Sunday, August 25, 2019

10th anniversary Mongolia Bike Challenge

A few weeks after getting back from the Tour de France (One Day Ahead, check out the movie, streaming now!) an advert popped up in my social media feed for the Mongolia Bike Challenge.  I tend not to bugger around when it comes to making decisions, but the early-bird discount gave extra incentive, and literally 16 minutes after first emailing Sarah about it, I'd pulled the trigger on the entry.

During that quarter-hour period, we'd discussed the merits of us both entering, but the opportunity cost for Sarah was much greater than for me - this would be her first trip home for almost a decade, and no doubt spending time with the people she most missed had greater appeal than seeing a 650km swathe of her country from the saddle of a mountain bike.

It took me a while to enjoy the bike after France, but by the beginning of the year, I was going at full(-ish) steam - a 232km addition to my suburban set on the longest day, 21 December, and a loaded 1000km week-long cycle tour with Sarah, two cases in point.

The wheels fell off in mid-February, soon after Sarah had fallen of her wheels during a romantic long-weekend getaway in Melbourne.  Her front tyre had torn on a rough bit of road and had blown out sending her down on her chin and fracturing her jaw in two places.  Her ordeal had lasted a while due to a complex recovery process, and I'd had both physical and mental reactions to that which culminated in a ten week layoff.

My legs bounced back remarkably quickly, thanks in no small part to a wonderful cycle tour with Brendan in early June, followed by an even sweeter one in Taiwan with Sarah.  The latter had been positioned to take the edge off winter training, and rather than use it as a launchpad for a solid month's training, I capitulated to work (and my mood disorder) and did a pitiful amount of riding in July.

As always, it is a balancing act for me between feeling shit about not doing enough, and feeling shit about having too little time for anything else.  As it turned out, this time around it was more of the former.  But at least I wasn't worried about getting through.  "I'm fit enough to finish, and not fit enough to race properly" became a common refrain during farewells.

I fretted more about bike choice than I did about training, but eventually my Yeti Big Top hard-tail 29er got the nod.  I was partially influenced by its water-carrying capacity, also its reliability, but in no small part due to the race accepting 3T as a sponsor - they only make a gravel bike and surely the course wasn't going to be so rough as to break the couple that would be in the field.

The last time I rode the bike was almost a year ago, and then it was set up with a rigid fork.  By the time I'd transferred a suspension fork and a couple of new Maxxis Ikons onto it, I managed only an on-road commute to make sure it was all running OK...  Gah...!

The travel to Ulaan Baatar went wonderfully, and thanks to an upgrade from Economy to Business on Air New Zealand, and the Skycouch we'd already booked, both Sarah and I had a lie-flat flight between Auckland and Hong Kong.  There, we didn't have to clear customs, so there was no risk of getting tangled up with the protests.

Always nice to see I've packed the important bits at check-in!
Once in UB, Sarah and I had a couple of days before my parents flew in, and in that time I was able to reassemble my bike, and Sarah sourced one for herself from a friend's son.  Both bikes were put to good use for a jaunt out to the airport to greet Mum and Dad.

Standard selfie grimace
It was a full week before the race began, during which time we were able to see Sarah's school in Darkhan (the second-largest city in Mongolia, about 200km north of UB), catch up with my sister-in-law and niece (both of whom had visited us at home in the last few years), meet plenty of Sarah's old friends, as well as a few Mongolians who'd first met Sarah while in Wellington.  With no shortage of things to do, as well as some poorly timed foul weather, we only rode once more around UB before it was time for the grand départ. 


Exploring a side valley on the outskirts of UB

Our apartment was a mere two minutes' walk from the race HQ, so registering on the penultimate afternoon was simple, as was getting my luggage to the venue on time for it to be loaded into the transport the next morning.   It also made it very easy for Sarah and my parents who were keen to send me on my way.

No friends, yet...
Roll out was at 8:30am, and we were treated to a police escort and priority at all intersections through to the western edge of the city.  This was mostly great, though it was apparent that the lead vehicle wasn't used to leading a cycle race, holding constant speed whether the road was flat (cruising), uphill (full-gas), or downhill (riding the brakes, grrr).

Stage 1

In all, we were neutralised for the best part of 30km, which was a cool opportunity to start chatting to people.  I spoke for a while to Ozzie from Texas (a detail that stuck in my head, thankfully, despite next talking to Phil, an Aussie from Singapore!!!) - he was wearing a Hopecam jersey, which I came to learn was an American charity founded by another rider in the MBC (Len), which has raised an incredible amount of money to connect kids in cancer wards with their classrooms at school.

The peloton on its way out of UB.  Photo: mongoliabikechallenge.com

Eventually, the inevitable happened - we crossed to our left, off the main road, and after about 200m down a dirt road, we found a table set up with food and drink.  Bottles and pockets were reloaded, bladders emptied, and then it was time to roll.  Within a few minutes, the group was spread out over nearly half a kilometre, with me somewhere in the middle.

Over the next five hours or so, I learnt some valuable lessons about Mongolia, all of which blew my mind in one way or another.

It is beautiful, yet unlike anything I've ever seen.


People live in portable homes, and in very isolated fashion

(but/so are very happy when people drop by for tea)
It is very hard to understand what's going on in the engine room when there's little to judge scale/slope by (and the air's thin, and particularly if you're not as fit as usual).


The place is vast.


In hindsight, it was useful to have done something like an Everesting challenge (or two), where the end was not really in sight until it was upon you.  In Mongolia, the vastness and featurelessness combine to make riding psychologically tough.  Best to ignore it, I found - keep pedalling and all will be well.

The final 25km were fantastic, largely on account of a stonking tail wind, and for a last-minute sharp right-hand turn to avoid a steep climb that had been visible from a long way out. 

Our first ger camp was great, but for the fact that the gers were "fake" (in that they were made of concrete).  Nonetheless, they had the genuine low doorway, and after I clipped my head for a second time, I swore that I would not make the mistake a third time (I almost kept my word, but for lightly grazing my neck on the way out on the final evening).


We all ate well, had a good wash (the fastest riders in warm water, the rest of us in cold or colder). and most marvelled at the hour-long thunderstorm prior to it arriving overhead.  I shared a ger with Americans Tyler and Jeff, and enjoyed conversation with them before lights-out.

Stats:  122km ridden, 7 hours 07 elapsed. one wrong turn.  Temperature range 18-33 degrees Celcius.

Other stats:  15th in category (out of 25), 47th overall (out of 102 finishers).

Stage 2

There had been a lot of rain in UB since Sarah and I had arrived, but there had been literally no sign of mud during Stage 1.  I feared the worst after the overnight rain, but it turned out I needn't have worried.

Well not about mud anyway...

BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
I'd finished with sore hands the previous day, and had asked the mechanics to swap a spacer from above to below my stem.  That helped for a while, but the corrugations (or washboard, for my north American friends) were sapping my will to live.

