Monday, September 1, 2014

Mongolia Bike Challenge 2014

The Mongolia Bike Challenge is a 7-day stage race, with 900 km and 14.000 m of climbing. The brochure claimed "7 stages in 7 different worlds ... extreme deserts, mountain passes, unspoiled rivers and sceneries of rare beauty".

Lovely, but there was just a small problem. The last time I camped was 30 years ago as a Boy Scout and most of the accommodation would be in Mongolian gers and tents. I had gone soft over the years, living in beautiful and tidy Singapore compounded by opulent corporate travels to reduce me to a city sissy.

Fully loaded with the rear seats down
But what the heck, I registered and 3 check-in luggages @ 61 kg later (yes sir, the baby wipes, down pillow and breakfast oats lovingly crafted by my wife did add up weight), I landed in Ulaanbataar.

As with all my races, my objective is to experience the country, connect with people and finish the race.

I met fellow racers Pang and Don from Singapore and as any self-respecting Asians normally would do, searched for good food. We settled for the Casabalanca pub at the Bayangol Hotel, the official race hotel.
With Breno from Brazil, Pang & Don

The Cababalanca coincidently, is owned by a jolly Singaporean man who spends his days nursing his whisky all day in his pub.

We had the most flavourful and tender mutton soup and ox tongue salad, washed down with Tiger beer and Australian Merlot. Indeed, the reach of globalisation is relentless.

Exploring Ulannbataar

I joined the obligatory city tour and visited Gandan Monastery, Zaisan, Bogs Khan Palace Museum, Sukhbaatar square and the impressive National History Museum. My initial observation of the locals - they are a rather serious lot, and I surmised this to a combination of their relatively recent journey of independence from the USSR and legacy of a harsh environmental lifestyle. It wasn't that long ago that Chinggis Khan and his nomadic merry men ruled half of the civilised world.

Chinggis Khan!
Day Zero (Sunday 31 August)

71 racers and about 20 support crew from 20 countries assembled for a rickety bus ride to the imposing Chinggis Khan Complex.

Just before the designated departure time, there were some commotion and we were delayed. We later found out that one of the Italian riders, Nicholas Pettina was detained by the police after he got lost in the freezing mountains the night before.

He huddled around a campfire with some nomads to avoid being eaten by wolves, and unknowingly trespassed a restricted military zone when trying to ride back to Ulaanbataar at dawn. He just made it to the bus and amazingly would go on to win the The King's Stage the next day!
Good morning Mongolia!

I "checked-in” to a 4 man ger and met Dave from Australia, and Scotsmen Alan and Ned who had probably been away from the highlands for too long. They were to be my awesome tent-mates for the next 8 days.

Day One (Monday 1 September) The King's Stage - 115 km - 2,100 climb

Sub-zero in summer!
We woke up with frost outside the ger, as it was sub-zero degrees celsius overnight. I must admit, armed with gel ear plugs and eye shades, the first night in the ger was quite comfortable and I had a restful sleep. Not sure about my snoring that annoyed the guys though ... 

And so began the daily pre-race ritual of waking up at 530 am for my appointment with the loo, breakfast and race kit preparation. As the race was a self-supported format, we had to carry all the essentials including tools, spares, rain jacket plus a compulsory survival kit consisting of a mirror, space blanket, front lights and whistle.

Start of the race, led by defending champion Cory Wallace

For nutrition, I packed mixed nuts, a couple of energy bars, Perpetuem Solids, dark chocolate, electrolyte tablets and just one gel for emergencies. Hydration was via a pair of 750 ml bottles with plain water, no back-pack.

Despite the cold, I bet on just a light base layer under the jersey with neck buff and double gloves. And apart from the initial wind chill, it worked perfectly throughout the races.

(photo Ned Biketo)

The Mongolian countryside is amazingly vast, lonely and majestic. The trails were mainly double-tracks, fast flowing and sandy along some stretches with never-ending climbs.

The conditions would suit an endurance roadie or those new to mountain biking as there were hardly any single-tracks or technical sections.

We finished at the Mandal Amraltiin Gazar resort where the sleeping arrangement was a small hut. Despite being packed like sardines with Alan, Ned and Dave, I slept well. So far, so good.

Day Two (Tuesday 2 September) Tull River Stage - 117 km - 1,800 m climb

Russian Bread Loaf - UAZ 452
Today's stage had numerous very fast downhills. There was a particularly long downhill where my vision and speed were hampered by dust storms created by the rugged UAZ 452 support van. Looking back, that might have been a blessing in disguise that had saved me from a crash, and I had a few other close shaves too.

My only accident was a low speed fall into a black sticky bog - filthy and pissed-off but otherwise ok. Unfortunately, there were many bad crashes including Pang, Don, and Alan, who raced on unbeknownst with a broken thumb and finished all seven stages. Legend!

