"Treat people and this earth right, follow your dreams and come alive with whatever you're passionate about."

Annapurna Circuit 24 HR Fundraiser

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the Nepal’s most popular trekking routes as it travels 220 km around the Annapurna mountain Massif. Last December I set out un supported to ride this loop in under 24 hours as a fundraiser to help establish a new cycling training centre in Nepal.  Not being properly acclimatized it kicked my ass going over the 5416 M Thorong La pass as I crawled into Beni 23 hours and 57 minutes later. 2.5 k USD was raised. This was used to help open the NCRR training centre in Kathmandu along with help and support from Mountain Bike World Wide.  

This year the goal was was to raise 6 500 USD to keep the Nepal training centre open for another year, outfit it with some much needed equipment, and to further train some of the Nepalese riders into coaches.   Having learnt some tough lessons the year before I was keen to get some redemption on the circuit and made sure I would be better acclimatized this time around.  It probably takes 3-4 weeks at high altitude to fully prepare for a ride going over 5400 meters.  I would have 17 days, between a trip around the Manaslu Circuit, racing the Yak Attack and a week training camp in the Mustang, traversing over Tilicho lake to Manang with my buddy Roan.

The trip over to Tilicho lake from Tukuche turned into a proper adventure as Roan and I wold run out of daylight as we crossed two passes over 5200 M.  The 2nd one topped out at 5370 and left us trying to find our way down a steep goat trail descent in the dark.  It was an adrenaline booster as we eventually dropped down to Tilicho lake and found a shack to stay in at 5000 M for the night.  It was a rough night as we had headaches and slept lightly, waking up many times throughout the night.  The next day we were both tired as we first went searching for my Giro helmet that was blown off my head the night before as I unclipped it at the shack.  We found it 90 vertical meters down along the shores of Tilicho lake, a bit battered but still useable. Once on the bikes we hit some sweet trails down the valley to Manang for a day off.  This trip was a bit more then we were planning for so we opted to take an extra day off at Manang.  It was working out though as it allowed us to stay at altitude until the day of the Annapurna 24 HR ride, in which I would descend down from the mountains, rest for 12 hours in Besisahar and then turn around and start the ride at 10:50 pm on November 20th.

It was rad having support this year as Ajay, Okesh, Rajan and Gauravman were in Besisahar to help the preparations as well as support and film some coverage on the Manang side of the journey.  This first half of the ride is done in the dark to insure Throng La pass is hit in the heat of the mid day sun.  It is an amazing ride as the rough road twists its way up a tight river gully slowly climbing out of the tropics and into a high mountain hanging valley.    There are a number of creek crossings which are critical as wet feet down low will soon turn into frozen ice blocks up high as the temperature generally dips below freezing around the village of Chame at 2700 M.  This year I had stashed food at different locations around the circuit during the Yak Attack, and had also left a set of Shimano MW5 waterproof biking shoes in Chame to insure I’d have dry and proper footwear for the upper portions of the ride over the pass.  

The ride was going great until the last 10 km before Chame as my feet were soaked from an earlier mishap in a creek and were now slowly freezing into ice blocks.  Reaching Chame at 4:30 am it was straight to the New Tibet hotel to change shoes, and prep for the cold morning up in Manang.  G-man followed me in to film the change over and we accidentally made quite the racket waking up some trekkers.  The first trekker to come out of there room was an Austrian friend I had met a few days before at Tilicho lake.  She thought it was pretty amusing and was soon being interviewed by G-man, which incidentally woke up another trekker. This guy was pissed, fair enough, but it was good pay back for all the mornings the trekkers had woken us up at 3am in the teahouses as they set out at silly hours to try and get over the high mountain passes in the freezing dark.  

After Chame the road keeps climbing up to Pisang at 3100 M where it opens up into a wide valley with dramatic views of the Annapurna range.  It was a chilly part of the ride as the sun had yet to come up and the deep freeze of the night was still lingering and there were a few icy patches on the road.  I had to keep reminding myself that once the sun was up the body would start reversing the freezing cycle it was currently in as it was getting rather frosty.    G-man and Ajay who were following along filming via motorbike were probably alot colder but they toughed it out as they supported the ride all the way to where the dirt road ends in Manang. The sun finally reached us in Manang where I took a longer break to get ready for the toughest part of the journey, a stunning 21 km stretch of trail pitching up from 3500M to to 5416 M over Thorong La Pass.  First things first was to unload a giant dump that had been plaguing my ride for the last hour that I didn’t wan to deal with in the freezing night.  Next up was breakfast at the Alpine home teahouse, and reorganizing gear before hitting the trail again. 

The climb out of Manang was great but as the trail pitched over 4000 M the body de-energized and went into a limp mode.  One of Nepals top racers and good buddy Roan was waiting at Yhak Kharka to traverse over the pass with me.  Meeting up with him uplifted the ride and soon we were in Throng Phedi camp, the base of the 6 km, 900 M vertical ascent over one of the World’s highest commonly used passes.  Here I hit the bench hard and was ready to pass out.  The owners of the teahouse were great, giving us a huge plate of potatoes and some tea to get us over the pass. They thought it was amusing I was trying this ride again after seeing me in such a rough state last year at there teahouse.  

It was a bit longer break in Phedi but soon we were back on trail, hike a biking over the pass.  During the Yak Attack race we made it over the pass 1-2, in around an hour 25 minutes, but this day it took us 3 hours.  After 30 minutes of struggling I put the country music on to distract the mind as I creeped towards the summit of the pass.  It was painfully slow and pretty rough on the mind but we kept inching towards the top.  Roan was doing better then I, as I was going snails pace, but thankfully feeling alot better than the year before in which I had a pounding headache and could’t stand up straight.  Apparently the acclimatization was paying off, but still the body was struggling with the 4600 Meter vertical gain in 12 hours.  I guess there is a reason the doctors recommend not ascending anymore then 500 meters a day at high altitude. I’ll be keen to try another training regime in the future to improve this performance over the pass as there is no way it should take twice as long as it does at race pace.  What would be really interesting would be to have a doctor come along on the trip and take some tests every 500 vertical meters to see what’s happening inside the body as it’s something that is still a mystery to me.

