Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mongolia Bike Challenge - Tales from the Back of the Pack

In October of 2011, I found myself scrolling through web pages on a bus ride to New York City. One way or another, I browsed myself to Orbea's web site and saw a link near the bottom to something called "Mongolia Bike Challenge". My interested piqued, I clicked on the link and began the slow tumble down the rabbit hole that would end with me and my bike in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia.

Packing the bike with a very helpful dog.
Many months went by. I requested the time off from work. I booked plane tickets. I trained. I rode practice races. I trained some more. Having only raced a few times previously, and never having actually followed a cycling training plan, I had my work cut out for me. After 10 months of preparation and hard training with countless dollars, calories, and hours crushed under my wheels, I found myself packing for the big day.

DAY 1: Travel
After packing for 10 hours (split into two chunks), I was off to New Jersey, thankful that I had made my exhaustive packing list beforehand. My brother Cooper was super kind and gave me a ride to JFK airport, where I nervously arrived 4 hours before my flight departed and fumbled my way through checking my luggage and bicycle. With my fingers crossed, I got on board the plane to Moscow.
JFK to Moscow entertainment center
After boarding the plane, a lightning storm hit. We got stuck on the tarmac for about 2 hours prior to taking off. However. after liftoff the flight was surprisingly comfortable. I had somehow managed to get window seats on both the flight to Moscow and the flight to Ulaan Baatar, which allowed me to get a little bit of sleep and catch some cool views of Newfoundland, Norway, and Moscow. Despite having heard horror stories about the Russian airline Aeroflot, I had a pleasant trip and enjoyed the in-flight entertainment center.
Somewhere over Asia

International tickets
The layover in Moscow was pretty nice, although I was a little nervous about ordering any food because it looked like nobody spoke English and their acceptance of credit cards was not apparent. The Moscow airport was spotless, brand new, and high-end, with luxury shops like you might find in Las Vegas. In the midst of all this, a TGI Friday's blaring American post-punk emo rock. Very weird.

Moscow Airport

Landing in UB I waited nervously for my luggage to arrive. This was one of my biggest fears: that I would fly halfway around the planet and my bike wouldn't show up. Luckily, after a brief wait, both my checked luggage and bike case came out, amongst several other bike boxes all tagged with large "Mongolia Bike Challenge" logos, per the race organizers instructions. I followed the herd out to the front of the airport, where a bus was waiting to take the group of about 10 of us to our hotel.

Our Aeroflot chariot

Arriving in Ulaan Baatar
Outskirts of UB

DAY 2: Arrival
After a bouncy, bumpy ride on the main "road" from the airport, we arrived at the Bayongol Hotel, where we would be staying for the next few days. Since we were on the early flight in, the hotel was not quite ready to accept check-ins yet, so we all zombie-walked in jet-lag mode over to the hotel banquet hall to eat breakfast. Mongolia is 12 hours ahead of East Coast time, so I was pretty out of it. Luckily they had coffee and excellent food. A Belgian girl joined me and chatted about biking in Switzerland, as well as the fact that neither of us had ever done anything as big as this race. Funny thing, she went on to almost win the women's race, while I was stuck precariously close to DFL.

After breakfast, I checked in with the English-speaking staff, and took my bags up to my room on the 12th floor. A few interesting cultural notes here: 1) the elevator weight limits are humorously small - after doing some calculations, it appears that fully loaded, the elevator can carry eight people, but only if they each weight 65 lbs or less. Or maybe it was kilos, I don't remember. Either way, the thing complained a lot and wouldn't move if too many people got on it. I joked that American elevators are built to handle American weight - we allow for like 350 lbs per person. Interesting note No. 2: I spent about 5 minutes inside the hotel room trying to turn on the lights before I figured out that there was this little slot where you had to place your hotel key in order to activate the power in the room.

The room was on the 12th floor, and had a structurally dubious-looking balcony that had a pretty nice view of the city and surrounding hills. After admiring the view for a few minutes, I got a knock on the door. It was my new roommate Thomas, a very cool guy from Germany with excellent English. After chatting with him for a bit, I went down to the hotel garage to assemble my bike.

View from the 12th floor of the Bayongol Hotel

Assembly, which I had the good fortune to be able to practice at Sue and Mark's house in Colorado before the Bailey Hundo, went very smoothly. After about an hour and a half, I had the bike up running, and primed to ride. I also helped out a German guy from Luxembourg - he couldn't figure out how to attach his front brake. He was very friendly, but had an odd manner of speaking.