And then there was Brazilian Breno Bizinoto's selflessness in slowing down to help Jose Teixeira from Portugal for the last 40 km and in the process, sacrificing a potential podium finish. Jose had temporarily lost his vision and could only see shadows and smudges. Breno lead him for 40 km until the finish, using his voice to guide Jose through river crossings and the terrain.

Toilet tents on the horizon
The race ended at Tull River, the first of three nights where we will be sleeping in 8 men tents. Shower was a portable tent with water carried and pumped from the icy river, absolutely freezing but invigorating. Toilet was also a portable tent with a plastic toilet seat over a hole in the ground ... optional mountain view included.

Today's recovery meal and dinner at the campsite were expertly prepared by Rosewood Italian Restaurant. White bean and sausage soup, meat ball spaghetti and they even served cold beer - very tasty and satisfying.

Day Three (Wednesday 3 September) Khan Khentii's Stage - 148 km - 2,000 m climb 

Another surprise, I slept fine in the 8 man tent. Hah, I am beginning to like this. But it was a very cold night. In fact, we woke up with frost today as well. Although cold in the morning, the weather soon turned very hot and dry.

The first 15 km was muddy and slow, with ice sheets melting over blackish water on some trails. After a brief rendezvous with Ned at the 30 km mark, I strangely felt energetic and raced at tempo pace till the finish line.

Yep, that's ice thawing on the trail

Towards the end, I passed Salva Marrahi, one of the top riders from Spain who had to pedal using only his right leg for the last 20 km. His titanium pedal spindle had snapped!

Lamb stew
Having gotten used to the sights and sounds, I whipped out the iPod for the rest of the stages, and aptly Michael Jackson's Thriller (ok, guess my age?) accompanied me on the final steep climb up to the finish line at the secluded Kavcir Ganga campsite high up in the mountains.

Dinner was a flavourful but tough Mongolian lamb with rice catered by Mexikhan Restaurant.

Day Four (Thursday 4 September) Queen's Marathon Stage - 170 km - 2,300 m climb 

For the first time, my sleep was not so good and my fingernails and feet were starting to hurt a bit. But overall I was still fine, nothing compared to some of the other mounting casualties like heatstroke, saddle sores and broken bones.

Alan Grant pulling hard, despite saddles sores and a broken thumb (photo Zaraka Chan)

We woke with one of our tent mates Simon Usher, missing. He had to be sent to the hospital to check out his broken ribs, and discovered that he also had a punctured lung. That meant no flying and he took the train and traversed Mongolia, Siberia, Russia and Europe to get home to the UK!

Massive climb before water point 3
My bike was still in good shape, except for the rear brake which had lost its function. Massimo and his mechanics from the Bike Heroes duly repaired the hydraulics overnight.

Today's ride was extremely tough. 170 km in just over 8 hours. It was not the distance that killed me, but the twin terror of long corrugated dirt roads and head winds that conspired to sap my energy and spirits.

Also, it was too long a distance between the 3rd and final water point, I was severely parched and could not recall the last time I felt that thirsty.

Tough day at the office, with Kris Guns

I finished the race tired today, in fact the most fatigued of all the stages. But after the excellent white bean and sausage soup by Rosewood again and a freezing shower, I felt like a new man.

Day Five (Friday 5 September) Nomad's Steppe Race - 170 km - 1,700 m climb 

Just after the race started, I stopped to adjust my iPod headphones. Big mistake! That 30 seconds got me detached from the peloton and I had to slog alone for 80 kms over relatively flat and fast terrain. But never mind, the song of the day was George Michael's rendition of Queens’ Somebody to Love - I repeated it three times to lift the spirits!

I caught up with Dave and Kris Guns at about 100 km but at km 130, a route marker was not visible and we overshot by 20 km. After much searching and back-tracking, we met a few other lost souls and managed to find our way back with someone's GPS. I lost 2 hours in that confusion. At last, after 190 km in 10 grinding hours, we arrived at the Steppe Nomads Camp in Gun Galuut Reserve.

This time, we were welcomed by hot showers, a warm(er) ger and spotty wi-fi after 3 nights of camping.

By now I was getting sick of the bars, nuts and Perpetuem Solids but forced in something every hour or so to top up the fuel tank.

My daily motivation to finish comes from devouring real food after each race. If there were a race category for best eater, I would surely have been the champion.

Day Six (Saturday 6 September) Steppe Nomads Time Trial - 47 km - 860 m climb 

Bike Heroes Massimo and Jordi
Today felt like a rest day as it was the shortest stage. I pushed hard, at the upper end of tempo pace and it felt good.

This was a much needed respite from the long daily rides, and the first time many of us had lunch at 1 pm, instead of 4 pm or later on the previous days. Also, this was the only time we would spend two consecutive nights in the same location, so it was nice not have to scramble and pack.
Ruben Magic Hands, with Jordi

Despite diligent beer and wine intake management to avoid waking up to pee in the middle of the night, I failed on a few occasions and let me just say that it was uncomfortable to do it outside especially when accompanied by a cold breeze. But the amazingly clear sky view was worth it. This Mongolian weather is extreme, even in summer. I shudder to think what winter brings.