Cresting Throng La pass ended one of the roughest stretches of bike riding/pushing all year.  We snapped a couple mandatory photos then hit the epic single track descent down a trekking trail with loads of line options to Muktinath (3700M).  It was rad as my Kona Hei Hei was finally back up to speed eating up the descent although the steep sections were a bit sketchy as my bike packing bags made it hard to get behind the seat.  Towards the bottom a Nepali trekking guide stopped us and asked if I was the Canadian bike rider. He then told us that our American buddy was waiting 45 minute further down the trail.  I was thinking wholly shit, where is Patrick waiting, he was suppose to be in Muktinath but if he’s 45 minutes further down then he must be in Jomsom.  5 minutes later we came upon Patrick who was waiting to capture the last part of the journey with his photography skills.  He’s been capturing our Kona Adventure team projects for the last couple years and has a cool website at https://trailhousephoto.com  .It was great to see him again as he had fallen ill a week earlier when Roan and I were taking off over to Tilicho lake.  

Muktinath is a sacred village for both Hindus and Buddhists as it sits perched high up in the himalayas and has a very sacred temple and shrines.   People travel from all over the World to be blessed under the 108 fountains in the temple and its two ponds.  We stopped in the village to reload on food and water before hitting a random 10 km stretch of pavement descending into the Mustang valley below.  Road construction is very patchy in Nepal and soon we were back on some rough single track, edging around a tight cliff edge before dropping to the valley floor below at 2800 M.  Here we hit a stiff headwind as we straight lined it towards Tukuche, another food cache at the High Plains Inn, and then onwards to the edge of the hanging valley at Kalopani. Our goal was to hit the insanely tough 47 km descent to our finish line in Beni before dark.  Unfortunately we ran out of daylight at the top of the descent and thus relied on our lighting systems for the last 2.5 hours of the ride.

For the past 5 years they’ve been working on this road but it seems to be getting worse and just busier with traffic every year.  It’s actually one of the truly amazing roads of this World as the rough surface, often covered in running water, snakes it’s way around some very precarious clif bands, descending through the deepest gorge in the World with a 8000 meter + mountain flanking either side.  It was nice having Roan and Patrick for this part of the ride as we kept each other in check and made sure nobody got knocked off any cliff sides while trying to get around the late night traffic.  It was the ideal testing conditions for our full suspensions as it took us over an hour to descend 1500 vertical meters to Tatopani via some very dusty, wet, and rocky road conditions.

 Rolling into the Tourist village of Tatopani we were ready to call it a day, but the finish of our ride was another 22 km down the gorge in the regions headquarter of Beni, a bustling dusty and dirty Himalayan town.  Rolling through Tatopani we came around a corner to a finish line celebration that Usha and her friends had set up to congratulate us on our trip.  They wrapped prayer shawls around us, tied prayer flags to our bikes, gave us flowers, put tikas on our foreheads and blessed us on our trip.   After a few pictures we managed to pry ourselves away from the first comfortable condition we had been in for days and continue our dark and bumpy ride into Beni.  Rolling into the Beni bus park was as anti climatic as could be.  I pushed the stop time on the gps to record the Strava time of 21 hours and 26 minutes from Besisahar, pretty much exactly 2.5 hours faster then the year before.  After a couple finish line shots we rolled over to the Yak hotel to celebrate with Dhal bhats and settle in for the night.  Having left pretty much everything in Besisahar except for some warm clothes, I rolled to a local shop to buy underwear, sandals and a toothbrush so I could have few comforts for the night.  

As like the year before, it was a big relief to be done the ride as the body was battling between being tired but was uplifted by a good adrenaline rush.  Checking the GoFundMe link to see that $7000 USD had been raised for the NCRR Training Centre throughout the ride was awesome to see.  It’s unbelievable the great support this project has received and I am very grateful for all my friends, family and sponsors that helped make it such a success. Kona Bikes made a big donation to the project and has always stood behind me.  7mesh supplied some great riding clothes for the project, Blackburn design outfitted my bike with Bike packing bags and our team sponsors, Shimano, WTB, ClifBar, MRP, Giro, Julbo, Jakroo and Squirt lube all make this all possible. This ride also signifies the end of another successful race year as the body is over due for some proper rest.  Some time will be taken trekking around the Himalayas to let the season soak in and then the planning will start on what is to come for 2019!

Interesting Facts on the Annapurna 24:

Route: Annapurna Circuit:  Besisahar Bus Park(800m) Chame(2700m)-Manang(3500m)-ThorongLa Pass(5416m)-Muktinath(3700m)-Jomsom(2700m)-Tatopani(1100m)-Beni Bus Park (800m)

Distance: 220 km

Bike: Kona Hei Hei with Shimano XTR drivetrain, brakes, pedals and hubs, WTB Ci24 carbon rims, Ranger 2.25 tires and Silverado saddle. 110mm MRP Ribbon Fork, Blackburn Design bike packing bags. Squirt lube on the chain and sealant in the tires.

Clothes: 7Mesh Guardian and Oro jackets, Outflow Primaloft Hoddy, Recon shorts, Compound shirt, Jakroo bibs and jersey, USWE Vertical 4 action pack.

Shoes and Helmet:  Shimano MW5 Waterproof shoes and XC9 racing shoes.  Giro Synthe Helmet

Elevation gain: A lot, likely 7000 Meters +.  Strava quit working mid ride.

Time: 21:26:45

Funds Raised for NCRR Training Centre: 5622 pounds = 7210 USD = 9545 CAD

Fuel for the ride: Clif Bars, Clifblocks, Corn bread, bowl of oatmeal, hemp seeds, moong dall, energy balls.

