“Two Towers in One Day” Challenge – Useful Info and Experience Sharing (2)

Execution

Bad news: weather forecast said there wouldn’t be tailwinds for us. It’s very uncommon for this season and it happened to fall on the event day. It turned out that at some point, there would even be a 7km/h wind blowing against us and I had to join some groups for drafting. But on the bright side, the lack of north wind means that it would be dry and there would be no slippery, dirty road surfaces.

On Friday morning, I took the MRT to Hongshulin Station and cycled 20 km to Baishawan where only three businesses were open: a pub, a grocery store and a food stall selling sticky rice dumplings and escargots. They only exist because of those visitors to the beach during summer. The atmosphere is completely different in November. I felt so lonely and regretted that I had only a simple meal from 7-eleven in Hongshulin. I should have treated myself to a decent one before getting to this small settlement. 

Poor Choice of Hotel

I checked into a small hotel I booked a couple weeks ago. It was clean with a good view. But the mattress was too soft for me. There was no support at all and it left my body in a strange posture. I missed my own bed already. I took a shower and had a beer with some escargots and two sticky rice dumplings for “dinner”. Around 4:00 pm, I was ready to go to bed. I estimated that I would have had 6 hours of sleep before my alarm went off at 10:00 pm. But I was woken up by the arrival of a group of cyclists who checked in around 6:00 pm. Soundproofing of that building was so poor that whenever the elevator moved, there was a squeal followed by a knocking sound when it stopped, which made it impossible for me to fall back to sleep. Though being frustrated and angry, I forced myself to lay flat and keep my eyes shut and wait for the time to pass. It’s going to be a long day. Gotta conserve every drop of energy. I learnt, afterwards, that some would even take sleeping pills but I wouldn’t go that far.

9:50 pm, I could not do it any more. I jumped out of bed and ate 2 pieces of bread to top up the fuel in my body, also hoping to trigger some bowel movement soon enough so that it would save me the trouble of looking for toilets during the event.

Takeaways: I could have booked a better hotel where I had stayed years ago. But somehow that hotel had a lower priority on GoogleMaps so that it didn’t show up when I was searching for accommodation in the area. The map even showed that the hotel was closed after I explicitly searched for it. That’s why I ended up experimenting with a new one. But I saw other cyclists heading into it that day so it was probably still in business. Maybe the hotel did not own or update their Google Business Profile actively. So, it’s always a good practice to make a phone call to make sure.

Small homestays/hotels with less rooms should be better choices as there won’t be large groups of travellers making lots of noises. More homestays/hotels are available in Sanzhi District 三芝區 which is around 6 km to 8 km away from the starting point. 

Starting

It only took less than 5 minutes to cycle to Fuguijiao. There was a food truck selling sausages and sticky rice dumplings, one more chance to load up more fuel. At 22:30, there were already lots of participants waiting, most of them sitting in the big car park with their bikes. The big public toilet in the seafood market was open to the participants. No more administrative work required. We only needed to sign in by cycling through the starting gate with our number stickers on our helmets. It took a minute to deposit my backpack. 

There were more than 1500 participants queueing up behind the starting gate. Getting bored waiting, I chatted up a guy in his fifties who was also doing the challenge alone. Turned out it was his first time, too. Not even had he done the Taipei to Kaohsiung in One Day Challenge before. He finished work that day, asked his daughter to drive and send him to Fuguijiao, took a brief rest and had dinner, then here he was. 

The event started at 0:00 sharp. I saw the peloton unzipping itself and feeding through the starting gate. When it was my turn, it was more than a minute later. It was rather packed and we occupied a whole lane of the road. 

We were supposed to follow the traffic lights. But there was really no good reason to stop for the light at those small junctions at a time like this. So, everyone just proceeded after making sure it was safe to go. At some important junctions, there were traffic controllers to guide the participants. 

After passing Guandu bridge (27km), the peloton stretched much thinner and I was able to cycle at my own pace. I stopped to buy a bottle of water at the first convenience store after Guandu bridge. A couple passing by were surprised to see so many bikes in the small hours and asked me where we were going. I proudly said “Eluanbi Lighthouse” and then moved on, probably leaving them even more surprised/confused. 

The wind was not particularly favourable to us but it was a nice ride on the west coast. In less than 3 hours, I had covered 85km and reached my first supply stop at Yongan Fishing Harbour. There were big boxes of energy gels stacked up in the convenience store. I ate two onigiris and one pack of energy gels, maybe a bit too much and too quickly. My stomach gave me a warning nudge with a reflex, almost creating a reflux. OK ok. Next time, I would be gentler.

After taking a break and refueled, I was feeling refreshed and energized. I found myself overtaking a fleet slowly. But I soon realized the leader was cycling at a very steady pace, so I decided to tag along for drafting. Their pace was just right for me! For courtesy, I did not follow them too closely, leaving more than one bike’s length in front of me. But it was such a wonderful 20km ride. At the first official checkpoint in Hsinchu (107km), they stopped and I carried on. Then I saw them in front of me again as they had overtaken me when I was looking for a toilet. How lucky I was! I tagged along with the group again.