After a lumpy first 60km or so, with the run to the finish from the previous day still fresh in my mind, I had high hopes for the 30km descent that followed.  Unfortunately, the highlight was seeing a pair of camels...


and crossing a concrete bridge, which I swear I rode so slowly if only to savour the smoothness for a bit longer.

Bridge ahoy, and a brief respite from trying to avoid the worst corrugations
Immediately upon finishing, the afternoon's request of the mechanics was to try to soften up the fork a bit.  That off my plate, it was straight to lunch, and from there the showers.  These ones were a little warmer, and I found that the pressure was much better if I sat on the ground rather than stood.

Despite the ride seeming longer, it was actually a lot shorter than the first day, which made for a chilled out afternoon.  Once fed and clean, there was plenty of time in the afternoon to enjoy the camp (this time replete with the traditional throw-it-on-the-back-of-the-truck-when-you-want-a-change-of-scenery ger.  These gers housed five, and as well as Luke (a bike store owner from Chicago), I was sharing with Urban and Borut from Slovenia, and Vladimir from Moscow.

And Russian vans
It was a good day for wildlife.  While I'd seen the dead goat on the way home, I'd missed the "20 buzzards" feeding on it that my room-mate Luke had startled when he passed by.  But, I'd seen the camels, and a band of horses put on a great show for us in the nearby Tuul riverbed.

Oh, wonderful neigh-ture
I spent a lot of time lying in the ger reading my kindle.  At some point, there was a strange noise coming from outside which seemed familiar, but I couldn't place with certainty.  Upon investigation, my suspicions were confirmed.


Dinner was served at 7:30pm, and as well as fantastic and plentiful food (a relief, as we'd been on restricted rations at lunch), we were treated to entertainment in the form of a couple of young Mongolian men,  One was playing a horse-head fiddle and was an adept throat-singer to boot.  The other played a regular guitar, and sang beautifully.  It was all the more enjoyable for the smouldering horse or cow dung, which did a fantastic job of keeping the sandflies away.  A tried (over centuries) and true method, no doubt.


I was struggling somewhat with the ice-breaking part of being in a large group, and doing so much solo riding wasn't helping.  Rob, a lovely Peruvian-American working in Japan did what I couldn't, and a lovely conversation ensued, joined by Lenny, an airline pilot from Singapore.  As seems always the case, the social contact I regularly avoid is uplifting ex post.

Stats:  101km ridden, 4 hours 31 elapsed.  Temperature range:  13-22 degrees.

Other stats:  14th in category, 44th overall.

Stage 3

While I was really happy with my post-stage routine (eat, wash, rest), I still hadn't quite got my mornings dialed.  Our breakfast started at 7:00:01, a detail Spanish race organiser Willy Mulonia had been at pains to point out (the crew's only private time was from 6:30-7:00).  Our suitcases were due at 8:30, while the race start wasn't until 9am.  The commuting distances in the camps were in some cases sizeable, and it was well worth not ending up walking further than necessary, and definitely bad to try to manage bike and luggage at the same time.

The heavens opened soon after breakfast, but luckily before it was too late to adjust clothing.

Vladimir, no doubt contemplating the merits of his attire
I'd ridden without a backpack on the first two stages, facilitated by the Big Top's two bottle cages and the awesomely capacious Revelate Vole I'd picked up just before leaving home - this was accomodating two tubes, a couple of tools, a bottle of chain oil and a rag, my shakedry jacket, and a buff, leaving me with only a pump and tyre plugs, a couple of bars and my phone in my jersey pockets).

Contemplating clothing, post luggage hand-in.  Photo:  Urban Majcen


After some humming and hawing, I decided to start in a Castelli Gabba, with my lycra jersey in my backpack in case the weather improved dramatically.  I was in the process of putting my shakedry jacket on over my backpack when I heard the hooter.  As I ran outside, the rain stopped, and before too long, I was stopping to adjust my clothing.  Jacket and gabba off, lycra jersey on - Vladimir had nailed it after all.

Prior to the clothing stop, I'd dabbled with riding with others, but hadn't managed to gel with any individual or group (the missed start hadn't helped).  Consequently, for most of the first half of the 137km "Queen" stage, I rode alone.  I enjoyed the smoother surface, and the fact that the adjustments to my fork pressure and rebound had worked a treat.  The vastness, and emptiness hadn't gone anywhere, on the other hand.

A bid of prey overhead
A small group of riders arrived at the second aid station just as I was leaving it, and after another 10km or so slogging away on my own, I decided to sit up and wait for them.  For a brief moment we were six - five of us from behind converging on a rider ahead (Andy, from the Yukon) who'd just been checking out what looked like a football from afar, but turned out to be a human skull sitting on the "roadside".  I'd been fairly active with my camera to this point, but decided it was appropriate to keep it in my pocket.

Not long after, Andy and an Australian, Cameron, dropped off one by one, and as Pau, Alfredo, Arjan and I sailed off, it was nice to see the two of them connect in the rearview mirror - no one deserved to ride in this shitty wind alone!

My three amigos
In fact, the wind was so shitty, it motivated me to learn some Spanish.  While we'd been too rooted (and/or impolite) to introduce ourselves, Pau spoke great English, and was a great teacher - I don't think I'll soon forget "putas aires!!" [best shouted].  Fucking wind, indeed.

No matter, all was going to be fine, because we had a 25km downhill run into the finish.  Sadly, we'd overlooked the "PUTAS ARENA".  I think by the end of the 75 minute "descent" we were all sick to death of constantly fighting to keep the bike moving in the desired direction.


The camp was another really nice one, and I was allocated to a ger with three Spanish riders.  While their English was orders of magnitude better than my Spanish (and less crude), we didn't really have the capability to converse, so I was able to check out socially for a while.  Aside from the eat, wash, rest routine, the only matter at hand was to locate the bag of gear I'd ditched at Ref-1 (refuelling station one).

Stats:  137km ridden, 7 hours 46 elapsed.  Temperature range:  12-25 degrees.

Other stats:  14th in category, 41st overall.

Stage 4

A beautiful day dawned, and while the wind picked up a bit between photos...

8:19am

8:51am, with the race leader having to repair the line he'd inadvertently just trampled

... it looked like we had a lovely day's riding ahead of us.  But first, we had the mini-Gobi sand to deal to.  After a few minutes on the bike, we had on average 15 minutes on foot, before we'd crossed the dune.  All, except for the one fat-bike in the field which I enjoyed disappearing as he rode away from the other hundred or so of us.


I think the company in the final half of the previous day's stage helped me realise there was absolutely no need to isolate myself during the race, and in fact, my enjoyment of the riding was likely to be more, not less, with company.  As a result, I started a bit more aggressively on this fourth stage.

The sand dune distorted things slightly, because all of a sudden different attributes had come into play.  Nonetheless, when the "dust" started to settle near the end of the first hour, I found myself in reassuring company.

Pau and I were together again, and this time wasted no time in making proper introductions.  Pau had ridden up to me with Xavier, a 62-year-old Spaniard whose strength I had witnessed in Stages 1 and 2 (on neither occasion had I the strength and/or willpower to hold his wheel).