Lowest temperature: -8 celsius

Night riding: 9.5 hours

Calories burned: estimated at 11 000-13 000
Jersey Winners…
Most accurate time: Derek Melvin: 21:47

Kona Bikes for highest donation: $ 1000 Pound.

Over and out!

  

  

 

Scotland- World 24HR Championships

Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and covers the Northern third of the Island of Great Britain.  Having some bloodlines from Scotland and having watched the movie Braveheart and William Wallace battle the English for Scottish Independence I had a dream of going there one day. This past week this dream came true as I flew across the Atlantic to the small Island nation to defend the World 24 HR title I won in Italy last year. 

Mom joined me for the first part of the trip as we did some sightseeing, got some rest, and then watched Braveheart to get fired up for the weekend. My support team flew in Friday, with Leighton and his girlfriend Candace coming from Canada and Hiran, from Radical Lights, coming in from Australia. We worked great together in Italy, ending 7X World Champ Jason English’s streak, and this year we had the added bonus of Candace in the pits and the cheering from my Mom and her friend Louis in the stands.

The race started off hard with European 24 hr champ, Matti Takhola from Finland going off the front.  Josh Tostado (USA)  and a couple others would counter
attack after I brought back Matti and they would open up a small gap.  Keeping tabs on them, eventually bridging up on the 3rd lap,  we’d ride a few laps together until I upped the tempo a bit as two of the race contenders,  Jason English (Australia) , and USA strongman Taylor Lideen were still behind and I wanted to keep the pressure on. Surprisingly Josh backed off and I’d go solo off the front for the next 7-8 hours.  Usually it’s nice to have company for the first half of these 24 hour races but I didn’t care and just kept on the offensive as I was in the position I wanted to be and I thought a good offence is a good defence!

Racing for 24 hours people have all kinds of philosophys.  Some say the real race doesn’t start till 12 hours in, some say don’t go above your threshold or certain wattages, some say pace yourself, etc etc…  In my eyes every 24 hour race is unique and the foundations of the race are laid in the first 12 hours, hours 12-18 is when a lot of riders self detonate, then the last 6 hours is a shoot out with whoever is left standing.    There’s no hiding in a 24 Hour race, your weaknesse’s will be exposed and whoever is able to best cover them up usually wins. 

At one point in the night the Americans, Josh and Taylor came back up to me.  It was nice to have company as it was getting boring riding alone after 8+ hours. Being all together our pace slowed down a bit, until the long bermed out downhill on course in which they put there droppers down and seemed to push a bit harder.  The 2nd half of the downhill was a bit gnarlier with wet rocks and roots, just like the West coast riding we have in Canada each winter.  I came around them with my high post and decided to set the pace a bit higher, and incidentally dropped the other boys in this half of the descent . Wanting to ride with these guys a bit longer I stopped for a piss and joined back with them as they came by.  This wouldn’t last long as the next lap things would blow apart and pretty soon Taylor was 4 minutes back and Josh, over 13.  He would eventually succumb to the cold wet conditions and pull out,  our Finnish friend Matti was having a tough race with a broken chain and we soon lapped him, leaving Jason as the other main contender not accounted. He was apparently drifting backwards which was a good sign as often he turns the diesel on in the middle of the night. 

With just Taylor standing in the way of my title defence, I kept on the offensive and road my pace, pitting a bit longer each lap to take precautions of any potential late race meltdowns.  The body and legs were feeling good, so the key was to keep the stomach happy, the bikes safe, and to keep lubricating the eyes as they have gone blurry in the later parts of 24 hour races before due to dryness and dehydration.  Luckily dryness wasn’t a problem in Scotland as it ended up raining or drizzling for 20 hours of the race.  The weather man called for a low of 10 celsius which sounded great for jersey and shorts riding, but he must’ve been drunk as it dipped almost down to 4 celsius.  It could’ve been worse, but I know from past history that anytime it dips below 6 degrees in the rain,  you need to be careful as the core temp can drop dramatically very fast.   My pit crew was great, making me stop twice to put on a dry jersey, and at first a light rain jacket (7Mesh Oro), and then a heavier one (7Mesh Revelation).

My pit crew was doing an amazing job with my buddy Leighton handling the bike, clothing and food, Hiran from Radical Lights looking after the lighting system and using his 24 hour experience to read the race, and Leightons girlfriend Candace taking pictures, updating social media, helping in the pit and finding a shit load of potatoes to keep the engine running the last 12 hours of the race.  Generally I can last 16-18 hours before my stomach goes sideways, making it difficult to eat anything but this race at hour 12 it started to get weird.  Asking for french fries, Candace came back with an even better option from the local concession, small potatoes with oil and salt on them.  This turned into the fuel of choice for the last 12 hours as i’d be given a zip lock bag full every time through the pits. More research is needed as the stomach is still the weakest link in these races but every time it’s getting a bit more refined.

The two Kona Hei Hei’s I was running were set up great with Shimano XTR drivetrains/brakes, WTB wheels, tires and saddles, MRP Forks, and Squirt Lube on the chains. 1 bike had a bit lower handlebar and 105 mm of travel for climbing while the other with a wider/higher bar and 120 mm of travel for a bit more comfort.   The course was one of the best 24 hour courses I’d ever raced as it was real mountain biking with some tough climbs, fun descents and a bit of fire road mixed in to recover on and pass people.  It definitely took it’s toll on the riders making it a hard ride for everyone which is what you want for a World Championships. 

