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Words: Simon Shoebridge | Images by David J. Toman - Bitan Photo
Taiwan is a mountainous and alpine island. Of its 258 peaks, there are many that stand at more than 3,000m, the height which officially, if somewhat arbitrarily, constitutes high altitude. It is home, too, to the factories that manufacture many of the world’s top bicycle frames and Taiwan has recently witnessed a huge surge in enthusiasm for the sport of road riding. Local authorities have also been bitten by the cycling craze, creating thousands of kilometres of paved, well-lit and interconnected trails that now encircle the country. Riding on the island offers swift transitions, from concrete wastelands to mountains of soaring beauty. Yet perhaps best of all, the country remains an unknown cycling paradise to many outside of Asia.
The city of Taichung, located 190km south-west of the capital, Taipei, was the start and end point for the final Rapha Continental Asia ride of 2012. Lying ahead of us, a gruelling schedule of fierce climbs and steep descents, unbeatable riding that would test both our stamina and strength of spirit.
Our group was comprised of riders from around Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, many new to cycling in Taiwan and blissfully unaware of the challenge the Taiwanese terrain was to present. Our base for the three-day ride was Taroko National Park, home to some of the most arresting landscape on the island, including the famous Taroko Gorge, a natural wonder that welcomes millions of visitors every year.
The highlight of our trip would undoubtedly be the mountain of Hehuan, known locally as Hehuanshan. There are many epic climbs around the world that capture the imagination of riders, yet this one might just surpass them all. Not only is it extremely demanding but its strikingly picturesque single road snakes its way through the jaw-dropping Taroko Gorge before ascending to one of the highest points in the region. With a summit that stands at 3,421m above sea level, it is also home to the highest road pass in Taiwan, at 3,275m. We would approach this climb on two separate days and from two different directions: from the west on day one; and from the east on our third and final day. They would prove to be two extremely contrasting rides.
From the small town of Puli on the west side of the mountain range, the 57km ascent to the summit of Hehuanshan on our first day was exhausting. The 2,700m of climbing, at an average gradient of 6%, included some sections that kicked up to 10-15%. With its blind corners and narrow sections exposing sheer drops, the road leading to the summit of Hehuanshan is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. Its tarmac frequently falls prey to landslides, while for riders there is the small matter of local drivers with a penchant for speed.
They were two hazards that would prove the least of our worries. Our principal problems were the thick fog, plummeting temperatures and driving rain. As conditions continued to deteriorate and the light faded, we were forced to seek shelter on our descent to the east coast town of Hualien, where we were scheduled to spend the night. Huddled in a small, local noodle shop on the side of the mountain, we agreed that the climb had tested our mental resolve and fitness like never before.
If the climb wasn’t challenging enough, we were also forced into an unexpected last-minute change in accommodation, the result of a landslide further down the mountain. After the support van had ferried cold riders to the sanctuary of our new lodgings, everyone was glad to see the end of our first day on the road. Later that night, we sat around the dinner table sharing stories of our first encounter with Hehuanshan.
Two days later, our approach from the east was a lot more forgiving. Clear blue skies and crisp, cool mountain air made for perfect riding conditions. Despite being faced with an even more demanding climb of 70km and 3,000m of ascent, our morale was high and tired legs soon began to feel better with each pedal stroke. Adopting a ‘buddy’ system to pair riders of similar ability, the plan was to ensure no rider was left alone for too long on this formidable mountain.
We started well enough but things quickly changed as groups started to break away and riders became increasingly strung out along the road. Passing through the Taroko Gorge, the climb had an average grade of 6%, with numerous ramps of between 13 and 16%. On the final 5km it delivered the coup de grâce; a soul-crushing gradient of more than 20%. Thankfully, the scenery provided a breathtaking diversion, the lush green and dense native bushland in turn giving way to pine forests in the drier alpine areas. And at the peak, a barren, windswept landscape where neither flora nor fauna dared linger.
Over the top, the descent of Hehuanshan back to the western town of Taichung was stunning. Descending through small shanty towns, where every inch of arable land is well-used, this side of the mountain was more heavily populated and, importantly, offered dry roads and good visibility. The descent was quick and controlled but still bitterly cold. Doing a brisk tempo ride – more through desperation to reach our destination than anything else – the group rode into Taichung thankful the end was in sight. After nine hours in the saddle, we had clocked more than 180km, including more than 3,300m of ascent and 3,600m of descent. As the local beer began to flow, the relief on our faces was evident. We had conquered Hehuanshan and despite – or rather because of – the suffering, had all returned much the stronger for it.
Perhaps because many of the group live in the comfort of urban centres around Asia, this trip connected us with the harshness and raw power of Mother Nature. In the process, we pushed our bodies, minds, and in some cases bikes, to the very limit. And to put Hehuanshan’s stats into some sort of perspective, many of Europe’s most celebrated road climbs pale by comparison: the Passo Dello Stelvio (nearly 25km and around 1,875m of elevation); the Galibier (35km and some 2,100m); Alpe d’Huez (14km and 1,100m); Tourmalet (19km and 1,404m); Mont Ventoux (22km and 1,617m). Taiwan may lack the rich cycling history of Europe but Hehuanshan certainly packs a punch when it comes to challenging and scenic terrain. The cycling gods of Europe have yet to venture to what is, undoubtedly, one of the hidden gems of road riding. If they ever reach Hehuanshan, they’ll find a monster lying in wait for them.