© David Styv/BikingMan
When 44-year-old Australian Julie Melville crossed the finish line of last year’s non-stop BikingMan Taiwan ultracycling race she had ridden 1150km with 20,000m of vertical elevation, unsupported, along a route that included 90km of one of the world’s longest and most feared climbs: the Taroko climb.
Overcoming severe cold and sleep deprivation, Julie was the first and only female finisher and set a new course record despite it being a tougher course. It took her 114 hours and 41 minutes. Below she chats about her background, training, and just how tough it got in Taiwan.
Tell me a bit about your background – have you always been sporty?
When I was very little I was forced to play netball because that’s what my sister wanted to play, and I apparently said, “But it’s such a waste of energy” so it’s amazing I went on to become the athlete I have. Clearly, my parents persisted until I went on to develop a true love of sport as a teenager. Fast-forward 15 years and I found myself in London needing to make friends, so did the logical thing and joined a running club, entered London Marathon, bought a bike and took up triathlon.
A year later I had raced my first Ironman, finishing top 5 in my age group. I think this was when I fell in love with cycling and the feeling that climbing on a bike brings. So my first love was really ultra-triathlon, but a back injury in 2009 stopped me from running long distances (Julie’s achievements include coming second in her age group at the 2008 ITU World Long Distance Triathlon Championships). I tried marathon swimming for a bit but the loneliness of swimming 10km in a 25m pool made me re-evaluate my choice of sport. After a break of six years and two children (motherhood is a type of endurance in itself), I got back on the bike and realised that I really loved riding my bike.
How did you move into ultracycling?
Knowing that I was good at endurance, I was looking for a bike challenge on the bike that would let me use it. BikingMan Oman in Feb 2019 was my first ultra-race (although I have done plenty of 200+km rides just for fun) and this was where I began to understand the happiness that riding your bike a long way in a foreign place brings. Sure, it also brings tears and tough days, but that’s what makes it extraordinary. You put yourself in a situation that makes you push your mental and physical limits further than you think is possible, and you do it. Now that’s what I love about these races and BikingMan Oman left me itching for more.
So you signed up to race BikingMan Taiwan in November 2019?
It took me some time to convince my family to let me go off and do another – the demands of two children, a fulltime job and a husband who’s also a very good cyclist mean that training for these things is tough and requires sacrifices from everybody. The time when I’m actually in the midst of the race is hard for my kids and husband as well, so I don’t enter lightly. They miss their mother/wife and, although they don’t say it, I know they’re also worried about me. But they know I love it, so they gave me their blessing to enter BikingMan Taiwan, the last race of the 2019 season.
Taiwan had 20,000m of climbing, including one of the world’s toughest climbs. How did you train?
I live in Qatar in the Middle East, better known for hosting the next football World Cup than mountains to climb. So, instead, I rode into headwinds for several months to simulate the sense of pedalling up a climb. I rode indoors on my Tacx Neo using the virtual reality cycling game Zwift a lot and simply put in a solid 350-400km every week for several months. I spent a few weeks in Scotland over the summer so I did a few rides which took in a decent amount of climbing, and then in the final month, my husband and I spent our 10th wedding anniversary weekend cycling in the hills of Salalah which, believe it or not, has some very steep ramps not dissimilar to those on day one of BikingMan Taiwan.
This year’s BikingMan Taiwan route was said to be the hardest yet. Just how tough was it?
Taiwan was simply the hardest thing I have ever done! People ask me what made it so brutal and I actually find it hard to articulate. The climbs on day one were absolutely epic – so many steep ramps, steep descents, the humid jungle and the reality check that no-one outside of Taipei speaks any English. Add to that a crash that bent my rear hanger and knocked my rear derailleur, meaning that I could only change between the large and small ring on the front for about 80km of climbing, and it was a truly epic day.
The following two days brought more climbing, headwinds, rain and countless experiences of dogs chasing me through the day and night. The 355km stretch I rode up the east coast to make the time cut-off for CP2 (checkpoint 2) was a day that felt never-ending. It rained, and the headwind was relentless. The last 30km felt like it took forever and then [BikingMan founder] Axel’s route took us through a deserted cemetery at 3am. I laughed at that one… afterwards.