It just so happened that Larry, one of Sue's good friends, was in Ulaan Baatar on a business trip at the same time as I was. This was fortuitous in many respects - not only did I get to meet up with Larry a couple times (he's a cool and interesting globe-trotter of a dude), but he gave me a bunch of tips on where to go and what to do in the city. One of these tips was to go shopping at the UB mart, which was a multi-story department store across the street that had a grocery store in the lower level. I picked up a couple things and went and ate lunch at Millies, an expat-run Western-style cafe (another of Larry's tips).

Eating at Millies was probably a wise decision. Many people have asked me if I tried any Mongolian food during my trip, probably assuming that Mongolian food resembles the popular Chinese dish known as "Mongolian Beef" in the states. I did not. Many publications and word-of-mouth convinced me that traditional Mongolian cuisine, which largely consists of meat, suet, milk, and cheese, is not something that you really want to go out of your way to try. Also, I was hoping to avoid catching any stomach bugs. Therefor, the tasty grilled chicken and French fries that I ate for lunch was the right thing to do.

After a short nap, I took a walk up the street to Sukhbaatar Square, which is an immense open area fronted on the north side by the Government Palace. The place is really cool - there's a big statue in the center of the square, and a massive statue of Chinggis Khaan atop the steps of the government building. I learned that he is flanked by statues of two other Khaans, Ogedei and Kublai, as well as statues of two famous warriors riding horses. I took a bunch of pictures.

Sukhbaatar Square

After my tour of the square, I met all the race participants and we went out to a group dinner together at a buffet-style Chinese restaurant. It was great to have a minimal amount of structure to the day - I didn't feel rushed, but still felt that there was a sense of order to the race organizers' proceedings. As far as the city itself was concerned, even though it was dirty, disorderly, and poor, I never felt unsafe. Sure, I kept a close eye on my wallet, camera, and cell phone, but I've felt more physically threatened walking around Baltimore and Brooklyn than I did in UB, even at night.

DAY 3: Registration
After a solid ten hours of sleep that night, I woke up and trudged downstairs to breakfast. Auld Lang Syne  was playing on the PA, which cracked me up a little bit. I ate breakfast with Thomas and the guy from Luxembourg, who told me he had ridden the Crocodile Trophy, a mountain bike stage race in Australia. Throughout the rest of the trip, this guy would go on and on and on about the Crocodile Trophy... hence he became nicknamed "Crocodile Trophy".

After breakfast I picked up my registration package and paid (cash) for my tent service and photo service. Registration gets you a sweet Mongolia Bike Challenge buff and a T-shirt that says "I was there". Classic. After that, Thomas and Crocodile Trophy and I took out bikes out for a short shakedown ride, just to see if all the bits and pieces were put together correctly. We ended up riding out to what I'm sure is the only bike shop in UB and back. My bike rode superbly except for a tiny bit of brake drag, which I fixed as soon as we got back to the hotel. I met up with Larry for lunch and then slept until dinner. At dinner, they gave a short pre-race briefing. Afterwards, I went out and walked around for a bit, taking some photos.
The Bayongol Hotel at night, with our vans waiting to roll out

Sukhbaatar Square at night

Chinggis Khaan Ave. at night. This is like the equivalent of Broadway.

Mongolian Times Square
 At the risk of being crude, I will point out that on this day, I noticed that they had the toilet hooked up to the hot water line in the hotel. Going to the bathroom into steaming hot water was a unique feeling that I have never experienced before.

DAY 4: Stage 1

The night before the first race day, I got almost zero sleep, maybe an hour or so. I woke up so tired I almost put chamois butter on my face instead of sunscreen. I ate a big but light breakfast of cereal, toast, yogurt, &fruit.

The race started with a big group start out of the hotel parking lot.  We followed a pace car down the city streets for the first 25km or so. During this controlled start, we left the ugly industrial-squatter squalor of UB behind and gradually entered the countryside.  At 25km, we stopped, re-grouped, and then the real race started. We made a left turn off the pavement onto our first dirt road. After a sweeping video-game like downhill, the shit started flying. Literally. There was mud spraying in all directions, and people going in several different tracks.
Road ride coming out of UB

The way roads are formed in Monglia is that people take their jeeps and drive in whatever the hell direction they please until they get where they are going. When enough people go in the same direction, you get a road. The consequence of this haphazard development is that the "road" consists of many divergent and convergent paths.

