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Monday, October 31, 2011

Hitting The Wall: Sima Xian Shan (150km)

Every committed cyclist knows the feeling. We've all been through periods where we can't-- for whatever reason-- ride when and how we would like to. Things come up, and October has been filled with too many surprises.

I find when I am not riding I start feeling... mean (in the Joe Greene kind of way). By mid-week I feel a pressure in my chest and a percolating anxiousness. Two weeks without a soaring plunge along some verdant mountain road or an elbow to elbow battle with a pack of scooters starts making me a little stir crazy. I had to put the rubber to the road.

Finally, I had a weekend with some real ride time scheduled.

Seeing as hills are typically the method of choice for the cycling flagellant, I picked one of the meanest local routes with the aim of suffering the fun back into my weekend.

I charted a course for the quad-ripping slopes of Sima Xian Shan.

It had been a while since I first rode this route, so I decided to do it with a little more panache and begin my ride in Dong Shih.

Although I rode from Taichung to Dong Shih, I really didn't consider the ride to have started until I was actually working my out from the Dong Shih Hakka Cultural Center near the bike trail.

I was in less than ideal condition for a ride as ambitious as this one. I had not ridden a Century in a couple of months and I had spend the prior evening lurching in the zombified rigor mortis as one of the walking dead for Halloween. My back was sore from holding character and hobbling around on my feet for six hours in the perpetual state of dead. To make matters worse, my throat was dry and hoarse from all the hissing and growling required of any good zombie. Basically, I had not eaten enough, had enough fluids or rested properly for a nasty day of hills, but I was set in doing the ride after a couple friends stole my thunder by doing part of it the day before with a wonderful ride report full of all kinds of pretty pictures.

Dongqi Road is wends its way through Hakka style farms at treetop level above deep gullies and gurgling streams.

A wall of mountains sits beguilingly in the distance looking both massive and distant.

Despite the beauty and tranquility of this thin strip of tarmac, few cyclists actually take advantage of it, opting for the busier stretches of Guguan or Daxue Shan. Still, a couple riders were all smiles as they cut through the hills to Dong Shih.

As I steadily followed the sun drenched lines over the ridge to Jhuolan, I passed the ruins of the locally maligned BASF chemical facility. Local government had been bully on the unpopular project and hoped to steamroll local opposition to the facility. It appears local opposition may have won this battle as the nearly completed building rots by the roadway.

All along the route the hillsides were dotted with the popcorn white coverings of ripe persimmons. Aside from just being my favorite metaphor borrowed from pulp lesbian literature, I think they're pretty tasty as well.

This route always surprises me with the number of creeks and streams that run "untamed" out of the mountains. It gives one hope that there are still hidden places in Taiwan that busloads of Chinese tourists will never discover.

Dongqi Rd. drops down into the Da An River Valley and skims along the riverbank beneath hillside farms and towering cliffs.

Much of the road is smooth, but there are some rough patches that might require a little more care.

I passed several riders flying along in the opposite direction. Judging by the group and the terrain, I can only assume, at that time of day, they left the same way they came in. They seemed to be enjoying the deceptively easy rolling descent downriver.

I pushed along below the sheer canyon walls through several small agricultural villages, when I heard the F-ing sound of huge volumes of air exiting my rear tire. fffff-fffff-fffff-fffff, it gushed in looping rhythm to the rotation of my tire. I could feel the cool rush of air on my calves as the puncture passed between my stays.

I had experienced a flat Wednesday night and I noticed the hole was in the exact same location. This could only mean a rip in the tire. Sure enough, I found a hidden gash inside one of the treads where the high pressures pushed the tube through for a blow-out.

As I sat on the ground working on my tire, a local farmer came over to strike up a conversation. The only thing on his mind was talking politics.

The farmer was only two years older than myself and repeatedly mentioned how much he envied the USA for its ability to hunt down and catch or execute enemies of the state. He wished Taiwan could do the same to its enemies. He went on to tell me he hoped the pragmatic and moderate DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen would get elected as she is "more level headed" than the more radical and activist policies of Ma Ying-jiu who, "...just wants to please Chinese and not Taiwanese." He also hoped Chinese would rise up and oust their leaders like the Arabs, so China could democratize and leave Taiwan alone.

Interesting opinions from a salt of the earth local living in the midst of a KMT voting district.

I cautiously continued on my way with 70psi in my rear tire. I hoped the pressure would be tight enough to get me through and weak enough not to push through the tire. All I could do was to avoid bumps and pits in the road. I still had another tube and if that went out then I'd be calling for a ride. I was still less than halfway through with a wall of climbing to conquer and a whole 90k back to Taichung along deserted mountain roads. With a plan like that how could I go wrong. I felt like I was rolling along mountain roads with a time bomb strapped to my wheel.