Also in our group was Martin Wisata, an MBC veteran, and someone who had morphed from a participant to having a formal role in the organisation (taking on prizegiving and media obligations).  He'd been having knee issues, and I'd caught him adjusting his saddle height just before Pau and Xavier joined us.


Our compatibility was immediately apparent to all of us, I think, and we promptly slotted into our collective work.  After marvelling at Xavier's power for a while, I asked Pau to please "ask Xavier which pro-team he used to ride for".  Similar enquiries had obviously been previously made, because Pau's immediate response was that run for Spain at three olympic games back in his youth.  I can attest that he still has an awesome engine!

The stage profile had looked fearsome - the stage was essentially a 90km climb, followed by a 10km descent - but I should have known better than to ignore the axis scales.  For the most part, the uphill gradient was imperceptible, and pretty much perfect for me.  The occasional steeper pitches stung a wee bit, but I was holding my own in the group OK.

ЁСӨНЗҮЙЛ in the rearview mirror, according to the map!!
We'd past by a couple of wee towns - a novelty, as we really hadn't seen more than a few gers together outside of our camps - and collected from ahead a lone Argentinian rider.

L-R:  me, our Argentinian friend, Martin, Xavier, and Pau.  Photo: mongoliabikechallenge.com

Whether his addition caused a slight change to our riding style, or maybe due to my nutrition during the stage, I struggled for half an hour or so, and thought that I was going to be dropped.

If only cyclists got this sort of reaction at home!
I managed to hold on, and once we'd crested the final climb, my mass started to work in my favour and I had a strong ride through to the finish.  Even relative to the day before, it had been quite a different riding experience, and one I was much happier for.  It was good to feel a bit more fire, both in my legs and in my belly - something that I definitely registered.

Lolo did a great job allocating our sleeping arrangements each day
For the only time, we were camping overnight, and so we were allocated to large canvas tents.  I was delighted to find I would be sharing with the Mongolian trio who'd finished first, second and third (in various orders) in all four stages to date, and would continue in that vain through to the end of the event.  Also, the fourth Mongolian in the race, and Luke (who I'd bunked with a couple of nights earlier), Ryan from Florida, and finally Sebastian from Denmark (whose rear carbon seat stay had been rocking a steel-rod splint and hose clamps since early in the event, but whose cracked frame would nonetheless survive the event).

The meals were being catered by a UB restaurant, Rosewood, which happened to be just around the corner from our apartment, and which had been where Sarah and my parents had dined the previous evening.  While people were already raving about the food, halfway through my lunch, I had some wicked stomach cramps and had to excuse myself from the dining hall.   Fortunately, fireworks didn't really ensue, but I didn't have a great appetite at dinner either, so ate little.

My guts didn't spoil the afternoon though, and I spent a lovely hour telling the Mongolian racers, Buyana (Buyntogtokh), Bilguunjargal, and Bolor-Erdene about Sarah and Khulan, and showing off my entire Mongolian repertoire:  sain baina uu (hello), bayarlaa (thank you) and uuchlaarai (excuse me), and looking through a bunch of each others' cycling photos.

It was a lovely interaction to have, and gave me an insight into what a powerful inhibitor the language barrier can be - a lack of confidence in one's ability to communicate effectively can easily appear like a lack of interest (as it might actually be if everyone spoke the same language).

We'd had rain pretty much every night, and as the skies darkened, three of the four Mongolian riders in our tent ominously made a run for it, presumably to sleep in one of the many Russian vans.  The rest of us hunkered down, and fortunately the tent coped both with the gale force winds, and also the rain, by and large.



Stats:  104km ridden, 5 hours elapsed.  Temperature range:  19-24 degrees.

Other stats:  9th in category, 22nd overall.

Stage 5

The night had been a wild one, and I don't recall anyone reporting a good night's sleep.  The tents flapped very loudly all night, and it was obvious from the noise they made that a mob of horses was sheltering between them.   I would have loved to have gone out for a piss, but was worried my body wouldn't be content with just that, and wasn't prepared to make the 300m return trip to the temporary long drops in the wind, rain and pitch black.

When I did finally get around to using one, it was quite the experience.  A small, shallow trench had been dug for each one, which was straddled by a plastic seat, and then a tall, square "tent" for modesty purposes.  The trench was half in and half out of the tent, and as it happened, was pretty much in line with the wind direction.   I can assure any inventors out there that there will be NO market for a toilet that blasts ice-cold air at your rear end while in use. Not a nice feeling at all, even for someone who'd been riding a hardtail mountain bike off-road for four days...!!!

Anyway...

... it was the one morning my canvas Cactus trousers supplanted my Metallica board shorts, and they were absolutely perfect for the conditions.  While waiting for the start, but after handing over all of our luggage, Ryan, Sebastian and I stood in the tent shivering, and wondering what the hell we were about to step into.  My GPS would soon confirm that it was pretty freaking cold: 5 degrees, not counting the significant wind chill.

I had to laugh at Hutch's beautifully ironic, and coincidentally worn, jersey, reading "ZERO WIND"
Despite the limited food I'd eaten since finishing the previous stage, I ambitiously lined up near the front of the grid, also taking a punt that I'd be warm enough in lycra jersey, armwarmers and sleeve-less vest under my shake-dry jacket, and knee-warmers for the first and only time in the event.

Perhaps in an act of solidarity by the front bunch given the conditions, or maybe just because the Mongolians had not slept well, I was able to hang with the hitters for 10 minutes or so.  But, a short rise soon put paid to that, not only for me, but for others, and it took another 15 minutes or so for smaller bunches to form from the debris. 

I found myself with Alfredo from stage 3, Glenn (an Australian living in Qatar who'd got horribly sunburnt on the first day, and again on day two, from which point he was probably inundated with offers of sunscreen), and the Spanish fat bike guy, who introduced himself as Donny, corrected me when I later called him Danny, and after the stage had ended revealed himself to be Toni (sounds like "Donny").

Toni took charge of us beautifully.  It was clear he had a great engine, but probably just due to the massive rotating mass of his wheels, didn't much like unnecessary accelerations and was not shy of reminding us by calling "TRANQUILLO" and gesticulating appropriately.

He was also averse to wasting momentum, and so it was that he and I pulled away from Alfredo and Glenn on a climb, and decided to press on alone.  We had very compatible riding styles, and motivated each other well, both physically and mentally.  Toni also produced entertaining noises - either creaking when he was in the saddle, or a delightful "WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP" as his low-pressure tyres deformed when he was out of the saddle.

Toni, approaching Ref-2
On the long climb up to Ref-2, we could see a couple of riders behind us.  TRANQUILLO, I was reminded, and we just tapped away at our own pace.  We made an ever-so-brief stop, and during it identified Alfredo and Hutch (an American who'd been living in UB for years with his Mongolian wife and young children) as our assailants.  After a fast descent, Toni and I regrouped, and were soon joined by Alfredo.  I looked back, and while Hutch was agonisingly close, the rules of the day were to focus on what we were doing, and to ignore anyone else's predicament.