Oh, did I mention that it started to rain as we were leaving UB? Joy of joys.

Despite the rain, the riding was excellent for the first 15km off-road until we hit the control point. Once the ground became saturated however, things went downhill. The ensuing 5 hour slog through the mud was memorable in that the suffering was so profound that my mind couldn't focus on it and the time flew by. Every time I reached into my jersey pocket to snag a gel or a snack, I was struck by the cold numbness of my fingers. Thomas passed me at some point; it would be about 90 minutes until I caught up with him.
Gettin' a little greasy

The landscape was indescribably epic, with sweeping vistas in all directions. As the riders spread out, you would often see miles and miles of absolutely nothing except grasslands and the track you were following. Occasionally a rider would appear far off in the distance. The race support vehicles would also pass by every so often, displaying some impressive offroad handling skills.

The most memorable thing that I saw, aside from the incredible landscape filled with sweet-smelling air and wildflowers, was a pair of Mongolian girls on horseback, ki-yi-yi'ng a herd of horses around. Very cool.

The final rest stop at 103km was a welcome relief. The mud had begun to coat my chain, causing abysmal drivetrain errors and failures much to my frustration. However, after the final rest stop, it was all downhill with a tailwind. The road popped out of the hilly terrain we had been traveling through into an enormous basin, with mountains far off on the horizon. Thomas and I cruised through the false flat (which was tilted in our favor) at a nice 30kph clip to the finish.

Thomas and I crossing the finish line

My bike after Stage 1
Then began the hopeless process of trying to clean up the mess that 6 hours of riding through muddy slop had wreaked on my bike and kit. I took a cold hose-shower after I got something to eat, and then attempted to clean up my bike. The rear brake pads (which I had not changed before I left, unfortunately) were down to mere slivers of pad, so I changed them out with a spare set I had brought. I scrubbed and polished the chain and gears until they looked reasonable, and then spent several minutes hosing down my kit, which was in a sorry and bedraggled state.

After all that was situated, I went and walked around, took some pictures, then lay down for a bit. Ryan Leech gave a yoga class in the evening which I attended, it felt great. He's a very hippy touchy-feely kind of guy, you'd never guess that he is a world champion trials mountain biker.

After yoga was the awards ceremony. Two Kona riders, Cory Wallace and Kris Sneddon, took first and second place.

Our first camp dinner was good - it was European style fare, with plenty of carbs and protein. After dinner I took a few pictures and collapsed in my tent.
The most nothing I have ever seen.

Tent city

DAY 5: Stage 2
The day started with breakfast and packing up the luggage, which the race organizers were very militant about being delivered to the luggage truck on time. This led to a little bit of rushing around, but I managed to get everything packed without forgetting anything.

We sat around for about an hour after the baggage truck took off, and I passed the time chatting with Greg, the only other American in the race. He has ridden the Tour Divide, so I pestered him about that for a while.

The race started and I headed out faster than I should have. I was going at a comfortable pace for a short ride, but was pushing a bit to try to mooch a draft off some riders in front of me as the course was very flat. This, in conjunction with not eating enough, led to some pretty major bonking by the time I crawled in to the first water stop at 40km. One memorable climb lasted about a half hour, and the road surface was a momentum-sucking sand, a lot like what you'd find at the waters edge at the beach.

I stopped for a solid 5-10 minutes and just stuffed my face with whatever food they had and guzzled several cups of Coke, hoping the sugar and caffeine would perk me up a bit. It seemed to work, as I pedaled off. The course today was miserably flat, with a brisk headwind that lasted for about 90KM of the 120KM course.

The food really helped when the course took a left turn away from the headwind around KM60. Immediately my speed jumped from a crawling 17-19kph to a respectable 22-24kph. This, coupled with a smooth and hard-packed surface instead of the rough washboard we had been riding, made for some of the best times of the day.

The landscape was wide, wide open and flat until it hit mountains off in the distance. At one point, a small group of horses trotted towards me across the vast steppe as I rode by. I also herded several groups of goats and cows out of the way.