I made it to my 3rd supply stop (148km) in Baishatun at 5:20 a.m., more than 1.5 hours earlier than planned. The group carried on and I stopped for a break. To be honest, I had almost worn myself out trying to keep up with them. I checked my iPhone and found that the battery was still 70% full. I had put it into Low Power Mode and only used it to play some music. The energy level of my first light also looked good. The sun would be rising soon. I was glad that I had decided not to bring two power banks with me.

I set a timer for 15 minutes and sat on the ground for a break with my eyes closed. Then, I was ready to go again.

At 6:15 a.m. I bumped into a pothole with very sharp edges. My rear wheel was flat. It must be a pinch cut. But no worries. I made good progress so far and I had a spare tire and a hand pump for occasions like this. Staying cool, I took a bite of some snacks and used 14 minutes to replace the tyre (I took pictures to keep time record). I did not want to spend too much time and effort on pumping. So, I started cycling after putting a decent amount of air into the tire. My average speed was well above the required 22 km/h for finishing the challenge in 24 hours and I wanted to keep it that way.

So, I borrowed a floor pump from a supporting car to make sure the tyre pressure was high enough. It was only 60 PSI. In order to make sure the pinch flat wouldn’t happen again, I pumped it up to 100 PSI, 20 higher than what I usually use.

As I entered the west fringe of Taichung city, there were lots of traffic lights with very long countdowns. My average speed was dropping to a low 23km/h. Then, the rear tire went flat again at 8:15 a.m. Shit! Did I do anything wrong when I fixed the tyre? I still had inner tube patches and I could fix a puncture. But if it was a pinch cut again, those wouldn’t work. Besides, it would add 15 minutes or more to patch the tyre. So I tried my luck by calling up a friend who was providing support to a participating team. He had told me he could help if needed as long as it did not interfere with his operation. He happened to be only 2km away from me and he would give me two more spare tyres. 

We agreed to meet midway while he cycled towards me and I walked my bike towards him. Some truck driver saw me and offered to bring me to a nearby support station but I politely declined, believing I would be seeing my friend soon. But then we realized we were both heading in the wrong direction and away from each other! My rear tyre started to come off from the rim as it was rolling on the surface full of dirt. It got more and more difficult to push my bike forward. That’s when a man on a scooter with all kinds of bicycle supplies and tools saw me and stopped to ask about my problem. He was there to provide support to his friends. He gave me two inner tubes and ended up staying with me to fix the tyre. He refused to take any money from me. 

It was a puncture that caused the flat. We found the sharp object and removed it from the tyre. It was pure bad luck, not that I had done it wrongly the previous time.

I had lost count of how much time it took us to fix this problem. I realised that my average speed had dropped to around 21km/h. I tried to make up for the time lost but my lower back got so stiff just like flying with economy class on a long haul flight. I needed to stop to take more breaks. It seldom happened to me when I was on this bike. 

I also found that my favourite energy gels were sold out in convenience stores. Only chocolates, cakes and breads were available. I stopped at a busy one for supplies. There were so many bikes that I had to lay mine down on the roadside. Just when I was ready to pick it up and continue my ride, I heard gas leaking. No way! It’s my bike again! The rear went leaking again after 45km.

Well well well, no worries. The situation was far better than the previous time. I had two spare inner tubes (one from the man on scooter and one from my friend). Also there was a pop-up stall selling bike supplies and tools right beside the convenience store, from which I bought another inner tube because it was sold in a box. It gave me a bit more faith. The staff of that stall also let me use their floor pumps. Should it be necessary, I could even get new tyres from them. At this point, mine looked suspicious.

I removed the inner tube and inspected it. The wheel was warm under the sun. The inner tube had a small hole facing the rim. It was neither a puncture nor a pinch. I concluded that it’s not my tyre that had caused the leaking. I decided to keep using it, partly as a proof of my reasoning capability and my sanity under this woeful situation. I was not defeated yet.

From my past experience, when we have a hole like this, it means the rim tape is getting too old. But there was no rim stripe nor spoke hole on this wheel. I thought there must be something wrong with the rim surface and I had a rim stripe with me. So, I put it on the rim and installed the inner-tube-sold-in-box. I pumped it to slightly over 100psi. Worked just fine. 

 (When I told Chengnon about this afterwards, he said it was the tube that was defective.)

When I was ready to go again, I checked my Garmin and found my average speed dropped to 19km/h, well below my target speed of 21.25km/h in order to reach Eluanbi Lighthouse by 0:00. My legs were still working fine although they felt weaker. My feet had swelled up but they were okay after I released the buckle to the extent that my feet could slip out from the shoes easily. I was glad I had bought a pair of oversized shoes. 