It was a long night in Scotland, close to 13-14 hours with the lights on. Luckily I was running the best lights in the business, Radical Lights, and felt this was a clear advantage over the competition.  Hour 18-20 turned into the witching hours as the night dragged on and a solid Scottish storm blew in with rain and cooler temperatures.  It was on the edge of turning truly amazing but held off from going that far.  Knowing Taylor was from the sweltering deserts of the USA I figured this was playing into my favour and opted to keep it steady, and sure enough pretty soon he started to drop off in the final hours of the race.   This was a nice relief as it prevented having to go into overdrive to really put the nail in the coffin.  Dieseling around the last couple of the laps, taking longer pits, it was a great feeling knowing this one was nearly in the bag.  This was a bad thing though as I let my guard down too early and ended up crashing hard with just under 3 hours to go.  

There was a 8 foot wooden ramp near the top of the course on the first switchback of the descent, I had taken it successfully 24 times, but on the 25th attempt 

some of the chicken wire must’ve worn thin as the front tire washed out sending me 6 feet down into a pile of rocks.  My numb body couldn’t feel anything as I lay there in shock analyzing the body and checking the bike over for any damages.  I  had angels on this one as miraculously nothing serious happened except for a bloody knee and inside gash on one leg.  Before the race I had dedicated this ride to my fallen Nepali brother Narayan Gopal who had drowned in a river in Sri Lanka earlier this year while racing.   I told myself no matter what happened, I’d ride this one out for him and I swear he was watching over as a crash like that would generally result in a some serious bike or body injuries. 

Heading out into the last lap was amazing as all I had to do was not mess it up and I’d successfully defend the World 24HR title from the year before.   It’s times like these that all the hard work in the months and years leading into the race pay off.  Last year a dream came true in Italy, and this was the icing on the cake being able to defend the World title in Scotland!  Not sure what a 3-peat in Brazil next July would feel like but I’m starting to think it’s worth a shot to dig deep to try and find out.. 🙂  

One of the highlights of racing these 24 hour races is being around so many other athletes from around the World that have the same interests and crazy minds.  Each race is full of drama, and pushes you well out of your comfort zone and into some far off mental states.  I’ve never done drugs of any sort but to me 24 hr racing is a one of the best drugs around.  Racing 1 a year is enough as it gives the body time to recharge and get all fired up for the next one and it also lets the nerves properly heal.  After this one I had a hot shower to warm up and then was walking back to my pit area when my feet start to feel like fire balls.  Throughout the race I was shocked the feet didn’t give me the normal grief with hot flashes and numbness. This must’ve been because they were too cold as once they started to get circulation back it was like I was walking on burning coals.  Limping into the concession area I sat on a couch for an hour eating french fries and having my buddy Leighton try to massage some life back into the feet.  The leg was also swollen up like a goose egg as I was worried I had re-injured it after having a big crash on the same leg in BC Bike Race back in July.  It had taken 3 months to feel normal again after that one and now it was back to square 1 it seemed. 

The first 24 hour Worlds I did in 2008 in Canmore left my body in a state of shock for 2 weeks afterwards with my resting heart rate being elevated to 70 beats per minute vs the normal sub 40.  Overtime the recovery has sped up after everyone one of these races and the body seems to come around quicker every time.  For some reason it seems the body bounces back to a stronger state then it was before the race, about 10-12 days afterwards.  This must be some sort of super compensation, I’ll have to ask the smartest coach I know when it comes to analyzing a persons body, Luke Way, at Balance Point Racing.

Last year we celebrated the World title with champagne on the beach in Monaco and this year we took a steam engine train ride out to the Scottish coast for Ciders and fresh seafood.  Scotland is a gorgeous country, the weather is crap, but the people more then make up for that and the rich history is intriguing.

Next up is Nepal, first to rest/acclimitize up in the high Himalayas for a week and then onwards to try for a three peat at the World’s highest mountain bike race, the Yak Attack. A week after this will hopefully be another attempt to ride the Annapurna Circuit in under 24 hours too fundraise $5000 USD to keep the newly formed Nepal Cycling Centre open another year.  Details of this will be online soon, until then it’s time to eat some more Indian food as I have 20 hours to kill here at the Dehli airport between flights.  Someone needs to introduce the 24 hour transit visa to India as this is ridiculous.

Huge thanks to all my family, friends, supporters and sponsors who have stood by me all these years enabling me to keep chasing these far fetched mountain biking dreams around the World 🙂 

Over and out!

Picture credits: Candace Mihalcheon 

 

 

  

 

   

Norway Part 2: The North & the Skaidi Xtreme

Landing in Alta in Northern Norway wednesday afernoon, Anderl and I headed over to the docks, hopped on a boat for a 1.5 hour scenic ride through the fjords, and were soon docking in the community of Hammerfest, the last big community before the North Pole!  From here we were in the hands of Odd-Peder, his wife Suzanne, and the rest of the Skaidi Xtreme team.    They felt like family from the get go as they took us up to there house overlooking the ocean for coffee and treats to kick off the Skaidi Xtreme adventures!  

The agenda around the Skaidi Xtreme was chalk full, as we ran around building bikes up, checking into the Scandic hotel and then heading up to a plateau overlooking the ocean to host a bike training camp for the local kids.  It was great to see over 30 local cyclists come for the training session with the 8 of us pro riders.  The kids were very polite, outgoing and easy to teach. After the training camp we headed to the opening ceremonies for a feed of fresh Halibut and to meet some of the community members and the other riders that were going to be involved with us in the adventure filled days to come.  

Thursday, was the “Different Experience” day.  Each year the organizers of the Skaidi Xtreme set up a day to explore the Norwegian culture up north.  This year we road our bikes 2 hours to a highpoint above Hammerfest and then down a pretty gnarly descent to the ocean for a beach side picnic.  There was a Mexican type beach right beside us but with the polar temperatures of the water and climate I’m sure it’s one of the least used beachs in the World!   Following a feed of Norwegian cheeses and meats, it was off to catch a old boat for a 2 hour ride down the fjords to the race site in Skaidi.   This boat ride was rad as a small storm blew in, making it feel like a real expedition in a far off land. Again more food was served on board, lots of fruits, cheeses and waffles.  We were beginning to wonder if they were trying to fatten us up so the local heros would have a chance at winning the Skaidi Xtreme on the weekend.  

