Would you fancy a 6-hour technical off-road bike race in the desert, starting at 10am?
No neither would I, but luckily Crank Punk Coaching Systems’ Tom Little did, and along with race partner Franck Jassaud (racing under their club name HotDogs/CycleHub), he only went and won the bloody thing, the ‘thing’ being the duo category of the Hatta MTB Endurance Challenge in the UAE.
And by a nice chunk of time too, over 42 minutes ahead and having lapped the field, with their average lap over 4 minutes faster than the next pair. That’s three very solid wins for Tom since we started working together back in the middle of last year, and a few 2nds and 3rds too.
Awesome work Tom, crank on.
“These Euros, they smell fear,” he said, whispering under his breath lest anyone hear.
“I gotta be honest,” I replied, leaning forward, “the descents on that single track ridiculousness scare the living bejeesus out of me.”
His eyes darted back and forth as though he was awaiting an attack by plastic tray from one of the other competitors that sat around us, hunched over shoveling in their evening rations.
“I know. Me too,” he said through a mouthful of pasta, wolfing it down as though he might be robbed of it at any moment.
“They go down it like fucking mad men!”
It was our 4th day in the TransAlp camp, and the combination of fatigue from riding, exhaustion from not sleeping thanks to sharing a sports gym floor nightly with 300 other men, and The Fear, had me going a little loco.
I thought about fashioning a shiv from my toothbrush that night, but thankfully common sense prevailed.
Two pool balls in a sock was a much better idea…
It seemed like a good idea at the time, to sign up for the legendary Craft TransAlp MTB stage race. 7 stages, 587 kilometers, 19,200m of climbing.
A doddle, I thought. I’d heard it was all fire roads, double track, maybe some goat paths on the high Alps but even I could handle that, even me, who as of October last year had only done one MTB race in my whole life, way back in 1988, when I was 16 and still fresh-faced and (kinda) pure.
After an 18 year break from all racing, I came back to road racing when I was 36, got a slot on a pro team at 37, rode in the UCI AsiaTour for 4 years, survived the tours of Oman and Qatar with the big boys and raced the post-Tour de France criteriums in Europe.
Getting a bit tired of the roadie life and then 41, I fancied a new challenge and signed up for the Genco Mongolia Bike Challenge last year. It was hard, no doubt about it, slogging my 29er through the barren, beautiful landscape of Mongolia, but the route was essentially a road course, just off-road.
There were huge, wide-open expanses, well-trodden, hard-packed track that allowed for drafting and not a meter of what you’d call real singletrack in the whole event.
It was perfect for a newbie to MTB like me.
Yeah, I figured, I can race MTB.
Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security.
7 days over the German, Austrian, and Swiss Alps and then a couple of days in the Dolomites for good measure?
Bring it on.
Famous. Last. Words.
The first day. The start line. 1,200 folks of varying degrees of fitness amassed on a little patch of road in the sleepy, picturesque hamlet of Obberamesgau. The smiles. The tension. Chatting on the start line to Magnus and Fiona, he from Sweden, she from Oz originally, never met them before but felt like old friends. Another reason to love MTB. Roadies might be nice but often you’d never know. Uptight and taut like tightropes, my skinny-arsed brethren usually are. Me, giddy, sat there waiting to go. Ready and raring. And then, suddenly, we’re off. Mad dash to the first corner, hundreds trying to cram through a lane barely wide enough for 5 abreast. Day 2, Day 3, the smiles appear less. Like white rhinos by Day 4, almost extinct. Someone saw one by the toilets but it couldn’t be verified. The ups and the downs. Why do the ups last 3 hours? And the downs only 15 minutes? The unrelenting daily grind. Getting sick of f&*%$#g pasta. Stealing rolls and ham and cheese from the cafeteria in the evening to eat in my sleeping bag like a refugee. Another energy gel and I will either vomit or attack a cow on an Alpen hillside with a steak knife and a bottle of BBQ sauce. And where has my arse gone? My average, normal, perfectly adequate taint, wherefore art thou, old taint! What is this mush of battered, shredded pastrami in your place? Will I ever stop walking like a cowboy?
So many questions, and such inability to think of anything but the kilometers ahead…
I loved it all, really. No seriously. It was wet, it was sometimes cold, then it wasn’t, sometimes, and the Alps reared up around us, encasing us in enough geography to last a life time. Absolutely stunning it was, proper breathtaking, in every sense.
The whole race ran like a Swiss clock, precise and clean, and though the entry fee may seem steep it’s worth every penny. I didn’t hear anyone grumbling about getting ripped off, as you do at some races.
