73 hours and one pair of bibs
The whole concept of riding a bike really far is nothing new. Freedom, that feeling of the limitless possibilities that lie in front of me when I’m on my bike is something I have cherished since I was a child roaming the neighbourhood. Some of my fondest memories of riding my early 80’s black, steel Raleigh “10-Speed” with its brake cables arching high above the Cinelli bars wrapped in pink ribbon tape and its down-tube shifters were setting off on an 800km trip with paniers, a tent, sleeping bag a bit of pocket money. I had no mobile phone or credit card but either a worry, I just set off and let the adventures come.
In my opinion, one of the greatest aspects of cycling is how it can represent so many different things to so many different people. For some its simply a way to get to work, for others in developing countries it is fundamental in providing a livelihood as a form of transportation either for themselves or their wares. For others, its sport and even to the point of earning a living providing entertainment in the form of professional racing.
Personally, I’ve been through many of these phases. From childhood play to elite level racing to hobby racing and fitness. My essential love for simply riding my bike has been the thread that has held the story together. Now it seems that a new phase is starting: the era of riding really far, really slow. My first proper “bikepacking” trip was in 2010. I rode 800km north along the coast-line of Norway from the city of Trondheim to the incredible Lofoten archipelago. I call it “bikepacking” because I rode my normal road bike and carried a small back-pack with 3kg of baggage; mostly extra clothes, a pair of flip-flops and a phone charger.
The invention of frame-mounted bikepacking bags has truly changed my outlook on cycling. Suddenly, with minimal planning and preparation and without needing a completely different bike set-up, I can take off for a weekend or several weeks easily and comfortably packing everything I would need along the way.
These bikepacking trips have given rise to an interest in ultra distance racing. I can’t say I started the year with a determined objective to immerse myself in the discipline, it sort of just happened that way. The opportunity to race on 3 separate continents that I would not normally explore resulted in me doing three 1000+ km events in 2019. It started in Oman in February as a part of the BikingMan series. Definitely not the best time of year for someone living in Northern Europe to do a long-distance event but I really wanted to experience this country, which I would certainly otherwise not travel to. Secondly, Paris-Brest-Paris: the flagship Brevet that gathers 7000 enthusiasts from around the globe only happens once every 4 years was an opportunity not to be passed on. Lastly, the 1150km BikingMan Taiwan Ultra race.
Taiwan is a country that I am fortunate to spend a lot of time in. I love the landscapes, the people, the food and the riding is phenomenal. The thought of doing a 3-day, non-stop race around this island was really appealing. That my favourite riding partner, Cristian Auriemma, was also really motivated to visit the island and do the race was the deciding factor.
Of course, doing a race on a mandatory route puts you at the mercy of the organizers. You are by no means taking the shortest route from A-B but more than likely obliged to tackle all of the toughest obstacles on or near that trajectory. This was also to be the case on the course laid out for us in Taiwan.
The organizers of BikingMan pride themselves in using their concept as a tool to discover many of the less-travelled roads in any given area and the route in Taiwan was no exception. That said, riding back-roads in Taiwan means one thing: climbing. A lot of it and very steep grades.
After rolling out of a deserted Taipei city in the darkness at 4am and putting 80km between us and the start-line in Taipei, the course veered off the main road and we met what felt like a wall of a climb. We literally went from 35km/h to 5km/h in an instant.
The route profile promised this segment would be the toughest of the whole event. The profile looked like a sharks mouth with pitch after pitch of incredibly steep, small roads that wore us down. We rolled into the first checkpoint just as darkness descended over Sun Moon Lake at 6pm. We had covered only 285km of the route but already climbed 7000m!
Six hours later, after 20 hours of riding, we finally put the last two climbs of the day behind us at 900m and 1500m respectively. As is often the case, what looked like a mellow descent to our first planned stop turned into a harrowing, steep, technical ride on what could more appropriately be referred to as a jungle path than a road.
Cristian and I always start with a plan, this time it was to split the 1150km distance into three long days and allowing ourselves two “nights” of sleep. I calculated a riding average of 20km/hr plus a total of 10 total hours of stoppages, putting us in at approximately 70hrs.
My experience is that I can trick my body into feeling like I’ve gotten a proper rest by having a shower, getting into a bed and sleeping for 2-3hrs. At least for a couple of days. There are a hard-core group of endurance racers who don’t plan these stops and simply ride as long as they can, stopping only when needed for the minimal amount of sleep, usually between 15 minutes to an hour on the roadside in a bivy bag, bus stop, convenience store or even ATM kiosk. I’ve tried this and found it just doesn’t work for me, I end up riding slower than if I just stopped and got some proper rest and then got going again.