Landing in Skaidi we road 6 km through the rain to the hotel setup, ate more food, then headed out to a local river for some Salmon Fishing. Then back for more food, fresh Salmon (which we didn’t catch), and off to catch a bit of rest.  Friday morning we were invited up to visit with a Sapmi family.  The Sapmi people inhabit the Northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland and live a semi nomadic lifestyle living of catching fish, fur trapping and reindeer herding.  They live in rounded tent like structures and teepees, and reminded me quite a bit of the Mongolians living Nomadically across the steppe.  We sat by the fire, drank some cowboy coffee, ate fresh reindeer meat, had a las0oing competition and then it was off to pre-ride parts of the Skaid Xtreme course.

This night nearly turned into a real Xtreme adventure as I was to move into a Sampi tent for race weekend as the race hotel was booked up.  I was keen on this until I found out it meant sleeping with 7 other riders just inches apart.  From past history I know it’s never a good idea to sleep with a bunch of middle age bike racers as the snoring and the middle of the night bladder control issues means there’s usually not much peace or quiet.  Thus I became a gypsy for the weekend moving my cot to small cabin nearby, which was also the HQ for race supplies so was pretty busy in the daytime but peaceful at night.  My luggage was in luggage storage in the hotel and the bike followed wherever I went.  Being on the road most the year it’s important to keep sleep at a premium or else the tank can run dry really quick! 

Skaidi Xtreme.

The Skaidi Xtreme is a 41 km race across the rough arctic tundra surrounding the village of Skaidi.  It’s a mixture of quad trails, reindeer routes and a few purpose built singletracks. This year there was a strong international field with top riders from Denmark, Great Britain, Iceland, Norway and even one Canadian 😉   It was a fast start as few of us tried to make it hard for everyone else in the 5 km start loop.  This blew the race apart and 8 of us were left going into the 6 km lap two which was full of steep rocky climbs and some fast, techy decents.  Unfortunately I flatted in this loop, requiring a couple stops to plug the tire and re-inflate it, costing over a minute.  From here it was  into chase mode for the next 30 km of the race as we entered the final lap,which took us 30 km across the tundra, up to a radio antena and down a rad, purpose built, technical descent.  I moved back up to 5th pretty quickly and could see the 4 riders ahead as the vistas were huge and the course often looped back on itself.  It was good motivation, but I also had to be careful too keep an eye on the trail as there were lots of wet marshy spots, big rocks, and holes in the ground that required proper line choosing. 

One section we entered a small birch forest and were treated to some sweet riding maneuvering in and out of the trees, going over small rock ledges and trying to stay out of the surrounding mud bogs.  It was the total opposite of the road race style Birken the week before in which we averaged over 32 km/hr on smooth gravel roads! 

With 10km to the finish,I caught Icelands National champion, Ingvar and we had a nice battle with myself pulling away on a rugged, overgrown descent.  Ben Thomas from the UK was in 3rd and was all of a sudden in sight, with the gap narrowing to around 20 seconds at one point.  I ran out of trail to catch him and would cross the finish line in 4th.  This was one of the most entertaining and gruelling 40 km I’ve done outside of Canada in recent memory as the competition was great and the course was very dynamic.  It was great to have the good legs again and I’ll be looking to keep them fired up as the Canadian Marathon Champs and WEMBO World Solo 24HR Champs are just around the corner! 

Post race things kept wound up at the race venue with a big BBQ, onsite music and a beer gardens.  My Norwegian buddy Thomas and I would take a break from the party for a bit and biked 1 hour up to the highest point of land we could see.  It was a stunning 360 view from the top with the Ocean in sight, a herd of 30 reindeer running across the tundra in front of us, and alpine vistas which stretched as far as the eye could see.  In the far off distance we could even see the NorthCape, what people often think is the northern most point of mainland Europe, just over  2100 km from the North Pole.  There are actually a couple other pieces of land nearby which are a tiny bit closer but not as dramatic so the North Cape is the touristy one.  Following our little cool down it was back to the festivities and on to the race banquet which was full of fresh reindeer, copius amounts of wine and some locals that wanted to get rowdy.  

Sunday morning my  Luxembourg friend Soren Nissen, local rider Ingen and I opted to ride our bikes the 86 km back to the airport in Alta.  The rolling terrain was great to ride as we crossed a couple bushy river gullies, across a moon like landscape then down past a beautiful lake to the area’s headquaters of Alta.  Racing is always fun but riding the day after and exploring new areas is often the icing on the cake. With the pressure off, the body being primed from the race, and a few friends to enjoy the ride with it is always a highlight of these trips. 

Next year the Skaidi Xtreme will be Sept 7th, with registration opening Feb 1st.  Stay up to date and see the race video on there Facebook page  and look for an updated website soon at www.skaidixtreme.no

Picture Credit:  Skaidi Xtreme and Frank Rune Isaksen (except the top 2)

Norway Part 1: Lillehammer & The Birkebeiner

The Norwegian part of the Euro trip started with a 3 hour flight with Wizz air from Romania to Oslo. There I was to wait two hours for my buddy Anderl to show up.  Our Norwegian buddy Thomas would then pick us up and we’d drive 2 hours north to Lillehammer, home of the 1994 Olympics and the site of the legendary Birkebeiner xc ski and mountain bike Races. Birkebeiner means birch-leg, and is a person strong in adversity and who is never overwhelmed by hardships.