I got schooled, of course. With my level of skill and never having ridden singletrack before, I felt like I went to MTB University, did the undergraduate program, an MBA and then a doctorate, stuffing 7 years of study into 7 days. Not sure if I passed, but I did survive.
I did get good at one thing though.
After days of being gripped by The Fear, it finally began to dissipate. I was still slower then most but I picked enough up from the guys who amassed behind me, yelling ‘’ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG!’ (I seriously only thought that word was used in submarines, or war movies anyway, but no!), watching them fly by, rear brake hard down, front break feathered, arse over the back of the saddle, raised a couple of inches off it, that I stopped having to jump off at every slightly gnarly decline.
And I got real good at yelling ‘Will you f*&k off!’ to them when they got too close, too. Next time – if there is a next time – I’ll be sure to learn that phrase in German before I go.
And in case anyone is wondering, the taint underwent reconstructive surgery and is currently recovering in hospital. I visit the old boy daily, and he’s loving the grapes…
The Salzkammergut Trophy MTB Race, Austria, July 2014
The Salzkammergut Trophy is Austria’s most famous MTB race, and its largest, this year attracting 4,256 participants. This is a huge race – I took part in the 119km race but there are several other events over three days, the longest being a 211km cross-country sufferfest that took some competitors over 15 hours to finish.
I checked out the images of the area on the internet before I left for Austria. It is a beautiful place, nestled in the majestic Austrian Alps, and the route traverses several huge Alpen mountains and takes the riders past pristine lakes that serve as mirrors to the awe-inspiring cliffs beside them, and through picture-postcard little villages that people travel from around the world to see.
Beautiful! At least, on a sunny day. But unfortunately not on the day we were there. Instead of sunshine, we awoke to a concrete grey sky and drops of rain. We ate breakfast in silence, thinking about the possibility of having to ride 6 to 7 hours over these huge mountains in the rain.
We packed the car up, and then my friend turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I have a feeling it will clear up – there’ll be sunshine today, I know it!”
Precisely three seconds later there was a crack of thunder so loud that it made my ribs shake. We jumped into the car in a second but were nonetheless still soaked to the bone.
We got to the start line and it was still raining. In fact, we got to the 100km point, hours later, and it was still raining! It wasn’t until the last 10km or so that it finally stopped…
And how was my race? Let’s just say that it was… a disaster! The first and biggest problem came after just 15km. I lost my 720Armour sunglasses! My beloved 720Armour Dart glasses – these have been with me to race in Europe, Oman and Qatar, the UK, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and on and on, and I’ve had these and loved them for 5 years!
On the way up a very technical 15km climb at the very start of the race it was so dark with the rain and overhanging trees that I took the Darts off and put them in my pocket. 5km later I reached back for them and – oh no – they were gone.
I wear the RX version and have pretty bad eyesight, so I was in big trouble. I thought about going back to look for them but I knew it would be impossible to find them, and even if I did, about 1000 riders had ridden up already – if I did find them they’d be broken, most probably.
‘Great’, I thought, ‘I am riding blind. The Stevie Wonder of cycling…’
I was having great difficulty seeing the singletrack path ahead of me now I had lost my sunglasses, hitting tree roots and rocks again and again, and losing position as other guys came flying past me. But then things got worse.
I hit a large stone on a corner, and cracked the pedal. My foot came out so I tried to clip it back in, but it wouldn’t click. I stopped and looked at it – the spring had broken, making it impossible for me to clip in.
So, for the next 95km, I rode blind and with just one leg! It was hard to pedal uphill as my unclipped foot kept slipping, and almost impossible to descend, because not only could I not see but I had almost no control.
On top of that, all the amazing views I had been looking forward to seeing never materialized, as they were hidden deep in the low clouds. Wet, blind, legless and hungry, I finished in 7and a half hours!
If I had been on a road bike I would have stopped after 30km and got on the bus, but, in XC MTB, there is no bus. You just ride – or, you walk. Either way, the only way is forward.
