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.