Waiting for Anderl, I found a comfy place to get some work done and soon enough Anderl was sending messages, asking where he could find me in the airport.  I told him I was sitting in the only coffee shop near the exit on the main floor, impossible to miss.  I waited and waited and eventually Anderl sent another message saying he’d been everywhere and started to question which airport I was at.  He was flying domestic from Northern Norway, while I was flying International from Romania so I assumed I would be at the main airport but couldn’t figure out why it was so damn small.  Upon further review, I opened google maps to pinpoint my location and was shockingly 180 km south of the real Oslo airport, right in the middle of a farmer’s field in south Norway.  WTF I thought, Wizzair said Bucharest-Oslo, not Bucharest to a hay field in the middle of no where. 180 km is a long ways away to still be calling it Oslo. I’ll be calling Wizz Air and asking for my money back as they are falsely advertising they fly to Oslo.  Luckily Norway has a sweet train system and with a $100 ticket I was on a 4 hour journey to Lillehammer by luxury transit.  

From here the trip was solid.  Thomas, Anderl and I had a good couple days getting ready for the 15 000 rider, 84 km Birken race on the weekend.  The Birken has been held since 1993 and commemorates a journey that Birkebeiner loyalists made in 1206 to carry the heir to the Norwegian throne, 1 yr old, Hakon Hakonsson, across the mountains by skis to save his life.   Hakon would later go on to become King and ended the Norwegian Civil War.

We pre-rode the finishing stretch which involved a straight descent down a ski run in which Thomas hit 100.1 km/hr.  The last 2km of the course was a sketchy finish with high speeds, hairpin corners on gravel and slippery grass, thus we rode it a few times to pick out the proper lines.  Between riding the course, we’d hang out on the roof of the Scandic hotel, experimenting eating Norwegian brown cheese on different foods and listening to country music.  The best brown cheese combination was on a rice cake with hummus, and Norwegian Salmon 🙂  Although brown cheese on an apple was also a good combo.  Thomas and I would also find a new backpack sponsor called USWE.  Part of the Birken, requires riding with a 3.5 kg pack to mimic carrying baby King Hakon over the mountains.  USWE had the best looking packs at the pre-race expo so we started talking to their reps and eventually ended up each with a kick ass race pack.

Birken:

Race day started with a 1.5 hour drive over to the race start in Rena, which was at 3:30 pm, hours after the 10 000 + amateurs had raced.   It felt like we were coming to the scene of an apocalypse as the streets were pretty quiet but you could tell something huge had just occurred. Following a short warmup and weighing our packs, it was off to the race start with about 250 other elite and Junior racers.    It was a bit of a crazy start as everyone jostled for position on the narrow roads.  Every time there was a drive way or any opening on the side, riders would sprint to try and move up a couple places.  Being the polite Canadian I soon found myself around mid pack, a long ways from the front, sandwiched in with nowhere to go. 

Cresting the top of the first 6 km climb things opened up a bit as we hit a fast descent on loose gravel.  Apparently half the riders in the race were road racers, as I quickly moved up 50+ positions on the downhill and then found myself hike a biking up the next lose uphill as there was a bottle kneck of riders.  It was chaos, but luckily I had practiced running with my bike a lot at the last race in Romania, thus passed another 20+ riders.  Cresting the top there was a lead group of 6 getting away, followed by a chase group of 12-15, and then my group with another 8+ riders.  Unfortunately I was the strongest guy in the group which meant I spent all the time at the front, trying to catch up to the lead group before the race got away on us.  The gap would close from 30-20 seconds but I was riding over my limit and new I’d have to back off soon.  Just as it looked like the race was gone, 2 Norwegian powerhouse’s rolled by on rigid hardtails with carbon time trial road wheels.  It took every ounce of energy to just stay in the draft of these guys as they must’ve been pushing well over 500 watts.  It was a free ride back to the lead group, which soon swelled to 30 riders. 

 

From here it was a full on road race often going 40 km/hr+.  Guys would pin it for 1-2 minutes, in which all I could do is go cross eyed and pedal my bike as hard as I could, crossing my fingers the pace would let up before the engine detonated. And then everyone would sit up and we’d cruise along at recovery pace. This went on for an hour until we hit a decisive 5 minute climb, 60 km into the race and with just 25 km to go.  The roads we were racing on were hardback dirt and were just like pavement, thus the roadies went to the front and blew the race apart on this punishing climb.  I would’ve liked to have been feeling better, but was having a tough day and was one of the first to get shelled from the lead group and would race in the last 22km with what was left of the shrapnel.  Just before the sketchy descent down the ski run, a group of 8-10 riders would roll up on my wheel.  I thought, “oh shit, now I have to actually pin it down this sketchy ass descent or else lose 10 positions.  Luckily I was riding my full suspension Kona Hei Hei, which meant no one was getting by me before the finish, and I’d roll in 22nd.  Not the best day on the bike, but it was definitely a memorable one!

The following days in Lillehammer were spent between eating brown cheese, relaxing at the Scandic hotel, and trying not to go broke.  Norway is one of the most advanced countries I’ve been to as they really seem to have life figured out over here. Almost everyone is active with the ones wearing Swix shirts tending to be the fittest and probably richest. Throughout the countryside people seemed relaxed and happy and there is lots of nature all over the place.  The biggest downfall is it costs a fortune to be here.  1 day in Norway is equal to about 2 weeks in Nepal expenditure wise.  Going out for sketchy chinese food is $70+ dollars,  drinks at a bar, $15-25, a small yogurt at a convienance store, $6.

In between trying not to go broke we went on rides with local legend Lars Ragnar Manengen.  Lars was Norway’s top racer for awhile and is now a bike guide based out of Hafjell.  He took Anderl and I on some rad trails on a plateau 400 vertical meters above Lillehammer,  it reminded me of riding in the Canadian alpine, only a bit more tame as much of it was pasture land.  Eventually our time in the Olympic village ended and it was time to catch a train back to Oslo (the real Oslo airport) and then fly 2 hours north to Alta.  Here we would meet up with  Odd Peder and his team at the Skaidi Xtreme to start a few days of nordic adventures before tackling possibly the World’s most northern race, the 41 km Skaidi Extreme.

