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Dragons Tour 2014 - Return to the Feared Central Cross Highway

posted 20 Mar 2014, 22:49 by HK Dragons Triathlon Club
This review from Dragon Sheel Kohli is reproduced here but many more photos are on the Dragons Facebook Page

It is spring in Hong Kong, which means only one thing: the Dragons return to tour. Some to build on fitness, some to get fit after long Christmas, New Year and Lunar New year celebrations - and some to hone their skills as the early triathlon and cycling racing season starts. It is a tradition that has been regularly played out over the last four years – and never without incident. The 5th edition would be the same….

There was already a lot of trepidation. The advertised route promised over 500km of riding over 4 solid days, and over 10,800m of total elevation. It would mean scaling the highest road point in North East Asia and dealing with the notoriously unpredictable Taiwan weather. Three previous Dragon’s tours to Taiwan have suffered from terrible rain, that have turned roads into rivers, and stripped bare previously well-lubricated chain sets. The one tour we did not do in Taiwan was in the scorching heat of Thailand, with the drink stop that never came, massive dehydration and more (but that’s another story…). Yes the Dragons tour has never been one for the casual rider.
17 boys and 1 brave girl gathered at Hong Kong Airport for the short flight to Taichung on the western seaboard of Taiwan, where we were met by the ever efficient Cam of InMotion Asia.
A brief drive to The Tango hotel saw us quickly assemble bikes and find the last chip shop and pub open nearby for a brief night cap (extra bit of fortification?) before the days ahead.
Day One – The Central Foothills & Sun Moon Lake – 135km, 2310m of elevation gain
About to set off and the weather gods played their usual trick – with torrential rain hitting the pavement outside our hotel. Not again, we thought, but this time luck was on our side, and after taking a short 35 minute drive to our official start point – the tour began. The air was cool, the rain had subsided, with only some mild drizzle, and the gradients were not too taxing as we went on a lovely rolling ride, into the Taiwan countryside. But we did not have it all our own way – within the first hour we hit ‘mechanical city’ with Cam’s new mechanic Zack rushing  to find work arounds for a broken rear derailleur, a broken spoke and 2 punctures. A bit of drama but nothing terminal and soon everyone was back on the road
Justin in Triumph

Taiwan is a beautiful country, with smooth roads, cabbage fields, rivers, little traffic and highly courteous drivers - it really could not be more different from Hong Kong. It was nice to be back. We all reached the last rest stop before the hotel in good spirits, overlooking Sun Moon Lake, wolfing down fruit and energy bars and ready for our fast descent into Puli, the geographical centre of Taiwan. We ended as usual, with the obligatory sprint at the end. A warm welcome greeted us at The Solas resort, with big rooms, big beds and a hot spa on tap in each room. A long soak, and a quick change later and we were off to gorge ourselves on great Taiwanese fare, washed down with the ubiquitous Taiwan beer. Day One done - the ride had been rolling but it’s trajectory was upwards - we had just climbed over 2300m. Everyone was in high spirits and safe and sound. Not an easy ride, and maybe a bit harder than expected, but manageable and a nice warm up for the days ahead.

Day Two - Puli to Wuling Peak to Taroko Gorge - 142km, 3,274m of elevation gain

The mood was distinctly different on the morning of Day Two. We all knew what lay ahead. The Western Assault on Wuling Peak is never for the faint hearted. At breakfast, people were already fretting about what to wear - “Are short sleeves and shorts enough? How many extra layers should we pack into the SAG wagons so we can grab them on the way up? Oh no - I have only got a 28 tooth cassette, maybe I should have picked up that 32 when I had the chance?” - were some of the comments heard. Fuelling the fear were stories of the first Dragons tour in 2010, which also scaled the Western route to the summit of Wuling and on which Cam reminded everyone witnessed the worst weather he has ever experienced on tour, which combined with the average 8% gradients made for a very tough ride.