What did I learn from this experience? Easy – always take two pairs of 720Armour sunglasses with you!
great ride last weekend by CPCS rider Donald MacDonald from Singapore (by way of Scotland) and his Direct Asia teammate Pierre-Alain Scherwey. the pair were riding in the Singapore Cycling Federation Celebration Series TTT and managed 3rd place, behind the Infinite team rider and the winners, from the Kenyan national team, no less!
great work, Donald.
you can read Donald’s testimonial on CPCS here.
yes, European Adventure #3 is mid-way through, and after a 2 week training session in Tuscany, based in Florence, tomorrow i race in the Salzkammergut Trophy in Austria. i’ll be doing the 119km route with 3,800m of climbing to come.
i wussed out a bit, as i could have done the 211km course with over 7,000m of uphill. but i do have an excuse – from the 20th to the 26th i’ll be racing in the Craft TransAlp with my teammate Jonathan Schottler, who is also racing tomorrow. so, best to keep the legs kinda fresh for that one.
legs don’t feel great and i’m still not feeling 100% after the auto-immune infection from 6 weeks ago (yup getting the excuses in early) but we shall see. we shall, in fact, crank on.
some images from last year, all courtesy of the Salzkammergut Trophy.
more to come soon from Tuscany and the rest of the trip.
huge thanks to all my sponsors and all the people behind these names for making this happen: Lezyne, CCN, BLKTEC, 720Armour, XEndurance and Lapierre.
last Saturday was the 3rd round in the Taiwan Club Series Championships, a season-long competition run by the hard-working Taiwan Cyclist Federation that I’ve yet to be able to completely participate in due to overseas racing commitments. there isn’t much racing in Taiwan so it’s a shame that i usually miss the good parts of it, but it’s always fun to do what i can and to catch up with the local guys.
As well as writing and racing myself I am also a cycling coach, founder of Crank Punk Coaching Systems (CPCS).
Here below is a testimonial from Steven Wong, one of my clients. Steven and I have been working together now for just 9 months or so. Here’s what he has to say about CPCS.
I first came across Lee at the 2013 Tour of Friendship (“ToF”) in Thailand when he stormed to the General Classification in the Open Category. My own successes had been somewhat more modest – mid-to-lower podium finishes reflected an inability to conclusively break into the limelight on the top step.
mail me if interested.
$32.99 US plus shipping, good quality, guaranteed to either get you kissed or punched.
possibly the longest team name in the history of cycling and there’s only one man on the team…
disaffected with most of my experiences on cycling teams i had an idea towards the end of last season – why don’t I race independently, forget racing UCI events, focus on the regional and international elite amateur road races on offer these days and start doing more international MTB events?
i approached the brands that i’ve been connected with for several years and some new ones too and wrangled both product and financial support from some and bingo, i’m a one man band now roaming the planet looking for finish lines.
supporting me through 2014 will be:
Lezyne with tools and accessories
BlkTec with wheels, stem, handlebars, seatpost and tires
720Armour with eyewear
and last but not least, Lapierre with both road & MTB frames and groupsets.
so far the calendar has only two confirmed races, the Craft Bike TransAlp (MTB) and the GENCO Mongolia Bike Challenge, though also in the sights are the TransPyr (MTB) the Crocodile Trophy in Australia (MTB), and Leadville (MTB).
on the road i’ll be racing in Taiwan in the regional series, doing the Singapore nationals again with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, possibly the Tour of Friendship again in Thailand, and the Tour of Bintan (again with Lapierre Asia).
i’d like to say a huge thank you to all my sponsors and to the friends and family that have supported me and continue to do so.
this year is, i hope, gonna be a corker!
by crankpunk. this article was originally slated to appear in one of the leading MTB magazines but due to issues with images, it never saw the light of day. bit gutted about that. anyway, here it is.
all images by Erik Peterson.
He was the last to arrive, bedraggled and leathered, haggard and weathered, skin red where it had been exposed and almost ghost-white everywhere else, lips cracked and eyes shot with fine, wayward lines of blood. Had it not been for the lycra you’d have guessed he’d spent the past 5 days at sea, battered at night from raging waves and scorched in the daytime by the fiercest sun.
Last he may have been but he rode into camp that penultimate day not as a pauper but as a king, like a man who had crossed a desert, forded rivers and ascended to the heavens. Which, of course, he had. The camp, most already showered and fed long before, watched the blurred silhouette on the horizon grow until it became a man on a bike, then whooped and hollered as he crossed the line with an exhausted one-armed salute to his tribe.
Eleven hours it took him to complete the sixth stage of the 2013 Genco Mongolia Bike Challenge. Eleven long, tumultuous hours over rocky track, grassy climbs and hairy descents, through some of the wildest and most stunning bare landscape on the planet, past yaks, camels and wild horses, watched over by giant buzzards and eagles soaring like watchful keepers of the steppes up above.
George Patterson was one of over a hundred competitors taking part in the Genco MBC, and at 60 was one of the oldest.
