Racing The Highest MTB Race on Earth

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By far this was the most scenic race I’ve been to as we rode through the heart of the largest mountains on earth and into the hidden World of an old Buddhist Kingdom. A region rarely visited with stunning mountain peaks, true mountain people and a mystical sense of being on a different planet.

The Yak Attack kicked my ass in 2014 coming to Nepal in great shape, but unprepared for the x-factors that racing here comes with.  Being found ill in the ditch in Stage 6, I had the gutted feeling of waving the white flag and DNF’ing the race.  Fast forward 2.5 years later and my 2nd shot at the Yak Attack, this time the race was bigger and better then ever before celebrating its 10th anniversary taking on the Annapurna circuit and also 5 days in the Forbidden Kingdom of the Upper Mustang!   

  

The Annapurna Circuit: Stages 1-5.

This is the classic portion of the Yak Attack as we started at 800 M above sea level in Besisahar, the gateway to the Himalayas, crossed over Thorlong Pass at 5415 M and then onwards to the Upper Mustang.  The first stage turned into a gongshow racing a 32 km time trial in the jungles and rice paddies surrounding Besisahar.  The day before I had spent hours patching and glueing tires together as the new ones ordered from India 3 weeks earlier never arrived.  They said they would take 3-4 days maximum to deliver, but first they sent them to Kolkata, India, instead of Kathmandhu Nepal, then there were some holidays and who knows what else but 3 weeks later still no tires. My head was left wobbling side to side.  On race day, the front tire went flat 5 minutes before  the start, and the rear one 1 km from the finish. It was a full on gongshow and to top it off the body was backlashing from the race efforts and requesting for a few more days off.  img_7265

Already down 7-8 minutes from the 3 leaders and heading into the Yak Attacks  toughest stage it was a rough sleep.  Arising at midnight after 2 hours of rest I would lie awake for the duration of the night feeling ill and having flashbacks to my race ending meltdown on this stage in 2014.  Running a tube in the front tire and an extra patch in the rear my Kona Honzo and I tackled the 65 km climbing stage on an insanely rough and scenic jeep road to Chame. The route was amazing following a tight gorge, hugging cliffs and steadly climbing into the heart of the Himalayas. 4 riders (Thinus from South Africa, Ajay from Nepal, Yuki from Japan and Peter from Australia) set a steady pace from the start as I dangled about a minute or two behind for the first first hour. My fingers were crossed as I repeatedly told myself “don’t meltdown, don’t meltdown, don’t meltdown, no more flats, no more flats..”   Seeing the race flash before my eyes the body suddenly started showing signs of life and by mid race the system was back online. Soon catching the leaders, I  dropped them and put  7, 10 and 18 minutes into the top 3 in GC as they seemed to lose some gas towards the end of the big day.  Game on!

Chame is a cold little town tucked into the shadows of 7000 M glacier covered peaks vertically straight above.  From here we climbed along more roads snaking along cliffsides before breaking out into the broader and sunnier valley leading to Manang with views of the huge Annapurna mountain range above. It was pretty epic with loads of trekkers out on this route as it’s the 2nd most popular trek only behind Everest Base camp in Nepal.  We tried not to scare the hikers to bad as we ripped by on our bikes but some of them seemed to be suffering from AMS and off on another planet.  Up at 3500 M now we had a scheduled rest day in the old Tibetan style Nepalese village of Manang.  This place is a proper old school western town with Yaks wondering around the dusty streets, loads of tea houses for weary travellers, a “Yak Theatre” to watch movies on Himalayan adventures, and a surrounding mountainside full of glaciers, monasteries and hidden valleys to explore.img_7542

Stage 4 from Manang to Phedi had 17 km of single track heading up to 4500 M.  The Nepali boys went hard out of the gate this morning but thankfully blew up a bit as Thinus and I dieseled past them and onto a tough battle for the next 1.5 hours.  With 5 km to go I put in a good effort over a small hill which put both Thinus and I in the red zone and on the verge of tipping over as the thin air up above 4100 M was like trying to breath through a straw.  Thankfully we ran into a heard of Donkeys portering stuff up the mountain and were blocked for a few minutes on the tight trail.  Soon after we hit a heard of Yaks and then another heard of Donkeys.  In a normal race this wouldn’t be ideal, but we both enjoyed the small pause in racing, giving us a chance to catch our breaths and look around at the stunning mountain landscapes before  gasping our way to the finish line with myself claiming a narrow 2 seconds victory to make it 3 in a row.