Day Seven (Sunday 7 September) The Great Chinggis Empire Stage - 86 km - 1480 km climb 

I woke up from a very cold night, excited with the prospects of this being the final stage and a little nervous about finishing the race safely.

Today's headwind was strong and the climbs still tough, but I took it easy. It was one of the more pleasant stages for me. I soaked in the views, knowing that this would be my final riding day in Mongolia.

The welcome party at the finish
(photo Zaraka Chan)
And then tragedy struck, it was sad to see Spaniard Luis Marin fracture his collarbone at the 46 km mark from a collision after hitting a rut in a fast downhill section.

To have come so far and not finish is a cruel, cruel fate. I continued on, grateful to be able to race relatively unscathed and finish the race, with only a sore right Archiles tendon which was getting worse every day.

XIII Century Park

Awards night
And what a beautiful day to finally end my Mongolian adventure at the XIII Century Park Ger Camp.

I finished the race in 48th position in the General Classification, 14 hours behind winner Cory Wallace, the Canadian XC Marathon Champion. Talk about a massive gap!

Reflections on MBC

Another race completed and "marked"
Some asked how I would rate Mongolia against the other great mountain bike stage races. Well, they are incomparable and unique and right up there in the definitive mountain biker's bucket list.

For me, Cape Epic was much more technical and intense, especially so being a UCI race, and TransPortugal was longer with 24,500 m climb in 9 days.

But Mongolia was something special. There is something unique about this kind of race out in the wilderness, racing hard all day and then having to rough it out in a tent, cold showers and a hole in the ground to do one’s business.

With Lham-yanjin, from the
Mongolian Cycling Federation
The living conditions were basic and there were animal poo everywhere, with some droppings courtesy of the local horses (I think) in our tent too.

I started to moderate my expectation and became more patient. Case in point - the generator to pump water was not working so I had to wait in the shower tent, shivering from the wind. After waiting for 30 minutes with no progress in sight, I just went for the wet wipes, no drama.

Reflecting on our adventures,
with Alan and Ned
We were naked, literally and figuratively and this made us all human again. I think it's a good thing, the occasional hardship enhances appreciation and gratitude. The cameraderie was special, suffering does bring people together.

And so the Mongolia Bike Challenge gave me that additional dimension of "beautiful suffering" in a stage race. It had definitely more than met my race objectives.

Beautiful Mongolian night sky (photo Darcy Turenne)

The Bike 

I commissioned a titanium 29er hard tail from Strong Frames after retiring the S-Works Stumpjumper. I followed the S-Works geometry which suited me well, with a design brief to Carl for clean lines including internal cable routing and integrated seat post.

It was built with XX1 group set, SID XX forks and Enve bar, stem and wheels. The finishing and mitering is splendid. I installed a 32T chainring for Mongolia and it was useable 99% of the time except for sustained climbs of over 15 degrees.

Carl's workshop

The Maxxis Crossmarks LUST with Stan's sealant proved itself again - not a single puncture and great all rounder performance in wet, dry and sand, although I was tempted to try out the Ikons to reduce rolling weight.

This configuration is perfect for climbing, and coupled with the remote fork lockout the bike is stiff and efficient. But too stiff for rough or corrugated flats, presumably from the lack of compliance in the seat post and stays. Overall, I love the bike.

Acknowledgement and Thank You 

My bike gangs Singapore Five-0 and The Next Best Ride for the numerous training rides and fellowship.
Carl Strong for building an awesome bike and Walton from Attitude Bikes for making it race ready.
Zaraka Chan, Nel from Biketo, Mike Murphy, Darcy Turenne and Daniele Baker for the beautiful and memorable photographs and videos.
Ruben "Spanish Special" my daily masseur, Jordi and Massimo from the Bike Heroes for the bike mechanical support.
Willy, Hutch, Danielle, Roberto and crew for an outstanding organisation and execution of the Mongolia Bike Challenge.
My tent mates Alan, Ned, Dave, Simon, Kris, Joeri and Brian for tolerating my idiosyncrasies.
And most of all to my lovely ladies Sophia and May Shann for their unstinting support, for which my adventures would not have been possible.


Kerry Schultz said...

This looks like a really interesting adventure to have. I'm a huge fan of cycling and might even one day make it to this level.

Pauline said...

This looks to be the perfect

Ash Green said...

Wow :)
This is an incredible collection of ideas!
Waiting for more helpful pieces.
You would amazing to read a similar one here-

Chris said...

What an adventure , been to Ulaanbaatar few times.

Chris said...

What an adventure , been to Ulaanbaatar few times.