 

Romanian Adventures @ the Carpathian MTB Epic

Romania is a Southeastern European country with close to 23 000 000 inhabitants including the infamous Dracula character.   Geographically its trademark is the Carpathian mountains which are in the forested region of the Transylvania region and are considered to be one of the last truly wild parts of Europe.  Having a chance to go there to race the 4 day, Carpathian MTB Epic (UCI, S2) was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up so off to Eastern Europe it was!

The race itself was based out of the Fundata resort, 4 hrs North of the captial city of Bucharest, and just minutes away from Dracula’s castle in Bran.  With a 10 hour time difference from Canada I showed up a bit jet legged so opted to spend Wednesday riding down to Bran to check out one of Romania’s many medieval towns, highlighted by its fortified churches and castles.  The beauty of riding a bike is that it gets you straight into the culture and its people while simultaneously getting the blood flowing and the body back on line after a big travel day.

My buddy Frederic Gombert flew in from France and arrived late Wednesday night.  He too wanted to get over his jet lag so Thursday morning we went for an easy pre-ride with our new friend Miroda from South Africa.  Our pre-ride turned into a bit longer and tougher then expected as the shortcut we opted to take back to the resort ended up being a solid hike a bike and pretty soon we were 2.5 hours into a “recovery ride”.   We came to a private property sign just 3 km from our home base back at Fundata. Thankfully the locals were warm and welcoming, opening the gate and letting us cross through there pastures. This was a small prelude of both the warmth of the Romanian locals and also what was on deck for us at the Carpathian Epic.  

Later this afternoon we tackled a short 10 km prologue to officially kick off the CarpathianMTB Epic.  It was underestimated as we road down some gnarly old school straight shot descents and soon had to ride up some insanely steep gradients back to the finish line.  My body was in shock as I tried to push over a 36 T-45 gearing. I was ready to walk but my buddy Fred was just behind me and my manly hood wouldn’t let me get off the bike.  Thus I grinded the gears over at the slowest rpm possible.  By the finish line I was cracked and stunned as it’s only once every 5 or 6 years that a 36-45 gearing will let me down but apparently racing in Romania was going to be an exception.

Post race we headed up to the restaurant for a big Romanian buffet full of all sorts of meat, delicious cheeses, potatoes, cabbage, and a few other white starches.  Apparently they don’t like eating green things too much over there but we certainly had our fill of heavy proteins and Carbs. It reminded me a bit of the Mongolian cuisine.   The setting for all our meals during the race had an epic view over the Carpathian mountains and turned into our hang out spot between racing.

A Romanian 4 star resort is a little different then a Canadian 4 star resort, and while it was comfortable, we also had one giant street light and one spotlight shining straight into our room.  A Belgium rider had the same problem, so he put his extra bed and mattress against the window to block the light.  Fred and I occupied both our beds, so instead we unscrewed the light from the spotlight, and then slept with black shirts over our heads to try and get some darkness.  The shower also shot straight into the room making it a swimming hole, unless we crouched in the tub and washed ourselves like we were kids in a tin basin.  The WIFI they promised was also non existent, I brought these issues up to the front desk but they just turned there heads and told us they’d fix it later.  I’m use to sleeping in a tent in a ditch somewhere so I could really care less about this stuff, but if you’re going to charge $100 + a night for something then I’ll raise my voice in hopes of getting any silly problems fixed for the next occupant.

Stage 1 I showed up nice and early, 20 minutes before race start, but apparently had already missed the UCI call up.  I tried to negotiate with the UCI official, but these guys can take them selves pretty seriously, thus I had a nice start position at the back of the 150 rider field.  It was sketchy trying to ride through the field on marbly gravel roads but I made it up to the chase group just before the first 10 km climb.  The lead group of 12 riders were already long gone, part of the joys of racing a UCI race in Europe with top riders from 20+ countries on hand.  I attempted to bridge up to the lead group but the 20-25% hills were kicking my ass one after another and pretty soon I had a full meltdown as my back was unhappy and the legs were even more unhappy trying to push over the 36-45 gearing.  All my smaller chainrings were at home as I never use them, and I had unsuccessfully looked for a smaller one after the Prologue the night before.  Apparently when you race in Eastern Europe you better show up with everything you need as spare parts are sparse.  

Reaching the first feed zone at a mountain pass was stunning as we had 360 views of the Carpathian mountains.  I stopped for 10 seconds to fix my seat and was immediately scolded by the UCI officials for fixing my bike in the feed zone and not tech zone which was 3 feet to the left.  Whatever, no one else is around, but as I know these UCI guys like to show off there powers so moved a couple feet to the left to continue fixing the problem.  Grabbing some food I took off, hike a biking straight up a pitch to the mountain summit and then embarking on some amazing high alpine riding. The body was still in meltdown mode as I sunk into the 30+’s but I kept on telling myself to push through it.  Eventually the legs came back on line and I started moving forwards, passing riders again and slowly gaining some momentum.  It’s amazing how fast the mind can switch during a race, being on the edge of a complete breakdown, to making small gains and getting the momentum back in your favour. 

Mid race I could see my buddy Fred about 3 minutes ahead, straight up this huge hike a bike section.  After spending last winter hiking around the Himalayas I used these hike-a-bikes to my advantage and caught a few riders, including my buddy Fred just before a 15 km descent through the alpine on a great, technical rocky trail. This turned into one of the best 30 minutes of riding I had all year as we pushed each other, passing riders, and getting ourselves back into the race.  It was sketchy in sections, dodging sharp rocks, skidding down wet grassy slopes, and bouncing off tree roots in the forest below.  By the bottom of this Romanian Enduro we had moved ourselves back into the top 15, a position I’d hold to the finish, while Fred would crack and drift back a few spots.  