Stage 5 is the classic “Pass day” as the race starts with a 5 km hike a bike over Thorlong Pass reaching a dizzying 5416 M before launching down a crazy singletrack descent down to the village of Muktinath.  The organizers had a wild idea of starting the race at 4am to try and avoid the “wind” up top.  I lobbied for a later start figuring a proper sleep, daylight and the warmth of sunshine would trump any amount of wind we may have to deal with.  I lost the discussion, so after a couple hours of sleep we were awoken at 2:30 am to prep for “the pass.”   The Nepali boys traditionally own this day and set a high pace from the start.  I tried to keep up and suprisiningly did alright, eventually passing them as I found a few areas which were rideable.  The combination of pushing, and riding left the other boys in the dust and after 1.5 hours was cresting the pass and onto the epic descent.  It was still pitch dark, cold and sketchy as hell as I couldn’t see a lot with my pocket headlamp.  The body started to chill pretty good after the sweaty climb so I stopped to dig a puff jacket and thicker gloves out of my pack but was denied by my numb hands fumbling with the zipper.  Figuring the process would take too long I resorted to Plan B, hopping back on the bike convincing myself the faster I descended the quicker the temperature would rise.  Arriving in Muktinath at 6:10 am the finish line staff were still sleeping.  After riding around in circles for a bit I made my own finish line and started time keeping for the rest of the riders. It’s always interesting racing in countries where bike racing is still fairly new as some of the locals don’t realize just how fast wheels can be, especially down hill as they can turn a 3-4 hour hike into 20-30 minutes!img_7307

A big part of the Yak Attack Experience is trying to stay warm and healthy as the living conditions can often be a little dodgy hygienic wise and rest can be tough to find some nights between barking dogs, giggling trekkers and roosters .  Every morning we would hand our luggage in to the porters between 6-7 am and then proceed to drink litres of hot drinks to keep warm before race start at 9 or 10.  After racing we would continue our sessions of drinking pots of tea, and eating loads of Dal Bhat (rice, lentils, curried veg).  Sometimes our luggage would show up on time, other times we’d be in our bike clothes for a long time as some of the porters seemed to enjoy lolligagging and being tourists themselves.  All in all everyday turned into a proper adventure somehow.

The Forbidden Kingdom, Upper Mustang Valley: Stages 6-9.

The Upper Mustang was a restricted, demilitarized zone until 1992 which has kept it isolated from the rest of the World, preserving its people and tibetan culture. It’s just recently opened to the public but a $500 USD visa just to enter the area keeps the tourist numbers low.   My tires from India finally showed up as we had re-supplies come in from Kathmandu after the Pass.  Unfortunately the Indians sent the cheapest possible paper thin wire bead versions which would self destruct within seconds on the rough ground up here, not the tough Tubeless ready Maxxis Ikons which were ordered.   After confirming 3 times with them the Tubless versions were being sent, it was a bit of a shock but not really.  Those tires are in the hands of some local Nepali kids now, while I lucked out and borrowed some tires from Paul and Tetsuo, 2 racers who had spares and kindly offered them up.  Running tubeless again was important as the terrain in the upper Mustang was rough as hell. 

