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Korean Mtn. Adventure

Words/images: Andy Bokanev | From issue 62

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“One is enough,” he said in broken English after he and his fellow waiter watched me grab two bottles of soju, the local vodka-like liquor, from the fridge and haul them to my table.

“One is enough,” he repeated. I nodded and smiled: “You don’t know me.” Thus went my first night in Seoul, South Korea. A few weeks earlier I was invited by the clothing brand Rapha to take part in a Korean edition of the Prestige—part-adventure ride, part-team time trial, part-brevet in which four-person teams take on a long and arduous course. It is not officially a race but, trust me, everyone knows who “won” and who “lost.” This particular edition was based in the Taebaek region. Now, I consider myself to be well versed in geography, and can generally find any given place, but trying to find this one brought me to Google Maps.

The Taebaek mountain range stretches along the east side of the Korean peninsula, featuring some of the highest peaks in the country. Its steep, densely forested slopes weather harsh winters to give birth to the Han and Nakdong rivers while its sparsely populated valleys are home to farmers and miners who rely on these mountains for sustenance. It was here, a four-hour drive from the bustling metropolis of Seoul, that we gathered for the Rapha Prestige Taebaek, a 143-kilometer journey over nine climbs totaling more than 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) of elevation gain.

Holding a Prestige in mid-November can be a gamble in the Taebaek Mountains, which are known for snow and home to the ski resorts that would host the 2018 Winter Olympics. But we had a bit of luck on our side. While Seoul and much of its surrounding area had been blanketed in a thick layer of haze for a few days preceding the Prestige, the skies were crystal clear when the alarm sounded way too early the morning of the ride. With the first of the teams slated to roll off at 7 a.m., the starting area was full of riders with flashlights making last-minute adjustments to their bikes and attempting to stay warm in the cold pre-dawn air. A guy in full kit with a cigarette dangling from his mouth looked me up and down and asked: “No winter jacket?” I tried to explain that I run warm and will probably not need a warmer layer. He seemed unconvinced as he lit his cigarette. We stood there for a moment looking at each other unsure of each other’s habits before moving on.

And then we were off. As is often the case with early starts, the first few miles were time for vacillation: “Maybe I should have worn that warmer layer?” “Are these gloves going to cut it?” “Why am I here again?” But then we hit the foot of the first climb, and everything settled into a rhythm. With barely any cars on the road and the sun finally starting to make its presence by burning off some of the morning mist, the first climb and descent saw many of us having casual conversations and taking selfies.

Then came the second climb. A lot had been said about this stretch of road prior to the start, mostly in grandiose and threatening tones. The roads were narrow, the pavement was cracked and parts were covered with slippery leaves and pine needles. There were a few portions where the grade hit north of 20 percent, with each switchback revealing a more beautiful view of the valley floor than the one below. When I realized I was nearing the top, I felt this sudden urge to turn around and do the climb again (I didn’t). That climb was followed by a quick (and freezing) descent to the first feed zone of the day. I was presented with a selection of mysterious snacks (“What’s this?” “Umm, it’s, kind of, like sausage.” “I’ll take five”).

The lunch took my thoughts back a few days to my first full day in Seoul, when I stumbled out of my hotel muddled by the fog of jet lag to find out that in my particular neighborhood people stayed out to party late and coffee shops did not open until 11 a.m.

The feed zone led to the foot of the next climb, which wove its way up a mountain covered in pine trees and passed the Korean Olympic training center. Someone mentioned that this climb is the highest paved road in South Korea. It felt like we were far from anywhere but, as soon as we hit the top and looked down into the valley, the city of Taebaek and its rows of multistory apartment buildings sneaked into view. It felt like a distillation of the last few days in Korea. Seemingly, no matter how remotely we traveled, there always seemed to be a town or village around the corner. Even along the heavily forested highway on the way to the event, it took a moment to look away and be surprised to find the mist-shrouded hills replaced with an apartment building.

korean mtn. adventure
korean mtn. adventure
korean mtn. adventure

Now, for the first time during the ride, cars started appearing on the road as Taebaek turned out to be a surprisingly bustling place on this Sunday morning. We passed a 7-Eleven, gave it a quick discussion, turned around and headed in. Like most of the ubiquitous convenience stores around Seoul, this one did not disappoint. There were aisles of semi-familiar-looking snacks, mysterious drinks, soju (of course) and an impressive selection of cell-phone charms. I settled on a samgak-gimbap —that’s a triangle-shaped snack food of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with bulgogi beef. In other words, the perfect mid-ride food. Maybe….

The next few climbs and descents were a blur. As the miles ticked away and the winter sun threw ever-longer shadows on the tarmac, we arrived at the foot of the final climb. Not much had been said about it before the start, but it certainly seemed to look short and extra spiky on the profile map. It did not disappoint. About 8 kilometers long, this wide fourlane road steadily ticked up the grade until it hit 17 percent in places, leaving you cursing at the signs that remind you (or, more likely, the drivers) that this road is indeed steep.

A few kilometers from the finish, with my fingers frozen from the final screaming descent, we passed another convenience store. This time there was complete, silent agreement. We pulled over, ran into the store and emerged with a few cans of Hite beer, which were popped as we crossed the finish line about a mile later. And just like that it was over.

As luck would have it, a cold front rolled through the area the day after the Prestige and plunged temperatures below freezing. A few of us got together for a bit of a sightseeing ride around Seoul, but what we mostly looked forward to were the climbs to keep us warm from the frigid wind and the café stop where we fumbled our numb fingers trying to reach credit cards. We sat around talking about places we’d been to… and discussing when we’d return to South Korea, because I’d barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. It never ceases to amaze me how people from opposite sides of the world are brought together by a mutual interest in sharing experiences on a bicycle. I promised to head back to Seoul in the future but, right now, I had more exploring to do. That bibimbap—a hot Korean dish of rice and vegetables—wasn’t going to eat itself.