We saw a couple of young kids on bikes - this one was the less bling of the two, but I was better organised with my camera!
Toni and Alfredo conversed in Spanish for a while, and I amused myself by imagining that Toni was laying down the law.  Whatever was said, there was no detectable change to our dynamic, and nor was it noticable when Alfredo slipped off the back on the climb to Ref-3.

There, we caught Martin (who I'd ridden with on the previous day), Lance Portman (a gym owner from Perth, whose Dad and brother were spectating the race, and clocking up plenty of Russian-van-miles in the process), and Vladimir (from Moscow, roomie from night 2).  I was keen to roll through, but a quick stop saw all three of them take off before us.

For about a minute, I felt like I was in Colorado, bombing down a gully through trees, but that promptly ended, and then I felt like I was riding in Mongolia again.  Down in yet another river valley, we could see Martin and Lance ahead, and two - presumably Hutch and Alfredo - behind.  It was unclear what was happening to the gap between those two duos, but the gap ahead of us was steadily shrinking, and that behind getting increasingly large.  TRANQUILLO, Toni urged, unnecessarily.

It was clear we were moving quicker than Martin and Lance, and before we caught them we had a quick chat about whether or not to linger.  When we did make the catch, it was clear Lance was pretty blown, but now in the company of probably the three biggest blokes in the field.  With a decent wind shadow to hide in, and three content riders ahead, things proceeded without awkwardness.  A couple of times I praised him for his choice of company, but I think he mistook it for a dig that he wasn't on the front!

The final kilometres were about as close as we got to singletrack.  We'd entered an old lava field, and the dirt road ducked and dived its way through it.  We mostly did too, although at one point there was a strange noise, and I turned to see Toni completing his over-the-bars manoeuvre having steamed into a big rock in an attempt to short-cut a corner!  I dare say any other front wheel in the race would not have coped with that, but luckily the 4-inch tyre saved the day, and only Toni's pride was dented.

Soon after, Martin enquired as to whether our truce was finishing at the line or the 1km mark, but in the end it was gentlemanly through to the end.  I was mightily tempted to let fly, simply because I could have - strength I'd not before felt at this event.

Always a good sign when you arrive to see this many uncollected bags
I was thrilled with the stage, and acknowledged to a few riders afterwards how good it felt.  I'd admitted to them (and myself) that while I was comfortable with participating in the event at a level well below my best (a bed I'd long since made for myself), I was delighted with the sensations of the day.  I wasn't quite at the pointy end, but the 16th place finish overall felt a lot closer to my potential than the 47th place had on Day 1.  I knew I had nothing to prove to anyone, or myself, but it felt really fucking good to ride well.

The early arrival was put to good use, in what I thought was the nicest ger camp of the lot.  They had soda water in the fridge, which was something I'd been missing, a great hot shower, and abundant good food.  Also, some better-than-decent surroundings, with a stunning river gorge below the camp, and the outline of a whopping great horse drawn on a nearby hillside with white rock.  I can't for the life of me find it on the internet, but it was very nice!

The Orkhon River with said horse in the background (slighty left of centre)

I shared a lovely traditional ger with two very lovely Phils - Phil Routley (the Australian working in Singapore who I'd talked with on the ride out of UB) and American Phil Smith who was kicking arse in the Veteran category (50+).

Stats:  126km ridden, 6 hours 13 minutes elapsed.  Temperature range: 5-19 degrees.

Other stats:  6th in category, 16th overall.

Stage 6

Our sixth and final stage was the shortest - having left the modern capital of Mongolia five days ago, we were riding to the ancient capital, Kharkhorin (commonly referred to by foreigners - or to them - as Karakorum, even though the K in the Mongolian Kh is silent - go figure).

I started the stage feeling more like a racer than a rider, not in an aggressive sense, but one of self-assurance and focus.  I wasn't going to roll gingerly off the line, nor was I going to let wheels go for no good reason.

The first few kilometres saw us heading back out through the lava field, which again was a bit of a hoot.  As ever, gravity eventually proved the best sorting mechanism, and I found myself in a small group with Martin, Lance, Hutch and Glenn, all of whom had featured in the previous day's stage.

Unfortunately, we were sucking dust for a while, with various vans overtaking us (with mixed success) on the upwind side of the road.  "FUCK OFF!!" plus an angry wave didn't have the desired effect, so we simply had to wait for the terrain to come to our rescue.

L-R:  Glenn, Hutch, Lance.  Vast and empty ring a bell?
Lance seemed to have recovered well after his afternoon-sans the day before, but the first decent climb of the day saw Hutch and I crest alone.  I'd enjoyed flicking through Buyana's photos with him a couple of evenings ago, and while he'd won yesterday's stage, today he was having bike troubles - none of which it looked like we could help with the couple of times we passed him on the roadside.  He generously offered us his wheel the second and last time he flew past, but we nobly declined!

After the next climb, it was lucky the descent was so open - had it been wooded, I likely would still be digging splinters out of my lips after carrying a bit too much speed into a tight off-camber corner.  But, in Mongolia, you just find a new line, and keep an eye out for rocks or holes.  No harm, no foul.

Glenn, Hutch and I regrouped at the bottom, and hit the bottom of the final lumpy climb together.  Channelling Toni, I rode at my own pace, and found myself alone midway through the ascent.   Soon after, Costa Rican, Irving Mathews Soto, flew past me, and I caught the other NZer in the race, Hamish Morrin, currently residing in Frankfurt.  We rode together briefly (during which time I almost missed a sharp left turn), but eventually he wished me well and eased up.  He'd had a really solid race, but was now paying for some tough days which included two 5th places overall, and a 7th.

The organisers had saved the longest, steepest climbs for the finale, and I decided a tactical walk was required for the first time in a few days.  I tried not to worry about what was happening behind, focusing instead on what was going on underneath me - that was all I could control.  I had occasional glimpses of a rider I thought was Vladimir up ahead, but as far as my legs were concerned, that gap was insurmountable.

Kharkhorin in the distance
After the stage's highpoint at the 69km mark, it was downhill to the finish - on average.  There were a couple of short but nasty climbs that broke both rhythm and will.

Willy Mulonia was at the finish line greeting everyone, and got a big, dusty and sweaty hug from me for his troubles.  About a minute after I'd grabbed a fistful of rear brake to minimise Willy's chase, a white 4WD pulled up and from it emerged Sarah and my parents.

Always nice to be reunited!  (Even when one of us is filthy!)
I was really looking forward to introducing Sarah to my Mongolian friends, particularly Buyana and Bilguunjargal with whom I'd chatted a couple of days prior.  I was stunned to hear my Mongolian vocabulary reported back, and that between the three of them, they'd recalled not only Sarah's name, but also Khulan's.  It really was a special moment for me, to think that they'd chosen to retain all of those (random!) details, and in the meantime finished 1-2-3 in another couple of stages.

