It rained all night, stopping only an hour or so before we got up. The ger kept us dry, and when I started getting ready the thermometer on my bag, inside, said 4C. No prob. Off to breakfast in the Mash style mess tent, then pack and get ready. I wore two shorts, two wool socks, full fingered gloves, an icebreaker t shirt and a jersey, plus good thermal armwarmers. Brought a jacket as I do every day. Sonya asked me which of her jackets I'd pick and I pointed to the warmer one. Perhaps fortuitous. Grabbed my bike, and 10 mins to start not a person was at the line. We did go on time. I kid you not, Mongolians wearing shorts and jersey.
Flat roads for start, first water crossing was about a hundred meters in. Now I had double wet wool socks. Plan was we were crossing a lot of Siberian tundra - 145km worth was the plan. We proceeded crossing more puddles, streams and rivers. It wasn't long until I couldn't feel my feet. I was tail end of lead group which I counted at 27 riders. I preferred the tail as I could hold back from eating too much mud, and watch how crossings went and take the smarter line and catch back up instead if the crap line then rush and hammer to combat the slinky effect. We crossed some yak farms. Awesome. Legs have been wet and ice cold since start. But feel ok.
Turned into a strong headwind and people started dropping. I was a bit over a pace I preferred, but I sure as hell knew I didn't want to drop and ride cold Siberian tundra headwind solo with big clouds on the horizon. Let me tell you that's a serious motivator.
Up a climb into that same wind shed a few more, but not yet me. It dropped back down a d we started working a valley up to a pass on a long climb. Lead group broke away leaving fragments behind. I rode past a guy who was chatty about my jersey, turns out he's leading the category of our age group. We rode together for a bit, he's Tom from Belgium. He also knows Thomas from Belgium. We crest the first KOM together and ate pumped for a downhill.
It didn't work out that way. I've never spent more energy going down a slope of this grade. Also note this for later... but it was mush muskeg that was virtually impossible to roll. We passed the first van that was buried to the wheels only 50m in. We drove on. Got through a forest, then a super steep grass hill descent where I caught up to next guy by avoiding brakes, then to a clearing where we see leaders to far right across a river. We head that way and cross - it's almost belly button deep and freezing. Belgian, Aussie and I work on the trail together into aid 1 where - surprise - Cory's mom takes our numbers and says we're done. So much for best day yet. But story doesn't end here!
Apparently we're set for 4 more crossings, all deeper, and vehicles plus us can't make it. 5 minutes of chatting cools everyone down. It's not warm out. We pile into a little van, which ends up holding 16 of us and eventually has hot horse milk being passed around. I partake. It's salty, after first few sips I'm fine with it and think more about warmth than a different taste.
Eventually a guy orders us all out and the van peels out down the trail. We look around and find an animal shelter chunked with dung a hundred meters off so we all pile in there. We stay until someone advises us of a plan. Plan is to ride back the way we came for 8-10km. We do so then wait at a a fork until the Toyota Land Cruiser comes up. It tells us to cross back over the deep river and wait by the gers. After freezing and regrouping, the plan is communicated that we're going back up the pass - steep descent and muskeg be damned, to a ger on the other side, then be evacuated. We start climbing at an easy pace as its the entire group for most part, but we're also trying to warm up. I end up behind Cory and he climbs this mondo steep straight pitch. I don't need to burn the match but I do anyway for the sport of steep climbing. It hurt, but were the only two who didn't treat it as a long hike a bike. Next was some forest with vans that made it through the muskeg, then the muskeg. Geez. Cold, wet, difficult and now uphill. If there was one part unwanted to ride twice, this wasn't it.
As a side note here, I've learned something about Toyota Land Cruisers. They have a reputation for a reason. This thing makes it through anything, plus it pulls the vans through. Uphill long tows through muskeg, dozen times here, several other places on course per day, year round service, for decades. Like seriously mind boggling. Plus up the steep climb which is the max I could possibly ride.
So back down the pass, into a cold headwind, with only the instruction to find a ger. We find one and a guy waves us in. It has a fire going. We get 36 people in before the next one starts filling up. People live here and are bringing tea bags and sugar, we don't really have water to make it with. We get it sauna hot and end up staying several hours until all riders and all vehicles drag themselves up the muskeg. International mixing room, nap room, drying room, and probably not a very good smelling room. The Mongolians borrowed or bartered for more clothes.
We eventually have snacks brought and a first wave of vehicles leaves for evac to camp. Little do we know this is going to be a 4 hour ordeal, crammed into these little Russian 4x4 vans. Lets just say we learned quickly the ceilings aren't padded for decoration. About 3h in we find a gas station where someone has money for kit kats, beef flavoured chips that are penne shaped, and other odd snacks.
We get to camp as the sun is setting 12h after departure. It's been cold, wet, although no rain miraculously, and nothing but Lycra on all day. I grab a tent and strip down so fast, then to mess tent. Food is excellent and hot. I'm done by time most people aren't even done dishing up yet. I have a cup of tea and psych myself up for a shower, mostly as I want a non-gross sleep and the idea of unclean going into a 175km stage tomorrow just puts a serious fear of saddle sores into me.
It's dark so I'm wearing my head lamp. I can see my breath and its a cold wind. In my tent now after typing all this it only say 4C which might include mild ambient tent warmth. I strip down, lather up, and cringe. The water doesn't have a hint of warmth in it. It's a biblical experience. I've never troweled off faster, that wind was a real motivator to get clothes back on.
That's a day in Mongolia. I loved every minute of it, but people seem to be mixed - some are cracking. This place is awesome - and harsh. When they say pack a jacket and a space blanket, do it. That's not a made up race insurance policy stipulation. Ask anyone out here today. You bring it cause when you're cracked, cold, wet, and there's nothing around as far as the eye can see except wind and yaks, you're really not going to be thinking of the grams you saved.
I'm wearing every piece of clothing I have. Two wools sock layers, long johns plus fleece pants, t shirt, long sleeve and hoodie icebreaker, puffy jacket, toque and hobo gloves in my sleeping bag trying to warm up to fall asleep soon. People who didn't make first wave won't be in for hours still, we won't see bikes till morning, and we've for biggest stage tomorrow.
Maybe it was the good legs, or just the cold, or just the whole deal today, but I haven't felt this alive in ages. This race is awesome, I've loved every minute in this country.