After water stop 2, the trail turned back into the headwind, and slogged up a 12km false flat until it finally decided to go legit uphill. This was the first big climb of the day, and lead to the third and final water stop. During the climb, the surroundings became more and more rugged. Water stop 3 was at the top of a pass, with stubby jagged peaks emerging from the grass around me.

From water stop 3, we enjoyed a spectacular descent from the pass, which was the best part of the day. This gradually flattened out , and the headwind resumed for the final slogging 10km into the finish.

The camp was really pretty, I took more photos.

Bike Parking
Stage 2 Camp

Daybreak in Mongolia

DAY 6: Stage 3

I started out Stage 3 nice and easy thanks to yesterday's bonking debacle, which I had no desire to repeat. I also took extra care to hydrate fully in the morning, and to eat regularly while riding. I decided "no hard efforts before 10 minutes in", which turned out to be a good mantra.

This strategy paid off, and despite getting dropped by most of the pace groups early on, I regained a lot of lost ground and passed many people as the hours wore on. This was a good psychological boost for me.
Taking it easy in the morning, riding by traditional ger huts

The first 35KM were fairly flat and served as an excellent warm up. After the first water stop at KM35, we started to climb. The grade wasn't too steep and the course surface was soft, short grass. It felt like riding on a golfing green. I passed Thomas, who had passed me earlier at about KM10.

The track wound its way up through some spectacular scenery. We were surrounded by expansive fields full of wildflowers, and occasional stands of trees peppered the hillside. It was gorgeous.


Near the top of the first climb, I passed the female leader - she wasn't having a very good day, as I heard later, struggling with stomach issues. I snapped a couple photos without stopping at the top, and then commenced the first epic descent of the day. It was exhilarating, flying along at 45 kph in a wide open field.

Eventually the descent lessened, the track made a left turn, and we were climbing again to an intermediary hill, followed by another descent. The third hill to the GPM (the European term for KOM, and in this race lingo for "big F'ing hill climb) was incredible. At one point the course just cut between "road" tracks, heading off cross country. I passed more cows.  More wildflowers. Climbing to the top was a bit steeper, but seeing the Orbea and MBC flags waving at the top encouraged me to press on.

At the top of the hill, I got water from Barry Wicks' mother. Besides Greg McKennis and myself, Barry was the only other American rider in the race, and was consistently taking top-5 spots. Barry and his mom both lived in the Pacific Northwest - her husband's sister lives in York PA, which is right up the road from Baltimore. Small world!

After the pause and chatting at the top of the hill, there was a rough descent which gradually flattened out and eventually got sandy. The course started to climb up a dry riverbed. Two super steep climbs followed - I was able to make it up the first, but the second was just too steep. The terrain was now quite a bit rougher than the lush mountain pass, more like high desert scrub and lots of rocks.

Cruising through the lowlands

I reached water stop 3 after some more steep but manageable climbs, then had a 20km time trial to the finish line. I raced Crocodile Trophy the last 500M.

Great yoga session before dinner, and I got to chat with Ryan Leech at dinner. During the awards ceremonies, a couple of nomads rolled up with their horse herd and chased it around the camp. Show-offs.

Passing thunderstorm just missed our camp

Bike parking by moonlight

DAY 7: Stage 4
Today started off pretty slow, with the first 35km to water stop 1 being an uphill grind. I had trouble getting my engine going - go easy on the salami and sausage at breakfast next time! I passed Greg and Thomas going up the hill.

Thomas and Greg going up the first climb of the day
There were some amazing views during the ride, you can really see the terrain go on for kilometers and kilometers in some places. I rode through a couple of villages and got a combination of blank stares, waving, and clapping.

We eventually climbed our way into a really weird rock area with some geology unlike any I've ever seen. Strange strange stuff. Coming out of that, I played yo-yo with Greg a few times before he pulled away for good. Thomas was close behind me coming into water stop 2 at KM80. The 40+ kilometers between water stops was loooong.

Thomas at WS2


Some of the rocky geology

After WS2, we came to some mind-crushing flatlands that went on forever. I yo-yo'd with Thomas until we reached WS 3 together at KM100. A few minutes after pulling away from the water stop, I felt my rear tire get soft. I stopped to take a look at it, and saw an inch-long scratch in the sidewall. Here I was in the absolute center of nowhere, with nobody in sight, and my tire was going flat with a big gash in it. No big - I just flipped the bike sideways, sloshed the sealant around in the tire a bit, pumped some air back into it, and kept riding. I had to repeat this process a couple more times during the last 20 kilometers to the finish.

