Zen to Zero
A Tale of Transcendental Tribulation
Dazed from altitude and exertion, I gazed aimlessly between the blurry centerline and the dreamy specter of my breath colliding with the mountain mist. Several hours into the most torturous road climb of my life, fatigue had transported me far beyond my disbelief and frustration, allowing my mind to settle into the rhapsody of respiration that had become my involuntary mantra.
The stingy gearing on my bike had conspired with the road's absurdly steep gradient to keep me soldiering out of the saddle, arm-wrestling the bars and struggling to keep momentum from one switchback to the next. With the unyielding realities of leverage and inertia forcing me to maintain a ridiculously hurried pace, I had long since pulled away from my riding companions and was now completely alone among the thick veils of fog.
Just a few days earlier, I'd been sipping beers in the sulfurous hot springs of northern Taiwan, recovering from three days of glad-handing at the Taipei International Cycle Show and looking forward to what I thought would be a leisurely week of riding bikes around the island. I'd accepted a gracious invitation to join a miniature Tour de Taiwan with an entourage assembled by the owner of Taiwanese suspension company Kind Shock, and had fully expected the itinerary to be forgiving.
Though I was well aware of the island's decidedly mountainous constitution—not to mention the treacherous roads that wind through some of its most remote ranges—I'd neglected to preview our planned route, assuming we would forego the most grueling high-mountain behemoths in favor of those with more agreeable inclines.
My assumption was woefully wrong. Not only did our weeklong circuit include two traverses of Taiwan's inhospitable interior, this first crossing followed the island's highest road—National Highway 14, which emerges from the rice paddies surrounding the central town of Puli, then climbs past secluded aboriginal villages before snaking sharply up to Taiwan's soaring spine. Commonly known as the Central Cross-Island Highway, this perilous corridor pierces through the isolated heart of the country's Central Cordillera, ultimately topping out on a barren, windswept saddle between the 11,000-plus-foot peaks of Hehuan Shan, or Pink Siris Mountain.
I was somewhere on this road's upper reaches, shivering beneath a steamy cloak of evaporating sweat and lamenting my foolish lack of planning. After a day of relentless climbing, I was tired, hungry and dehydrated, my meager food and water stash already a distant memory. My fingers and toes were quickly going numb, despite me constantly wiggling and flexing them. With no choice but to press on, I powered into one arduous switchback after another, mesmerized by the rhythm of my breathing and the heartbeat thumping in my eardrums.
"This is exactly the way people slip into hypothermia," I told myself, wondering if my Zen-like trance could actually be the mental confusion that presages hypothermic amnesia. Alarmed by this prospect, I started talking out loud, issuing reminders to consciously resist sliding into a deeper state of serenity.
Rounding another switchback, I saw two figures standing alongside the road ahead. I sprinted toward the shadowy outlines, shouting to them in Chinese to see if they would respond. As I drew nearer, one of them stepped forward with his hands raised, commanding me to stop in heavily accented Mandarin.
"Ni gan shenme?" he asked in a tone that suggested outright bewilderment. "Jintian hui siashui!" he proclaimed emphatically, eyeing my short-sleeved rain jersey as he informed me it was likely to snow. Judging from the man's dark complexion, Austronesian features and stilted Chinese-language skills, he was from one of Taiwan's many mountain-dwelling aboriginal tribes. And his hardhat, reflective clothing and the surveyor's tripod behind him hinted of a strong familiarity with this rapidly deteriorating road.
"Dao shankou, hai you ji gongli?" I anxiously inquired of the distance to the top. Hearing it was at least 10 more miles, and that the road would only get steeper, my spirits started to sink.
Then I remembered there was one rider ahead of me. It was none other than mountain-bike luminary Brian Lopes, who had joined the first two days of this tour at the request of Kind Shock, one of his sponsors. The 40-year-old had been training intensively for his planned crossover into the UCI's newly sanctioned XC Eliminator race format, and he was looking lean and mean after recently adopting a gluten-free diet. As expected, he had dropped everyone on the day's first big climb, so I knew he must be farther up the mountain. I asked the surveyors if they had seen him go past.
"Mei kandao," the first one responded, assuring me I was the only cyclist he'd seen all day. He urged me to get moving before it started to snow.
Zen to Zero first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Paved. We’ll deliver the remainder of this feature article over the course of the next few days right here on pavedmag.com, but should you wish to see this story in its original format—or simply want gratification of a more immediate kind—the entire issue is available for download on the Apple Newsstand.