Like No Other Race On Earth

The 2013 Mongolia Bike Challenge (MBC) edition featured a completely re-designed course that left out the extreme isolation and notorious Gobi desert to make for a much more rideable course that mountain bikers would enjoy. The MBC was condensed into seven days (down from ten), which maked it logistically easier for people to take time off work to do this great adventure race that simply does live up to its slogan ‘Like No Other Race on Earth.’

A massive contingent of 22 Australians made their way to Mongolia this year, including notables in Mark Frendo (U23 XC Champion), Mike Blewitt who has blogged about his experiences on www.marathonmtb.com, and MTBSkills.com founder and 2x 24hr solo champion, Jessica Douglas, who also wrote about her experiences on www.jessicadouglas.com.

If you are looking for a new challenge that will take you to the limit and beyond, then MBC is the event for you. You will need to come with the mindset to expect the unexpected; you never know what will happen day to day in Mongolia to test your resilience and perseverance.  A few riders quit because it was just too much for them, while those who came close to quitting were extremely proud that they stuck to the end and can look back with satisfaction on completing one of the hardest MTB stage races in the world.

It was my second time back to take part in this magnificent adventure, and this time I had my wife Jennifer along with me as part of the media crew to document the MBC in photographs, focusing on myself and Arnold Zhang (China) representing WTB-Cannondale p/b Castelli Custom Clothing.

My preparations for MBC in August didn’t exactly go to plan. My riding amounted to just 600km total, with 120km of that coming from one Gran Fondo race I did in Italy just a week prior to Mongolia. In addition, it was also my first time ever on the Cannondale f29 MTB. During the 125km opening stage with 3,000m of climbing, I adjusted my saddle height three times before I got the height right!

From day two onwards, I kept improving my GC position and was able to hang with the lead pack for longer each day, but once the serious climbing began there was no more hanging on. On day three, it had rained heavily overnight and for the first 15km, we rode through countless streams and bogs which exaggerated the bitterly cold air. There was a nasty quagmire that race support vehicles all got stuck in and it was painstakingly slow for the riders to negotiate before the nice descent into a lost valley where we had to wade across waist deep multiple stream crossings to get to a nice tail-wind section that was fast riding to the first feed-zone at 40km, only to see other bikes laid down on the ground and riders huddled inside the vans; the stage had been cancelled due to flooding of the rivers further down the valley that made the 147km stage impassable. Instead, we all had to ride back over the bog we had negotiated, most of us feeling the cold now after cooling down. On the way back, I was lucky to get some Yak tea from a nomad and then more than 100 riders huddled inside some warm Gers at courtesy of a local nomad family while we waited for transfers to camp for the night.

The Referee van was the first one to get stuck during the cancelled stage 3.

The Referee van was the first one to get stuck during the cancelled stage 3.

The cancelled stage day was demoralising for quite a few riders and the transfer in the 1960s style robust four-wheel drive vans took four hours, with the Mongolian drivers racing each other to see who could get there first. Most riders got to camp at 9pm where hot food was waiting, but some didn’t arrive until 1am.

Stage 4. The 180km Queen Stage the following day was shortened to 100km and had a later start which gave riders the opportunity to sleep in and recover from the long transfer yesterday.  It was on this day that a handful of riders quit while others had to re-find their motivation to line up.

It was a downhill start for stage four and the Mongolian riders were all lined up at the front eager to dictate the stage. Immediately there were splits in the field and after 10 minutes of racing, a breakaway of 20 formed, but this did not last for long as a group of six riders containing the big hitters managed to get away.  That day the winner-averaged 31km/h in what was the fastest stage at MBC yet.

Due to the adventures of day three, many riders did not shower for two days, myself included. The showers are icy cold and I didn’t like the prospect of trying to get warm again, so what’s one more day? The Ger Camp was being constructed as we rolled in, on top of a very rocky landscape.  That night we all slept on a bed of stones! I found some Mongolian cloth outside and laid it down over the stones. It was made comfortable enough with our inflatable thin mattresses and sleeping bags, although the cold wind would whirl into the Ger from outside; keeping you from being completely toasty warm. However, the traditional lamb dishes we were served for dinner helped to get the internal heat going.

On Day Five, it was another relatively short 96km stage with several honest steep climbs to get over. This day, I was late to the start for the first time and by the time I went through the start/finish banner, the leaders were already at the top of a small sandy mound. I was on the back foot from the start, but a day with good legs let me connect with the second group on the road behind the top 11-man group.  On the flats and rolling terrain we were trucking along, pushing in excess of 40km/h which helped us catch more riders up the road.  However, nearing the end of the loop with about 15km remaining, the top 20 riders, myself included, went down the wrong way before getting turned around and put back on the right direction. Going over the final climb of the day I was in the same group as strong woman Catherine Williamson (she finished 11th overall for the whole race), who was consistently riding with the front bunch.  I was happy with my ride, achieving my best result with a win in my Master 1 category and 14th overall.

