This article was written for the September edition of Bicycle Club Taiwan, 2023. All images by Paolo Penni Martelli.
The Mongolia Bike Challenge is an event like no other.
A race, a test, a journey, a romance, a family… it is all these things and more.
This is an event in which the participants are not known by their numbers, but by their names.
An event where the line between rider and organiser fades away, surmounted by the edifying experience of being together in the vast, mythical land that is Mongolia.
This is a land in which there is a sense not of the individual experiencing what is before them, but of the individual being experienced.
A landscape that at first sight seems empty, slowly reveals itself to be full.
Full of beauty, wild horses, eagles, camels and yaks, full of endless rolling hills, sand dunes and mountains… and full of possibility.
At the Mongolia Bike Challenge, you write your own script…
The motto of the MBC is – ‘Live The Legend, Be a Khan’.
I first participated in the event in 2013 and rode also in 2014 and 2015. I remember being sat at home in early 2013 and seeing an advert that popped up on my Facebook page. I quickly scanned it and saw the words ‘Mongolia’ and ‘Bike’… Surely this must be a motorcycle race, I thought. I clicked it – nope, this was a cycling event!
I first fell in love with the idea of going to Mongolia when I was 15 and saw a documentary about Chinggis Khan. His story fascinated me but what really attracted me was the landscapes featured in the programme – endless rolling hills, deserts and mountains, full of incredible wildlife and amazing night skies.
I knew I had to do this crazy event. I contacted the founder, a charismatic Italian called Willy Mulonia, and he invited me to participate. Despite being a road professional at the time, I had just about zero MTB skills but found the route to be not too technical – more like a road or cycling event but on dirt and grass – they call it gravel these days!
With founder and Race Director, Willy Mulonia, 2014.
I was immediately hooked. I loved every second of it, whether joyous or painful – and trust me, cycling for 150km over dirt trails can be painful – but truly rewarding. In 2014, Willy asked me to become a member of the MBC staff. Before he had finished his sentence I said ‘yes!’. The week of the MBC, usually mid-August, is the best week of my year. It really is an event like no other, cycling for hours over the steppe with wild horses running alongside you, giant eagles overhead, and a vastness of wild nature enveloping every sense on your body.
Imagine, no tarmac roads. No restaurants. No convenience stores! Just you, the other riders and nature on a scale you can never fully grasp.
The last edition, 2023, finished on August 19th, and it was yet another wonderful event that featured people of all levels of ability, experiencing a race that is unlike any other I have been a part of.
At the 2013 MBC.
Born in the mind of Race Director, Willy Mulonia, the Mongolia Bike Challenge was envisioned as a true test of fortitude, spirit and togetherness.
His desire was to share that feeling with as many people as he could, and that lies at the heart of this race.
Willy Mulonia, 2023.
Willy said this at the end of the recent MBC, to the riders as they gathered for the final awards ceremony: “Often in our human endeavours we think of effectivity – rather than affectivity.
If we arrive at our goal and have only been effective, there is little meaning.
However, if we are affective – then we affect the people who accompany us on our journey. In this way we can reach people, we can touch them in some way, with positivity.”
And that, to Willy and to the staff of the MBC, means everything.
The 2023 MBC crew.
Let’s hear from some of the people who took part in the Mongolia Bike Challenge 2024.
VALENTINA BELLUCCIO & ALESSANDRO BUGADA
The HoneyMoon Couple (Italy)
We got married earlier this year, and were trying to decide what to do for our honeymoon, so we asked some friends for ideas. Everyone told us: “for your honeymoon choose an unforgettable trip, not just the usual vacation! Something unusual, something you’ll never do again – or try to make a dream come true”.
We thought about various destinations: Canada, Africa, Mauritius.
The travel agents who presented us with the various trips offered ‘extra luxury’ and exclusive ‘elite’ services, but this was not what we were looking for.
One evening we got read Willy Mulonia’s book, Chino Verso Nord, a book that details his life with the bicycle, and all his travels by bike, from South America to the Arctic. We looked at each other and said “let’s ask him…he will understand us.” We just had this feeling.
We spoke to Willy on the phone and he made a proposal: “Come to Mongolia and do the Mongolia Bike Challenge”.
Well, we were very surprised by this reply! We had never considered anything like this, a bike event in Mongolia for our honeymoon!
We were hesitant and scared, to be honest. We are people who love cycling but who are not elite riders who do hours of training… so we were excited, scared, euphoric, thoughtful…a mix of even conflicting emotions.
But in the end, we chose to accept this crazy idea. We would be outside of our comfort zones, undertaking a journey of growth, knowing that we would have to rely on each to get through difficult moments.
Breathtaking landscapes, the scent of the endless meadows, the smell of the horses, the amazing ger tents, the starry sky at night, it was something we had never experienced before.
