Only 18 spots left for the Mongolia Bike Challenge by Selle SMP 2023!

Read this, then sign up!

All images by Paolo Penni Martelli.

For any MBC coaching plans and any other MBC inquiries, please contact me.

I remember sitting at my computer in the early months of 2013, and seeing an ad come up on FB that read ‘Mongolia Bike Challenge.

I practically spat out my half-chewed muesli. Seeing ‘Mongolia’, a country I’d wanted to visit since I saw a Genghis Khan documentary when I was in my teens, combined with the word ‘bike’, well that was it. I had to go. No questions about it.

I contacted the founder of the event, Willy Mulonia, and managed to get an invite on a media ticket, as at that time I was writing for several well known cycling magazines and websites. I applied for my visa, got my plane ticket, and I was off. I was fortunate enough to fly in in the daytime on a clear sunny day. Seeing the grasslands stretch out to the horizon, the little valley pockets within the hills looking like the surface of a gigantic green golf ball, my heart soared: this was truly Khan country.

And I was about to ride through it.

However my first few days of racing did not go exactly to plan, despite having great form in the days preceding the event. I’d won the Singapore National Championships time trial just a few days earlier in record time and was feeling at my peak. Then some mutton curry derailed all that. The next four days were spent half cycling and half squatting by the trail as my guts simply refused to hold any food whatsoever!

Still, the view from the various and many ‘toilets’ supplied breathtaking views. There are definitely worse landscapes to endure dysentery in…

Joking aside, what I experienced at that first MBC was something verging on the transcendental. It’s as though you are riding through the world before humans started to mess it up. When I first started pedalling on Day One I saw the landscape as empty. By the end of that day I realised it was the exact opposite. Most often when we travel we arrive and we experience the location. In Mongolia, out there on the steppe, pushing yourself and the bike for hours, it’s the opposite: the landscape experiences you. You become enveloped by the silence, the calm, the beauty. And what beauty there is. Words cannot close to the emotions the majesty of the landscape evokes within.

Giant eagles will rise from the high grass beside the trail, startled by your arrival, their wingspan at times momentarily blocking out the sun. Yaks stroll along without a care in the world like the retirees of the valleys. Packs of wild horses stream alongside bunches of riders at high speed, kicking up dust as they converge just ahead of the peloton, bringing whoops and cheers of excitement and wonder.

The local people are tough, naturally – in this environment they have to be – yet their kindness is limitless. In that first edition that I took part in, a rainstorm engorged a river we were meant to cross (some of us did, I still remember the freezing waters!). 108 riders had to turn back and as the weather deteriorated we had to find shelter. The MBC staff did that and directed us to a valley where a Mongolian herder family had about five yurts. We were welcomed in, given sweet tea and food, and in the hut I was in with about twenty other riders, the shepherd regaled us with folk songs on a three string guitar.

(The MBC at those times was held in September, for several years now this has changed and it is in August, when the weather is far more dependable and perfect for cycling in).

The night brings with it a sky so full of stars, so close, that you feel that you can reach out and touch the Milky Way. Counting shooting stars gets repetitive after a few minutes, there are so many of them. The complete lack of ambient light takes you back in time, and you feel, however briefly, as though you are looking at the universe with ancient eyes.

The other wonderful thing, amongst all these mentioned, is that there is zero wifi from the moment the race leaves Ulaanbataar. Bliss? Yes, for me, it certainly is. That brings me to the another vital component of the event – the people that make up the participants. Without our phones to distract us, conversation flows freely and openly, as we talk about the events of the day with smiles on our faces. It’s a case of disconnecting and reconnecting, to each other and to ourselves. Immersed in the incredible landscape and the amazing event, we exist in the moment.

This is an event where, at the end of the day, coming first or last really doesn’t matter that much. Sure, it’s nice to get a podium, but the experience of the ride, the emotional and mental side of things, is very similar for all participants. This is an event that touches all who take part and the memory of it stays with you for ever.

Finally, the MBC staff… Willy Mulonia, the founder, is a man of passion and you’ll do well to find as human who is more ‘alive’ than he. It was his vision that created this event. The Mongolian staff are great and jovial. Crack a smile to them and you’ll get one back, and they will go out of their way – literally sometimes, driving hours over the steppe to get something for a participant – to help. The race staff are all Italian – well, apart from this Englishman – and share Willy’s passion for cycling and for this event.

Each of us has been staffing the MBC for many years, some since the beginning. Yet is it never dull, never boring. Not even close. For us, the thrill of seeing a rider’s face when they cross the finish line on Day 1… and Day 2… and on… is all we need. To share the incredible experience that is Mongolia and that is in turn the Mongolia Bike Challenge by Selle SMP… that’s enough.

Do please come to the 2023 edition, we’d love to see you there..!

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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