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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

KOM: Learning Taichung's Best Climbs

With a beautiful gap day mid-week for the Taiwanese Tomb Sweeping holiday, when families head out to the graves of their ancestors to clean them up and preserve the Feng-shui to provide better luck and prosperity for the entire family, a few of us decided to use the day-off to hit the hills around Taichung.

I thought I would use the occasion to treat Chris, a cycling neophyte, to the... ahem...joys of climbing over the fence.

We were joined part of the way by Michael Turton, who was tired from a weekend of heavy riding and only stayed until Dong Shih before swinging back to Tanzi.

In Taichung, "The Fence" is a term often used to describe the rugged foothills that separate Taichung from Nantou County and the Puli Basin. It is also regarded and a training ground for climbers ranging from weekend amateurs to local Pro-Tour favorites.

The Route 129 on Dongshan Rd.(東山路) leads up to the Hsin She (新社) plateau and provides the warm-up climb. It consists of a series of switchbacks that climb like stairs up Zhong Xing Cliff (中興嶺).

This was really a perfect test day for me as I could see how my knee feels while climbing and I could then back off and take periodic stretches.

For Chris this would be an initiation rite.

We made the Hsin She plateau and then polished up on cornering skills diving into the bends of Zhong-he Village (中和村).

The second climb over Baimao Shan (白毛山) is such a bitchin' road. It combines wide, smooth roadways that mix steady grades with graceful arcs of flat recovery space, before squiggling through fruit orchards to the shady peak.

The road then plummets downward in a phantasmagoric descent of tight hairpins that nearly fold on top of each other.

The bike felt perfectly balanced, so I threw myself into the corners. The centrifugal force at the zenith of each arc, opposed only by the rubberized grip of my Contis against the newly laid asphalt, gave the sensation of surfing the rising swell of a wave. Incredible!

Chris heaved himself over the hill and we stopped for a stretch and a sugar boost at the bottom before returning over the Route 136.

From the Puli side the renown of the 136 is for the final third of the climb. It starts out with gentle rollers between 2% and 4%, but then, just as you cross one of the bridges, the road lets you know who's boss.

I danced on my pedals to recover before mashing through the steeper ramps. Because I knew the route, I was mentally prepared for the challenge. I am at about 70% of my pre-injury fitness, so I was not going to set any records. For Chris, it was his first look at this beast and I left him to write his own manual on how to best overcome.

Most of us, at some time or another, have gone a hill too far.

We know the feeling in the legs of blood vessels popping from the calves. We know the fear of the bonk and the worry of having to hike the bike to the top. We fear the fluttering quake of a cramp in the back of the calf or the lower quad, that only fully presents itself as soon as we give up and try to dismount... then fall over to the folly of everyone or no one watching. We have endured the rivers of sweat that fill our eyewear and slosh burning puddles of brine into our eye sockets. We know the burning in the chest.

The 500 meters of 17% grade along the back side of the 136 is this torture. It is a beast. It is an insult against your mother. It is pure hell.

So we do it for fun.

I waited with sick anticipation for Chris at the shack above the steepest section of the climb. As the gap in time grew, I knew that Chris was busy getting his education on the ramps below.

Finally, Chris came storming around the corner in a flurry of motion and sound. He was not going to be defeated by the 136. I joined him and we capped the 136 all a bit worse for wear, but it was over.

After a bit of a breather to bring the color back into his face, Chris could only reflect on his painful, demoralizing climb.... "Fuckin' awesome, dude! I just climbed the 136."

That's what keeps us coming back. To do it and do it again, even better.

I let gravity pull me into Taiping for one last plunge, banking like a sports car through each bend.

We parted in Taiping and I rolled out to meet my wife and daughter at the park, where my little girl took to inspecting the craftsmanship of a fine titanium frame.

Nice ride. Nice day.

My legs feel like they are getting healthy again. When that happens, I don't know what kind of crazy I'll get myself into.

Congratulations Chris, you've entered a strange new world.