In short, you realize that you are no longer so omnipotent: that man is so small compared to nature. In Mongolia you realize this and learn to respect the nature of the land and the nature of your own self.
The experience of sharing this journey, a journey made up of hardship, satisfaction and beauty, with other people from around the world, was wonderful… we were all fighting at different times, against something, or for something.
At the end of the six days of riding, we were all so excited and happy that it was almost impossible to see who the winner was from a smile: we were all smiling, and we all felt like winners.
The organizers were absolutely fantastic, helping us in every little situation, both physical and mental.
I absolutely recommend the MBC who are looking for something different and unforgettable,
Don’t be afraid of the distances – me and Alessandro only go out on Sundays and Saturdays to cycle and yet we did the whole route, at our own pace!
As Willy told us: “Our mind processes fears and situations that seem much more terrible than what actually happens when you are in that situation”… and it’s true.
Everything I feared would happen, happened: bad weather one day, falling off my bike, stomach problems, mechanical problems… everything happened…
But we got through it together, and it was great!
I close with an old Mongolian saying: “If you are afraid, don’t do it. But if you do it, you will not be afraid.”
王奐喬 (Joe Wang)
The Battler (Taiwan)
I heard about this race from my friends, they went in 2012 and 2014. After doing some research and seeing some YouTube videos, I was both intrigued and attracted. The Mongolian nature, the animals you see along the route, during the ride – horses, eagles and even camels. It all looked so exotic, something unique in the world, and I really wanted to experience it.
The MBC route is incredibly beautiful. Also, you can meet many friends from all over the world and find a way to communicate with each other, even without language, and help and encourage each other on the course.
Outside of the racing, you can feel the warmth between people at the camp.
The feeling when I crossed the finish line… I was happy, and my butt was finally relieved, because I had a severe saddle sore in the last two days! The pain was so great that sitting on the saddle felt like torture, which made me endure more mental stress. But I got through it!
The Mongolia Bike Challenge is a race that I highly recommend. The scenery along the way cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world. It is the perfect choice if you are looking to combine a trip with a sporting element. You can also invite people to join you, and non-cycling partners can ride in the companion vans and help the staff sometimes. The MBC will give you unforgettable memories that last a lifetime.
But be prepared – you have to do some training for this event!
To finish, I spoke to the race founder and Race Director, Willy Mulonia, and asked him some questions:
Q. Are you crazy?!
A. If I had not been, the MBC would had never been born!
Q. Why decide to hold a race like this in Mongolia?
A. I was looking for a place where to build an event. Argentina, Chile, Morocco, etc… but none really convinced me. Then, one day I landed in Mongolia to create a route for for a bike tour, through my cycling tour company, PA-Cycling. After scouting some routes I understood that Mongolia was the perfect place for an event.
But what really set the fire under me to create this event was a meeting with the Mongolian authorities, when they said to me:
“Mr. Mulonia, your project… is impossible.”
That one word, ‘impossible…’. This was true motivation to start this crazy idea. I had been set a challenge and I had to prove them wrong – and myself right.
Q. What is the philosophy of the event?
A. To give an opportunity to people to take a step inside the unknown. The philosophy is to accompany people on their own personal journey and to support them, so that they discover the best version of themselves.
This desire is to encourage someone who has the courage to face their own fears.
We have a limit of 108 participants for each Mongolia Bike Challenge – 108 is a very significant number in Mongolian culture, and I wanted to pay my respects to the Mongolian people. Also, this gives me and the MBC staff the opportunity to accompany our clients as they challenge themselves within the framework of this event – and these clients, in the process, become our friends, part of the MBC family, and all this happens in one of the most spectacular natural environments in the world.
Et voilà…this is MBC! It’s like no other event in the world.
Of course any event has to make money but this event – what is most important is the affect it has on the people who take part. These people are important, and even more important than the money. It’s about the affect that this experience has on people – that is our true reward.
The moneys come and goes. The virtuosismo – the being – is for ever. For me, the MBC is the best way I have to express my self, it’s my philosophy of living made into something real, something others can experience too.
This event, I’ve been directing it for 12 years now, and I keep going because it allows me to provide people with the chance to “become what you are”. I’m a helper, at heart, and feel my role in this life is to help people to feel better, in whatever way I can.
Q. What is the future of the MBC?
A. The future of the Mongolia Bike Challenge exists in the people who come to ride in the event. For me? I only know that next year, from the 9th to the 18th of August, 2024, I will once again be under the Great Blue Sky of Mongolia…
Registration for the 2024 Mongolia Bike Challenge is now open. Contact me to claim a special CrankPunk discount and to sign up for the MBC Tour Package, also to inquire about my MBC Coaching Plan.
The event is held on August 9th to 18th, with six days of riding.
Gallery, please click to enlarge…