We were on schedule to finish day 1 at midnight after 400km with an average speed of 20km/hr but the last two climbs and the following descent really took their toll and cut hard into our average speed. We finally arrived at our hotel at 03:30am after 23.5hrs on the bike and having climbed well over 8000m.
The biggest killer to making progress is known in the bikepacking scene as “Faffing”. This is the art of wasting time while not doing any task necessary to keep you moving forward towards the end goal of your ride. Stopping at a hotel after 23hrs of riding is a great chance to Faff away an hour or two. So, it’s important to be organized and focussed before going into any such stop. We gave ourselves 30mins to eat, shower and get in bed, 3hrs to sleep and 30mins to get back on the bike. A 4hr break in total. Any additional faffing is docked from sleeping time – the only appropriate motivation to limit the faff to a minimum.
The real secret to covering long distances quickly is not necessarily riding fast but just to keep moving. A five minute stop can easily waste away any advantages built up from several hours of hard riding. Two riders equals double the faff, this is often the reason why pairs are seldom faster than individuals in endurance racing. Cristian and I were determined to synchronize our stops so we communicated and planned well in advance. Any nature breaks, re-fuelling or other needs were done in synchrony so that one of us wasn’t waiting for the other more than necessary.
Day two looked on paper to be the easiest day with minimal climbing so we were hoping to cover a lot of ground that day. Our optimism took a hit immediately, however, as what looked like easy terrain on the route added up to 1000m of climbing in the first 2hrs. Eventually, the hilly terrain gave way to the flat roads closer to the coast and we were able to crank it up. By early afternoon we had reached the southernmost point of the race and made the left turn to cross over to the east coast of Taiwan. While we were graced with favourable winds for the southward ride, we were surprised when we were instantly hit with gale-force head-winds within minutes of turning east. Sections of the 450m high inland pass were brutally windy, obviously caused by geographic formations funnelling winds down the valley. At one point Cristian was nearly blown off his bike and came to a complete stop.
As the hours ticked by on day 2, our progress was slower than we had hoped. This time due to the strong winds along the coast line, despite the flatter terrain that normally would have allowed us to make good time. Knowing that we were facing a 300km run straight North into the wind obviously didn’t raise our spirits much. Once the sun set we and we had skipped from town to town along the more remote East coast. The road slid by anonymously in the dark night. Rumour had it we were riding a beautifully scenic coastal road, but in the darkness this obviously did little to lift our spirits. Our view was limited to the asphalt in front of us illuminated by our lights.
There’s always a point in every Ultra race where boredom sets in and your mind starts to do the math: What time is it? How far do we have to go? What’s our expected average speed? What time will this bring us in? At 11pm we still had 140km to ride to Check-Point2 where we had planned to sleep. 140km is a solid ride in itself. If you went out and did 140km on a Sunday afternoon, you be pretty pleased with yourself. We had already ridden 700km and been on the bike 39 of the last 43 hrs. I found my eyes wandering to the roadside, looking for potential places to sleep. “I bet I could just lay on that patch of grass” I would muse, then thinking about the consequences like being covered in dew or bitten by insects. As I got more and more drowsy to the point of not being able to focus, I finally requested a power-nap stop. The power-nap is a common tactic used by ultra cyclists. 15mins of sleep is often enough to reset your body and mind and allow you to continue for hours.
We finally found a bus-stop with a bench and I was asleep within minutes. I was also awoken within minutes by Cristian telling me he was getting cold and it was time to go. We weighed our options: pushing on into the night and reaching CP2 by 5am if we were lucky, or finding a place to bed down now and continuing on early in the morning. We knew that after midnight we would have difficulties finding a hotel or B&B on the remote coastline and agreed to stop at the next place we found. We were sure this was going to be difficult, but maybe we would get lucky. In a coincidence of comical proportions, my bus-stop bench was mere meters from a small sea-side motel. We barely got clicked back into the pedals before seeing the motel, pulling in and being greeted by a friendly owner who quickly showed us to a vacant room.
We set off again at 03:30am for what we knew would be a monster day. As we had covered far less ground on day two than expected, we now had 450km to go and a whole boat-load of climbing, including the feared Wuling climb, made famous by the Taiwan KOM challenge. While the whole climb rises 3200m straight from the ocean, we would mercifully only climb 2500m of it before descending to the North.
