It’s a Sportive, Jim, but not as we know it.

I should begin by stating that I have never been a fan of the phenomenon of the cycling sportive.  Perhaps I should say that I have not been a fan of the very idea of a sportive, since, until yesterday, I had never participated in such an event.  For the uninitiated, here’s a description of a sportive, courtesy of Wikipedia:

A cyclosportive, or often simply sportive, is a short to long distance, organised, mass-participation cycling event, typically held annually. The Italian term gran fondo is commonly used for these events in the United States, Australia and some other English-speaking countries.

Many cyclists use sportives to challenge themselves in a personal battle against the distance and then ultimately, the clock. Some participants in a cyclosportive will ride the event like a race, with prizes awarded and considerable prestige for top place finishers, particularly in events like La Marmotte, and L’Étape du Tour.

Essentially, my problem is this.  Such rides could be done independently, or with a group of friends or club mates.  In many examples of this kind of event, you are asked to pay a fee – often a pretty substantial fee – to ride on ordinary, open roads with hundreds, if not thousands, of other cyclists.  Clearly, there are exceptions, and the chance to ride a stage of Le Tour – closed roads and all – would be up at the top of a list of these exceptions.

Anyway, the point is I had agreed to take part in my first sportive.

The first mistake I made was that I failed to ask the right questions in order to check the details and route of the event.  To be fair, I rather felt obliged to say I’d ride since my wife and her cousin’s husband have been working very hard to keep me occupied, interested and involved in cycling in Taiwan.  I’d turned down the previous offer of 100km around Kaohsiung with 3,000 others, so now was the time to show willing.  The second mistake was not making it clear that I would want to make my own way there (and back, obviously).

Having failed on two counts already, things were about to get worse.  As the day of the ride approached I decided to check out the profile, only to find that this was a short ride – just 55km – but with an ascent of almost 3,000 metres.  My immediate thought was “Oh, crap!  I don’t have a compact chainset.”  Fortunately, my wife’s cousin’s husband, Afu, knows a good bike shop where I soon acquired a 13-29 cassette, which is not so easy out here if your bikes are running Campagnolo gearing.  Maybe, just maybe, a 39:29 would get me up that hill.  I mean mountain.

Here’s the website where you can see what I’d let myself in for:

Realising the enormity of the task ahead, I spent the next few days researching the route.  It turns out that this climb goes to the top of the highest road in Taiwan.  In fact, the highest mountain road pass in South East Asia, topping out at 3,275 metres.  Oh, bugger!  I spent the rest of the week thinking about the logistics and plotting the profile.  My main concern was that I would be tired on the morning of the ride as I was to be picked up in Tainan in the early hours and I thought the chances of getting some sleep on a bus seemed about as remote as that mountain top.  Being a natural pessimist, I spent the week before the ride worrying.  I read about the risk of altitude sickness; I read about the packs of wild dogs sometimes encountered on rural roads; I read about rock slides and I read about the risk of being taken out by some betel nut chewing truck driver.  I’ve been trekking in Nepal and have spent a few weeks mountain biking out of Breckenridge, Colorado (Elev. 9,600 ft), so altitude wasn’t too big a concern.  Meanwhile, two nights before the event, I dreamt that I was being attacked by a pack of dogs and promptly woke myself up by kicking out wildly at the wardrobe beside the bed.  Toes not broken but they are still a little bruised and sore.  As for rock slides and trucks, well, I could only hope to keep my eyes and ears open.

At last, the day arrived.  Bike prepared, bags packed, I was ready and waiting to toddle off to the freeway junction to find the bus at 1:15am.  At 12:45, I decided to shed a last little bit of weight and settled down to drop the kids off at the pool, at which point the phone rang and Thomas informed me that they were waiting for me.  Time to throw on some shoes and quit the house.  The kids would have to forego their swim.

Once on the bus, it soon became apparent that the unlikeliness of sleep was all but guaranteed.  A seat with insufficient knee room was a mere inconvenience, however, since once we were up to speed, it became clear that this old Toyota was about as smooth as a bag of gravel* doing the Shake n’ Vac** dance on an industrial cheese grater.  Add to this the fact that the driver insisted on a throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off, throttle on, throttle off (you get the idea) style of driving for the whole 100+ kms of the freeway, I was destined to a night of pure wide-awakedness.

