HUALIEN, Taiwan (VN) — Irishman Mark Dowling was full of confidence leading up to the start of Friday’s Taiwan KOM Challenge, and it nearly paid off as he surged past Ariya Phounsavath of Laos to claim third on a steep uphill finish in the closing 40 meters of the physically demanding race.
The increasingly popular bike race featured 412 riders from 32 countries competing in the combined men’s and women’s 105-kilometer, non-UCI sportive that starts in the coastal town of Qixingtan and finishes in Wuling at 3,275 meters above sea level at the summit of Mount Hehuan — which happens to be Taiwan’s tallest mountain accessible by road.
The multi-time Irish national hill-climbing champion and reigning criterium title holder improved on his ninth-place performance last year, and placed better than several UCI WorldTour riders, including current Vuelta a España mountains classification winner Omar Fraile (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), who joins Dimension Data in 2016, reigning Taiwan road race champion Chun-Kai Feng of Lampre-Merida, and Dane Lasse Norman Hansen, an Olympic gold medalist on the track who now races on the road. Hansen rode for Cannondale-Garmin in 2014 and 2015, and will compete for CULT Energy-Stölting Group next season.
But Dowling, the 29-year-old son of two-time Olympic boxer Michael “Mick” Dowling and champion distance runner Emily, is far from pleased with bronze.
“I might be satisfied tomorrow or maybe the day after that,” admitted Dowling. “But at the moment I’m just disappointed. I didn’t travel across the planet to take third place … I came here looking for the win.”
Even with a competitive field, Dowling was confident of his skills and his chances to sit atop the overall standings.
“I’m fully aware of the caliber of riders that were in the race today and I have so much respect for those guys,” Dowling told VeloNews after the race. “The last two months, I convinced myself I had it won.
“My numbers were so good in training and I wanted to get myself in a positive attitude, and even on the climb today I was convinced I could win.”
Dowling was “disgusted and embarrassed” with his top-10 finish last season due to inadequate gearing for the massive climb, which boasts a torturous 27.3 percent gradient inside the final 8km. When faced with defeat on Friday, however, he refused to submit.
“I could see the race going away, but I had come too far and I was not about to give up, so I dug deep to get a podium,” he explained. “With less than 50m to go, I kicked hard and took third and to come away with that is OK — but not ideal.”
Aside from placing in Taiwan, the former Polygon Sweet Nice team rider has enjoyed a short but solid season, including a victory in August’s national criterium championship and a fourth-place result in the mountains classification at An Post Rás (a UCI 2.2 race), fifth in the mountains classification at Kreiz Breizh Elites (2.2), and sixth at the national road race championships.
With an expanding palmarés and growing self-confidence, Dowling still finds himself on the outside looking in and firmly believes he can make a difference if a team is willing to open the door.
“I don’t think they’d be taking a chance,” claimed Dowling. “I think if they sign me I’m guaranteed to get results on climbs. I just need for somebody to just sign me up.
“I’m not really looking for a lot of money, I just want to get into some of the bigger races and prove what I can do.”
While Dowling admits he’s not a sprinter or a time trialist, he believes he more than delivers with his climbing ability.
“Today’s climb was quite long, but you can see the kind of finishing kick I have, and I have no doubt in my mind that I can climb with the top guys at the Pro Continental level or higher maybe.”
As far as the future goes, Dowling says the road ahead is uncertain but there is no questioning his desire to take his career to the next level, whether that be professionally or as a national team representative at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“For me at the moment, I am just completely without a team,” he said. “My biggest goal is to make the Irish Olympic team and I see from the course profile that it suits a punchy climber and that’s what I am.
“I’d definitely have those hard, repeated kicks on climbs and I think it’s a race that could suit me.”
Although according to Dowling, his chances of Olympic selection without being signed to a pro team are slim, especially with contracted riders like Philip Deignan and Nicolas Roche (Sky), newly-signed Etixx-Quick-Step team member Daniel Martin, and Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon) all in contention.
“If the WorldTour guys can qualify enough riders, maybe three or four of those guys will get those spots,” said Dowling. “But when it comes right down to the bottom line, I think I should definitely be up for a spot.
“However, to get selected I need UCI points but I am without a team to score those points. If I get a team and can have a chance, then I’m guaranteed to score those points because I know I can get top results.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.