Forever flat

After I got back to camp and ate lunch and showered, I took off my tire and put on a new tire, with a tube this time. I ate dinner with the friendly Aussies. G'day, mate!

Captain's Log note: "My ass is starting to get incredibly sore. Legs are holding out ok, sore and tired but still pedaling."

DAY 8: Stage 5

During the race I had been trying to keep a little notebook on my iPhone of what had happened that day, because I knew that everything would turn into a blur if I didn't. Go figure, the entries got shorter and shorter as the days went on. Here is the unedited entry from Stage 5, which is almost comical in its brevity:

"Halfway day. Long and painful, 141km. Lots of washboard and sand. LOTS of sand, very hot. Ran out of water just before WS 3. Was flying thanks to a tailwind for the first 70KM. Thank god we didn't have to fight into that wind. Had to shit the entire time, which made it worse. Saw a dead cow on the side of the road, had been drying out for a while. Saw a couple more camels. Rode thru a squalid town and also had to wade across a river. Tired now, entries getting shorter. Tandem crashed and lost the girl (knee injury). Rumor has it the guy will ride on alone (heavy, ouch)."

I just remember this day SUCKING. The sand was relentless, sapping all forward momentum. I think this day was as close as we got to the Gobi Desert; I later asked one of the Australians if it was similar to the Outback and they said it was. I think it wouldn't have been quite as miserable if I hadn't had to go No. 2 the entire time. Up until this point, I had managed to avoid any stomach issues (unlike some other folks who had nausea or diarrhea). I took an Immodium or two after this stage, and that normalized things out for the rest of the race, thankfully.

Endless, and hot.

View from inside the tent

Camp at night

 DAY 9: Stage 6

The day wasn't too long but my legs were starting to get tired. Getting any effort out of them had been harder and harder. Today we crossed a new paved road. It's the first paved road I'd seen in 5 days; I heard it was being built for a mine. A normal Mongolian "highway" consists of about 10-15 sets of ruts going in generally the same direction, so seeing a paved road was an oddity. There is really not much in the way of infrastructure here.

Mongolian Superhighway

 After crossing the road, we came through a little village. This was the one single occasion during the entire stage race that I got a little confused about where the course went; it had been meticulously well marked. I guessed that I was going the right direction, but just to be safe I pulled out my GPS and switched it over to map mode for a few minutes to make sure.

The road out of the village

The day ended with a climb that took us off the flats and up in the mountains. Coming up the climb, groups of little kids would chase after me, laughing until they ran out of breath. Sadly, I wasn't much faster than they were. Our campsite was awesome. The yoga sessions were starting to feel better and better as my body started to hurt more and more.

The final climb to camp
I recharged my camera for the first time in camp, because I heard the Queens Stage the next day was gonna be a looker.

People's bodies and bikes were starting to break down. The lead veterano is riding with a cracked chain stay with duct tape, and still winning stages. One of the Swiss riders had been throwing up, and looked like a zombie.

It was somebody's birthday today, and the kitchen staff had made a cake.

DAY 10: Stage 7 (Queen's Stage)

In a stage race, the toughest, hardest stage of the race is called the Queen's Stage. In the Mongolia Bike Challenge, the Queen's Stage was one of the first days in the big mountains, with a major summit at about 3,000 meters high (9,000') and an average elevation of around 7,500'.

The stage started off fantastic, with incredible long and flowy downhills for the first 70km or so. The sky started to get overcast as we headed into a large valley, and I could see some ominous-looking clouds off in the distance. However, the ride was a ton of fun. Ray (one of the Australians) and I stopped for a few brief moments to take each others picture in front of some yaks.
Great start to the day


Riding into the forbidding

It started to rain coming up the very bottom of the climb to GPM 1 at  KM78. Summitting the pass at 9,000' was pure misery, with thunder and wind. So cold. By the time I had reached the top, the temperature had dropped to about 44 degrees F. Couples with the wind and rain, and the fact that I was only wearing a light summer jersey and some arm warmers, I was freezing.

