Not that long ago, Jack Thompson had a 9-to-5. He was stuck behind a computer screen just like the rest of us. However, unlike most, as a teenager Jack suffered from mental health issues — and where many would have considered this a disability, Jack converted this negative energy into something positive. He found a new passion in life: ultra-distance and adventure cycling, which he’s done all over the world. To give you an idea, Jack cycles on average between 500km and 1,200km a week, every week. This is the first of a two-part exclusive column which he has written for The Prologue.
Taiwan KOM, toughest climb in the world
The Taiwan KOM, or ‘Wuling Farm Pass’, as it is known by locals, is considered by cyclists the toughest climb in the world. It starts at sea level in the town of Hualien on Taiwan’s East Coast and climbs to 3,400m at its peak, over 105km later. I was not content with completing the climb just once, like the competitors in the official event. I was looking to establish myself as the world’s most extreme adventure cyclist. Therefore, I set out to complete the climb (and subsequent descent) four times. In order to succeed, I would have to cover 700km, including 14,400m of climbing – non-stop. Where does one begin when looking to complete a challenge as extreme as this? The training and preparation, of course!
Training & Preparation
Based in Perth, on Australia’s remote West Coast, I’m lucky enough to have fantastic weather all year round. The one downside to Perth, is the lack of any real ‘mountains’. So, in preparing to tackle the Taiwan KOM climb four times, I had to become a little creative with the way I prepared myself. Usually, I ride on average between 500km and 1,200km a week, depending on my goals and what I have coming up.
In the lead-up to the Taiwan KOM, I made sure I was riding upwards of 800km weekly to ensure my fitness and ability to recover was at its peak. With no mountains to train on, I ride almost exclusively with an ‘AIRhub’ – a device that generates resistance. The AIRhub generates two watts of resistance for every one km of speed I ride. For example, at 30kph, the hub generates an additional 60w of resistance. I’d calculated that I would probably climb the event at a power output of between 280w and 300w. Using the AIRhub, I made it my goal to set off, day after day, for five to seven hours of riding exactly in the 280–300w sweet spot.
The mental game
Physical training is just one aspect of completing an extreme ride such as this; the second, and most important aspect is nutrition. Under the guidance of my nutritionist, David Bryant, we worked out that I would need to consume 90g of carbohydrates every hour, which breaks down into 60g of glucose and 30g of fructose. Put simply, I would need to eat the equivalent of a Science in Sport energy bar and drink half a bidon of sports drink every half an hour to remain fuelled and performing at my peak.
Eating this quantity of food every hour is a huge ask and requires months of training to condition the gut to process such quantities. I spent months trialling different combinations and eventually got to the point where I could consume the quantities required without even thinking about it. It almost became second nature.
Touchdown in Taiwan
We arrived in Taiwan three days before I was set to kick-off. My team was made up of a videographer, a photographer and my father, who acts as the ultimate leveller and voice of reason on such trips. My father and I have a strong bond and so, generally, when I set off to really push my limits, he comes along for the ride (excuse the pun) and acts as my mate/ assistant on the ground.
This trip was a little different to most, in that we had planned to document and showcase the entire ride in a documentary film. Along with my management and marketing team back in Australia, we’d agreed my focus would be on carefully selecting challenges that we could use to document as films to showcase what the human body is capable of. This concept would be named ‘Exploring the Limit’ and Taiwan was to be the first instalment.
Engine problems and a bad forecast
Our flight to Taiwan was delayed. Engine problems on our Cathay Pacific flight had us in a panic, so we re-booked with Thai Airways to ensure we could arrive on time to prepare for my initial ascent. Once we touched down in Taiwan, we spent a day in Taipei organising the team vehicle before setting off East to Hualien.
Once we reached Hualien, we had just 12 hours before my first ascent. It’s worth noting that the Taiwan KOM event was scheduled to take place on the Friday, and my goal was to complete three ascents of the climb prior to the actual race. Timing would play a huge role in completing the challenge successfully.
The forecast was for rain so we woke early. I had prepared a wet weather plan and a dry weather plan. The wet plan had earlier start times, as the descents were going to be a lot slower than in the dry. I woke early to the sound of rain… with four hours until kick-off.
This column is part one of a series. Next week, Jack writes about the challenge itself. In the meantime, you can follow Jack on Instagram via @jackcyclesfar.