*This came to mind:

**And this is for those of us of a certain age:

Thankfully, traffic was light and we arrived in Puli in good time, leaving us with around 2 hours to kill before the grand départ.  Advice received suggested that getting as close to the start line was a must, so we set off early and found ourselves within the first couple of hundred participants, where we laid down the bikes and tried to make ourselves comfortable for an hour before the gun.

This is where I began to realise that this was not the kind of sportive I’ve imagined and read about taking place in other parts of the world.  At least, my best guess is that you will not see the whole range of cyclists on show here, from the wannabe pro with all the latest gear to the carefree, slightly overweight enthusiast on his 16″ wheel folding bike.  Many were on mountain bikes.  At least one was on a full time trial machine – they are notoriously difficult to handle and do not make for comfortable climbing.  Many were on bikes with their side-stands still attached.  Many were riding with flat pedals.  Many were sporting all kinds of add-ons and additions, with speakers blasting out Taiwanese power ballads being a particular favourite.  I even saw one chap with a large shopping basket attached to the rear rack, out of which several objects ejected themselves as he sped over the speed ramp at the entrance to the feed zone.  One of my primary concerns had been to ensure that I was carrying the minimum of weight and here were these guys treating this climb like a casual spin to the local park.

Here we are at the start line area at about 4:30.


At around 5:15 we were away.  It was still dark and the streets were relatively quiet.  From the start I wasn’t feeling great, but the first 16kms were relatively flat and it was possible to find some shelter for a while on the wheels of a number of half-decent looking riders as they powered past, so I gradually picked up my pace and felt some life coming back to my legs, lungs and heart.  I reckoned on making the most of this as I guessed I would be flying solo as soon as the real gradient reared its head.  I was soon passing some of the triathletes who’d been started some 15 minutes or so earlier in what was billed as the elite race.  Clearly, some of these were not elite athletes, although I have the utmost respect for their determination.  Indeed, Afu was taking part in the triathlon; I wondered if I would catch him.  I was then caught by a proper elite athlete in the form of a friend on the E-Ma team who has adopted the rather wonderful moniker of Johnson.  It was good to see a familiar face from my Hsinchu training days and I knew that Johnson’s massive engine (he used to sit on the front of the bunch pulling at 25mph+ for stupid amounts of time) would serve him well on this ride.  I wished I had his legs, lungs and lack of weight.

Sure enough, the road began to kick up and I settled down to a nice tempo, catching a few, being caught by a few, raising an eyebrow or two as massive trucks swept around blind bends on the left hand side of the road, keeping an eye out for hoards of rabid dogs and ears open for falling boulders.  One unexpected and rather alarming sight was that of a number of large trucks apparently with smoke billowing out from their wheels.  Then I realised that it must have been steam, on the assumption that the brakes must be water cooled, such is the heat generated by so much braking on a descent such as this.  Here’s proof:


By now I was feeling pretty good, even managing a smile and a wink at various people taking photographs along the way, but I was wondering when it might level out or ease up for a while.  It couldn’t just keep on like this, could it?

It could.  It did.  With barely a handful of short level sections and even fewer minor descents, this climb was finding me out.  After about 2 and a half hours of pedalling, I’d covered some 35kms and was now struggling to maintain any kind of reasonable pace.

Thankfully, somebody captured this to remind me of what it felt like.  I shall refer back to it if I am asked to ride again:


Then came the welcome relief of a fast descent of maybe 100 metres over one and a half kilometres or so, with the prospect of regaining those lost 100m partially softened by the thought of the feed station at the 39km mark.  It’s fair to say that I was no longer enjoying this ride and I began to doubt the wisdom of continuing.  I hoped that the food stop would put a spring in my step.  After all, there was only another 16kms to go.

Just as I was thinking about getting back in the saddle, I met an American.  I’d spotted one or two other Westerners near the start and a couple had passed me on the road, so it was nice to share a few words with a fellow big-nose.  I think he introduced himself as Bryce (I’d seen the name Bryce on the start sheet, so maybe this is what I wanted to hear), but, frankly, I wish we’d remained strangers.  It’s not that I found him objectionable in any way – quite the contrary, in fact.  Rather it’s because he reacted to my grumbling about the gradient by assuring me that it was even steeper near the top.  I felt the last ounces of my willpower knocking at the emergency exit.  No matter.  Bananas and cakes devoured, I was ready to conquer this monster.