L-R: Bolor-Erdene, Buyntogtokh, Bilguunjargalm Sarah, Ma (by a whisker) and Pop

Hamish arrived soon after, and then Toni, and it was great to see them both.

Hamish Morrin and I
Soon after, I started getting itchy feet, and mounted up to finish the descent to the city (and our ger camp) with Sebastian, whose cracked BMC had survived as long as it needed to.

Sebastian with Kharkhorin in his sights (the left stay is the damaged one)

A couple of times on the descent, I made the mistake of thinking I was looking at the ocean off in the distance.  The colour and uniformity of it were unmistakable, weren't they?!


The final shower was glorious, but I definitely held back on the lunch!  The afternoon was filled with great conversation: hearing more about the Mongolian cycling scene from Bilguunjargal, riding in Denmark from Sebastian, out and back beach racing in the Netherlands from Arjan, MTB racing in Slovenia from Urban (The Four Islands race, in particular), life as a commercial pilot from Lenny, or winters in the Yukon from Andy, not to mention one of the best travel mishap stories I've ever heard from Andy's mate Thomas - heading home from last year's Pioneer, no less!

Stats:  83km ridden, 4 hours 10 elapsed.  Temperature range:  11-29 degrees.

Other stats:  4th in category, 16th overall.

PS:  Stage 7

The hardest stage turned out to be the bus ride back to UB.  I didn't turn a pedal, but boy was it gruelling.  I can't believe I didn't accept travel in relative luxury with Sarah and my folks!


Reflections

This is now the second international mountain bike stage race I've completed, the first being the Cape Epic back in 2012.  That field contained 1200 riders, and was a team event.

The Mongolia Bike Challenge was a lot more intimate - capped at only 108 starters, for logistical reasons, I guess - and riders compete as individuals.  I think both these features contributed to me making connections with people, which I hope will endure both time and distance, including mainly riders, but also crew.

Having spent three weeks in Mongolia, my hat is off to Willy Mulonia, for pulling off not one, but ten editions of the MBC.  The level of organisation that I experienced was pretty much perfect, testament I'm sure, to the care and passion he and his team put into the event.  As I said on the Stage 6 wrap up video:  "get yourself fit, get entered, and come and enjoy this incredible country."  Mongolia's not the easiest place in the world to get to, but it is bloody unique, and the Mongolia Bike Challenge is as good an event as your likely to find.

 Featuring Lance (12s), Lenny (16s), Urban (18s, and with the last - beautiful - word), Len (24s), Bilguunjargal (37s), Luke (44s), Toni (Polar jersey, in the screenshot and at 2m18), 

My progression during the race was very welcome indeed.  My overall placings steadily improved: 47th, 44th, 41st, 22nd, 16th and 16th, for 32nd overall on general classification (pretty much the arithmetic average of the six placings, as it turns out!).  Similarly, in my Masters 2 category:  15th, 14th, 14th, 9th, 6th and 4th, for 12th place on GC.  I wasn't there to ride fast, but I was glad when I was finally able to.

I think the improvement happened for a few reasons.  Firstly, my physical condition improved over the six days - call the first few some much needed training...!  I hadn't put enough time into getting the bike set up, and I suspect my saddle position relative to the pedals and the handlebars was very different to my Crowe-Rishworth, and it took time for my body to adjust to it.  Finally, I think I relaxed, and started riding without worrying about riding.  Three sources of improvement which added up nicely.

I was initially surprised by how many of this year's participants had done the event before.  Now, it makes perfect sense to me.  The country is beautiful in its unique way.  I'd feared it would be monotonous, with reasonable predictions of the terrain and its nature.  But it was never boring - the regularity of it all was a thing to behold.

I will always have a special connection to Mongolia (would you believe, on return Sarah and I picked up a new car which coincidentally has a regular number-plate beginning with MGL, the IOC code for Mongolia!!!!), and while I usually have a preference for new experiences over repeated ones, I'd go back to this event in a flash.

Having seen Sarah speaking her own language, with her life-long friends, and in her own country, it is clear to me that we need to regularly.  When the next trip is on the horizon, rest assured I'll be getting in touch with Hutch, Buyana and Bilguunjargal for help figuring out which bike I should bring with me to best ride with them, and if the timing of the MBC fits well with our window of opportunity at this end, wouldn't hesitate to drop Willy a line!

Things last a while, I'm sure.  But these memories will last forever.

Lucky me.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Taiwan, a cycle tourist's paradise?

I don't recall exactly when Taiwan fell onto my radar, but the Taiwan KOM event was definitely the catalyst.

The last few years have shown me the benefits of a mid-year bolt north, and that my mood through winter is definitely more manageable with a shot of sunshine and warmth.  An extra incentive this year was August's Mongolia Bike Challenge, and a getaway would double as a nice endurance booster that wouldn't be quite so hard-won as equivalant miles at home.

The deal-clincher was Air New Zealand announcing a new route to Taipei and a $1 sale on their Economy Skycouch.  My credit card was ready and waiting...!

As always, the planning was a lot of fun, and started with a bit of map-gazing - Sarah's friend and my colleague, Ivy, had recently been to Taiwan, and had been shopping for us!   The airport and Taroko Gorge (route of the Taiwan KOM race) were our only constraints on the ground, and we had nine days to use. 

A few weeks out, after an evening flurry of hotel booking, our route had taken shape:  two days of riding between Taipei and Hualien on the east coast (map 1), followed by a 3-day ride down the East Rift Valley and back up the coast (map 2), and then two days to get back to Taipei's doorstep via Taroko Gorge, and a short morning ride back into the city on the 8th day.

Day 1 (purple), day 2 (red), day 6 (yellow), day 8 (green)

Day 3 (blue), day 4 (beige), day 5 (brown)
Prep was pretty straightforward - I'd recently returned from a shake-down ride with Brendan, so the stuff on my tried-and-true gear list was mostly still sitting in one spot.  Sarah would be sporting a new bike - our most recent cycling trip together had landed her in hospital (something I was too traumatised to write about), so a priority had been getting her on fatter tyres and disc-brakes.  Both packed nicely into our recently acquired bags, though Sarah's required a bit of customisation to make it work - nothing a few hose clamps didn't sort...

The rear dropout spacing was 5mm more than the bag's default 130mm, and front was setup for 9mm QR rather than a 12mm through-axle
The flight to Taipei was excellent, not least because we ended up with not one but two Skycouches.  Getting to our hotel was also pretty straightforward with a train into the city, followed by a short metro ride.

After a good night's sleep, it was time to hit the road.


Day 1

First order of the day was bike assembly, the most tedious part of which was pumping the tyres.  (Travel floor pump, here I come...!)

Street-side reassembly
In hindsight, it would have been better to book a hotel adjacent to the Taipei Main Station, thereby avoiding the need for a metro ride, and also positioning us closer to the river.  It was there that I hoped to find a cycle path, and sure enough, once we'd negotiated both the inner city traffic, and a tall concrete wall, we hit the jackpot!

