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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Never Say Never: Never Stop Wuling Hill Climb 2014


It was two thirty in the morning and I was wide awake stuffing my face with a peanut butter-honey-raisin-banana sandwich. How's that for the beginning of a blog post? 

Once again, I was signed up to do the Never Stop Wuling Hill Climb; a quad-snapping ascent to 3275m. over the highest mountain pass in East Asia. I have done this ride before, but never as disastrously epic as this one.  


I joined with Team Mosaic and met at the T-Mosaic store on Taichung's Liming Rd. It had been a while since I last rode with Mosaic and I was missing several of the familiar faces I had grown accustomed to racing with. 

By half-past three we were on a mini-bus headed down the freeway toward Puli, where the race was set to begin.


The last time I rode this race, I finished in pretty good time despite not taking things too seriously and taking lots of pictures along the way. That race was also going to be my last Wuling race as the organisers had flooded the course with over 6000 riders and another thousand unregistered riders who had come to join the circus. 

That day ended with dangerous traffic jams near the finish and awful delays on the return trip. This time was much better. The race was pared down to only about 1200 riders with delayed starts by age group. This was also my first race in the 40-45 age bracket. 

The riders all milled around trying to be all Cool Hand Luke while preening with the latest, lightest and newest gear. 

I was especially impressed with Team Poo. I can only imagine how their day went (Insert string of obvious puns here). 


The starting pistol sounded over some awful roadside hip hop and I was underway. The first time in a long time. 

I spun easily all along the flatter introduction to Taiwan's Central Mountain Range. y legs felt fine, despite being insane enough to make another attempt on this mountain with a 53/39 crank. worked before....

One of the highlights came when a group of about twenty ancient baddasses in the "Over 45" bracket came roaring by in a blazing train of fury and spite. It was obvious that being pushed to the back to make way for the young guns had rubbed a few in this group the wrong way and they were going to put the hurt on some young hotshot further up the mountain. Don't mess with experience. 


I made ground on the first real ascent up to Wushe, but lost it just as fast when I couldn't shake the cramp in my left calf. I surrendered and pulled into the Wushe 7-11 to stock up on liquids. You see, I had been sipping on water that had been sitting in my bottles for almost a week. I had erroneously assumed we would be stopping at a 7-11 before the race...just like before. Nope! We simply went to the middle of nowhere and waited. 

With water bottles filled with something better than brackish water and a good stretch, I was back on the road. With a 39-tooth crank, I couldn't help but make time, despite being overmatched for my level of fitness and training. I did briefly consider ditching the race at Wushe and heading off for a lovely ride down the Route 88 to Wujie, but pride kept me in the saddle on a course set for the top. 


It was all pretty ho-hum up the lower ramps, which is where suddenly, in the middle of the pack, the ride turns into a grunting crawl. The action is so slow that a heavy cloud of B.O. lingers over the roadway making for an unpleasant climb if you are anywhere within 10 meters of another rider. All that stank just hangs there and you are unable to move away fast enough. 

I skipped over the lower water and feed stations feeling pretty good on my morning while making time calculations based on elevation and memory. 


Left and right riders were stopping to stretch, rest, pee or smoke. The 7-11 proved to be a popular hang out for many riders who were lacking the energy to continue. 


I felt some fatigue, but I was still climbing at a pretty good pace-- good enough for a respectable time. The views were staggering. I had been preparing for a day of clouds and sprinkles, but the sky was crystal clear. 


The open view of the ridge line is a heart breaker. 


The torture was enough to elicit an unfriendly gesture (in the UK) from some participants as I snapped photos on my way up. 


I had passed 2000 meters and it was almost as if someone had instantly pulled out my batteries. 


I needed to stop and stretch my back...then my hamstrings...then my calves.


I was grinding up the hill on old muscles; muscles that had been built up years before, but nothing new. I had no endurance and kept wondering how much longer it was going to take. 


I thought about calling it a day and letting the team know I would be waiting for them in Ching-jing or Puli or Taichung. Still I kept grinding upward. "It is the altitude fucking with you", I kept telling myself over and over again. Hell, it probably was. 


I knew the team bus was waiting in Kun-yang. If I could only get to Kun-yang I could accept my defeat and declare a DNF. 


I knew my time was well beyond disappointing for a competitor like myself. I watched larger and then smaller waves of riders slip on past up the mountain and I was a touch jealous at the ease in which they were able to climb. 

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Te first riders started dropping from Wuling with their time certificates in hand, while I was still well below the death ramps of Kun-yang.


The roadside carnage was mounting as the shoulder began to fill with hobbling and disabled riders. 


I stopped to rest and snap a few pictures. I figured a few more minutes wouldn't make that much of a difference at that point, so I might as well record it. 


Just under Kun-yang the road lifts up like the rungs of a ladder-- one lane stacked upon the next. 


On the last ramp to the Kun-yang parking lot, I was forced to hike. Yes, I was walking my bike up the penultimate ramp on the mountain. 

For my teammates this was the ultimate vision of absurdity. After I had finished at the front of just about every other clime we had done together, I was suddenly the picture of futility and defeat... almost. 

They delighted, this one time, in my moment of painful despair and I played along with it because I knew better. It is a sight I hope they can chew on and enjoy for a little while. 

I almost put my bike down and for the day... but that is not what I am about. I could see the finish line within a kilometer up ahead, so clenched my jaw and slung my leg back over the seat with the deep tightness in my muscles pulling my body apart. 


It was a slow grind up the final ramps before the road levelled off at the finish line. 


The clouds that had been threatening the ride all morning had finally pulled a foggy hood over the pass and the temperatures dropped. 


Riders were milling around, taking pictures with the famous sign, smoking, and some were even tang in some extra oxygen. My final score was a lowly 5hr and 50min.


I was lucky. I had made it. There was one fatality on the day as one 33yo. rider succumbed to cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead later in the afternoon.


While my team and other riders who know me or have followed my riding when I have been healthy, might make light of my less than impressive time, I sorely rode away with the victory I had been looking for. 

Almost one year ago I was unable to climb out of bed. I could barely walk let alone stand for any more than five minutes. I was in a state of excruciating pain for over three solid weeks and constant pain for the better part of a year. I was forced to give p all forms of exercise for eight months and even wondered if I would ever be able to ride a bike again with or without pain. 

I have been slowly training my body back into shape. This all happened at the worst possible time in my life to get back into shape, but now that I have put this mountain beneath me, I don't see any reason why I can't continue to train and bring myself back to where I was at my peak. 

My team is already on notice: Next Year!



  1. Congrats Andrew! Funny, but I decided to head back over the mountains to Hualine as I missed the views the first time around. I've only just put 2 and 2 together but I must have passed you en route. Could have waited around at the finish had I have realized sooner.

    Well done on reaching the top buddy! ill drop you an email soon about my trip!


  2. Nice riding, you finished and did not DNF. Great pics. Back in the saddle again. Good to see your health returning.