“What brought you here, George?” I asked him one night as we chewed over our recently-slaughtered mutton, accompanied by mounds of boiled potatoes, shoving it in on spoons piled high, ravenous dogs that we’d become.
“My 60th was coming up and I didn’t fancy two weeks in Bali, so I thought ‘Screw it – let’s go ride Mongolia.’”
The idea for the original Mongolia Bike Challenge emerged from the intelligent, slightly disturbing (in that good disturbing way) mind of Italian Willy Mulonia, who runs the adventure travel company Progetto Avventura.
Whilst in Mongolia running a biking expedition, Willy, who was on the hunt for a venue for a multi-stage MTB race, fell in love with the wild, open expanses of the legendary Ghengis Kahn’s homeland.
“It was love at first sight,” he said. “I knew this was the perfect place to hold a mountain bike stage race. It also met my most important criteria – it was going to be a huge personal challenge to organize a race like the Mongolia Bike Challenge.”
That challenge amounted to a 5-year odyssey of several trips to Mongolia and what Willy estimates was over 10,000 kilometers of riding to select the ideal route for the first MBC, which was held in 2010. It eventually grew to become the collective vision of his excellent support team too, all of whom recognized the gift that Willy had bestowed upon them by including them in his dream.
Willy, an effervescent and charismatic character with a gleam of mischief ever-present in his twinkling green eyes, told me that the real challenge in deciding each year’s route lay not in the scarcity of potential MTB trails in the country but in the abundance of them.
“There are no fences, no barriers, no boundaries,” he explained. “You can literally ride in any direction, wherever you want. It is incredible. So the hardest thing is choosing the best route, and deciding what to leave out.”
And what a route it was, leaving none of us who took part in this epic encounter – I still can’t think of it as a ‘race’, as that title just doesn’t seem to do it justice – in any doubt as to why it’s titled a ‘challenge’. Nine hundred and fifteen kilometers with a muscle-searing, tendon-wrenching and lung-busting 12,990 meters of climbing.
At the top of mountains too impossibly steep to ride all the way up, waist-high in icy fast-flowing rivers, or when met by the eerie, bleached out bones of dead beasts that littered our trailside, Willy’s name was muttered, hollered and sometimes screamed out loud accompanied by swear words that would make even the toughest sailor blush.
Every day we each scaled our own personal Everests, crossed the scorched Sahara, rounded The Horn in a leaky sailboat and hacked our way up the Amazon with blunt machetes – venturing to places within our own selves exactly as Willy intended.
“I want people to go outside of themselves and to see what they find when they get back,” he said at the beginning of the event. And that is what we did, despite the varying levels of ability and fitness that was scattered amongst the 108 competitors that hailed from 32 nations. We all suffered, and through that suffering we returned aglow, if frayed at the edges and creased like an oft-thumbed book.
This was deep. It was beautiful, harrowing at times, incredible, awesome in the true sense of that much-maligned word, and just plain old humbling….
My own personal adventure began a week earlier, the day I arrived in Mongolia and headed to a hostel with luggage and bike bag in tow the Monday before the start of the event.
Though I live now in Taiwan, I’d departed for the land of the steppes some 12 hours earlier from Singapore, where I’d been racing in their National Championships. Having won the Individual Time Trial the day before and riding hard to help my teammate Tjarco Cuppens win the road race the next day, I knew my form was probably at its best of the whole season, but I had reason to be cautiously fearful of the MBC, as it had been 22 years since I’d last raced MTB.
At the ripe old age of 41 I’ve been racing professionally on the UCI Asia Tour on the road for four years, though I’d only returned to cycling at 37, having left the sport completely at 19. As a junior in the UK I raced road mainly and a few MTB events, but nothing of any real note, the off-road side of things then having been in its infancy and with only a smattering of events in England being held at that time.
I love road racing but I’d somewhat fallen out of love with the UCI circuit. I needed a new challenge, and then I heard of the MBC. Immediately I knew I had to go, as a trip to Mongolia had been on my to-do list since I’d seen a documentary on Genghis Kahn when I was 14. The wide-open spaces, the canopy of stars unaffected by city lights and the wild horses just stole my imagination completely.
I contacted my sponsor Lapierre and asked them if they could supply me with an MTB, and three weeks later – just two months before the MBC began – it arrived. A beautiful, huge 29er that felt like I was atop a Hummer. Hitting some of the local trails (and the local dirt, novice as I was), I was hooked. This was fun.