The top of the first pass
I caught up with Ray before the water stop just beyond the top of the pass. We ate potato chips and peanuts and cookies for several minutes, trying to get our gumption up to go back out there. I asked the crew for an empty trash bag - it wasn't much, but it was another layer between me and the elements. Ray and I headed out into the weather together, continuing on to a very steep and sketchy descent.

When the downhill finally leveled out, it was a miserable slog through mud and yak shit spraying in my face all the way to the climb to GPM 2.  In the valley it was a little warmer with a little less wind, but I was still so cold. My hands were locked up to the point where I had to shift gears using the palm of my hand because my thumb wasn't strong enough to move the shift lever. Despite all this, whenever I got a moment to look up, I was riding through a wide open valley with smooth mountainsides all around me.
Sweet scenery

Having fun yet?

Ray had dropped me after the descent, but I eventually caught up to him and a Polish girl named Ivanna right before the top of GPM 2. There was some absolutely amazing scenery on this climb, it was a real pity that I couldn't enjoy it because I was in survival mode. Willy, the race director, was at the top to tell us that the stage had been suspended; they were cutting the course short due to the weather. I was partly relieved and a tiny bit disappointed (but not very much).

We all piled into the tiny medical van. Arnold, the lone Chinese rider on the race, was already inside, swaddled in a huge mound of blankets. Apparently he had gotten a touch of hypothermia and was recovering; for most of the ride back to camp he was unconscious.

On the amusingly bumpy and swaying ride back, Ray saw a bike on the side of the road. At the briefing the night before, they had told us that if we needed to leave the track for any reason to leave our bike on the side of the road so that the crew would know that we had left the marked course. The van continued driving, obviously not aware of this. After talking with the driver and doctor, neither of whom spoke English, we convince them to stop and turn around.

When we stopped at the bicycle, a rider came out to meet us. Fabio was a Sportman class rider who had pushed on passed the early cutoff point (they had allow some of the first riders to do so). He told us that he had gotten so cold on the descent from the GPM that he was numb and shaking, so in the interests of self-preservation he had gone up to one of the ger huts on the side of the road and indicated that he was freezing and wet. The Mongolian nomads, who by accounts are very hospitable people, built him a fire and offered him some cheese (among other "delicacies").

Having retrieved Fabio, we continued on to camp. However, when we got there, we found our path blocked. Without the rain, the creek that was between us and camp would have been a surmountable obstacle. After a whole day of rain it had swelled into a flooding torrent too deep to drive the van across. This would not stop the intrepid Mongolian expedition staff.

Problem: Vans can't cross river. Solution: fire up Goliath-class Soviet military surplus vehicle that makes earth shudder upon ignition and tow the vans across using a winch cable.

After riding across the river in the back of one of the green beasts, I got into some warm dry clothes, ate dinner, and passed out in my tent.

People kept telling me I had something on my face... Willy just laughed at me.

DAY 11: Rest Day

During the rest day, I ate, hiked, took some photos, cleaned the bike, slept, did yoga, and ate some more. Every so often the race organizers would make an announcement on the megaphone, telling us about their plans to keep things moving.  At dinner, I talked to Arnold, who was the first Chinese guy to do the race. He made a strong case for riding the tour of Taiwan, but I think that race is for high-level pros only...

Cleaning the bike

Prepping the vans for the next days transfer

Announcement in the mess tent

The view from above camp

Nice valley view from the hill above the camp

DAY 12: Transfer Day
The day dawned with frost on the tents and the sun shining. We were camping at about 6,000' above sea level, so some chill was present in the air as the transfer got ready to roll.
Transfer vehicles ready to roll

Frosty morning

Sat phone is the only way to fly out here.

Don't see this every day

Because of the flooding of the river, the organizers decided to cancel Stage 8 and re-work the race route. In order to get us to the start of Stage 8, we had to undergo a lengthy transfer in the vans to the new camp site. I rode in Media Van 2, along with Chris (one of the organizers), Nick and Margus (the two photographers), Kris Sneddon, Corey Wallace, and Carter Hovey (who took 1st place, 2nd place, and 5th place overall respectively), and the Mongolian driver.

The Canadians spent the first three hours or so talking about various bike routes in British Columbia - just the mere fact that they could talk about it for so long means there must be a TON of biking terrain up there. I'll have to go visit some time.