The two sides of this wall were like cycling heaven (to the right) and hell (to the left)
We followed the cycle path for as long as we could.  It was lovely being on dedicated infrastructure, even absent the umbrella toting unicyclist we saw.  Once back on the streets, we were soon crossing onto "Cycle Route No.1" which circumnavigates the island, and is marked every 500m or 2km, depending on whether you're in a built-up area or not!

In between towns, the route was a mix of separated path and massive shoulder.  Constants were the smoothness of the surface (very) and the atmospheric conditions (hot and humid).

Elevated road offered many advantages, including great views
We got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean at Fulong, where we inadvertently stumbled upon a spectacular temple.

Beachside temple at Fulong
Our navigational issues at Fulong were largely due to a brief departure from Cycling Route No.1.  Strangely, it did not take in one of the most delightful bits of cycling infrastructure we saw during our trip, the repurposed Caoling Tunnel, a 2.1km long respite from the heat.

Northern portal of the Old Caoling Tunnel
At the far end, we reconnected with the marked route, and soon after stopped at a small fishing port for lunch, which turned out to be a Taiwanese take on greasies - deep fried, lightly-battered whole fish and sweet-potato chips.  After a quick pass through the market, we were rolling again.


After a bit of time on the coast, we were treated to more variety, including a modern building which appeared to be sinking, and more temples.  Every place we passed seemed to have a temple, and while the sizes varied, the colours and intricacy rarely did.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2
Our overnight stop was in Suao, by virtue of it being half way between Taipei and Hualien.  Our accommodation was on the outskirts of town, and because we couldn't be bothered riding to find dinner, had our one dud meal of the trip (expensive, and unsatisfying).

Stats:  117km, 740m climbed, 5h25 ride time, 36 degrees


Day 2

We'd had a brief conversation with a couple of ex-pat cyclists at the end of the Caoling Tunnel, and one had warned us against riding the so-called Suhua Highway - between Suao and Hualien, and our planned route for today.  A closer look at the Route No.1 brochure had also startled me, with "the easiest day of the trip" featuring a 100km train ride to bypass the road.

After a fretful evening scouring the internet for advice, we'd decided to scope out the railway station after breakfast.
Fried egg, cherry tomatoes, and unidentified delicacies
I had to pop into Suao for cash, and noticed that the Route No.1 markers continued past the railway station.  I was also feeling inspired by one blog in particular that I'd read, which described the "notorious highway" (as described by the rest of the internet) as "one of the toughest and most beautiful of the whole trip."  The combination sealed the deal, and after consultation with Sarah, we were soon beginning the climb out of Suao.  We figured that if the conditions were truly horrible, we could double back to the nearest town and jump on a train.

Looking back over Suao
Despite being early in the morning, it was already baking hot.  Luckily, there was provision for that...

Mongolian head-cooler (see our New Caledonia blog for the foot-cooler)
While Sarah was struggling in the heat, I was loving it, and of course the climbs also generally come with great views.  This was no exception.

Looking south towards Wushihbi Coastal Nature Reserve

And from the south, 2h20 later
Until Nanau, we were on a secondary road, and the traffic conditions were light.  And, as far south as the Heping River, we were wondering what all the fuss had been about.  While narrow in places, and spectacular throughout, even the frequent tunnels hadn't been a bother.

The Heping Power Plant in the distance
In fact, the road had been a regular source of delight, both due to the commitment involved in building it, and the effort currently going into extending the tunnels south of Nanao.

No fewer than three tunnel portals in this rock face
Sure enough, the tunnels did get a bit narrower along the final section, but our expectations having been set very low by the abundant dire warnings, we were pleasantly surprised.  We were fortunate that there were roadworks near the entrance of one of the longest tunnels, so after waiting until we were at the end of the queue, we were afforded traffic-free riding, for not only that tunnel, but a couple following it (once we'd waited for the next wave of cars to pass).

Blissful riding on the Suhua Highway
On the approach to Hualien, we ducked off Cycling Route No.1 onto local highway 193, giving us the road virtually to ourselves right into the outskirts of the city.


Our accommodation was within walking distance of a much-needed laundromat, and also the fantastic Dongdamen Night Market.  As a result, our dinner was infinitely better than the previous night's (at a quarter of the price), our riding kit was clean, and we'd successfully negotiated a wonderful bit of road that we'd almost not seen at all.



Stats:  118km ridden, 1370m climbed, 5h40 riding time, 33 degrees


Day 3

A second breakfast was definitely needed, and we found it soon after rolling out, in the form of a dumpling house chokka with locals (a good sign if ever there was one).

Zhongshan Road, Hualien
Stomachs full, we made our way out of town to pick up county highway 193 again, before starting our foray into the East Rift Valley.

Looking back across the Hualien River
The downsides to the quieter road seemed to be a lack of 7-Eleven convenience stores and rolling hills.  While our map had no towns marked on it, we would regularly pass through villages, during which time we'd keep our eye open for shops - a drinks fridge was the most reliable signal.

We stopped for lunch at one such place, where our purchases were typical:  cold, canned coffee; bottled water; instant noodles; pringles chippies.   We didn't buy any recreational drugs, though it appeared that they were on offer...!!!!

Not entirely sure what this was, but it had an illicit air to it!
The irregular cold drinks and complete lack of air-conditioned bolt holes, plus the undulating roads and hottest temperature yet, had us on the lookout for a stream to jump into.  We spotted a likely looking one, and eventually found our way into it.  Not only was it wonderfully refreshing...


... but it had a very nice view, too.


It was quite remarkable how invigorating the 10-minute bathe had been, and we both set off feeling much stronger than we had all day.

The back road continued to dish up treats - very few people were farming animals, but almost everyone seemed to be growing some sort of fruit or vegetable (many of which we couldn't identify).

Who knew pineapples grew in brown paper bags?!  (And, only a few centimetres off the ground)
At about the halfway mark, the road got very big all of a sudden, and we soon after arrived at Ruisui.  Curiously, the river seemed to be flowing up the valley at this point, instead of down.  As it turns out, the East Rift Valley was no longer draining to the coast via the Hualien River, but down a valley that passes through the Haian Mountains directly to the ocean.


After a cooling down in Ruisui (via a/c this time), we began our final push through to our lodgings in Fuli.  We opted again for route 193, which actually looked like a flatter route than the main drag.


As well as great scenery and road surface, we enjoyed a stonking tailwind, and even a bit of decommissioned railway.


We'd stumbled on lovely accommodation at Fuli Stay, and while browsing the cable TV stations, even found Eurosport were screening the Tour of Croatia live!



Stats:  119km ridden, 1140m climbed, 5h25 ridden, 38 degrees!


Day 4

One exciting aspect of the day's ride was being able to do so without our touring bags.  It seemed inconceivable that we'd get cold, so phone, map and wallet were the only things I had in my pockets.  (Tubes and tools and a couple of one square meals were stashed in the frame bag.)