Day Two
Thankfully, this day, it was not raining, and the forecast was clear, but weather changes rapidly when you are on a mountain - and we all knew that. The western approach to Wuling is the toughest climb to take. It is short and sharp and can be highly dispiriting because as you get higher and higher the road becomes steeper and steeper as it nears the summit, and although the weather began to close in near the top, it was clear enough to see the road snaking ahead in front of us, going inexorably up, up, up…

Stopping for lunch 8km from the summit it was cold, and we were already diving into the van, adding layers, stripping off to add vests under jerseys, tights under shorts, full finger gloves instead of finger-less. That last 8km was a grind, with the mist closing in and the wind beginning to howl as the trees gave way to short brush vegetation, leaving the road more exposed to the elements. There is a switchback just 2km from the top that I will always remember: cadence down to about 45rpm, speed at 10-11 km/h, the road stretches out ahead and then banks left, with the mist all around and visibility poor, you see the bend just as you have to make the turn, and realise that your 8% gradient is about to kick up to 12% in a matter of 3-5 metres. At that point you either stop, fall over or power through. Most of us managed to push through, but at that point it was already becoming clear this was not going to be an average ride.

At the top there was joy - we had just ridden 56km uphill. It was great to be there, but our happiness at reaching the summit was slightly tempered by the fact that we had taken 4 hours to travel less than 60km and there was still another 90km to go. Thankfully however, it was downhill  - and what a descent! 

Billed as one of the “longest descents on the planet”, it is pin your ears back and fly territory. If you had carbon wheels and worn out brakes this was not the route to choose, and just for added fun it was peppered with no less than 50 or so small (and 1-2 long) tunnels, a few of which had no lights at all, and would helpfully bend in the middle, so you could not see the end of the tunnel, and without good, strong lights were at risk of crashing into the wall. As we gazed downwards, about to plunge down the mountain - we noticed a rather pretty looking sea of cloud half way down, which we knew we had to pass through to get home. Racing towards it was fine, until we hit it - at first, the temperature just seemed to cool slightly and the humidity rose, but in fact the rate at which the temperature began to drop and the humidity increased was exponential. My Garmin indicated that the temperature fell from 11 degrees celsius to 2 degrees in just 15 minutes as we tore into the cloud; with windchill we were definitely riding in sub-zero conditions. Travelling sometimes at up 60km/h or more in the freezing cold was a shock to the system. I was wearing three layers and might as well have been wearing one, the cold wet air biting straight through all the best windstopping
technology the cycle clothing manufacturers all like to boast about. Some of us did not make it and bundled into the van; others stopped - shivering uncontrollably while taking on food; a few found some friendly villagers, who taking pity on these weird gweilos from Hong Kong who apparently had chosen to ride down this hill, on this day and in these conditions, literally built a wood fire, and invited them to sit round it, to get warm. As I tried to ride as fast as I could down the hill, I could feel my front wheel wobbling, not because it was loose though, but because my upper body was shivering so much, it was shaking the wheel as I descended. It was a relief to finally get through it and enter the beautiful Taroko gorge area. Check out the Dragons FB page to see some some of the most spectacular, staggering and beautiful cliff and rock formations. You will also see that photos of that cloud and that fire. A world heritage site, the stunning beauty of Taroko is definitely worth visiting again  - not necessarily on a bike - and is highly recommended.

Finally we got to our hotel, with Cam playing a little joke by ensuring that our place of rest for the night was at the top of a 2km climb - the Aboriginal style Leader Village on the Buluowan Plateau. Day Two done after more than 7 hours in the saddle. There was not so much laughter that night. A few tales of bravery, but a lot of grimacing about the hard climb and the freezing descent, and some worried faces, because tomorrow we were about to go back the way we came!! The verdict: the toughest ride that many of us had ever done.

Day Three - The Taiwan KOM - 103km, 3,418m of elevation gain

There is a race in Taiwan, that is becoming increasingly popular and global in nature, which sees every November, several hundred people, race - not ride - but race up to the top of Wuling Peak, taking the reverse of the route we did on our descent. It starts off nice and gentle with no more than 1-2% gradients, but becomes increasingly tougher until the last 9km, when racers hit a section know as ‘The Wall’ - at that point, there is nothing less than 10%, with one stretch of road pitching up to 27% over just 300m.