img_7602Stage 6 started with a sweet climb overlooking Dhaulagiri (the 7th highest mountain in the world) up to a pass where we crossed into the Upper Mustang and dropped down a kick ass single track.  It was like a line was in the ground as the topography changed drastically with steep cliffs, dry dusty roads, and snow clad Himalayan peaks in the background.  The racing up here was out of this world with roads full of thick bull dust, boulders and sections of ice where waterfalls crested the road.  Thinus road great this day as I suffered through a rough last hour, finishing a couple minutes down.  At the finish line in Ghilling I looked at the race organizer Phil  “this is it, where’s the 5 star resort?” as we stood in a wet grassy area with a couple rough looking mud covered guesthouses in the background.  It was a different world up here,  mud floors, rock walls, no heating and layers of dust everywhere.  The locals were tough as nails, you could see it in there eyes that they were the real deal as far as mountain people go.  They were also very hospitable, cooking up some great buckwheat meals as we all adjusted to the surrounding region and tried to keep our bodies in race capable form. 

The next 4 days we headed up to the headquarters of the region in Lo-Mantang “The Walled City”, spent a rest day exploring cave dwellings up on the edge of Tibet and then had a couple stunning days racing back down valley to the lower Mustang.  Up here the living was simple with the locals piling fire wood and dried dung for a long cold winter ahead and butchering Yaks to fill there food stores.  Seeing the butchering of a Yak was an experience many of the racers turned there heads too.  It was brutal, but probably important to experience for anyone that eats meat so they can understand the process that getting a burger on your plate requires.img_7638

  Racing wise I went into a conservative mode trying to avoid any catastrophies, soaking in as much of the upper mustang as I could while keeping an eye on my strong south African competitior.  Thinus was a real sportsmen and great to race against, racing hard he would win 3 straight days with Nepalese hero Ajay winning the final stage.  After 11 days up in the mountains and a rather epic journey I would take the overall title by a comfortable 13 minutes to become the first foreigner to claim it in the races 10 year history 🙂 

This is a race which will go down in the books as one of the all time greats.  It’s rough, hard, and a struggle at times but the payoff is big in the form of insane views, an inside look into some ancient cultures and the experience of seeing how the mountain people of Nepal make a living in such a harsh environment.  I’ll be crossing my fingers to have a chance to return to this region again someday soon

The season is officially over after 12 months:)  A couple weeks of downtime in Nepal lies ahead before transiting back over the pond to Canadian soil for a taste of home over the holidays.  

Over and Out!img_7372

 

 

 

Racing in Nepal- Yak Attack Round 2!

The Yak Attack is the highest mountain bike race on Earth as it traverses through Nepals grand Himalayan mountain range. It starts out on the World famous Annapuyakattack_logo_2016rna trek, taking us up over Thorong La pass at 5416 M. From there we’ll drop down to 4000 M and head into the tourist restricted area of the Upper Mustang Valley, eventually reaching the border of Tibet.  Over the course of the 11 days, 8.5 of those will be between 3500 M and 5416M with the temperatures anywhere between +25 and -20 degrees celsius.  It’s part race but more so a proper mountain adventure!

In 2014 I came here unprepared and had my ass handed to me, getting sick on the first day and never recovering.  The combination of turbulent food, rough living conditions, high altitude and tough riding has meant the local Nepali riders have dominated the race winning everyone of the 9 previous editions.  As far as a race goes, it’s the most scenic MTB race in the World i’ve been to, and per kilometre one of the toughest.  The days are short averaging 35-45 km but they can be deceptive, often requiring some hike a bike,  extremely rough and unforgiving terrain, cold temperatures and thin air.  img_7385

Trying to ride up around 3000-5400 M above sea level slows things down considerably.  The oxygen level of air is still the same as sea level at around 22%, but there is less air being inhaled every breath as there’s less pressure in the atmosphere. By the time we hit 3000 M the effective oxygen will be cut down to 14.5% and by the time we hit the top of Throng La Pass at 5416M it will be around 10.7%, half of what we take in at sea level.   This means alot of long slow breaths and trying to diesel our way through the days instead of bursting efforts which would surely leave us gasping for air and in a world of hurt.img_7083

Since the last race ended in India, MTB Himalaya, I set up base camp in the Indian mountains at 1950M for 2 weeks, with  3 nights up around 2800M.  1950M is on the cusp of being good for acclimatization, as 2200-2600M seems to be the desirable level but after having a decent crash, it seemed smarter to stay down a bit lower in higher oxygen levels to help with the recovery.  Since coming to Nepal my buddy Peter Butt and I headed up onto the race course and stayed in the town of Manang for 5 nights at 3500 M.  The first 3 days we felt the effects of the altitude as our heart rates went up and our sleeps were disturbed as our bodies acclimatized.  By the 4th night the bodies seemed to have come around and everything shifted back to normal although our rides during the day left us gasping for air, especially once we hit over 4000 M!  

