2011 Taiwan Cup Self Challenge
November 5, 2011
At 6 am, approximately 1,000 bicyclists gathered at the starting location of the 2011 Taiwan Cup International Cycling Road Race to see how well they could ride on the same course the professional racers would use the next day. Most of them would be happy to finish the Self Challenge in 7 to 10 hours. The pros were expected to complete the 200 kilometer (125 miles) road course in about 5 hours.
Our media group was invited by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to participate in the 2011 Taiwan Cup Self Challenge, and after being outfitted with bikes provided by Giant, we headed for the starting line. Our group consisted of Judy Tsuei, Bin Chen, Doug Bardwell, Ryley Hart, Jason Heflin and myself, all very determined to do as much of the 200k route as possible. We were accompanied everywhere in this beautiful country by our Taiwan Tourism Bureau guide extraordinaire, Lily Chuang. Lily is a wonderfully warm, helpful and knowledgeable person whose obvious pride in her work and country shined through in every little detail of information and assistance she provided. She was going to ride with us, too.
We were supported by a van, also from Giant Bicycles, complete with all the water, food, fruit and bike supplies we would need, and a very able bike man, named A-Nan. He is a quiet, competent young man whose friendly nature was apparent in everything he did. He assembled and set up our bikes to properly fit each of us for this very long ride. I had brought my own special pedals so I could “clip” in for better stability, and A-Nan installed them on my bike. A-Nan also outfitted us with radios to stay in touch as we spread out over the 125 mile course.
The Self Challenge had three distance categories depending on how far you thought you might be able to ride, 60k, 100k or 200k. We opted to start with the 200k challengers and split into 3 groups, based on earlier established riding abilities. The lead group consisted of Jason, Ryley, and me. Judy and Bin joined up and Doug and Lily started out together. Things did not end this way, of course, but in theory, no one would be alone out there, without a partner. Each group would be outfitted with a radio to stay in touch with A-Nan in the sag-wagon.
Before they let us start off, all the riders had to do stretching exercises for about ten minutes, while holding our bikes. That was a first for me. The route started in the City of Hualien, which is on the eastern side of Taiwan. We were accompanied for the short prelude ride by a police escort, but after a left turn over a bridge, the mileage started for real and we began climbing on our own in the verdant foothills of the coastal mountains. This provided a nice shade canopy, as it was warming up very quickly.
Everything was going great at the beginning and we pretty much rode according to plan, or so I thought. Our lead group was the first to stop at the initial water/food zone. The sponsors provided water, bananas, watermelon and small cakes which were handed out by smiling volunteers. The plan was to try to regroup at each stop and see how everyone was doing. When Bin arrived without Judy, we knew things had already gone awry. And we had only gone about 15 miles!
Apparently, Judy had left Bin early on and decided to pass up the initial food zone. We never saw her go by. Judy became the mystery rider. Determined to ride 75 miles, she never looked back and it wasn’t until about 50 miles later that the van caught up with her and she stopped to refuel. That’s one gritty girl!
Lily eventually ran out of steam and moved into her guide guise, riding sag with A-Nan, who was keeping track of the rest of us. Doug joined our group and held on to the 50k mark, when frustrating bike problems ended his ride. Jason, Ryley and I rode on, each of us feeling pretty good, despite the high temperatures and direct sun.
We made a point of regrouping at each food zone and asking, “Did anybody see number 193?” This was the ride number given to Judy at the start which would be visible on the top of her helmet and the side of her bike. English not being the preferred local language, none of the other riders had a clue what we were asking, except to point to the route sign, which was also, coincidentally, 193! This was the route we would be on for almost half the ride.
Some of us were under the impression that we were doing the same route as the racers, since we were given race-route maps and told all about the beautiful seaside views we would be experiencing. However, somewhere along the way it became apparent that we were not even close to the ocean. We traveled south along an interior scenic country road; then, at about 100k turned west and north to ride the wide designated bicycle lane of Highway 9, back to the start. The racers would ride Highway 9 south for about half their 200k, including 2 sprint sections and a KOM climb. They would then cut east over the mountains to the coastal route going north until reaching the finish in Hualien.
