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Friday, March 13, 2015

Tour de Tai-yawn 2015: The Reality and Fantasy of Taiwan's Marquee Stage Race


With the sheen of fresh raindrops on newly paved roads, we are again reminded that March has arrived with it, and with it comes the beginning of the road cycling calendar-- an opportunity to scrunch up in front of the laptop at odd hours to occasionally swat away pop-up ads that regularly appear at key moments of any given race on the European circuit. It is a time when the demands of family life must pause for a key section of cobbles or the official word on the dismemberment of Tom Boonen-- cycling's own Mr. Glass. The soggy farms of the Ardenne, the Spring drizzle of San Remo, the swirling colors of the ebb and flow in the peloton as it bears down on every red-roofed town to devour all the road furniture on the way to Nice, Flanders or Roubaix.  From Taiwan, it is a world that feels more like an echo across the oceans through the distant lens of a periscope.

For a few days every March, Taiwan plays host to its very own UCI stage race. It is an opportunity for Taiwan to show the world its passion for cycling as the self proclaimed "Kingdom of Bicycles" and to share with both professional cyclists and amateur enthusiasts alike, why Taiwan can offer so much to the sport. And every March the cyclists of Taiwan are subjected to another annual embarrassment that diminishes the nation's reputation as a location for top tier cycling. It leaves us having to explain to outsiders that our insistence of Taiwan's ranking among the world's most challenging and rewarding locations to ride and race is not simple hyperbole. The names like Wuling and Tatajia should be uttered in the same reverent tones as Zoncolan and Galibier.

Instead of a coveted spot on the cycling calendar, the Tour of Taiwan plays little more than a blip on the schedule for the Asian continental teams. This is not to detract from these racers who are making their deserved payday, but rather, to reward these riders with a tour of Taiwan's finest in water stained concrete box construction is disingenuous to the competitors  their dedication to training and to their competitive edge that sets them apart from schmoes like me. The only respite this time around is The KOM stage of the Tour de Taiwan, which will be a climb out of Sun Moon Lake to Tatajia. This is significant as it marks the first real significant climb in this race and may be the only stage worth a damn. Admittedly, when I first glanced at the stage I had mistakenly assumed that the KOM would be merely the climb out of Sun Moon Lake. Judging from previous tours, it was not such a ridiculous proposition.  

Still, this Tour de Taiwan will need emergency services on stand-by in case riders fall from their bikes, asleep from boredom.

To illustrate my point I will highlight each of the five stages.

Stage 1: (3/22 Taipei-52km)

The first stage of the Tour de Taiwan is a flat 52km stage that is comprised of a 10k circuit from Taipei City Hall, down Ren-ai Rd. and back. The stage will have three opportunities for the sprinters to vie for points. The riders will get up close and personal with the modern Asian city and all the beauty concrete and rebar can provide as a stellar example of Taiwan's dedication to construction and development firms. Each circuit will finish in the shadow of Taipei 101, where they may swing close enough to have verbal (and possibly physical) abuses heaped upon them from the nutty cadre of pro-China welcome wagon at the base of the skyscraper.

Stage 2: (3/23 Taiyuan-137km)

Taoyuan has some very beautiful places.... And Taiyuan has some not so beautiful places. Back in 1998 I was originally going to live in Taoyuan when I arrived in Taiwan, but after a few days in drippy, windy concrete Hell, I moved to Taichung. The second stage of the Tour de Taiwan spends way too much time skirting retention ponds and the gusty coast near all the beauty of the Taoyuan International Airport before leaving the fumes from jet exhaust and crossing the threshold of rural beauty beyond the Highway 3. There are two opportunities to collect KOM points on hills at 255m and 438m. The Dolomites it is not.

Stage 3: (3/24 Changhua 143km)

The Tour de Taiwan will be skipping the Taichung area this year after gaining a reputation for its ridiculous black lung diversion through industrial Ta-chia in an overindulgent hum job past the Giant Corporation.