The lead up to the race has been a real experiment and will be interesting to see if the pre-altitude training has any positive effect once we start racing.  One thing which has been a bonus has been living in the India-Nepal region for the last 6 weeks getting use to the sketchy food/water and adapting to the cultural differences.  Its starting to feel a bit like home which should help control these Nepali mountain goats in the coming days. Theres also a handful of fast foreigners here which are wildcards and should keep the race interesting as it always a battle trying to race over here.img_7380

Kona has a new distributor in Nepal and one of there shops, Panc bike helped sort out some last minute gear and fixed the bike.   It’s great to see the Kona brand come into the Nepalese market as these guys have some perfect terrain for mountain biking and they certainly need bikes which are durable and can take a beating!

Stage 1 of the Yak Attack was a bit of a shocker today with  flat tire just before the start and one at the finish.  In between the body was running really hot and misfiring after feeling pretty good in the leadup.  It seems the curse of the Yak Attack from 2014 is still lingering around but there’s 10 more days to go.  Hopefull things will turn around and I’ll finally crush this demon.  After this it’s officialy game over on what has been a solid 12 month race season starting all the way back in Costa Rica last December.

Race Results can be found here for the next 11 days of the race:  Yak Attack Leader Board

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Himalayan Riding- Onwards to Nepal

After long periods of good fortune it can be easy to forget how delicate this life is.  After a pretty relaxing week following the MTB Himalaya race my headimg_6724 was still a bit tired and I tried riding my Kona Honzo up the 8 km Triund trekking trail.  The first 3/4 of the trail was mostly rideable but the last 2 km is steep and full of rocks as the trail winds itself precariously around the mountain side with big drops all around.  The local Indians at the Chai shops along the route kept telling me it was impossible to get to Triund by bike and that I had to turn around. Being stubborn this just fueled the fire and I eventually topped out at the campsite along Triund ridge which was an alright place to ride.  There were a few surprised Indians up there and after making myself available for a few selfie requests I turned the bike downhill and started the sketchy descent.  

It was a rough go but my Kona Honzo is a fully capable trail bike and we were making good progress until I came around a corner and there were a pile of Indian Trekkers coming up.  Having to slow down, I lost momentum which caused the front wheel to lose the force needed to get over some big rocks on a steep pitch. The rear wheel coming up as an endo was inevitable. Unclipping I managed to eject from the bike, hopping over the handlebar.  The landing was too steep and very rough, causing a summersault as my body barrelled over the side of the mountain.  Reaching out for a rock I made contact but it was an awkward position for my shoulder and the force caused it to dislocate which lead to tumb
le down the mountainside.  Using my good arm to try and slow the fall it was a losing battle and pretty soon I landed fairly hard on the trail below.  Thankfully the trail switchbacked which made the fall only 15-20ft, otherwise it could’ve been a real good one.  
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From there on the next 4 hours was a bit of a pain in the ass.  When the shoulder dislocates I generally have about 1-2 minutes to get them back into place before the muscles start to tighten up and spasm making it nearly impossible. I failed in this two minute window and then immediately started walking down the mountain t0 try and make use of the adrenaline I had fired up and before the pain set in.  Luckily one Indian picked up my bike and took it down the mountain for me, while 3 Trekkers stayed by my side to support the long 7km hike out.   The first 2 km took forever as I had a good dizzy spell and was having a tough time figuring a way to hold the arm without too much pain.  Eventually we found a pretty good system as one of my newly found friends would support me from one side and I’d lean over with the arm dangling.  We tried using a sling but that wasn’t working.  It was a solid trek, stopping often for rests, but eventually we made it to within sight of the bottom in which the plan was to hire a taxi and head down to the nearest Tibetan doctor to try and get the sore wing fixed.img_3704

