Sometimes life goes as planned and is a piece of cake, other times it does its own thing and you get to hang on for one hell of a ride. This year the Yak Attack did its own thing and I was sent on a soul building journey.
The Yak Attack is a 9 day, non-profit stage race through Nepal. UK adventurer Phil Evans organizes this event in an effort to support the local Nepalese bike racers and fund raise some money to get them to races around the World. The first 3 days of the Yak took place in the hot and dusty foothills before heading into cooler temperatures around the Annapurna Circuit and into the heart of the Himalayas. It’s a race I was looking forward too for a long time as it takes mountain bike racing back to its pure routes of ripping around a beautiful country side in a raw, uncontrolled environment. No course marshalls, no crowd barriers, no UCI officials, just a route chalked out in the dirt directing the riders through a maze of paths in a spectacular part of the world.
The days before the race in Kathmandu were stellar as the local Nepal riders showed us around the chaos of the city and on some local trails in the surrounding hills. Nepal is a 3rd world country with everything under the sun going on there. If you let your guard down for a second you will get hit by some sort of random vehicle, bitten by a dog, run into a cow or hit a budhist munk and be put under a curse. It is action central and makes for an interesting time.
Stage 1 of the race was full tilt from the start as this is the big show of the year for many of the Nepalese boys. They have little money to travel out of the country and even if they do it is very hard for them to get visas. Thus when they get a chance to race a World Class event in there own country they jump at the opportunity and show up with there guns a blazing. These guys are great, full of heart and a passion for cycling and life in general which is contagious and a pleasure to be part of. They are inspired when foreigners come to there country to race and have never lost the Yak Attack in 8 years. Day 1 was a shocker for my Canadian blood. Coming from the depths of the Alberta Oil fields, a frozen environment where virtually nothing survives, to Nepal, the land of the overflowing petri dish and a country bursting with life. Unfortunately some of that life found its way into my stomach the day before the race.
Feeling weird from the start, nauseated and slightly overwhelmed by everything going on. I figured it was to be expected given it was the first race of the year and partly from being in a far off land. Yuki Ikeda from Japan was the 1st ever foreigner to win stage 1, 3 time Champ, Ajay from Nepal finished 2nd and myself in 3rd.
That night was great as the race was staying at a teahouse on the top edge of a hill overlooking a valley full of life below. Nepal has around 6 million less people then Canada, but all crammed in a country about 1/60th the size. This means there are people everywhere, which becomes very apparent after dark when the mountains light up like Christmas trees with lights and fires beaming off them. Other then the scenery the night was forgettable as fellow Canadians, Gerry and Erik from Calgary were crapping there guts out while my stomach was starting to refuse food and started up some washer machine like motions. We’re not sure what we ate but we figure it came from the 4 star hotel we had been staying at in Kathmandu before the race. We had all been careful with your food consumption, trying to eat either food from home or at expensive western style places to try and avoid the local stuff as Nepal seemed sketchy in this department.
Stage 2 the wheels fell off 1.5 hrs in as the body refused all fuel and drink and felt like it was getting pregnant with triplets. 20 km from the finish it all came unglued as I collapsed in a ditch, nauseated, puking and beat down to a pulp. Big thanks to fellow Canadian Jeff Neilson for riding with me to the finish line this day, as I was a hurting unit. All I could think about was finding ice cream for the rest of the day but this wasn’t happening up here. This night I lay on my bed, ate some fries, and then started hitting the toilet like it was my favourite lazy boy. The fries were likely a bad idea but things were heading south in a hurry and it was sort of like tossing a grenade into an already burning explosion. Other then that we were in a very cool hillside town called Gorhka which is the ancestral hometown of Nepal’s ruling royal family and home to a grand palace and temple overlooking the valleys below.
Stage 3 I road the first 15 km alright, spent the next 30 km in the ditch using up a roll of toilet paper, bought more toilet paper at a local store and spent the last part of the race using it up, eventually arriving in Bessishar, a gateway town to the Himalayas & Annapurna track.
