Mongolia Bike Challenge Round 3

It was my third time racing the MBC (Mongolia Bike Challenge) and it never seizes to amaze me what this race and country have to offer.  Every year I come I think “danm that was an adventure of a lifetime”, but I’m starting to realize that it’s just what life is like when you try to race 800-1200km across such a raw and unspoiled land.

Mongolia is a unique country, a place I’m attracted to due to its wildness and unpredictability.  The people are great, the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar is a chaotic gong show, the countryside is the polar opposite, tranquil, peaceful and full of nature at its best.  Racing the MBC you get a glimpse of everything.  A couple days in UB is enough for almost anyone and touring the country by bike for 7 days tires out even the most energized of us.  When it comes to an end I find myself even more intrigued and inspired to come back and learn more about the country and the Nomadic Mongol way of life.

Stages 1 and 2 were great as we staged out of Ger huts from below the huge Genco Genghis Khan statue racing our hearts out, then returning to the statue for unlimited healthy Mongol cuisine.   On day 1 the race was on as we tested each other out.  A lot of us had visions of wearing the Pink leaders jersey at the end of the day.  I waited for my opportunity with 30 km to go then asked my body for every once of energy left to power over the steep grassy hills too finish line.  I came through exhausted, but with an 8 minute gap on the next rider.  American x-pat and good friend Hutch Butler gave me the course info that this could be the place to launch a late race attack, it worked.  Thanks buddy!

Day 2 was a hard day in the saddle as the Spaniards Pau Zamora and Antonio Ortiz Barranco used the 2nd feed station to launch an attack together.   6 of us would chase them for 60 km but we would still lose 2.5 minutes to the duo.    I wasn’t impressed with there tactic to use the feed zone to get away while we waited for everyone else, but I do applaud them for there great ride afterwards as we were riding hard as a group of 6 and couldn’t close the gap.  Part of this was due to the 20 river crossings, which killed any rhythm we had, but at the same time they really put the hammer down.

Stage 3 started with a chilly morning as we left our rustic ger camp under questionable skies.  On this ride we were turned around 40 km into the stage, as a river crossing was too high to cross.  This was disappointing but I have raced enough stage races through countries with non-existent infrastructure to know that these sorts of things are part of the adventure.    The rest of the day was a full on trip as we spent hours snacking on weird Mongol treats and huddling in ger huts to stay warm.  Next up was a firsthand experience of a sketchy Mongolian van rally for 4 hours as our transfer vans raced across the rough barren grasslands.  Our drivers acted like they were Genghis Khan in a bloody battle and very serious about this car rally, chopping each other and passing at some unrealistic places.  Our van finished 2nd out of 14 on the day.  We were scared but also grateful to have a bit of extra time at camp to get organized for the next stage.  This camp was at over 6000 ft., pretty chilly, and the first real test for a lot of riders as there wasn’t a lot of rest or prep time that night.

Yes, this adventure requires a lot of energy and a bit of toughness at times but it’s nothing in the big picture.  Sleeping in Ger huts keeps us out of the elements and lets us pretend were half of tough as the Mongols who live out in these harsh Mongolian environments 12 months of the year.  These people are hard as nails.  Mongol racers are much the same and made us suffer for the first part of a lot of stages, unfortunately there race nutrition and tactics leaves a bit to be desired and they usually fade as the stages go on.  This is lucky as some of these guys have serious engines from their road racing backgrounds.

Stage 4, Willy shortened from 175km to just over 100 as a lot of riders were fatigued and not in the highest of spirits to race for 6 + hours after the big day before.Team Mongolia went for it from the start gun and made us suffer like a bunch of poor warriors being beat down by Genghis Khan and his hoard. They hammered through the cool morning air setting a blistering pace.  I nearly lost my breakfast as we blasted 50 km/hr down a slight DH for the first 15 minutes. I had some help from fellow Canuck Peter Watson to get back up to the main group.  As soon as we caught up to the inspired Mongols, Jason Sager and I went to the front and eased the pace down as these guys were going to rip our legs off.

Stage 5 was suppose to be our chill day as we road 95 km loop around our rocky river Ger camp.  It was anything but as  fellow North American ally Jason Sager attacked from the gun, with Australian Mark Frendo and myself bridging up to him after the first GPM.  From here Mark and I would work together to gain an advantage of 2.5 minutes over the chasing Spaniards.  Mark was the Australian U23 champion over Dan McConnell a few years back and was pulling like it across the Siberian plateau. Our gap was growing to the point were I was going to have a nice GC lead at the end of the stage and he would likely be up to 2nd overall.  This all went up in dust when we came across some incorrect/sabotaged course markings and were directed off course and raced for 20 km in the wrong direction. Behind us the race referee stopped the next 18 riders, put them back on course, then fixed the course markings so no one else got lost.