This is when Stephi stared talking about the Dalai Lama and how special his powers are.  Within twenty seconds of this my shoulder miraculously slipped back into place.  This rarely even happens and has made me a big believer in the Dalai Lama and his Holiness.   The recovery the past 2 weeks has been really good with the Shoulder feeling normal again, although the wrist is taking a while to come back.  The past couple days I could finally start riding offroad again with the vibrations not causing to much discomfort.

Landing in Nepal on October 21st it has been a great few days riding around visiting tourist sights in Kathmandu and training up in the surrounding hills with my ever welcoming Nepalese friends.  With the 11 day Yak Attack race up in the big Himalayas starting on November 5th the plan was to arrive early to acclimatize to the turbulent food, reload on supplies and then head up high to acclimatize to the altitude.  Tomorrow a friend and I will head up to the town of Manang at 3500 M for a week to finish our preps for the race and hopefully we’ll ready to rip by November 5th!img_7081

 

http://triund.in/triund/TRIUND.html

Accent Inns

This past July it was a great pleasure to establish a new Sponsorship deal with John Espley and Accent Inns .logo

Accent Inns has 5 hotels across BC in Victoria, Vancouver Airport, Burnaby, Kelowna and Kamloops.  They strive to be different from the other hotels by treating all there guests like family and developing a fun atmosphere.  They take great pride in supporting there communities, protecting the environment and creating a welcoming atmosphere for everyone, including dirty mountain bikers and pet owners.

Some of the hotels are even equipped with bike stands, free rental bikes and mechanic stations so us riders can really look after ourselves.  It’s nice to show up at a hotel in which you don’t feel like you have to tip toe around.  Another bonus is the staff which are always friendly and full of local knowledge which really helps one feel at home and discover the surroundings.

Already this year Accent Inns has been a big boost in helping out my racing schedule by providing a comfy place to rest up between races. Whether it was crashing at there Kelowna location after winning the BC Bike race for a 12 hour sleep, or spending my last three nights in Canada regenerating at the Vancouver Airport location before launching on a 3 month journey overseas, I know I can depend on Accent Inns for a good nights rest and place to recharge!

Thanks for the support guys and for all that you do for the communities and locals across BC.  It’s an honour to represent a family owned business like yours which takes such pride in giving back, offering great value to its customers and making BC a better place to be!rich_exterior_2

 

Incred!ble India- MTB Himalaya

logo-12-heromtbhimalayaReturning to India for the 12th edition of the 9 day MTB Himalaya MTB race was a last minute decision and turned into a grand adventure. It’s a fairly big one with 8 stages, 600 km and 15000 M of climbing in the footranges of the Himalayas with a different campsite everynight as the course traversed from Shimla to Dharmshela, the home of the Daili Lama.  Racing in 2014 the race was still in its development stages, but the organizers have been working hard and have created something special over here in India

Racing a bike in India is like trying to play a game of street hockey amongst a bunch of walkers, loose dogs and sporadic traffic.  Large parts of the course were in the wilds of India but over here there are people and animals everywhere.  The single track sections were rad as it made it a real mountain bikers races but also led to some chaotic situations. We’d come across pack trains of mules, guys pushing rottitillers, packs of monkeys and almost everything else imaginable.  The mules were a real problem and would always win as we’d try to get off the trail, either by clinging to a cliff edge or jumping into a rice paddie. The cows were also a pain as they are holy and walk around like they own the place, rarely moving out of the way.   Next year I’ll be coming with an electric cow prodder.img_6475

Thankfully most the race was off the busy roads but at times we’d have sections of battling the traffic.  This required full attention as the rules of the road only state that if you honk you can drive wherever you want and the bigger object has the right away.  On a bike we had no horns and are pretty small so we are at the bottom end of the food chain.