What was it like riding the notorious 90km-long Taroko Climb after 800km?
For most people, the Taroko KOM climb is a bucket-list climb. It’s listed in the 10 hardest climbs on earth, and we were doing it with 800km in our legs and on very little sleep. After the steep ramps on the first day, the climb didn’t really ever feel like too much of a challenge. My legs knew what to do and although there were tears at breakfast before I set off, once I was moving it was a simple matter of keeping the legs turning.
I had set my mind to it taking me 10 hours, so when it only took me 7 hours (plus a 45-minute roadworks stop where I chatted to the drivers who thought I was crazy) I was pleasantly surprised. I think this helped the psychology. It certainly wasn’t the hardest part of the race from a physical point of view. Not saying it wasn’t hard, just not crazy hard.
However, I started too late in the day after arriving at CP2 at 4am and sleeping for 3 hours, so it was dark and cold by the time I reached the top. Those who know me know that I hate the cold and get super-cold very quickly. I actually wore my down jacket, hood up, to climb the last part. With the roadworks stop and some scary moments with oncoming traffic in very narrow mountain tunnels, I made a decision not to descend in the dark, even if it meant losing 8 hours. By this time I knew I was last out on the course but I also knew that I could make the cut-off and be safe.
Thinking of my family back home, I found a bed for the night, ate a nutritious bowl of pot noodles and got a full 6 hours of sleep. Unheard of in an ultra-race. The early morning descent and sunrise on Taroko was truly breathtaking. But as with all of these races, there was a challenge just around the corner – freezing fog and rain! The temperature and visibility dropped as the weather closed in and even with all of my five layers, including a down jacket, leg warmers and full finger gloves, I was finding it hard to hold the brakes on the descent because I was shivering so much. When the media car found me on the road I was close to my limit… it was pretty grim. Then, just like magic, a Family Mart appeared and the promise of hot tea and getting dry for 30 minutes was all I needed.
How did it feel to finish after 114 hours of cycling?
This last day was long, required lots of double and triple espressos and was filled with rain, wind and long descents where it was tough to stay warm. I also slipped a chain with less than 10km to go and, in unclipping my left leg, felt a searing pain on the inside of my left knee. I pushed on and finished, not knowing at the time that I had just ruptured the distal insertion of one of my hamstring muscles. It hurt sure, but I knew I would finish. And the finish line was magic! The whole of the race – athletes, race angels and friends – came out to see me at the finish. I think sometimes being last has its advantages, as there are so many people to welcome you at the end. So many hugs!
What were the highs points of your Taiwan experience?
There are actually way more highs than lows – the jungle section was one of my favourites, even the super-hard, super-steep descent. And there’s one part that takes you to the most beautiful view I have ever seen. Taroko Gorge – there’s a reason it’s on the bucket list of cycling climbs. But there were also smaller moments; the race against one touring cyclist on an e-bike down the long descent at the bottom of Taiwan; the cycling group out for their training ride cheering me on; the first view of the ocean after the jungles on the west coast. The cup of hot steaming tea at the top of the climb through the tea fields. Maybe, most of all, the pride at being only the second woman [in history] to finish this epic ride on a tougher course than last year.
When it got tough what kept you going?
I had a playlist that was made up of songs from people I work with, my children and my husband. I kid you not, sometimes when I was feeling the sheer weight of the race, exactly the right song would come on. I was at the final 4km of the Taroko climb when The Proclaimers’ “I would walk 500 miles” came on. It was absolute gold. But truly the biggest strategy I used was to message my husband who manages to get me back on the bike even when I am at absolute rock bottom. It must be so hard for him; I’m in tears, so far away and he gets me on the bike again believing I can do it. That and a lot of coffee.
You finished BikingMan Oman earlier this year. Did you do anything differently in Taiwan?
Bikingman Oman was my first ultra-race and just like when I did my first Ironman back in 2007, I certainly didn’t race to my limits. I stopped a lot, chatted to people a lot and sat down at various rest stops to eat. In Taiwan, I made a concerted effort to make every stop count. I bought food I could eat while riding, charged things every time I stopped and made sure I knew the right order for what I needed to do at each stop: food, water, load up bike, bathroom break and go again. It got harder as the days went on – there were more stops to add or remove layers as the weather changed – but as a rule, I hope I wasted less time sitting rather than riding.