Just a comment on Taiwan’s bicycle readiness: Compared to the USA,Taiwan is way ahead in providing bicyclists a safer and more enjoyable riding environment. In many places around Taiwan, I found bike lanes physically separated from the active roadway. Normal bike lanes were usually wider than the 3’ maximum typically found in the United States. However, there was one feature of bike lane development that really stood out for its obvious bicyclist safety primacy.
While riding along Highway 9 which is a fast 2 lane road, I noticed there was older infrastructure unable to accommodate both car and bike lanes. Incredibly, when approaching such a narrowing of the road, the bike lane morphed into the right hand car lane. Cars in that right lane are required to merge into the left, now single lane. In other words, car convenience was sacrificed for cyclist safety. That consideration would be unheard of in the United States, where “king car” rules over its roads; bicyclists are at best tolerated, usually as an afterthought.
There are thousands of miles of bike lanes, bike paths and trails all over this beautiful island country. Coupled with slower speed limits and drivers seemingly more respectful of cyclists, King Liu's Taiwan Cycling Paradise is not so far fetched.
Ryley, Jason and I were staying reasonably close together. As our strongest rider, Jason would wait for us to regroup when he got ahead. After 100k, I was still humming along like a car on cruise control when, suddenly, the engine stopped like it had run out of gas. Shortly after the 110k mark, as we headed up the longest climb, I started having real problems. The heat had been intense and I was feeling signs of heat stroke, including dizziness and weakness.
I can ride with that and continued on, with Jason looking at me like I was totally crazed because I wouldn’t answer his questions about how I felt. Luckily for me, Jason was indefatigable. I had nicknamed him the “Horse” because of the strong, steady, plodding way he pulled me along and also because of the design on the back of his cycling jersey. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau had generously provided these jerseys to all of us.
Jason’s pulling so far ahead of me on the long climb up the hill was a clear message my body was sending me that my ride was physically over. I could barely pedal and was “bonked” (a seriously weakened condition). Desperately, I continued on, hoping for a second wind. Unfortunately, before that could happen, I started cramping. Riding for several miles in a way to not induce the cramps, I hoped I could ward them off for the rest of the ride. I had been successful at doing this in the past.
Regrettably, not this time; at about 140k I cramped so badly that I fell over and crawled to the side of the road. In less than a minute a young man I had passed earlier showed up offering help. Even though he had been on the road for nearly seven hours himself, he gave me some of his food and actually started massaging my painfully cramping legs. Not in all my years of bike riding has anyone done something like that! Occasionally riders will yell out, “Are you ok?” as they pass you by without stopping. This good Samaritan was very kind and friendly, as I have found almost all Taiwanese to be. He spoke a little English, so I was able to properly thank him.
Eventually, the support van appeared with A-Nan and Lily and they took care of me. I was not happy getting into the sag wagon, ending my ride. Cramping out and being forced to quit was depressing. I radioed ahead to Jason to tell him to keep going without me, and then sadly watched as we passed them along the road.
Jason had told me that his original goal was to complete his first-ever 100 mile ride, called a Century. Realizing they could finish the entire challenge and truly be “winners,” Ryley and Jason trudged on for an additional 25 miles and successfully completed the entire 2011 Taiwan Cup Self Challenge. Congratulations to Jason and Ryley for having the determination and strength to complete 125 miles in spite of the heat and pain they had to endure.
To put things in perspective, Jason and Ryley are serious amateur cyclists who rode their hearts out for approximately 10.5 hours, averaging about 12 mph. They received a medal and finish-line photos. The next day the winning racer, Aoyangi Kazuki of the Shimano Team from Japan, completed his 200k circuit in 4 hours, 47 minutes for an average over 26 miles per hour and collected $100,000 ntd ($3,300 US)! I guess that’s why they are called, “Professionals.”
Regardless, nothing can diminish the sense of accomplishment that we all felt from riding as far as we could go. Judy made her 75 mile goal and was elated. Jason surpassed his expectations and rode 125 miles. Ryley rode the ride of his life on an ill fitting bike. I was disappointed not being able to complete all 125 miles, but I did all that my body would allow me to do on this day. I simply couldn’t go any farther.
The 2011 Taiwan Cup Self Challenge was a life lesson for all of us. Anyone can quit; it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep going beyond what you think you can do. We did that and are all better for it. That is why the event is called a Self Challenge. We have the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and Giant Bicycles to thank for it.