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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Overcoming A Challenge: Taiwan's KOM Breakthrough to Worldwide Recognition


By the late morning on October 20, the sixth edition of the Taiwan KOM Challenge winner circle was in the books while the remaining masochists on two wheels lurched toward the summit of Wuling Pass for several more hours. The effort may have been an immediate triumph for those fortunate enough to stand a meter or two above the 3275m summit atop a small wooden podium, it was also a victory for each participant brave, dumb or crazy enough to commit their names and bodies to the event.

More than this, it was a triumph for the event as a race in general.

For well over a decade Wuling has played host to numerous locally sanctioned, and some not so sanctioned, hill climb events from both sides of the mountain. Most of these events had been organized (and dis-organized) by local cycling clubs. With the explosion in recreational cycling beginning in 2006, the strain on organizers, infrastructure and interests groups threatened to turn any Wuling climbing event into a dangerous Tour de-farce. I recall a couple of events where traffic control was pulled while hundreds of riders remained on the roadway. Other events were held with dangerously low levels of medical support.

In 2012, just as Wuling rides had reached a critical mass, the inaugural Taiwan KOM Challenge was held as an open event with only 380 riders of all levels scrapping for the same prize--a KOM jersey and about $USD2600 for the men...and about $USD330 for women. The initial run was a mere 100km, and was won by the Danish rider, John Ebsen, who has essentially been adopted by Taichung as a hometown hero.

Thinking back, it was a really big deal. Ebsen held off some Protour riders with grand tour pedigree in Jeremy Roy, with other top contenders in Anthony Chartreau, Peter Pauly and the former Tour of Taiwan GC winner, David McCann.

For Taiwanese who constantly have to struggle for international visibility against China's desire to have Taiwan's lands, peoples, cultures and systems subsumed by a neocolonialism with Chinese characteristics, the attention and recognition by an accomplished anybody from abroad who can recognize Taiwan as an entity in and of itself is already enough to make headlines. This was pretty sweet stuff in 2012.

For 2017, the Taiwan KOM turned things up to eleven. The freshly minted 2017 race was built upon the nearly 600 participants who threw themselves at that mountain for 106km, with over half arriving from abroad to compete.  In six short years the event has broken away from being a scrappy local race into the punctuation mark at the end of the international cycling season.

This year the Taiwan KOM was won by Vincenzo Nibali (3:19), the stringy Italian who made his name as a tenacious climber in the 2010 Giro di Italia and has spent the past seven years battling at the head of the GC leaderboards of all the grand tours with GC victories in each of the big three. Nibali is seen as one of the most talented riders of the post-Armstrong era... and he chose to close out his season in Taiwan. Its is enough to make any cyclist in Taiwan get all rosy cheeked. The fact that one of Nibali's major sponsors at Bahrain-Merida is a major Taiwan bicycle manufacturer may have been the nudge he needed to postpone his vacation until late October.

"It was a hard race because we went from sea level up to 3,275 metres. I've never ridden such a long and hard climb before in my entire life," Vincenzo Nibali--Cycling News

The second and third spot were taken by dueling KOM winners Oscar Pujol and John Ebsen with Cameron Piper, Edmund Bradbury and the famously unretired Phil Gaimon in the final podium spot.

Moreover, cleaning up at the 10th spot was the 40yo. Cadel Evans, the winner of the 2011 Tour de France, which is one of my favorites of recent memory. The retired Aussie, who now serves as a brand ambassador for BMC, was treated to tea with President Tsai Ing-wen.

Taiwan's Peng Yuan-tang finished 17th as Taiwan's top finisher.

The women's race was again headlined by the former British road racing champion, Emma Pooley, who successfully defended her title in a resounding fashion with a gritty 3:52. Pooley led a near British sweep of the women's podium with Hayley Simmonds and Emily Collinge in the second and third steps. Claudia Lichtenberg from Germany held up the fourth position with Brit Helen Jackson and the Japan's 51yo. sensation Yukari Nakagome in the sixth spot.

Aside from the illustrious resumes and glittering palmares held by the top participants, what really stood out about this year's race was parity between the men's and women's categories. While men's sports in general tends to  use guidelines taken from the Old Testament when appraising the value of a woman, the initial 2012 running of the Taiwan KOM saw a naked disparity between the awards in the male and female categories. In recent years the monetary value has increased, but the disparity remained. Until this year the women's winner could take home $USD6600, while he men's winner could claim approximately $USD30,000 in prize money. The 2017 Taiwan KOM set a major precedent in establishing parity in the prize money awarded, setting the amount at $USD16,000 each.

But the KOM is an unusual race. Not only does it seek parity in gender, it also is open to any rider willing to pony up the entrance fee and make the time to race on a Friday. While they have an elite level, like a Grand Fondo, there is nothing to stop Joe and Mary Saturday from making a charge for glory at the finish line at Wuling Pass if they can qualify during the Road to KOM races during the Spring and Summer. If I  had not just come back from three months off the bike, I may have thrown my hat into the ring just to have a semi-factual tale to tell about racing against Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali and Emma Pooley. I wouldn't have been lying.

It has been a real source of pride as a cyclist in Taiwan to watch as we give our gift of Wuling to the world and the world fully accepts it.

There are no caveats about Wuling. It is not a hard ride "for an Asian race". It is a hard ride for any race. And for Taiwanese it adds a dash of validation that we are "world class".

Aside from the topography and participants who really make the KOM, a lot of the credit needs to be handed to the event organizers. They have done a fantastic job in transforming this event and this mountain into something more than Taiwan's local favorite. The Taiwan KOM is gaining the mythic status often reserved for European monuments like the Alpe d' Huez, the Iozard and the Galibier.

Moore than that, to top off the goodness from this year's event. The race organizers were even able to lure GCN, the professional cycling broadcasting outfit to Taiwan to televise Taiwan's KOM. The entire thigh snapping spectacle can be viewed in English HERE.

Yes, this is more than a bike race. This is Taiwan's soft power hard at work. With full televised coverage of the KOM, cyclists around the world can watch the image of Taiwan as a mere production facility dissipate into the thin alpine air to be replaced with enough of a dream to entice one more rider to take the next step in discovering the complexity and beauty of Taiwan. Lets face it, recreation cycling is an industry built of fantasy and Taiwan is just learning how to tap its potential.


For anyone sick of the KOM coverage, here is a link to another type of ride in Taiwan.
The intrepid Michael Turton from the View from Taiwan has a fantastic piece from Taiwan's East Coast.