The most memorable part of this day was trying to buy toilet paper and water in a small village along the track. I gave the lady 500 rupees for the goods which cost around 5o, she had no change so decided to just give me the goods. The people are too nice in Nepal and sometimes seem to have no care or interest in money which is quite the change from a 1st world country. As I turned around to rush to the toilet, I was greeted by a policeman and 20 villagers very keen to find out my story. “Excuse me sir, we have questions!” Oh no I thought, I wasn’t sure how long I could hold my stomach in but did a Q&A anyways for 6 questions then politely exited the premises before I made a mess. As I left someone yelled “Good luck sir, we hope you win your race!.” Ha I thought, the only race I was in was the one to the toilet. The other memorable part of the day was getting passed by a 50 year old barefoot woman carrying about 30 kilos of firewood on her back. This motivated me to keep going. We played cat and mouse for around 30 minutes, she would drop me on all the hills but then I would roll by her on the descents. Being Canadian Marathon Champ I wasn’t about to let the old lady just walk all over me without a fight. By the 3rd time I passed her she started to smile, probably wondering what the hell I was doing in my purple spandex squatting all over her country.
That night in Bessisahar there was an excited atmosphere around camp as the following day we would enter the grand Himalayas. It was another rough night on the toilet with little sleep. The smart thing to do would’ve been to head back to Kathmandu on a 8hr bus ride and lay in a bed till whatever I had passed. I had travelled to far though, and had waited way to long in my life to see the Himalayas, not knowing when I would get a chance to come back so I decided to buy more toilet paper, hydration salts and some diapers if need be to continue the ride.
Stage 4 was a nuclear explosion. Gerry Mccuaig from Calgary kept me company for the first 3 hrs of the ride as we road up a specatacular gorge, right up the veins of the towering peaks above. There were cliffs, waterfalls and glaciers all over and the road itself somehow wound its way around the epic scenery. The most boggling part of the scenery was seeing houses perched up on all the mountainsides. The commutes some of those people had just to get water would likely take up half there days. Overall it was one of the most scenic days on the bike ever. It was also one of the worst days, as 40 km in my body went from limp mode to complete meltdown. With 20 km to go I figured I could make it if I bought more toilet paper and eased the riding pace down to snail mode. Eventualy this technique ran thin as something really bad was going on inside my guts as they started to cramp and get tied in nots like no tomorrow. Eventually I layed down beside the trail in the fetal position, dry heaved out one end and let out some horrid gas through the other. For 30 minutes I lay there with a couple riders coming by and offering pain killers to ease the mess. I refused this but eventually the broom wagon came. About 4 hrs off the leaders and 30 minutes off the last place rider, I was in a realatively new position as a “bike racer.” The proper thing to do would’ve been to crawl into the closest local teahouse, spend the night and then head back to Kathmandu. Instead I crawled into the broom wagon, had the longest 15km ride of my life to the finish town of Chame, stopping every 10 minutes so I could jump out and relieve my guts. This night was spent dreaming of better days.
Stage 5 started out riding through a tight gorge, eventually breaking out into a broad alpine valley with the 7000M Annapurna Range towering above us. I had never seen mountains like this before! The 28km took nearly 5 hrs, but I made it to the town of Manang in which we had a day off ahead of us. This was a quiet little village, full of trekkers, bakeries and a Yak shed with a movie theatre inside it. Up on the mountain sides you could see the camps of budhist Monks, just like out of the movies, but this was the real thing. A few of the riders hiked up for a visit while the rest of us spent our day off resting, drinking Nepalese tea, and enjoying the mountains. In the evening we went to the Yak theatre and watched “7 years in Tibet”. It was the new release as of 8 years ago. In a weird turn of events, for the first time in 4 days food even stayed inside my body, only cornflakes, but it was something.
Stage 6 was 18 km long and went from 3300 M to 4500M. This sounds short but at this altitude nothing is a walk in the park. One of the challenges of the Yak Attack is the setup which involves the need of Porters to haul our bags for 3 stages through the mountains. This means at 6am, we must have our bags ready to go for them. With race start at 9am there’s a lot fo chilly bikers curled up in there beds waiting for the start. Being out of the race I decided to take a 30 L backpack full of warm clothes and food to make for a comfortable day. Starting at the back of the race I soon found myself actually passing other riders as my body was surprisingly useful again and the legs were fresh from having soft pedalled for the previous 4 days. This made for a nice cruise up to finish line were I arrived in time to watch the leaders come in. Up here we spent a pleasant afternoon drinking tea, eating food and suntanning under a temple of mountain vistas.
