The silence of the mountains is unique. As a kid I grew up by the ocean, on the ocean. The ocean is restless, noisy, like a schizoid dog. Not so the mountain. A bit like a cat, it sits, broods, and judges. Unlike a cat, though, it is a formidable beast.
I have an ambivalent relationship with this particular mountain, this He Huan Shan–ha, don’t we all? Sitting 1000m or so below its summit that tops out at 3,400m as the dawn rolls on, you are folded up in the sound of its absolute silence.
And then some wannabe Valentino Rossi spurts around the corner on his Fireblade. Dude, at least do it on a Harley.
There’s a different kind of pleasure to be had here, in between these fossil-fueled interruptions, as we wait for the leading group of elite riders to entertain us with their dance on the slopes. The other, perverse, kind of pleasure is what we’ve come to witness on this fine morning.
I’ve ground my way upwards (never been able to waltz with any convincing elegance with this beast of a hill) many more times than I’ve sat in the early morning chill brooding along with the leviathan. Much less grinding and much more chillin’ will mark my future here.
We sit and just soak it all up as the silence is also disturbed by exposure settings tests on the 50m of tarmac falling away below us. Click, whirr, buzz. Just like the drivetrains of the suffering souls climbing towards us.
Word comes from the lead car that the lead group, a select group of Taiwan’s best climbers had transited Mei Fong at around the 35km mark, although we eagerly anticipating support and photo folk waiting at Yuan Fong some 8km below the finish, should stand by for a bit of a surprise.
What the hell could that mean? Had the lads in fact scheduled a smoke and a pint at Cui Fong, a little further up the road, before high-fives all round and heading out to knock over the final 15 kms? (Not absolutely unheard of, amongst the non-elite riders at any rate).
In one sense there was no surprise as they chugged into view. The ubiquitous Lee Rodgers was giving last year’s Wuling Cup champion, Zhu Fan-Xin due cause to think this year will be different and “how the *$*% am I going to reel him in this time!”
But the real surprise was these guys had been well and truly dropped by Wang Yin-Zhi, who went on to win fairly emphatically by 2 minutes, had smoked ’em all and breezed by us without a care in the world. 1st on the day in 2hrs48, 2 min ahead of the second place getter. Talk about sock it to ya.
Here he is in clean air, massaging the mountain’s silence like he’s on just another ride. Which is one way to deal with it; it was not the way the hapless souls that followed him dealt with it, apart from the odd exception.
Maybe an even bigger surprise was Fraser Young who had lost touch with this group and appeared to be making heavy weather of it as he passed Yuan Fong.
He had blown everyone away on Tatajia earlier in the season, briskly demolishing the grades as he was chased by a questing Zhu Fan-Xin who may well have started to think by this event that success in 2012 would be exceedingly hard won. Fan-Xin’s second place in that event was mirrored in his second place today.Seems like Fraser is contemplating giving it another go on the much more crowded “Never Stop” assault, literally, on the mountain coming up soon.
Their chasers in turn all know this hill. Attacking is a great form of defense they say. So attack they do. No matter if you feel like you’re about to throw up. You wouldn’t give this beast the satisfaction though, not that these warriors look even slightly green about the gills.
William Zhuang came on by not long after on his way to an M15 first place which put him in 15th place overall. A canny operator, last week’s training belied his plan for this week. The day trippers were cycling past him thinking “Fancy outfit…looks like he’s all in to me.”
He’s like that. Having finished today, he zips back down to the car at Yuan Fong, polishes off some Chicken Wine Soup (don’t ask…) and some instant noodles, fires up his Samsung tablet and plugs into his music. All in a day’s work.
Last week he paced himself “just getting the legs tuned up”. Today he logs a personal best of 3hrs 4min, 13 min faster than last year, which sets up a sub 3 hour ride next time around. His trophy room will be accommodating the Wuling Cup in the not too distant future.
Another one of our riders, Simon Li, powered his way to a year’s PB on the hill. He claimed 1st place in the M40 category and has called his building contractor to discuss plans for another trophy room. . .
With 8km to go Simon zips past the last supply spot we had set up and heads for the line traveling light. Another guy actually handed in his last remaining banana to us. In a haze of pain he held it out: “Excuse me, would you mind taking this…”
If you wondering what the fuss is really about, have a close look at the ramp that Greg has just come up in pretty fine style I’ve got to say. A chest infection this week resulted in him dropping 5 min on his PB of 3hrs 28. There’s several of these morale-sapping inclines before the punters reach this particular one, although it takes the cake as being the most wicked.
“Welcome to Taroko Gorge National Park” it says just over on the right as you hang a sharp left, pass the 3000m mark and set your sights on the finish some 3km ahead. Those park officials have a well developed sense of irony.
Rui Xiang didn’t have his best day, clocking 3hrs30 and 7th in the M20 division. But he sure did it in style for someone who does not excel in the mountains particularly vicious ones like this.
Mark, Taiwan’s original expat cyclist, clocked a 3hr 50min climb last time round. Since then he’s had a bad year with a series of colds blowing his overall condition to hell. In the eight weeks prior to this year’s event he determined to prepare by cycling 4,500km in 45 days, a feat duly accomplished. It earned him a sub 4hr ride which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Today he was 8min off last year’s pace and just outside the top six in the M50 division. Not so shabby considering his recent poor form. “I’m back” he announces, “I’m back…!!” Lookout Alishan a podium finish is in the tealeaves.
Taiwan’s premier cyclist on an age-adjusted basis is probably Zhu Yi-Ping who today caught me by surprise. Is that a grimace or a smile? Knowing him it’s a smile.
In a fluster I hit the button anticipating him to be right on center and then he’s gone by me to casually glides out of the saddle and stroke out that fluid mountain-climbing cadence that always nails him top spot for M50 (where they have it) and a sub 3hr 30min ride every time. Missed shooting all that dammit.
Once he guys had returned from the pass and showered down in Cing Jing we head back to the bottom to see about official places. And then a first. We run into–almost literally let me tell you–a convoy of no less than a dozen lumbering hummers hammering their way up the mountain. A year’s worth of mid-East oil production getting vaporized on our sacred mountain. We continue on down and leave her to cope with these intruders on her own terms (you would not want to be rolling over some of the wobbly sections of road up high in one of those).
The Wuling climb. Sometimes it is about the bike. Sometimes it is not about the bike. Whichever it is on they day, it will hold a mirror up to you that you can’t avoid looking into.
The truth will out, as they say. The truth of this mountain for every rider was clearly written on every face. The fantasy entertained is”I can improve on this…next time”. Memories fade, the fantasy grows stronger. One thing’s for sure, without the dream, there is no truth.
Until next year. . .