We began climbing almost immediately, and after a quick stop for a canned coffee (ah, and no drugs), we began the 15km climb in earnest.

Virtually every corner on the back roads had a mirror on it
Once again, we had the road pretty much to ourselves, and while the climb wasn't long in the context of what we had coming up in a few days time, it was still solid.  Fuli had given us a great head start too (the town sits at about 300m above sea level), so the descent to the coast was long and a real hoot.  Sarah even saw a snake on the road, while I was busy admiring a wall...

Snake > wall :(
Our noses led us to a morning tea stop in Donghe, just before we met the coastal highway.  As was common, the menu had english translations, so we were able to order steamed buns without wondering what the filling would be!

Sarah had craftily carried her bikini bottoms, so while I watched enviously, she was able to take a wee dip in the ocean.  I saved my bike the ignominy of having a salt-water-laden chamois drain onto it, and the few locals enjoying a Saturday morning trip to the beach, the sight of a strangely-tanned man skinny dipping...

Sarah in the Pacific Ocean
A 7-Eleven just shy of Taitung spared us a trip into the city, and then I spared us a small climb by bypassing the first section of County Highway 197.  To achieve that, we crossed the Beinan River twice.

Even in the bush, the power pylons were typically on one of these platforms
We should have taken the third opportunity to cross the river, but didn't.  After too much of our 10km climb to double back, the road turned to gravel, and stayed that way for almost 15km.  My companion was less than impressed, but her slight grumpiness was the limit of her displeasure.  Impressive in hindsight, since we really were out in the wild, and a panic attack wouldn't have been completely unreasonable!!!

Fires burning down in the valley below showing us we could have been enjoying a tailwind!
Eventually, we'd left the rough road and sounds of monkeys in the trees behind, and soon after, we were able to finally stop and get some cold drinks.  We were down to about 250mL of water, despite our 4-litre combined capacity.


In my defence, the road was marked on the map as at the same level as the 193 we'd enjoyed the day before (sealed, and with regular shops despite no towns being shown).  Ironically, the day was our hardest yet, despite the lack of luggage, though at least the scenery had been well worth the effort.  With the benefit of hindsight, I would have given the gravel road the swerve though, and taken Cycling Route No.1 and the main road instead.

Stats:  149km ridden, 1900m climbed, 7h35 riding, 33 degrees


Day 5

We were in need of an easy day, and luckily, one was available.  We had some elevation to lose, and direct options at hand.

Initially, I'd planned to ride down-valley towards Yuli (not to be confused with Fuli), before cutting across the mountains to the coast.  Neither of us felt this was a good idea, so I was tasked with a Plan B, and suggested we take the valley towards the coast at Ruisui instead.

Our ride to there was a mix of retracing our "steps"...

e.g. the Yufu Lake cycle path, where some kids happened to be dancing on an old rail platform
... and new (to us) road from Fuli to Ruisui.  The latter was surprisingly shitty, and made me hanker for route 193 for the duration.

After a recharge at one of Ruisui's many 7-Elevens, we crossed over the river and immediately turned right onto the Ruigang Highway.  After a gentle start, we rapidly gained elevation on a nifty set of switchbacks, giving us a beautiful view back into the valley (and over the bridge we crossed a few days earlier - 193, leaving Ruisui).


The next 20km or so were fantastic, not least because they were spontaneous.

We weren't the only ones enjoying the river valley
We rode through Qimei without stopping, our last opportunity before we hit the coast.

One of many indigenous artifacts that reminded me more of indigenous Americans than anything I'd seen in NZ
Once at the coast, we had about 70 mostly flat kilometres to ride to get us back to Hualien.  Several things kept us motivated:

lovely sights...

a cold, roadside shower...
... and the thought of hitting the night market again for dinner.  By virtue of our tired legs and relaxed approach dragging the day out, as soon as we'd showered, it was time to eat!  Which we did.  With gusto!!

Stats:  143km ridden, 1330m climbed, 6h50 ride time, 30 degrees


Day 6

The "Queen Stage" was finally upon us - today was the Taroko Gorge day.

We'd stayed at the same place as night 2, so knew not to expect much for breakfast and made a beeline straight for the nearby dumpling spot.  The weather forecast had been accurate, and while the light rain was a bit of a drag, at least we figured it would keep the temperature down.

The first 20km were basically pan-flat, and we stuck with Cycling Route No.1 along the main drag.  And then the 70km climb began!

Passing through Tailuge at the start of the climb
No sooner had we left the town, we were presented with an option to cross the river.  We decided to head through the gate on our side of the river, and we got our first taste of what was to come.  First, there was overhanging rock



and then tunnel...



Meanwhile, we could see that the road on the other side of the river was mostly tunneled.  I'm always astonished to see tunnel emerging onto bridge, under the assumption that that sort of thing is incredibly challenging to build.  We saw at least one example of that on the other road before crossing the river ourselves and disappearing immediately into a tunnel. 


The bridge/tunnel interface turned out to not be the highlight.  Soon after entering the tunnel, we discovered that the intersection with the "main road" was inside it!


At the far end of the tunnel, there was a queue of traffic, and it turned out the road was blocked by a crane.  We were told the road would be closed for another 30 minutes, which gave us the opportunity to do a quick lap of the pre-tunnel road (now one way, downhill).  By the time we got back, the road was open, and we were back into the climb.

No need for us to stop.  BYO for us
Only a few kilometres in, the road had already been jaw-dropping in its cost, and the level of commitment to build it.


And that was before we'd reached the pièce de résistance, the Tunnel of Nine Turns.  Here, the main route once again had its own tunnel and bridge system, while the original route was reserved for tourists, and was truly spectacular.  Tunnel, tunnel with holes in the outer wall, tunnel with no outer wall at all, overhanging rock, it had it all.


At the far end of this engineering masterpiece was the small town of Tianxiang, and the turnaround point for many of the tourists.  We'd barely got going though, and still had over 2000 vertical metres to ascend over the next 50km or so.

And ascend we did.  Usually with a spectacular drop on one side or other, as we snaked our way up the valley.  The road builders had been careful, and while the gradient was never unpleasant, it had been achieved using brute force as well as cunning.


We'd briefly spoken to another cyclist at the road closure, and caught up with him at what felt like lunchtime.  He was from Hong Kong, and helped us request a couple of bowls of noodle soup!  (Thanks Steve!)


He set off just before us, and we never had the opportunity to ride with him.

This switchback seemed worthy of wet shoes
Our progress was marked by road signs marking every 500m climbed (after 1000m), and telling us how far away the next two markers were.  There were odd treats in store for us too, including a couple of sets of greenhouses perched above the road, and someone's radio played so loud that we could hear it for about 20 minutes...!

We caught Steve just as he was stopping for coffee (which we did too), and shared a pack of crackers with him.


He was planning to do the full climb to Wuling Pass (the highest sealed road in East Asia), but we discovered later that he'd decided not to ride any more that day and had stayed at a backpackers just up the road from the cafe.