Stage 7 wasn’t a normal bike racing day as the first 2 hours were spent hike a biking through snow over a 5 500 M pass. We started with our headlights at 4:30 in the morning to insure we all got over the pass before the chilly morning winds picked up. This made for a great spectacle as 40 of us riders + 40 more sherpas wound our way up the mountain slope with only headlights visible. My day started out wrong as my shoulder dislocated as I swung my bike over it. This sent my bike tumbling town the mountain and myself walking around in circles trying to get it back in. Race organizer, Phil Evans, and the two doctors watched in awe, offering painkillers, and probably a little worried there first casualtie was at the start line of the epic day. Luckily the shoulder came back into joint and I was able to hike back up to the GC leaders just before the top. It was a little chilly up there around -15 celsius, and slow going with the lack of oxygen, which was around half of that at sea level. The decent off the backside was great as it was half riding, half sliding down the mountain. Porters were seen riding our bags down the mountain side and riders were crashing all over the slopes. The Canadian contingent of Erik, Kate, Jeff and Gerry did Canada proud showing off there perfected snow riding skills and crushing it down the slopes. Race leader Ajay and I road in together behind three hard core Nepalese who were way off the front of the race, running around in old cycling shoes and not nearly enough clothes. They won the stage handily but the winner Narayan may lose part of his pinky to frostbite, and Ram Tamang in 3rd place was seen with his feet in warm water for the rest of the day to thaw them out.
This afternoon was spent chilling in Kagbeni, a small gateway town to the ancient kingdom in the Upper Mustang Valley. This area is legendary in Nepal with Nomads and Snow leopards running around in the area which very few tourists get to see due to the $500 permit to visit the area. This is a destination for a future trip, this time around we headed to the local Yak Donalds for Yak burgers. These took 1.5hrs to come out of the kitchen as they likely had to butcher the Yak after we made the order. They were delicious. There was a big relief around the race this afternoon as the last big obstacle before the finishline had been tackled.
Stage 8 was a pretty straightforward day as we descened from 3500 M-1500M through the Kali Gandaki Gorge, the deepest gorge in the World. The gorge separates the major peaks of Dhaulagiri (8,167 m or 26,795 ft) on the west and Annapurna (8,091 m or 26,545 ft) on the east. It was amazing to ride down. I raced for a while and then was distracted by the scenery and did some detouring across suspension bridges to check out some local trails and get some better views of the mountains. Eventually we ended up at the last finish line in the small tourist village of Tatopani which is famously home to some natural hotsprings. The rest of the day was spent in hotsprings, eating food and watching the locals perform a Cultural program in the evening. It was a great finish to one hell of a journey through Nepal. After seeing this race, us riders have a huge respect to Phil Evans for having the vision and guts to pull off such an epic event in a very unforgiving environment!
Topping off what had already been great adventure, the race had organized for the riders to spend 2 nights in Pokhara, the adventure capital, and likely tourist capital of Nepal. This was the perfect place to unwind and get drunk on oxygen and enjoy some time with the other riders before they headed back to there homes around the World. Yuki and I headed down to a local massage parlour for some “Trekker Massages” to relieve our sore bodies. It was a bad experience, even a step below the Scorpion massages in Mongolia. 2 minutes into the massage, the 90 pound massage girl put some weight on the back of my shoulder and popped it right out of joint sending me into a world of hurt as this time it wasn’t popping back in. She panicked and ran away, eventually coming back with her trainer, who luckily new which way to pull my arm and back into its socket. The next 50 minutes were spent getting double teamed, one girl working on my legs the other one massaging my shoulder with a special healing lotion, saying sorry every 2 minutes. After this it was down to get some ice cream to lift the spirits.
After our days of relaxing, everyone packed up for there flights back to Kathmandu while Ajay, Raj and myself prepped ourselves for a 3 day ride back to Kathmandu through the backroads. We planned on leaving the next day but ended up hanging around Pokahra for 4 more days. 2 of them spent recovering and the other 2 going on couple mtb rides around the countryside. The one ride overlapped a colour festival were everyone is running around the country throwing water balloons and coloured chalk in each other faces yelling happy Holi! Quite an experience to get slapped in the face with red chalk as you roll out the door. The day after this gongshow we packed up and started our 280km backroad journey to Kathmandu. Story to come..
As for the Yak Attack, the overall experience was great. Getting sick was a bummer but it’s just part of the tax of coming to this crazy part of the World. It would be great to come back one day and actually race the Yak Attack as it is one hell of a journey and a stunning place to rip around on a Mountain bike. For now it’s time for some rest and recovery in the Australian sun before winding the legs back up for the rest of the race year!