Meanwhile Mark and I were on our own little mission racing up the wrong valley.  It was hilarious in hindsight as we kept thinking we recognized the countryside and that the finish line would pop up around the next corner. At one point we thought we found camp, only to later realize it was a small village.   When we hit 100 km on our Garmin’s, the dream came to a crashing end and we came to a halt in the middle of god knows where.  We were a couple tired, lost bikers scratching our heads trying to figure out what just happened.  We had a small picnic, admired the view, then turned our bikes around to cruise back somewhere to find some food and waters as we were running low.  Eventually we found a race vehicle full of racer companions, they tried to tell us to pick up the pace and race to the finish line.   I don’t think they quite realized how screwed we were and how messed up our race was at this point.

They lead us back on course and we made our way to the finish line, clocking around 140 km on the day.  This wasn’t the way we imagined the day ending.  That evening the race officials had a meeting on how to best deal with this dilemma and decided to take times from the 2nd feed station just before we were sent off course.  This seemed like the fairest way to handle the situation although Mark and I were both disappointed we didn’t have a chance to extend our 2.5 minute lead over the final 25 km of course and properly finish the hard ride we had started.  It was a day to quickly forget so we could re focus on the stages ahead.

Stage 6 was a long 170 km day through rolling grasslands.  It wasn’t the most scenic day in memory although we did see a huge herd of Camels and some wild Gazelles sprinted by us.  A few riders animated the ride with attacks, one of the most notable was Mike Blewitt who road over 155 km in the break before being caught.  There was a handful of riders (Lee Rodgers, Joao Marinho, Batmunkh Maral- erdene, Hao Hu) that we likely wouldn’t of caught if it wasn’t for UK 24 hr specialist Matt Page going to the front for a 30 km pull.   At the finish the 4 of us top GC riders (Antonio, Pau, Jason and myself would sprint for 2nd.)  The day belonged to Paus brother Marcel, an accomplished Ironman triathlete who used the long day for a big breakaway effort and a well-deserved win.  Camp this night was in deluxe Gers with wood heaters, fancy décor and comfy beds.  A nice treat after somewhat roughing it for the previous 4 nights.

Stage 7 started out hard with another Matt Page effort, followed by 40 km of cruising.  After this the Spaniards initiated the attacks and split the large lead group, leaving just 4 of us to battle it out for the days crown.  At km 90 we caught glimpse of our stunning 13th century Ger camp situated under a huge rock outcrop. We thought we were done but Race organizer Willy had other ideas and flagged an extra 7 km into the day’s race around the rock.  This I smiled at as it’s full MBC style. It was a stellar finish over some steep hills, past am ancient Ger camp and down some ditched out descents. It was a drastically tough finish to the 4th edition of the MBC and was just enough to allow me to crack the other riders and roll in for the stage win and claim my 2nd Mongolian Bike Challenge title!  Coming back this year with the stacked field and no teammates I was unsure if this was going to be a reality.  Lucky for me I came in a little lighter and was riding some really good form after winning the Canadian Championships the weekend before.

The evening’s awards were great with lots of local Mongolian performers; a 13th century feed of Free-range organic meat and finally a bonfire with a wild Mongol dance.  This put a Cultural cap on what was another unforgettable trip to Mongolia.  Adventure wise it is tough to compare Mongolia to the other stage races, and now with some more comforts built in it is starting to become one of the must do races around the globe.  There are a few small adjustment the organization is working on to improve the experience next year such as having a better Plan B for Stage 3 if the rivers are high, as well as a lead motto to keep us on track. I predict it will be tough to find a spot in this race in the coming years as the small field cap of 108 riders will surely fill up fast.

After the race Hutch and his wife Aggie lead my Mom and I to the beautiful Terelj National Park full of spectacular rock outcrops and small Ger tourist camps.  Here we spent a couple days holed up in a Ger re-energizing, my Mom for her trip back to Canada and myself for a trip over to Japan for the Otaki 120 Marathon.

PS Thanks Mom for coming along on this tour.  You were great to have out there!

2 Comments on “Mongolia Bike Challenge Round 3”

  • Cindy September 13th, 2013 1:56 pm

    Well done Cory!
    How amazing to have your Mom there while you pull off such ride in such a challenging place!
    What a great read too!
    Cindy, Wild Mtn. Jasper

  • Jean Ann Berkenpas September 13th, 2013 7:35 pm

    It looks and sounds like a wonderful and epic adventure. Congrats on a second well deserved win!

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