I finally pulled up to the reservoir, which marks the last rest stop before grappling my way up the mountain.

The reservoir near Xiangbi Village (Elephant Nose) is a scattering of produce farmers and tourists looking for a turn around. I saw several cyclists milling around taking in a little cigarette smoke to clear the lungs.

I breezed through the last villages near the riverbank, which consist mainly of a few Japanese era buildings, some shacks and platforms for locals to relax on, and tiny local churches for the predominantly Christian Atayal speaking population.

The river crossing is really the moment of truth. At the far end of the bridge lies one of the more heartbreaking sections of hill. The road suddenly vaults up with the first bend too far off in the distance to even register a simple "I think I can."

I dropped into my 39/12 gearing and torqued my way up like the chugging of a roller coaster as the chain drags the weight of the car up to the death drop.

Corner after corner, ramp after ramp I tried to keep my mind on the immediate challenges and try to convince myself the worst was over.

When I first climbed this hill it was hell. Somehow I had convinced myself it was not all that bad and easier than I thought. I was wrong on that count. It was still hell... and much worse. I was in and out of the saddle to even out the burn and rest the muscle groups.

I stopped in the Atayal village of Tiangou (Heaven Dog) to stock up on water and sport drink. The land they had cleared for tourism has been turned into farmland; a more practical use of local capital with better returns.

As I stood around hydrating and keeping the legs happy, I was soon surrounded by a number of local boys who forgot to inquire if I understood Chinese and started yammering away about the size of my dick and my sexy 70's chest hair and other stuff.

I finally tipped my hand and mumbled a term that indicated that the loudmouth of the bunch was pretty much full of shit. They quickly became a bit more respectful and started asking questions about my bike, my route and how on earth I ride without pedals.

Actually, I really liked the loudmouth kid. He had all the moxie and swagger you'd expect from a rock star.

I may have earned their respect when I took off and devoured the climb out of Tiangou with only a couple dozen or more easy, standing strokes. I could hear the hooting and cat calls from down below as the village disappeared behind me and I bit my lip into the next turn.

The climb kept throwing grades in my way and I tried my best to think happy thoughts.

I lugged that bike higher over the valley floor as the view took some of the gravity off my shoulders. In the midst of such calculated suffering, there is also so much beauty. My inner quads in both legs started cramping, so I tried to play games and drink fluids to ease back into feeling normal.

As I neared the top I could see a plateau, which juts out over the river valley. It was here that the Japanese, in 1911, erected the Wan Tian gun battery following a number of disastrous engagements with the local Atayal, Hakka and Kaxabu speakers. After hundreds of troops drawn from Dong Shih, Jhuolan and Dahu were called up and failed, light aircraft were called up from Taichung to pummel the village into submission.

The people of Tiangou put up fierce resistance and eventually became a heavily policed village with the gun battery providing heavy support for tactical control the entire valley. The Japanese enlisted locals to engage in the camphor trade, timber and other forestry products. Several of the buildings still exist and a hike around the battery site makes for a wonderful adventure.

My time at the top was short lived. My flat had eaten up valuable time and I needed to beat it back home. Moreover, I felt my stomach growl.

There is a rule in cycling that you drink before you're thirsty and eat before you're hungry. I was still an hour of technical descending from Dahu and I feared a bonk was imminent.
The forest roads on the back side of the mountain are shaded tunnels of bamboo and cedar. I tried to pick my lines and skate safely to the bottom. I didn't take many pictures of the descent, despite being on the more beautiful side of the mountain. All I could do was soak in the scene and avoid hitting anything that might cause a flat.

When in doubt, stay left. I was on a thrill ride to Dahu and all smiles. There is one ridiculously steep descent that slows things down, but what a marvelous drop. As I coasted along the green cliff sides, I surprised a gigantic eagle perched on a bald tree branch just off the road. My heart jumped when I caught the sudden movement of a large animal in my peripheral vision as it performed a plummeting swan dive into the void. Wow!

I was soon on my way out and into Dahu, where I immediately downed a coke and a couple of rice balls. With the wind at my back I cruised home at top speed eating the hills and surfing the descents.

This is why we suffer.

Distance: 150km (93.94mi)
Altitude: 6178ft
Time: 6:33:39
Calories: 4657cal


  1. That looks like an awesome ride. Sorry about your tire trouble - that is the worst. Seems though you are happier for biting through the ride. Awesome pictures too. Looks like a really beautiful place to ride.

  2. Bravo. Wish I had it in me to ride with you through there. Let's try to get back up there sometime. Cheers! Stellar post!

  3. I'm game. I'd like to get an earlier start (not 8:30 again) and do this totally fresh and ready.