Then, I realized I could ride at a speed of 30km/h more easily. There were dry leaves rolling alongside me on the road. Yes! The wind had changed. Now it was in my favour. My average speed climbed slowly to 19.4km/h. But the stiffness on my lower back had evolved into unbearable pain. I found myself putting more weight on my hands and my shoulders were tense. I had to stop more frequently to stretch. Ah… the tyre pressure was probably too high as it’s 25% higher than usual. It might have absorbed less shaking and rattling, which had been putting pressure on my spine since the first puncture. But I was hesitant to release some air because I did not have a gauge and I did not want any more flat tire.

I had covered 300km. It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to finish within 24 hours. A part of me missed my comfortable bed back home while the other part was trying to convince myself to keep going. The game was still on. I was making progress despite all those setbacks. It would soon be 400km and I would be counting down from the last 100km to reach the finish line. I took some painkillers for my lower back pain, though not quite helpful. I decided to treat myself to a longer break with some real food when I reached Tainan city. 

The route was flat, the road surface was nice and the wind was in my direction. I managed to overtake some other participants. My cadence sensor went offline and the music from my earphones stopped. When I reached Tainan city centre, it was totally dark and the effect of lack of sleep kicked in. Or perhaps the effect of the painkillers too. My mind started to go blank from time to time. I bought instant noodles and coffee at the first 7-Eleven I saw. And then I found my iPhone was off. The battery had drained much sooner than I expected. This was the last draw. Technically I did not need my iPhone to keep cycling. I had my Garmin for navigation. My first light was still showing no sign of low battery and the second light was untouched. There was still some juice in the powerbank. But my will power was hit hard by yet another unexpected situation. 

I could still push myself forward. If I arrived at Eluanbi Lighthouse by 6:00 a.m. the next day, there would be a nice hotel room waiting for me.

But then the pain on my lower back was getting excruciating. I would have to stop more frequently and rest longer. The time I stayed on the bike would get shorter. It would be harder and harder to estimate my arrival time. In case I arrived late, I was not quite sure where to collect the hotel room key. My backpack and bike bag would be shipped back to my home the next day. Without a bike bag, I would not be able to board the bus with my bike… More importantly, beyond Kaohsiung, there would be no escape route and I would have to keep going until I reached Eluanbi Lighthouse or turned around. I was feeling a little bit dizzy and sleepy already. The risk of falling off the bike was not nonexistent. If only I had subscribed to my friend’s supporting team! I could have supporting vehicles waiting for me and bringing me to the hotel in case I exhausted myself before reaching the finishing line.

The Tainan Train station was 15km from me. It was still open. I could cycle there, drop my bike at the luggage room for shipping back to Taipei, then board the next train to Tainan HSR station for a 2 hour ride home. The next exit option would be Kaohsiung. But I wasn’t sure if I could make it there before 8:00 pm when the luggage room closed for the day. So, I decided to retire from the challenge in Tainan City. By 10:00 pm, I was home for a good shower and hugs with my wife and kids.

As to the guy I chatted up at the starting line, I happened to have his sticker number in one of my photos. The record showed that he finished in 22 hours 26 minutes. Bravo!

Self Evaluation:

The main reason why I could not continue with the challenge is my lower back pain. Here are some factors I think may have contributed to the problem.

Wrong mattress. My lower back, shoulders and neck would get stiff after sleeping on a soft mattress. This is what I found in that small hotel I had stayed. It may not be a major issue in other circumstances, but for a day with more than 20 hours’ ride on a bike, the issue is bound to be magnified. 

Tyre pressure. I had increased my tyre pressure quite significantly since the first pinch flat. A tyre with high pressure will transfer more rattle and shaking from the road surface to my body, my spine particularly in the case of a rear tire. In fact, right before big events, one should not experiment with new settings, including positions of the cleats or saddle.

Lack of long distance training. I finished the Taipei to Kaohsiung Challenge in 2020 without any issues like this time. But I was using an Audax Hercules back then, which was made for long distance cycling. This year I was doing it on a bike with more aggressive geometry. I should have done at least one long distance training and observed the reaction of my body. All those pains and discomfort can be avoided with proper posture. You can refer to this post from Sheldonbrown.com for more details.

Ineffective painkillers. And I suspected that they had also contributed to my dizziness when I was reaching Tainan.. 

Unfamiliar route. I had not prepared for the last 100km from Kaohsiung to Kenting. I thought it was just another 100km along the route. But it turned out that this had undermined my confidence and willpower quite significantly especially during stress events.

Lack of food varieties. I was planning to sustain myself by drinking energy gels because it’s easy to swallow and digest, so that I could spend less time on eating and more time on cycling. But this proved to be harder and less fun than I thought. I regarded the breaks more like an obligation than a chance to relax, both for my mind and muscles. This had backfired. It’s a long challenge. We should reward our mind and body from time to time. The taste of real food would definitely boost morale, even if it’s just a bowl of instant noodle.

Lack of support. Being an introvert, I did enjoy cycling alone. But for an event like this, the importance of mutual support from teammates and the aids from supporting cars could not be overlooked. I believe my unfortunate experience in the Execution Section has made this clear. 

So, that’s it. I hope you are going to enjoy the “One Day Two Towers” Challenge and finish it in time.