I struggled through the pre-dawn morning. Our short sleep gave me a couple of hours of energy but by 5am I was drowsy again and having trouble focussing on the road. Not wanting to stop again, I did everything I could to stay awake and keep moving forward. I was eventually saved by the sunrise, the growing light brought some alertness and energy back and I quickly started to feel pretty good again.
Pushing this far into what your body is capable of becomes a real roller-coaster of emotions and energy. The highs and lows become more frequent and more acute the further into the darkness one ventures. Surprisingly, we arrived at CP2 on day three at 10am feeling energized and ready to tackle the 80km of climbing that lie in front of us. At this point, I had given up on our schedule. We were only a few hours behind what I had expected, but I knew that what lie in front of us was going to be so difficult that trying to stick to any plan was futile.
The first 10km of the Wuling pass hugs the cliff walls through the incredible Taroko Gorge, arguably one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the world. We exited the gorge and set about tackling the ensuing 2000m of climbing. A sign at 1000m read “1500m – 16km, 2000m – 25km”. Not massive grades, obviously, but 25km of climbing? That’s absurd! And still not even at the summit! The meters and km passed, despite 2 longer road closures for construction and the sunny, hot temps at the base of the climb giving way to a damp fog and a chilly 6C temp at the higher altitudes.
Our strategy was clear – get up and get down as soon as possible. We didn’t want to waste any time at the top as by this point any stoppage would result chills setting in and uncontrollable shivering. I’ve experienced it all too many times, it’s a horrible feeling, your body is so tired it simply can not produce any warmth.
We reached the tunnel marking the top of the climb just after 5pm, meaning we had been on the climb for 6hrs. Not wasting any time, we got onto the descent immediately trying to make the best of last of the twilight. Somehow I was foolishly thinking that a few hours of easy descending lay in front of us but the ensuing “descent” proved to be nearly as challenging as the climb.
After whizzing by several potential food stops (except an awesome bakery in a hillside village that we fortunately stopped at) the rest of the descent included nearly 1000m of climbing! To make matters worse, when we finally put the last of the climbing behind us and started into a 43km descent dropping a full 2000m to the coast, rain started to come down for the first time during our ride.
So picture this: We’ve ridden 56 of the last 64 hours and now we have minimal clothing with us (we’re on a tropical island for heaven’s sake!) and we have a 43km descent in front of us. Remove any of those conditions and the descent would have been pure joy; the road was amazing: fast, flowing and perfect asphalt. However, the lack of visibility and the obvious questionable traction on the wet roads forced us to carefully make our way down that amazing descent.
After what seemed to take FOREVER, we finally rolled into the city of Yulin with less than 100km to go. We hadn’t had any proper food since 9am that morning and were once again saved by 7-Eleven As the clock neared midnight I seriously considered curling up in the fetal position on the convenience store floor and spending the night. Cristian always somehow seems to have endless energy at the end of these events and shouted and cursed me back on to my bike as we pushed on towards the finish.
Fortunately the rain had stopped at this point (that would have sealed it for my night on the 7-Eleven floor) and temperatures were warmer than in the higher elevations. The first challenge of this last stint was a 500m climb out of the town. As we snaked our way up the switchbacks the bright lights of the sprawling city passed through the trees in the night.
The final kms seemed to never end. 50km to go, 30km to go and then – boom! Another left turn off of a nice road into a wall of a climb. Gradients on the climb surpassed 20%, as if my moral was not already broken. Time, distance and average speed no longer had any meaning. The only thing that mattered was to keep going and make it to the city of Taipei and the finish line. 15km to go and once again the road rose upwards. Why? Was this really necessary? Wasn’t there a flat road into the city? I cursed to myself. Eventually darkness again gave way to daylight for the 4th time on this ride, except this time we hadn’t had the luxury of 3hrs of sleep – by the time we reached Taipei and the finish line we had ridden 27hrs non-stop.
73 hours after we left the start-line we now rolled into the city of Taipei again after having completed a complete lap of the whole island of Taiwan. The amount of impressions I’m left with is hard to fathom as I sit in the hotel lobby, still in the same bib shorts I had on when I left and feel the exhaustion in every fiber of my body. The smiles of the people on the roadside, camaraderie with my good friend Cristian, vast vistas from mountainsides, fresh sea breeze on my face are all the reasons I ride.