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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sanlinxi: A Punishing Ride Up One Of Central Taiwan's Less Storied Climbs


As far as the reductionism of bicycle writing on Taiwan goes, there are about three mentionable rides in the country: The Sun Moon Lake Tourism Ride, The East Coast Bike Trails and the thigh popping ride to Wuling Pass.

At least these are the rides that regularly make it into the self-agrandizingTaiwan Tourism ad copy or other more prolific publications than this one.

Aside from the Sun Moon Lake tourist trap, the other two are nice and even challenging rides. A ride over Wuling from either side of Taiwan is a downright spectacular and humbling experience for even the most seasoned rider.

Still, regular readers of this blog may already know that there are some other rides in the area that stand out for their challenging terrain and stunning natural beauty.

The ride up to the 1710m (5610ft) summit of the Sanlinxi tea farming area surely counts as one of the area's most spectacular and rewarding climbs. It requires some climbing fitness and a bit of preparation, but it can, on a good day, offer some outstanding views from the cedar-lined roads of the Nantou Rte. 151.

After a successful weekend of back to back standard century rides along the flat plains of Taiwan, I wanted to keep the ball rolling on my slow climb back into shape with another challenge to push my limits.

I figured the best way to figure out exactly how far I have fallen, was to climb upward toward the clouds.

I sent a message to Dom that I was interested in a ride from Taichung to Sanlinxi and back, covering over 160km (100mi) round trip. Dom was up on the idea to tackle a climb he had planned to attack on some drizzly weekend when the rest of us balked at the weather. He had still not made it up to the summit and it was a good opportunity for both of us to get something done.

I have made the trip a couple of times and aborted an attempt a few months back. The weather looked promising and so the die was cast.

At 7:00am on a sunny January morning we pointed our handlebars toward the mountains of Nantou. 
I would also like to apologize for not charging my camera battery and thus having to resort to the limited optics courtesy of my phone. Sorry.  

The ride was a perfect example of dressing appropriately for Taiwan's winters. We must have stopped to strip something off or put something on no fewer than four time along the way.

A bright winter sun lit the way to Lugu and made the possibility of a successful ride to the top of Sanlinxi even better.

One thing to always remember is that the climate in the hills and in the mountains may be completely different. Taiwan's weather is notoriously unpredictable, as several friends were reminded on Sunday as they found rain on their ride, while we found sunny skies just a few kilometers away. The mountains above Lugu are even more unpredictable as they are high enough to hold onto some of the moisture blowing in from eastern Taiwan to create a rain shadow effect. Often, while the lowlands and foothills are shimmering in sunlight, the tops of the mountains are blanketed in a chilling fog. It is precisely the reason the areas around Sanlinxi and Lugu are revered for their production of high quality teas.

Each time I have made it to the top of Sanlinxi I have found myself meandering through the icy mists within the belly of a cloud bank.  

The initial climb to Lugu seemed to pass by pretty quickly. For some inexplicable reason, the usual lines of tourist coaches, luxury sedans, and college students romancing their way up to Sitou on scooters were absent. It made for a comfortable ride up to the beginning of the Sanlinxi Rd.

The road starts out with an easy series of lazy ramps that roll along making for a fine place to tune the legs for some good climbing.

The mountain loomed overhead in the gaps between cedars. It was soon time to layer back up as a cloud had wrapped itself around the top of the mountain again. Out came the windbreakers, leg warmers and fingered gloves.

As the grade continued skyward our pace slowed due to the fatigue of simply fighting gravity, and also due to the increasing distance we were logging as we fought for every inch of ground gained our pursuit of altitude.

A look down the valley simply affirmed our hunch that we were making some progress up the mountain.

On the climb, there are twelve major switchbacks along the road. Each corner is named after a zodiac animal. Some fool also thought it would be fun to include kilometer markers on the signs to tell you exactly how far you have remaining before Sanlinxi.

The kilometers drop from the sign painfully slow, merely adding to the creaks of futility and despair screaming from the legs.

While I stopped to take some pictures Dom pulled out of sight as another wall of vapor slid across the road. 

The scenery is simply amazing. There are reds of cedar, greens and yellows of bamboo, whites and grays of the clouds and the blues of the sky. 

After a few punishing ramps, the road evens out as it jumps around to the other side of the ridge and into the clouds pushing up against the back of the mountain. As shadows take form out of the fog, the area is filled with a type of quiet best enjoyed from the saddle of a bicycle. Even the occasional car seemed to pull from the fog in complete silence. 

The road peaks at the 1710m summit where the Route 49 launches like a garbage chute back down to Zhushan. 

Around the corner a moderate descent takes hold and guides the bike down toward the tea fields and tourist shacks of Sanlinxi. The terraced tea fields are quite literally carved into the forested slope. 

As I looked back over the ridge we had just pulled ourselves across, I could see a huge yellow scar on the slope where a tea field hand given way and fallen into the valley below. It was obviously a huge financial loss for the farmers who rely on those fields.... but a stellar victory for nature. 

We passed through the tunnel to Sanlinxi and stopped for a break. 

Without much to see besides mist, we lingered long enough to feel as though we had made it to Sanlinxi and then we turned around as our legs cooled off in the chill. We still had another 55km to ride on the return trip and letting the legs rest too long can be a disaster as they may not start back up again.  

We took a few final looks at the area before letting gravity do the work of taking us off the mountain. A few spots on the road rattled my eyes in their sockets to the point of effective blindness, but you can't beat the feeling in the gut of a speedy descent. 

We refueled in Lugu and plugged for home. 

We hit a good string of green lights that helped with the momentum, but the speed and cross-headwind was really taking its toll on me. My 150km I was getting tired. By 165km I was missing the top range of my cruising speed. By 172km I was cooked. Dom did a phenomenal job pulling me home along the Highway 3. 

I felt like this was a huge improvement over the prior week with my fitness coming back up for longer periods of time. Last week I was worn out after 150km of flats. This week was the same, but I had endured 2182m of altitude gain for the day. 

I feel like I am making gains to get back to somewhere near where I once was. 

Oh, and there is a Sanlinxi race coming up this March, so I was happy to use this trip to conduct a little scouting of the course. I feel much better about getting there come race day.