How did you fuel your BikingMan Taiwan race?
I carried some caffeine gels and something called Lucho Dillitos Guava blocks as my emergency snacks in case I ran out of food on the road. Apart from that, I bought food to eat at 7-11s and Family Marts along the way. Sushi, pot noodles, strange melon and bean-filled croissants, a ton of snickers and Haribos and at least six espressos every day! Most days I ate on the bike but the morning at CP2 (checkpoint 2) there was an amazing sit-down breakfast of steamed dumplings and jam toast – that and a can of Red Bull and I was flying up the first part of Taroko!
I’d run out of food by the time I got to the top of the Taroko climb. I enquired about food at the sparse hotel at the top to be told that they had some pot noodles out the back they could sell me. That was a pretty gourmet night – a bowl of chicken pot noodles for dinner and the same for breakfast.
How much sleep did you get during the race, and did you suffer any effects of sleep deprivation?
The first three nights I had about 3 hours of sleep – lying in a bed with my eyes closed might be a better description. It’s hard to stop the brain and legs turning and actually fall asleep. The night on Taroko I got a very luxurious 6 hours because I really couldn’t get back out until 5am when I knew the sun wouldn’t be too far from rising. I was scared about how cold I would get and spent all of the descent chasing the sun as it came up.
I do pretty well without sleep – no hallucinations – even during the 3am cemetery surprise. I have two kids so I have lived for months with virtually no sleep, so five days with little or no sleep doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I probably slept too much on this race, actually.
The route took you through the jungle. Did you have any wildlife encounters?
The jungle was one of my absolute favourite sections. I’m from Australia originally so I don’t worry too much about wildlife. We have some pretty serious snakes and spiders there and Taiwan only has a few really bad guys so I wasn’t too worried. The scenery in the jungle though… wow! It was so green and lush. There is one part when you come around a corner through a tunnel and the view back over the valley is enough to actually take your breath away. It was like I was in the Jurassic period. Wild and crazy-beautiful. The only animals I saw were some wild Formosan Macaque (rock Monkeys) on the top of Taroko climb on the morning of the last day. That was pretty magical. That and lots of dogs!
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Sadly, I’m facing a long rehab for my ruptured hamstring insertion so I’m off the bike and out for a while. But I plan on using this as an opportunity to get into the gym and get super-strong, improve my core strength for climbing and save funds for a new bike. I’ve done the races so far on an out-and-out race bike, a Specialized S-Works Tarmac with 25mm tyres, because that’s what I have. I think with a proper gravel bike, disc brakes and a more relaxed geometry I could go even faster and ride longer.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
Recently I invested in a few things that I can’t stop talking about. The Rapha Souplesse detachable bib shorts for me are a real game-changer for women racing ultra-races. They have a magnetic clip at the back of the bibs, meaning there’s no need to remove upper body layers to use the bathroom. A godsend when you need a wild wee in freezing cold, wet conditions. I’m sure they saved me hours of bathroom break time over five days.
The other thing I recently bought that I love was the Rapha Women’s Pro Team Lightweight GORE-TEX Jacket (I promise I have no sponsorship from Rapha). I used it so much in Taiwan and it is seriously the best rain jacket I have ever used. I was dry even in the heaviest of rain and the jacket breathed enough that I could wear it as a light windshield even when sweating on the climb.
In terms of gear, I can’t look past the Exposure Maxx D front light and Blaze MK3 rear light I used in this race. I only had to charge the front one twice and the rear one once during the race. Bear in mind that the nights were long in Taiwan with sunset at 6pm and sunrise at 6am, and I rode most nights for between 8-10 hours in the dark. These two pieces of gear probably saved my life – keeping me visible in the grimmest of weather and the darkest of nights.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No sponsors but I race in the kit of my favourite local bike shop – Rasen Sports – which means I get some great mechanical support for local races and to be part of the ‘Rasen Family’.
To be honest, I have never thought about sponsors, I just love to ride my bike and see the world while doing it.
You can follow Julie’s biking adventures via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/macjelle.