Instead, the race will start in beautiful downtown Changhua with a quick warmup in the climb up the Highway 74, which is merely a straight shot to the crest of the 139 on Baguashan. The riders will follow the well groomed 139 before dropping onto the most boring section of the Highway 14丙. The peloton will forsake the drop through Songboling or the undulations of the 137, or the routes out to Zhushan, in exchange for an opportunity to compete along another windy snooze of a coastline on the Highway 17 with its views of mudflats and the concrete pillars of the 63 Expressway. The route will follow the 150 through Taiwan's most corrupt township at Erlin and then onto the nondescript Highway 19 (Highway 1 with different industries to gaze at)  before receiving the small gift of a shot across the fantastic Hsiluo Bridge. It is here that the tour organizers make another slip in sending the peloton back home along the Highway 1, Taiwan's gloomy corridor of slapdash concrete, corrugated metal and industrial decay. They completely missed a chance to send them back through the Route 154 to the Highway 3 to the Route 141 and back over Baguashan via several better options. There are also some excellent farm roads that whip and wend through Dunlin County. They might add a few kilometers, but nothing beyond what a professional racer should be asked to accomplish in a stage. Lots of wasted opportunities in Stage 3.

Stage 4: (3/25 KOM 109km)

Stage 4 of the Tour de Taiwan is about the only stage of this race that fills me with a sense of pride. It demonstrates what makes Taiwan such an amazing country to cycle. Unfortunately for the Tour de Taiwan, this is the exception and not the rule.

The KOM stage takes riders on a loop around Sun Moon Lake as the Taiwan Tourism Bureau needs a way to work its heavily marketed tourist attraction into a race, despite the fact that the bicycle trail that is marketed as a cyclist paradise is completely unfit for serious riding. The riders will be afforded the traffic control necessary to make cycling around the lake an enjoyable experience. From the lake the peloton will climb out through the Highway 21 and straight toward a meeting with pain on the ramps to Tatajia. This is as spectacular a place as any to host a stage of a UCI race. There are curves, tunnels and quad busting ramps. It should be fun to see who takes the polkadots on the day.

Stage 5: (3/26 180km)

The fifth and final stage (yes, only five stages this year) will be through the southwestern core of Taiwan. The last stage of the race will be the only stage of any real distance and will start in the hills around the Tsengwen Reservoir. The hills are pretty and there should be some quick climbs and descents in the early stages before rumbling through the gawdawful Tainan/Kaohsiung plain that makes cycling out of those two cities far less enjoyable. The tour organisers had to insert a loop around a Buddha tourist attraction for the sake of tourism. a couple of bumps just over 20m act as opportunities to collect KOM points, but it would seem a bit embarrassing to compete for a KOM on a 22m climb after peaking the day before at a majestic 2571m. I guess you take 'em where you can get 'em.

And that is it. That's all. There is no more. The event starts and ends with a whimper. The action is over just as it starts to get interesting, and that is the sad reality of the Tour de Taiwan. Our moment of international cycling sunshine is annually squandered by the realities of weather, sponsorship, lack of imagination, and the lack of willpower.

One excuse that made its way through the grapevine was that there were concerns in regard to the road conditions and rider safety. A totally valid point, but when we look at the road conditions in the Strade-Bianche with its hardpack, gravel and dust, or the cobbles in Paris-Roubaix, or even the mixed surfaces and freezing weather of the Giro, Taiwan's relatively smooth tarmac is fair-game for UCI race heads to chew on. There is no reason to confine the participants to the industrial slumlands of the Highway 17 or the Highway 1 that is a concrete canyon, second to only the Death Star trench in terms of industrial greyness. With the bounty of good cycling to be had all over Taiwan, there is no reason for anything less than serving up the entire show.

Then again, what could be more Taiwanese than the yearning for a recognition that never comes?

The Tour de Taiwan is What Is. Then we have What Could Be. The Fantasy Tour de Taiwan. What would make a better Tour de Taiwan. 

Here is my solution from a couple years ago: Fantasy Tour de Taiwan.

1. Some other suggestions might be to turn Sun Moon Lake into the location for the Individual Time Trial instead of opening the KOM stage with a loop. This will never happen as it would deny the location to the hordes of Chinese tourists for half the day.  

2. Why in Merckx name is the Highway 26 in Kenting left out of the race? 

3. A Taichung stage with a Daxueshan finish would be nice. 

4. Dunlin County's 154 and other sections of "green tunnel" roads around Douliu and the Highway 3 would be perfect. 

5. Bringing in the islands would be a good start. Even a circuit around Xiao liu qui would be interesting.

Any other ideas?