Stage six was the longest MBC day to date at 171km across the Mongolian steppes, over endless short climbs and descents through a maze of trail that made me wonder how the organisers designed the course to begin with. Hu Hao, a promising young Chinese rider, attacked early on and swiftly moved out of sight without reaction from the bunch. I made another bid to escape and this time I was allowed to go and I quickly established a gap of nearly four minutes before the bunch got organised. My gap by the first feed-zone was cut to just two minutes and 13km later, near the top of the first climb into the sweeping rolling grasslands, I was caught. I rolled with the lead bunch that was now reduced to just over 20 riders for another 15-20kms before a move by Spaniard Marcel Zamora (Buff-Niner) split the bunch into smithereens on a small climb and rode away with Lee Rodgers (Crankpunk). Marcel Zamora eventually soloed in for the win.

After 171km of racing across Mongolia, the reward was hot showers for the first time and nice soft beds to sleep on inside fancy Gers ahead of our final 86km stage that would take us into the 13th Century old intact village from the time of Genghis Khan.

Inside the main Ger at the 13th Century Village - the throne covered in furs.

Inside the main Ger at the 13th Century Village – the throne covered in furs.

Day seven began with an explosion from Aussie pocket rocket, Matt Page. He went unbelievably fast up the first climb straight out of the gate that had the other top riders scrambling to catch him. Only Cory Wallace could keep him in check. The Matt Page explosion petered out as he was found stopped on the side of the road huffin’n’puffing from the herculean effort. I was in a handy position till Lee Rodgers (Crankpunk) fell in the soft sand in front of me and I lost all of my momentum. I lost contact with the front group and tried in vain to catch them for a few minutes but the pace was just too fast.  I noticed a group coming up behind me so I sat up and waited for the group which included Mark Frendo and Sonya Looney. We got organised and rotated well enough to catch the lead bunch that had eased up the pace just ahead of the first feed-zone. Great! I was back in the lead bunch and was feeling comfortable till we hit the first GPM climb. Pau Zemora (Buff) attacked hard at the base and instantly got a significant gap over the rest of us. As the pace cranked up, I was off the back but not the last in the group; in fact I was climbing stronger on the final day so that I went over the top just outside top 15.

With just 16km remaining in my 2nd MBC, getting ready to wind it up another notch with Matt Ewonus and Erik Bakke to reel in the next small group up the road, I crashed badly on a sketchy descent and dislocated my right shoulder.  My wife was one of the first on the scene as she was at the top of the climb we had just done taking photographs.  She kept her composure to take photos of me in my plight.  The ambulance came within 10 minutes and the doctor said that he could not pop me back in. We’d have to take me to the hospital for x-rays and to get fixed, however my shoulder popped back in by itself after wrapping it with a stabilising ball. I immediately told them to unwrap it so I could continue and finish the final stage!

The last 16kms of MBC was probably the hardest for me in this year’s edition; every bump hurt my shoulder and shins that had been hit badly. I emerged out of the valley after a small descent and saw the 13th Century village perched at the foot of an imposing set of boulders. I thought the stage would be completed soon, but was very surprised to see a twist in the ending; we had to ride around the small mountain and up some steep vicious climbs and rough descents to finish what was an epic Mongolia Bike Challenge.

The lead bunch tackling one of the numerous grassland climbs.

The lead bunch tackling one of the numerous grassland climbs.

This is a race like no other; you will experience tough stages day after day, but they are also epic adventures. You’ll see packs of wild horses that gallop alongside you, see camel herds, plenty of nomads with their sheep and goats, hunting eagles taking off and soaring majestically overhead, you’ll sleep inside Gers on stones, in the dirt, in tents, and experience “5-star” luxury Gers like the last two nights of MBC.  You’ll also find yourself developing bonds with riders that you ride with each day and learn your new boundaries that you never thought were possible previously.  MBC is so much more than a multi-day MTB race; it is about embracing adventure, excepting the unexpected and going with the flow. It is about forming deep bonds with like-minded people who enjoy experiencing new countries and cultures, exploring unforgettable Mongolian landscapes from the saddle of your bike. It is a growing trend worldwide, with the proliferation of tough MTB stage races, to find events in exotic countries to challenge oneself and create new, unforgettable experiences.

Check out the official MBC website for more information. Read Daniel’s piece on the 2012 edition here, and watch the 2012 MBC video here.