• Lucy Kennedy takes the win at the 2018 Taiwan KOM Challenge (Taiwan KOM Challenge)Source: Taiwan KOM Challenge
Some 600 riders set off every year in October from sea level and climb straight up the mountains of Taiwan, racing to be the first to reach the finish of the 105km race, summiting in thin air at 3,275 metres above sea level.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

30 Oct 2018 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 30 Oct 2018 - 2:26 PM

For Lucy Kennedy and Ben Dyball, both prodigious climbers, the Taiwan KOM challenge is a rare challenge, a climb with seemingly no end in sight and little respite that makes the event unique in road racing.

“This is my second time, and I’ve never done anything like this race,” said Dyball in a conversation with Cycling Central. “One day and one climb, it’s just brutal and everything has to go right on the day or you’ve come a long way for nothing.”

Kennedy echoed Dyball’s sentiments in a separate interview, with the one-day race offering even more allure than some sanctioned events on the UCI racing calendar.

“It’s the longest, hardest climb you can do on a road bike,” said Kennedy, “that’s the appeal to me. I’ve never been to Taiwan, it was supposed to be a really cool place… and it is! The prize money is also really big, which is definitely a drawcard.”

Kennedy took out $22,000 AUD before tax and expenses, with Dyball pocketing an amount closer to $10,000 AUD. Such amounts are not unheard of in Asia, particularly on the men’s side of the sport, but money is normally split between the rest of the team, whereas the Taiwan KOM is an individual event. 

The race is run in a mass participation style, with all the riders no matter their division starting in the same group, with the minority of female competitors mixing it up alongside the men, something rarely seen outside of club racing.

“It’s a mass start of 750 riders and there’s a neutral of 18 km,” said Kennedy. “It was pretty relaxed, it’s not like a World Tour race, where everyone’s jostling anyway. Then it goes nuts as they release you from neutral, with a lot of riders fighting for position and there were a few crashes, unfortunately, one of the other female professionals, Haley Simmonds (WNT-Rotor), got taken out.”

The initial sections of the course are quite easy, with 30km of false flat uphill until the road begins to tilt upwards more severely, with the mountains looming in the distance. The variety in abilities of the riders mean that riders are constantly being dropped from the back of the main group, with World Tour riders mixed in among those just out to test themselves. One professional in particular took it upon himself to make the race hard.

"Jan Bakelants (AG2R) started riding quite hard midway through the race," Dyball said. “He whittled the field down until there were less than five guys left with 15 kilometres to go. Once Jan started riding, it was in that really uncomfortable range where you feel like you might about to be dropped, but it’s more of a mind game thing, which the altitude makes that much harder.”

Kennedy was fighting her own personal battle in the race, matched up with former world time trial champion Emma Pooley, who was also the defending champion of the race. The two are physically very different, so much so that it would seem impossible that they would be direct competitors on the bike, but they fought out a tough battle on the slopes in Taiwan.

“One guy got on the front and blew the race to bits,” Kennedy said, “at that point, I knew that Emma Pooley was the only other woman around and I saw her at the front going for it. Basically, I had to stick around the front and make sure I lasted longer than Emma did.

“I stayed a bit longer than her before the elastic snapped, but when I was dropped, I was completely by myself and had to do essentially a 40-kilometre time trial to the top.”

“When the road bent, I could see Emma in a group behind me, so I thought they’d probably catch me, but they never did and the gap just increased slowly and I was able to take the win.”

Dyball had proved himself one of the best climbers in the pack by hanging onto the acceleration of Bakelants, but wasn’t able to overcome John Ebsen (Forca-Amskins), who took out his third Taiwan KOM win after the pair fought out a tough battle on the final slopes.

“When you have to do everything for yourself it shows who is capable of what really,” Dyball said. “There’s no teamwork, you organize everything yourself… it’s a different type of satisfaction in this event.”

It has been the best season of Dyball’s career to date, with the Australian climber having shown a great deal of talent, with many suggesting that a WorldTour berth would be more suitable for someone of his abilities. Variance in results has arguably been Dyball’s Achilles heel but 2018 saw a top season which has the Sydneysider ranked second in the UCI Asia Tour standings.

“This has been my first proper, full season in the Asia Tour and it was my goal to be consistent,” Dyball said. “I’ve been on the podium for GC in every single race but one. It was even better than expected.

“Once I got the Langkawi podium, it gave me back the belief that I could podium in these big events. It was one of the biggest tours I raced, with the best field. To still be in that race against World Tour pros, I almost couldn’t believe that after the race I was still third overall.”

Mixing it up for the win against those World Tour and Pro Continental teams will drive Dyball into 2019 with the 29-year-old set to mix an Asian focus with selected appearances in Australia.

“I’d like to have another crack at the Asia Tour next year and try and win an HC Tour overall. I was close at Langkawi, that’s going to be my main goal for next year," he said.

“The nationals and Grafton are probably my two favourite Australian races, both are unpredictable and it takes a really good ride to win them. I’ll have to see if I can race them this year, nationals will be hard as I’ll have a break after the Tour of Fuzhou in November.”

For Kennedy 2019 was also a breakout season of sorts. Few who have followed her results in Australia would be surprised that she has been a key player in flashes during her neo-professional season with Australian outfit Mitchelton-Scott. Those moments of Kennedy showing her talent - at races like Strade Bianche, where she finished fifth, and the world championships, where she destroyed the peloton to set up Spratt’s move for an eventual silver medal - have been overshadowed by repeated crashes, breaking both her collarbones in separate instances.

“It feels good to be at the end of the season, a lot of ups and downs, probably more so downs,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a good couple of races to finish things off with worlds and this.

“Obviously there were parts that I didn’t enjoy but I still really enjoyed the year as a whole. It was a big challenge but the team were awesome, both the riders and the staff, they were really great through the hard times.”

“Strade Bianche was a bit of a surprise for everyone, including me, and I think from that point on other teams seemed to recognise me as a climber, so I was never really able to be under the radar.”

The world championships saw Kennedy racing in an odd dichotomy, she was either at the front of the peloton putting in strong efforts, or dangling at the back, clearly trying to avoid any potential falls.

“After the crashes I’ve had, it definitely takes some time to get used to being back in the bunch again,” explained Kennedy. “That’s time I haven’t really had, and it’s definitely something I need to work on. Hopefully next year I can string some more races together, grow my confidence and have a very different season.”

The good news is that despite the crashes and resulting time off the bike in recovery, Kennedy was able to show that she has the ability to match it with the top cyclists in the world.

“I think physically I’m capable of being right up there and mixing it with the best,” said Kennedy. “It really is a lot more about the bunch skills… those are things that you can learn, that’s the goal.”