The van bounced along for a couple hours, pitching everyone this way and that. It was a good core workout. Eventually we got to another river crossing, and began the process of ferrying all the vans across using the same procedure as yesterday - use the big trucks to drag the smaller vehicles across the river. I got to ride shotgun in one of the big trucks as it went across - so cool!
Carter Hovey and I crossing the river

Locals coming out to watch
The river crossing took several hours, and turned into an impromptu party as several locals showed up by Jeep, moto (a very popular form of Mongolian transportation), and horseback. A miniature wrestling tournament broke out between some of the Mongolians, and the Canadians busted out the Aerobee for some long-distance frisbee toss. I participated in Ryan's quick yoga session, which felt great after being stuffed in a van like a sardine for so long. The race organizers distributed snacks and Coke; I ate too many sugar wafer cookies and got a stomach ache.

We provided entertainment for the whole neighborhood
After a while everyone got across the river and we proceeded onwards. We crossed a spectacular mountain pass and waited in the valley below for the rest of the caravan to join us. The Mongolian drivers were very competitive about who was in the front of the caravan, literally racing each other across the steppe to jockey for position. Our driver Dundak was very good, so we spent a lot of time waiting for the others to catch up.

We continued down the valley and stopped for lunch; I don't know where or when the kitchen folks had an opportunity to prepare it but it was delicious; some bean salad and samosa-like fried pockets filled with meat or vegetables. After lunch there was a second river crossing - by this point the drivers must have been getting jaded because we just gunned it and drove across.
A mountain pass that we crossed

These two kids got to play with a local dog while we waited for the caravan to re-group

We continued onward until we reached a small village. We stopped and toured the local monastery for an hour or so to give the camp trucks time to get ahead of us and set up camp. The monastery was very cool, with rows of prayer wheels inside the compound and a large field full of stupas (a Buddhist monument) outside.

After leaving the monastery we completed the drive to the new camp location and arrived just as the sun was starting to set. I set out some clothes in the hope that they would dry out a little bit, and then walked around taking pictures for a little while. The light was unreal; it made everything get this neon glow that was stunning.
Photo shoot in the incredible evening light

DAY 13: Stage 8

The day dawned with more electric-neon sunlight, which provided some very welcome warmth after the chill and damp of the Queen's Stage and the rest day. I managed to score a couple of extra cups of instant coffee after delivering my luggage to the luggage truck, and sat around drinking that and chatting with a fellow from New Zealand.

I started out riding very slow. There were only a few people behind me as we pulled out of camp. The day's track began with about 20 miles of the typical Mongolian dirt jeep track.

Rolling out with the dudes from the Netherlands

What is this pavement stuff.
When we reached the first water stop, we made a left hand turn onto a paved road. This was the second paved road we had seen during the race, and the first that we had ridden on. I played yo-yo with a petite Mongolian girl, trading pulls down the long flat stretch of road. She was too small to really get a good draft off of, and once we hit the big hill at the end of the flat stretch she took off. I didn't want to redline it to keep up, so I just kept cranking out my pace.

At the top of the paved hill, the track made a left and kept climbing up a dirt hill. At the top, I paused to take a picture before beginning the long flying descent to the bottom. I don't remember much of what happened after that. I pulled into camp and enjoyed our last yoga session, with a sweeping vista completely devoid of signs of human influence as a backdrop.

The Mongolian girl dropped me like a rock on this climb

Sweet descent from the top

Day 14: Stage 9 (Finish!)

We began the day with a 4-hour transfer by van to the start of the race. I think the people at the small store where we stopped to deploy the beginning of the day's stage were a little surprised when 75 people disgorged from a fleet of vans and began setting up mountain bikes.

A village on the way to the race start

Traffic jam

Race start!

Since it was the final day, the weather was nice, and I was feeling pretty good, I decided to step on it and keep a quick pace. I was just having fun riding my bike fast. About 12 miles in, I came upon in interesting scene. Crocodile Trophy and Fabio were standing by the side of the road, fiddling with their bikes. As I usually did in these situations, I asked if they needed anything (I mean come on, this is the middle of Mongolia, not the local short-track XC race). Turns out that neither of their pumps were working very well, so I stopped and let them use mine.

Crocodile Trophy was off in a few moments, but Fabio had some serious issues. It turns out that one of the Mongolian riders had fallen, forcing Fabio off the track, which resulted somehow in the worst damage I had ever seen to an inner tube. I mean, it looked like someone had taken a piece of broken glass and dragged it down the length of the tube, tearing a huge 8" gash in it. I have no idea how this happened because his tire was completely unscathed. At any rate, we swapped out his tube and then fiddled with his chain to get everything up and running.