Less than a minute later and I could barely get myself out of the feed zone.  I’m well used to the feeling of ‘café legs’, but this was something else.  I laboured on for another 3km hoping that I’d re-find my rhythm, but to no avail.  I pulled over, sat on the concrete barrier and felt rather dizzy and lost as everyone passed by, still gurning, gasping, sweating and swearing, pumping those pedals on Pinarellos and KHS folders alike.  I was ready to go home. At that moment I looked up and spotted an E-Ma rider hurtling down the road.  He’d clearly made the top in great time and was probably going to the start to ride it again.  I don’t know if it was Johnson.  I decided to follow and hoped those coming up didn’t think I was in the same league.  I made my way to the feed zone and settled down for a long, long wait.

This gave me time for a little navel gazing; a little quiet contemplation.  I realised that I had been ill-prepared to take on such a challenge, I had not paced myself correctly and I reminded myself that I ride and race my bike for pleasure.  I really hadn’t enjoyed the last hour or so of the ride, so I wondered why I should want to prolong the agony; it wasn’t so much that I was in pain – indeed my legs were not aching and shouting at me to stop – they simply didn’t want to go on.  I felt like I had no energy and I could not turn the gear.  Today my legs are not sore at all.  I’m certain I could have reached the top if I had effectively ‘twiddled’ all the way up, but I could not honestly say that I would have enjoyed that.  I may as well have walked it, but I was on the bike and I wanted to ride at a reasonable pace.  As for the preparation, I thought about my recent history, and while I had been riding regularly and going pretty well between March and June, I have recorded a mere eleven rides between 23 June and 13 September, with just 19 hours in the saddle.  I would usually hope to ride 3 or 4 times in a week, for a total of 7 to 9 hours, so I was about 80% down on my normal training.  Moving house, visiting the UK, exceptionally hot weather and childcare duties have all conspired to curtail my cycling, so I should accept that I was not ready to ride this mountain on my preferred terms.

I sat and watched the hundreds and hundreds of riders passing through the feed zone and found peace with my decision to quit.  Actually, I had no choice.  I simply could not have gone any further.  I was touched by the determination of all these people to carry on to the top where they could collect their medal and certificate, and it was clearly very important to them to achieve this self-imposed target, no matter how long it was going to take, but  I realised I had no particular emotional attachment to this ride.  Yes, I would like to have seen the top, but it was not a disaster for me and I felt no particular sense of disappointment.  As a a cyclist, I’m used to having days when my legs fail to perform, just as I occasionally have those days when I feel invincible.

I then dragged myself up the hill and found our bus in the car park adjacent to the feed zone, so I was able to change and settle down to wait.  I tried to doze.  I failed, so I sat and watched as the beautiful morning was closed out by early afternoon torrential rain.  I was glad I was not one of the many hundreds now descending in such conditions.  With just two of our riders still to return, we learnt that one had punctured near the top on his way down, but he was unable to get himself back on the road.  Efforts were made to try and find assistance from the organisers.  Nothing was offered and our driver clearly didn’t want to drive any further up the mountain.  After about an hour of stalemate, the driver was persuaded to ascend.  He took at least two calls on his mobile as we forged our way up the ever narrowing road; I’m sure there was quite a drop to our right, but rain and cloud obscured any view.  Probably just as well.  We finally turned for home some 7 hours after I’d ended my ride.  This is precisely why I had wanted to drive myself.  Lesson learnt.

Maybe I’ll try again next year, maybe I won’t.  Frankly, I think I’d prefer to ride it alone or with a handful of mates without all of the razzmatazz.  Oh, and after a decent night’s sleep and a proper breakfast.

To finish, here’s a short film about the climb made during a different event.  You may need to brush up on your Mandarin, but you’ll get the general idea and will see something of the amazing scenery to be found out there.

If you want to try the event, do your research and do your training.  Be in no doubt, it’s a long, difficult climb on dangerous roads.  The organisation seemed pretty professional.  There were plenty of staff and there was plenty of food.  It was disappointing that there was no mechanical help available in spite of our pleas.  At $NT 700, I suppose it was fair value, but I could have done it for nothing, what with a handful of shops available on the way up for replenishing supplies.

For the record, my Garmin data is as follows:

Distance covered: 44.7km

Max elevation reached: 2,475m

Time riding: 3’13”

Average speed: 13.9 km/h

Elevation Gain: 2,160m


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