Nearing our turn off, we found the road perched on the side of a cliff.  This road never would have been built in New Zealand, that's for sure.


We passed a petrol station just before our turnoff to Lishan, but didn't feel the need to stop.  We had a 30km descent ahead of us, followed by 10km on the flat, and felt like we could knock that out on our reserves.


The wet roads slowed us down a bit on the descent, and we were under lights by the time we got to the flat section.  A mere 2km from our destination I heard Sarah hollering at me, and turned to discover she'd punctured.  We'd both successfully negotiated many tears in the asphalt (caused by the road slipping down the hillside), but this was one too many for Sarah.  After getting the rear wheel sorted, we set off, only to realise the front had also succumbed (just not as quickly).


The last 10 minutes were uneventful, and we managed to find our accommodation without overshooting in the dark.  We'd certainly earned our hot showers and shitty convenience-store microwave dinners!!!

But even the double-puncture and associated last minute stress, and the day's rain, couldn't take the shine off what will quite possibly remain the most remarkable road I'll ever ride.  The engineering feats I'd seen in the French Alps and Pyrenees were quite something, but pale in comparison to this incredible stretch of pavement, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Stats:  133km ridden, 2660m climbed, 8h40 ride time, a mere 16 degrees


Day 7

Absent the previous day's ride, our penultimate would probably have been the most spectacular, but relative to the epic Taroko Gorge, the "wow" moments were relatively few!

We'd slept at about 1900m above sea level, so had a lot of altitude to lose. Despite an immediate 10km descent, at the 30km mark we'd regained our elevation twice!

Looking back over Huanshan with Lishan visible on the far ridge.  Two river crossings deep in the valleys between us and our most recent beds
The final climb was curiously benign, so much so that at times it seemed sure that the stream was draining the wrong way.  But, sure enough, we emerged at a saddle overlooking the Laniang River Valley, and marking the start of a 45km descent, during which time we'd lose 1500 vertical metres.


After a series of switchbacks, we were down in the valley floor, whereupon we found some serious local water collection efforts.


Each local farmer seemed to be grabbing water from the same side stream and independently piping it down the road...!

The basemap I'd downloaded from http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ showed the river looking much like a lake, but in reality it was more like a trickle.  And it looked like it was expected to stay that way, given the cabbages that were being grown in the river bed!

Coming soon to a dumpling near you!
Even a 45km descent is hunger-inducing stuff, and we were disappointed to find there were no obvious dining options before our the turnoff onto the "North Cross-Island Highway".  Just as we'd given up hope, we rounded a corner to find a wee restaurant, and were soon after chasing down an omelette and plate of dumplings with home-grown coffee.



The next hour was my least favourite of the trip.  It started off hot and sticky, and became wet and cool.  Also, my left pedal had been clicking sporadically up until this point, and there'd been a bit of play in it.  Now, it clicked on virtually every pedal stroke, and as each minute passed, I was becoming more and more fixated on it.

Rather than dig myself in to an emotional hole, I chose to do something a bit weird.  I know Sarah has a great tolerance for her bike making strange noises, so asked her if it was OK for me to switch the pedal onto her bike.  She said it was no problem, so that's what I did.  My pedal-related stress vanished, and I also figured it was also less likely to shit itself under Sarah's pedalling force than mine.

Little did she know, but she was about to have her pedal stolen
There was a bit of thunder in the hills, and around about the time that we knocked off the 1000m climb (huge by NZ standards, but tiny compared to the 2600m whopper we'd done the day before), the heavens really opened.  And the taps stayed open for much of the remaining 80km.

Cowering under a bit of overhanging rock.  The only bit of dry road we had for hours!
While Gore Shakedry jackets are fragile (so much so that it's not recommended to wear a backpack over one), and a very shitty colour for riding in wet conditions, they are the fucking business when it comes to keeping the rain out.  (They are so good, that I've even had a sweaty shirt dry out during a rainstorm.)  They were the saving grace really, and without them I expect we both would have been in horrible moods by the time we knocked off for the day.


Very close to home, with the rain finally abating

It was a real ride of two halves, and despite losing 1000m over the 80km, we took over 4 hours for it by virtue of the wet roads, and conditions more generally.  The final 20km or so were consistently downhill, and under lights, we rode into Sanxia, only a stone's throw from Taipei.

Stats:  166km ridden, 2115m ascended, 8h35 ride time, 21 degrees


Day 8

Our final day was so short, it almost didn't seem worth gettting suited up for.  Within a few minutes of leaving our hotel, we were on a river-side cycle path, and we spent the majority of our ride on it.


Things got a little tricky the closer we got to our destination.  At one point we climbed up onto an elevated road, only to be dumped back down to river-level a few minutes later.

Photography, plus trying to work out a plan of attack!
Once we were lined up with Zhongxiao Rd (which our hotel was on), we made our way across the river.  It was there that the left pedal I'd been worrying about finally gave up, but luckily we literally only had a couple of flat kilometres to ride, and Sarah managed without problem.

Finally realising she'd been tricked!
The last riding we did was among the slowest of the trip, and we even overshot the hotel, despite having stayed there at the beginning of it all!


Once at the hotel, we retrieved our bike bags and got stuck into cleaning and loading the bikes.  Once that was done, our room was available, and we showered before spending the afternoon making like tourists.

Stats:  29km ridden, 110m climbed, 1h40 ride time, 31 degrees


Summing up

Our wee Tour of Taiwan was an amazing experience.  Our route seemed to have a bit of everything, and while we finished a couple of times in the dark, the distances felt about right.   Off the bike, our accommodation was all easy to organise (all booked on booking.com) and regular use of "ni hao" and "xie xie" seemed to compensate for a sizeable language barrier.

The food on offer was cheap, plentiful, and from the point of view of a cycle tourist, nourishing.

June was perhaps the only bad call, since it really was very hot and humid, and there were periods where it had me running a loop on quotes from my One Day Ahead team-mates!

Mike: "She's like riding in a sauna out there today.  Well as soon as you start going up, the speed drops, there's no wind, and it's like, WOOOAARRRR"
Aaron:  "As soon as you start to climb, and it hits the mid-30s, it just takes all your energy.  Your legs can tick over, but ... it just saps you"
And when we found a bit of shade:

Stu:  "Thank god it's cooler, that's all I can say.  My prayers have been answered"
Sarah was a great companion - totally up for the task, and very photogenic to boot.  While I take the lead on the bike, she finds plenty of wonderful experiences for us off it, so together, we feel like we're getting a more enjoyable holiday than we would alone - the measure of a great team, I guess.


In total, we covered 970km over the eight days, so we definitely made the most of things.  Looking at the map, I realise the 4-day northern loop really had everything, so if you happen to have an excuse to go to Taipei and don't have a lot of time to ride, that wouldn't be a terrible route!  With regards the Suhua Highway, pack a decent rear light and ride sensibly (and don't let people put you off)!

With a slight tweak to my parting shot in the New Caledonia write up:  Go to Taiwan.  If you like riding in beautiful places, go there.  Do it!