I knew I wasn't going to be competitive, and that Fabio was one of the top 5 sportman class riders, so I figured I would try to pull him along until the next water stop to help him catch up to the race. We hammered back and forth, moving across the plain at about 20mph. When we got to the water stop, I paused to fill my bottles and didn't see him for the rest of the day.

After leaving the water stop, the plain became more and more lush and grassy. We were transitioning from an arid desert-like area to a more mountainous area. At some point during this transition, I started hearing popping and grinding noises from the general vicinity of the pedal area. I couldn't do much about it, and the pedals were still spinning so I kept going.

We entered the mountains proper with a massive climb. At the top, some of the folks riding along in one of the vans had pulled over and were cheering, which was very motivational. After cresting the top of the hill, I was treated to several miles of ridgeline riding, with amazing views in all directions. A few minor climbs later and I was at the top of the spectacular descent down to a large river. The track was smooth and fast, the weather was perfect, and the eagle soaring above the valley I was riding down into was just the icing on the cake. It was easily the most epic descent I've ever been down, and lasted a consistent 5 miles before I reached the bottom.

River valley leading to Kharkorin

Making a right hand turn, the track headed upstream next to the river for several miles before reaching the finish. My bottom bracket was starting to sound more and more like a popcorn machine, but I gritted my teeth and kept pushing. With only a few kilometers left, I was going to push the pedals until they wouldn't spin and then walk my bike in if I had to. After climbing a short hill, we reached Kharkhorin, and the finish line.

Many high-fives, handshakes, and claps on the back were in order as each rider crossed the finish line at the temple in Kharkorin. I rested for a few minutes and then went into the temple grounds to walk around for a bit. It was an amazingly peaceful place, very quiet with soft breezes caressing the long grass and little birds flitting about from here to there. I took a bunch of pictures and then crunched my bike back to the ger camp where we were staying for the evening.

A ger camp is kind of what you would envision - rows and rows of gers (yurts), with a big giant one in the middle that served as a restaurant. I shared a ger with Ray and the two guys from Denmark. Everyone was rejoicing at the availability of hot showers, of which I gladly partook. We all rejoined to the restaurant for a good dinner before enjoying the first night in a real bed that we'd had in a long time.
Ger camp
Our ger at night

Inside our ger, the first bed I'd slept on in weeks

Decorations in the ger camp restaurant

Day 15: Transfer to Ulaan Bataar
We woke up, got breakfast in the big restaurant ger, and all packed back into the vans for the 8-hour transfer back to Ulaan Bataar.  It was a long and bumpy ride; one of the Mongolians riding with us actually got sick, and the Canadians kept cracking jokes about eating Graval, which is an anti-motion sickness drug. The weather was cold and rainy, not very conducive to taking long breaks.

We reached a highway (i.e., paved two-lane road) which helped significantly with the bumping and jostling. However, due to the poor condition of the road surface in many places, Dundak was forced to occasionally slam on the brakes. We stopped several times to re-group the caravan and take pee and frisbee breaks. The ger camp had packed us box lunches, and we ate them on the road.

Eventually, after about 6 hours in the vans, we reached the perimeter of UB. We had to stop and wait for a police escort to bring us home; apparently the luggage trucks aren't normally allowed in the city so the police escort was necessary. After about 45 minutes the cops showed up and used their lights and sirens to help elbow our way through the massive clusterf#$k that is UB's rush hour. Mongolian drivers are physically aware of every square inch of the surface of their vehicles, and push the limit of close quarters right up to the last inch.

After reaching the hotel, unloading the luggage, and briefly settling into our rooms, we all walked over to another ger restaurant a few blocks away. After a tasty buffet-style dinner, the awards ceremony started. The top finishers in each category were presented with some neat gadgets, and then each official finisher was given a T-shirt to an amusingly dramatic soundtrack that was kept on constant loop. A hearty round of congratulations followed, and then I went to the hotel to crash for a few hours before the 4AM wakeup call for my flight back home.
Final dinner


Awards ceremony


  1. If I could have a 'do over' in life, this would be one of the things on my list to do

  2. It's such a beautiful landscape. I will come there one day