But my first day in Mongolia brought influenza, with my body unable to adapt from the 40 degree heat of the tropics to the 12 degree cold and wet I flew into. Two days in bed followed, which was bad enough, but to make matters worse, in the early morning before the race a serious bout of food poisoning hit me.
Eight trips to the chilly toilet followed before the race had even begun, and a lot more out on the trail for the next two days, to the point where my fellow competitors barely recognized me without my bib shorts around my ankles. Trust me, in Mongolia, bushes and trees are damn scarce. I had no choice but to drop and go right by the trail!
I lost time by the bucketload those first days but I have to say, Mongolia provided the most magnificent toilet views I’ve ever encountered…
From Stage 4 though I began to get into a groove, with some of my form finally showing. A tenth place on Stage 6 was followed by a 5th on Stage 7. I was hugely impressed by the engines on these MTBers though. Eschewing the idea of riding in a peloton, they simply got their heads down and ploughed. I couldn’t believe the way they held the same threshold pace hour after hour.
The men’s race was dominated on an almost daily basis by a group of six riders from whom the eventual winner emerged, Canada’s Cory Wallace, defending his 2012 title. On the women’s side of things, Catherine Williamson of England put in a performance of masterful domination that left the others in her wake.
Each day’s pre-race preparation included the usual stuff. Bike check, filling water bottles, stuffing pockets with enough gels and energy bars to fuel four astronauts on a space station for 3 months, and packing the mirror.
That’s right, a mirror. The rule book stated quite clearly that unless you lined up with a pack that included a mirror, a foil blanket and a whistle, you would not be racing. I soon learned that the mirror wasn’t actually for checking the make-up before the podium as my vain self had originally imagined, but that in fact it was to signal any rescue vehicles that might be searching for you in case you went off trail.
But then, the whole thing was kind of off trail! As Willy said, there are just so many trails that had it not been for the excellent sign posting that the MBC team got out there every morning before we rolled through, there would have been riders scattered all over the steppe, littering the landscape wrapped up in their foil like human candy bars.
For the most part we rode on double-track, along hard packed earth trodden down by the 4x4s that provide most of the transportation out there. Some of the hard-core MTBers like Sonya Looney often lamented the lack of single-track and said it was more like riding a road race than anything – which suited the roadie in me just fine.
But what a place to ride. Through Mongolian grass land shepherded at times by packs of up to a hundred or so wild horses galloping by our side, sometimes on both, starting off in a pack that would eventually be shredded apart by the pace of the front men, with the wind often blowing the knee-high grass horizontally to cover the tracks.
The hills were vicious, Willy sending us up trails that even the vans struggled to get up, often over single-track goat and cattle paths, traversing the mountains in countless switchbacks that tested skill and nerve in equal measure.
I spent the first few days with my fingers cramping from braking so hard on the winding, super-fast descents, until on Day 4 I just let go of the brakes on a mad impulse and barreled down the trails like a near-suicidal yak on wheels. Flash floods of old meant that in some places the trail in front of you would become a gaping chasm of a meter or two or even more, forcing you to jump for your life. With the wind blowing and the grass obscuring the gaps until the last second, several riders came a cropper on these descents.
One had his shoulder pop out after a nasty spill. He got up, popped it back in himself and carried on, clearly in pain but refusing to let his challenge end prematurely.
One day we hit a ridge line whose trail was so swamped with a black, viscous mud that progress slowed to under 10 km per hour on the relatively flat edge of the plateau. I charged on regardless, hitting deep pockets and seeing my front wheel disappear more than once, sending me head over arse twice and covered in the primordial sludge by the day’s end.
And then there were the rivers. Startlingly clear, fast moving flows of water with rocks underfoot, if you took a tumble in one of those you were frozen all day.
‘Epic’ is one of those overused words but this truly was that. It was a route in a land so big that there was a gnawing fear at the back of your mind the whole time, because you know people die out there. It wouldn’t take much to go off trail, and there are so few stand-out geographical features that it all blends into one, massive, beautiful rolling expanse of space. It would be nigh-on impossible, without GPS, to know where you were and how to get back.
Riding through Mongolia was, I can honestly say, one of the most profound experiences of my life. I’m still decompressing from the experience. The land, the camaraderie, the warmth of the locals, the racing, the animals, it just swept me away and took me on a journey that will stay with me forever.
I bid you, if you have the time, the inclination and the determination, go take up the Mongolia Bike Challenge. It hurt like hell and it scared me sometimes, but I made many new friends and loved it, somehow! In the end, it was worth every second.