Pedestrians were also obstacles walking down the middle of the road and running across streets without looking as everyone depends on the horns over here.  We figured out that silence was the best bet as if we alarmed them we were coming they would start doing the squirrel  zig zag.  The real problem were the Grass people though as they’d be carrying huge stacks of grass on there backs and if they heard us coming would try to turn around, often causing there loads of grass to come into our lane.  A couple riders hit the ditch hard cause of this.  Huge heards of goats and sheep would also slow our race down as it was like the parting of the sea as we’d slowly ride through them. There was never a dull moment.

Camp life was sweet as we’d sit back eating different curries following the stages and listen to endless stories from the riders as they rolled into camp.  Interacting with the curious locals was a highlight as the organizers had us visit 3 different schools during the race to deliver school supplies and promote sports, education and environmental protection.  The MTB Himalaya was part racing and part cultural immersion into one of the Worlds most dynamic countries. The locals who are primarily follow the Hindu religion were very welcoming and kept us entertained with there humour and ways of going about life.18f539xjil48bjpg

With lots of time to play with in camp it was nice to have such a good setup with food always available and lots of action going on. The Indians really like there noise and would blast the same songs over and over again through blown out speakers.  We tried to put up with it but when it would come on at 6 in the morning or stay on late into the night a few of the riders started running around pulling cables and flipping switches.  This turned into an amusing game as we’d then sit back and watch the young Indian camp staff run around trying to find the disconnection to there music.  The race was comprised of foreigners from 14 different countries and a large local contingent.  The local Indian riders were generally riding dodgy bikes but every year they are getting stronger and with the proper equipment and some outside guidance they will be ones to watch in the years to come.img_6486

Racing wise it was a tough battle with top European marathon rider  Andi Seewald, 7 time 24 HR World Champ Jason English, American Thomas Thurner and the Rocky boys Andreas and Manuel from Europe.  The courses were solid with big climbs, sections of gnarly singeltrack, and some epic views as we raced up and down mountains, across ridges and through tight river gorges.  We raced hard but at the same time there was a mutual respect amongst us as we helped each other dodge cars, fend off dogs and stay out of trouble in the Worlds 2nd most populous country with 1.3 billion inhabitants.

Managing to win the first stage I hung onto the leaders jersey for the first half of the race but would slowly run out of steam trying to battle off an insanely strong Andi Seewald.  I was riding well but this guy was riding stronger then anyone I have seen since racing the World Marathon Champs in Italy in 2015.  I’ll have to go back to the drawing table this winter and adjust a few things to get up to the level he was riding.  Coming in a bit fresher might also help turn the tables next time.img_6505

The Indians have created something special over here as this race has a heartbeat of its own and left most us foreigner riders impressed and wanting more.  Some riders complained about the single track being too gnarly, with a couple short hike a bike sections, but to me this was the highlight of the week as it really got us deep into the Indian countryside and tested our technical skills.  The days were diverse and the memories of riding over 10 000 ft passes, across open ridge lines and through the depths of India will leave a lasting impression.

After a solid post race party with copious amounts of Indian food, local fruit wine and some deafening music, we were alerted the Dalai Lama had agreed to meet us at his temple up in Mcleod Ganji.  Jason English was looking to ride early before his flight later that day so Thomas and I joined him and road up to the Temple early in the morning.  Not sure what to do with our bikes, one of the Dalai Lamas guards asked me to park my Kona Honzo inside his holiness’s temple as the Dalai Lama had never had a visit from a bike of this quality.  There was about 25 of us from the race up there and when the Dalai Lama came out and we were treated to 7 minutes of our lives  none of us will ever forget.  The energy, humbleness and humour was amazing and we all truly felt we were in the presence of one of the greatest figures of our lives.  It’s one hand shake I will never forget and the Kona Honzo is in awe as well.

Off to spend some time in the mountains up here around Dharmkot to soak in the past 5 weeks of adventures and let the high altitude do its thing as in 4 weeks the final race of the season will take place over in Nepal at the Yak Attack 🙂

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