The Mongolian Challenge was hard, but the jet lag is worse, far worse. This update is being composed at 4 am, Canadian time, aka 7 pm Mongolian time. I left Mongolia at 11:50 am on Monday and arrived in Canada at the same time, same day. This provokes a problematic reaction in a guys sleep schedule.
Nonetheless I am back in Canada after an unreal 18 day non-gong show adventure in a land which had me scratching my head many times. The first few days before the race were spent in the countries capitol, Ulan Bator. This city of 1.5 million people is a gong show as the city center is filled with countless stores and restaurants all over the streets and back alleys with people dodging in and out of traffic trying to make there paths in the chaos. Everyone drives like a bunch of sugar high 11 yrs olds in a go-cart derby. Away from the city center the houses turn into traditional Gher huts as more and more of the population tries to immigrate to the city causing massive shanty towns to emerge.
After meeting everyone and getting organized for our 10 day race we headed out on a charted flight south to the Gobi Dessert and the city of Dalanzadgad. The flight was rad as we cruised for 1.5 hrs over a very desolate landscape. As we neared our landing the plan started to battle a huge head wind and some turbulence. The landing ended up being sketchier then Mexican seafood in the middle of a desert as the plane bounced off the run way, balancing on one wheel for a few seconds and then getting control just before the runway ran out. After we all let go of each others hands we unloaded our plane and were welcomed to our first camp of the week which had already been set up by the 50 man strong Mongolian Challenge work team. The camp was solid with 2 massive dining/cooking tents, 4 tents for massages, media and the mechanics and then 69 yellow tents, one for each of the racers. My travel partners/ race allies, Craig Richey and Thom Skinner, both from Victoria BC, immediately commented how insanely tied down all the tents were. This we would understand later once the first of many dust storms of the week would hit, causing everyone in camp to stop everything and to cling onto whatever tent was nearest by to prevent it from becoming a distant ornament in the Mongolian landscape.
On Stage 1 we woke up to a huge dust storm which caused havoc in our race preps as racers tried to mouth down bowls of porridge with a nice sandy topping. I learned after 30 minutes of trying that putting contact lenses in during a dust storm isn’t a pro move. After 2 hrs of struggling, and sand paper like contact lenses in our eyes, we all reached the start line in time to begin our 1200 km journey across Mongolia.
The race itself was unreal as we raced across sandy deserts, moon like landscapes, barren prairies, over mtns and through fertile valleys. Every day was a slow moving movie which kept surprising us around every turn. There our moments in our lives which stand out, usually these moments come around once every few months, but during this race it was pretty much an every day occurrence. Coming over a hill and seeing the powerful sand dunes of the Gobi dessert or watching camels come out of a dust storm across the desert are unreal images which are left imprinted on my mind forever, or until I get alzheimers.
The locals were a highlight of there own as most of them live like a bunch of nomads still in there traditional gher huts, spending there days herding there yaks and sheep. I assumed they thought we were aliens as we would rip by on our race bikes and flashy spandex but they wouldn’t bat an eye and would usually send out a smile or hand wave. There were some problems with the locals though as they would steal the race direction arrows as they were on wooden stakes which made perfect support beams for there ghers. These were a hot commodity in a land with no trees.
At times it was tough to concentrate on the race with all the foreign mind stimulation around us we were here for a bike race and what a bike race it was!
The first five stage had 5 different winners, from 4 different countries. On stage 1, last yrs winner, Marzio Deho got a little aggressive and tried to solo away into a headwind for 1.5 hrs. My allie, Craig Richey and I dropped everybody else as we battled hard together to bring back the possessed Italian. We accomplished our mission at the last feed zone and I immediately set out on a flyer with 20 km to go as Deho looked drained from his big effort. This was a success as I broke away and would cruise in for a 5 minutes victory. Deho chased me for a while but got tired and then Craig attacked him, breaking away himself to claim 2nd on the day with Deho coming in 3rd, 8 minutes behind. This was an unreal start for the race for us and it put Deho in a tough position as he was now forced into setting the pace of the race in an effort to take the leaders jersey off my back.
