KOM Nicolas opted for a mid-compact 52/36-tooth S-Works FACT carbon crankset coupled with an 11/28 rear Dura-Ace 11-speed rear cassette.
The derailleurs and shift levers are all Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 11-speed, as are the chain and brake levers. The brakes themselves are Shimano's BR-785 hydraulic discs with Ice-Tech resin pads. His 420mm S-Works SL Carbon shallow-drop handlebars attach to an alloy S-Works SL stem with a 6-degree rise. Both front and rear wheels are Roval CLX 32 Discs with 24mm Specialized Turbo Cotton tires. The seatpost and saddle are both by Specialized: the Body Geometry S-Works Toupé saddle sits atop an S-Works FACT carbon post. Speedplay pedals round out the package - a great bike for a great rider.