Again after the race I searched for a smaller chainring as I heard Stage 2 would be even tougher.  One of the local Romanian teams had some, but were unfortunately unwilling to sell off any of them, or loan one out for the last two days of the race.  Fair enough, I was in direct competition with them, and it was my fault for not packing one. That being said, if anyone from overseas is competing against me in Canada  and needs help one day I will go out of my way to make sure they get it.   After being on the travellers side of the game for most my life I know the challenges that comes with being away from home and have some Karma to repay as I’ve had great help all over the World.  

Stage 2 was pretty short mileage wise but a real hardmans day.  Somehow they packed 3300 climbing meters into 59 km, and it had more hike a bike then you could shake a stick at.  Luke Way at Balance Point Racing has been giving me coaching guidance for years and after the last visit he told me to work on my slow cadence efforts to really put some stress on the leg muscles to lower the blood oxidation levels.  I took the steep climbs at the Carpathian Epic as the perfect spot to practice this, but it also took its toll as I would push the low gears way past my limits and after 2 hours of this I had detonated my legs. 

Finally hitting the top of the last Carpathian Mountain on the stage, I was all geared up to make some spots back up on the descent.  Shockingly the decent went in a straight line, through the rhubarb and grass down the mountain.  It seemed whoever flagged the course just set there GPS on a straight line down the mountain and then started hanging flags up.  Once out of the bushes, it eventually turned into a skid trail and near the bottom a skid trail with boulders littered all over.  All in all it took 12 minutes to go down what had taken over 1hr and 15 minutes to climb with much of it being at – 30-47%.  My arms burned at the bottom and my brakes were likely melted into the rotors.  From here to the finish the body was in shutdown mode, likely from going over my limit trying to grind up the last 2 mountains with no ability to spin with the big gears.  Eventually I’d roll in 20th, just glad to be over and able to start the recovery process for the final stage.

Stage 3 was more of a normal marathon, 60 km, 2500 vm, and no hike a bike :).  Starting the stage out slow, I’d wind it up going over a grassy descent, passing 10 riders via letting go of my brakes and taking a sketchy outside line.  I’d lose a bit on the next punchy climbs but the course was predominantly downhill to start going over some rough cattle trails which played in my favour.  Eventually I’d settle into a group from 11th-15th place as we started a long 12 km climb, first up through a giant canyon, then onto a fireroad and eventually ending on some rooty singeltrack.   A lot of these gravel roads were full of tourists hiking around looking down at there phones which made it interesting trying to weave around all the oblivious hikers.  

I kept getting dropped from this group of Euro climbers,  but I’d use the rolling singletrack across the top to gain contact again.  Most the trails in Romania were like rough Canadian hiking tracks. In my mind these are some of the funnest trails to ride as they are raw and rugged and my Kona Hei Hei was eating them up.   The backside descent was fast, and ended on a straight pitch down a loose dusty slope, a similar theme to the week.  It wasn’t super technical but it was pretty rad how the Romanian riding was so diverse every day with every type of riding imaginable.  The final climb to the finish was 12 km up a tight river valley surrounded by Transylvanian forest.  It resembled the west coast of BC and the slight 3-4% gradients were much nicer then the 20%+ gradients that had dominated the race the first few stages!  Crossing the finish line in 10th on the day marked the first solid ride I had since crashing hard on stage 4 at BC Bike Race back in July, and moved me up to into the money and 15th overall in GC.  It was reason enough to enjoy the festivities later in the day as the organizers put on a huge Romania BBQ, complete with tables full of wine and beer.  Apparently Romania is the 10th largest supplier of Wine in the World, and home to some of the best cheese and free range meat I’ve tasted so we had a nice party. 

Overall the experience in Romania was top notch.  The organizing crew put on a great race and the atmosphere was nice as every stage started and finished in the same race village.  The riding reminded me of the old TransRockies classic in Canada, a nice change from all the new school berm filled, smoothed out IMBA trails. The following morning all the racers cleared out and I settled in for a relaxing day to try and recupe some energy as I had an adventure planned the following day, planning to ride back to Bucharest via the backroads.

It’s interesting how the locals often try to talk you out of these sort of adventures in there countries as they try to make it sound more dangerous then it actually is. Over the years I’ve learnt to trust my own instincts, take a few precautions and then get on with whatever little adventure I have planned.  With a smile on your face and an open mind, this World is usually a pretty welcoming place.

The ride back to Bucharest was top notch as I planned out a 185 km route via the backroads.  The first 80 km snaked its way out of the Carpathian mountains on some dirt roads, going through some pretty cool mountain towns full of impressive churches.  It was good to see how well kept the Romanians keep there countryside.  The 2nd half of the ride was across Romania’s agriculture flat lands and was a good mixture of small paved roads and farmer dirt roads.  Every couple hours I’d pull over at  little road side stores to refill on water and snacks.  There were always Romanian country folk just chilling outside these rest stops and they were pretty curious to what a Canadian mountain biker was doing in there kneck of the woods.  I learnt a bit of Romanian this way and had alot of hand shakes and good travel wishes.  

Reaching Bucharest the traffic picked up so I hopped on the sidewalks for the last few km of the ride before checking into the Rin hotel near the airport.  The next day my friend Elena from the Carpathian MTB Epic offered to give me a tour of her city so I hopped on the bike, this time with sandals and casual 7mesh clothing, and took the scenic way into town via the many bike paths through the parklands.  The city itself was pretty rad, full of the largest parliament building outside of the pentagon, lots of historic buildings and many neat cultural things to see and do.  Bucharest use to be called a mini-Paris and has some cool places to check out.  A week in Romania was a good taste of the country but the more you see of a place the more plentiful the opportunities open up to explore it further.  I’ll hope to have a chance to come back one day to continue exploring this Balkan country.  

For now it’s off to Norway for a two week adventure including racing both the legendary Birken in Lillehammer and then the Skaidi Xtreme  way up North above the 71st parallel.  Here we come Scandinavia!

Carpathian MTB Epic Photo credits: MPG Romania