For the next 4 stages Craig and I would work over Deho royally with Craig managing to claim a stage win and a couple podium spots while I would hold onto the leaders jersey. Our other allie, Thom Skinner, was battling some wicked stomach issues the first 5 stages, but he was our mastermind behind our race tactics as we would have small pow wows every night to discuss how to manage the Italian. For a couple of the stages Deho followed me like shadow, at one point I stopped pedalling and the two of us both drifted off the lead pack and eventually came to a stop where we each took a piss break. As the other riders rode away we slowly got on our bikes, both waiting for the other guy to start riding but it was a game of cat and mouse. After a while the lead pack was getting pretty far away from us so we mutually agreed to both work to get back up to it. Once we got back in the pack we continued our childish roadie games.
Stage 6 was the day that the roadie tactics from the first 5 stages were going to be put to rest and hopefully a true mountain bike race would break out as we entered into the steep climbs of the Mongolian mtns. This occurred as Deho and myself road away from the rest of the field on the first climb and never looked back. Deho tried everything in the book to drop me including blowing by feedzones and descending at speeds which were far out of control. Dropping me he couldn’t do, and instead I dropped him going over the 2nd of 3 mtns on the day. He would catch me on the back descent as he continued descending like a 7 yr old on his first bike who had no perception of the consequences of wrecking his bike or body. On the last climb of the day I would drop him again and then on the final decent to the finish line Deho finally paid for his kamikaze descending style and flatted 500 meters from the finish line. Taking the victory on this stage was a big blow to Deho as he was counting on riding away from everyone this day.
Stage 7 is forgettable. 3 flats – 2 tubes = 1 f’d bike rider. Duct taping holes in a bike tube is not an effective race tactic. Luckily a donated 26″ tube got me to the finish line, but 30 minutes behind Deho.
Stage 8- Tried to get the leaders jersey back but Deho stuck to my back wheel like a piece of yak dung and dropped me on his own attack with 50 km to go, through the feed-zone as I filled my bottles. I chased 1 minute behind him for 1 hr but the Italian is a monster on the flat land and would eventually pull away to secure his overall lead.
Stage 8 after party- Mongolian Wrestling matches!!! Holy cow these boys can giver. Much better then WWE, and 100% real! All us racers made the wise choice and declined all requests by the Mongolians to tie us into knots. Head organizer, Willy Mulonia, and myself did have match with myself throwing my shoulder out (old hockey injury) and Willy cracking two ribs and needing to get needles stuck in his bum the following days to deal with the pain. Neither of us our proud of our accomplishments although the Mongolians thought it was great.
Stage 9- Last day! Craig and I tried to work over Deho again in the sprint finish but we got worked over instead. At the finish line there was a bit of animosity between the Italian and us two Canadians. Were still not too sure what he was all bunched up about but were guessing he probably found some camel crap in his morning bowl of cornflakes.
Stage 10- 6hr Rally car derby back to Ulan Bator. Scariest day ever in a car. When we hit a traffic jam going into the city we started driving on the sidewalks, which perfectly sums up the driving style over here in Mongolia.
The days after the race are always rad as we can finally get to relax. Food, sleep, black markets, awards ceremonies, and a wicked ride with a local named Hutch. Hutch, an American teaching english in Mongolia, took myself out on a 3 hr tour of some of Mongolias best, and probably only single track. It may not have been BC quality trails but it was pretty rad and we ended up at some crazy Buddhist prayer monuments on top of mountains. Thanks for the ride Hutch! and for the post ride buffet and vodka.
Overall the race was very solid and gets the Gold star stamp of approval. It is tough and may make you cry but the organization is dialed, the adventure is unreal and the overall experience is something which is out of this world.
Being back in Canada it feels like Mongolia was a dream. Maybe it was? I’m still not thinking straight thanks to the hungoverness from the 10 day race, 15 hr time difference, and one night with Chinggis Vodka.
Over and out!
Back to my cave until the darkness lifts…