The weather was kinder to us that day. The sun shone and it was largely pleasant on the way up. Even passing through the previous day’s freezing cloud, proved not so difficult. It was warmer, there was more sunshine, and I suppose after yesterday, we knew what to expect. As we passed through the cloud we bathed in the warmth of the sun’s rays again and even as we saw the road rising above us as we gradually climbed the mountain, the relative shallowness of the gradient, meant that he task at hand did not seem so daunting. We arrived at our final rest top at Dayuling, just before the summit in good spirits. We’d stopped lots of times on the way, taken pictures, made friends with the locals, and we suddenly felt a bit more relaxed about reaching the top. (see the FB page).

But if we thought yesterday’s ascent and freezing descent was tough, the climb up that last 9km was much harder! The road is completely unforgiving and designed to test even the most powerful legs or most determined riders. Think of Mount Austin and almost quintuple it for length and add 50% more for gradient. It is like the Austin corner for 4km. And of course, just to add to the experience, the weather again closes in at the top, and the winds howls down the road, blowing hard against you as you are trying to climb. There is no question of trying to scale this hill by going straight - you have to use every hill climbing trick in the book: standing up, serpentining, taking the outer corner on every bend - and just pushing every sinew to haul you and bike to the top. It was so cold when we got up there, there was no-one to greet us - instead everyone had just charged straight to the SAG wagon to huddle together and get warm. We were cold, there were icicles on eyebrows and on arm warmers, and bodies were shaking - but we were happy! 

From there it was another lovely fast descent to Cingjing, where again Cam ensured he had booked a hotel at the top of a hill. Again the rooms were nice and roomy with this time jacuzzi bathtubs on each balcony. We were getting used to this - a day of hard riding and then a long soak in the tub! That night dinner was at a Yunnan-style restaurant. Hot soup, minced pork on cabbage leaves, steamed rice and lots of other great dishes, washed down of course by lots and lots and lots of beer. We went to bed happy. No crashes, most people’s bikes intact, and all knowing we had broken the back of the tour and the rest was going to be relatively easy.

Day Four - Taiwan Central Foothills - 126km, 1,811m of elevation gain

Today was going to be fun - we would descend down the rest of the mountain and then plunge into a little used nature reserve that Cam was trying us out on. “You are my guinea pigs” he said at the day’s pre-ride briefing. The route we were going to try was the Aowanda National Forest Recreation Area. It was glorious to ride through roads where you got the impression that the Peloton constituted most of the traffic that road had seen for a while. Even the dogs were a bit surprised to see so many people on the road at the same time. The climbs were relaxing and the scenery was interesting as we descended into the depth of the valley and crossed the now familiar huge floodplains that are a common feature of central Taiwan, formed over years of continuous flooding and storms during Taiwan’s treacherous typhoon season.

The last climb out of the nature reserve took us to the top of the hill above Puli, the mathematical geographical centre of Taiwan - and what a descent! Exhilarating and slightly terrifying at the same time. While nothing like the three hour descent of two days ago, it was still fast and furious with the speedo climbing to almost 65km/h on my machine and even higher on others. The bumpiness of the road conditions and the regular cattle grates added to the experience, with a few people - myself included - having to stop to go back and rescue bottles that had shaken loose from the incessant jarring from the road.

It was fast and fun. We were riding together now, climbing up the hills, racing down the descents, and time trialling the flats. when we reached the top of the final climb of the day, it was difficult not to smile. What a ride! We pedalled gently back to our last stop, another much anticipated hot springs located - of course - at the top of a hill (Cam was enjoying himself…).

Day Four done and the tour was complete. Fun was had by all and some personal records broken. I had never been so high (vertically) in my life on a bike, and also probably never so cold! Can’t wait for the next one!!