Sunday, 8 September 2013

Mongolia Bike Challenge reflection

I consider myself lucky to exist in a golden age of mountain biking where events like this, excellent mountain bike technology, and my fitness and travel budget are all lining up.  At times I marvel that this is the life I get to have.  I got everything I wanted out of this race and more. It's raw and tough. It could be just called Mongolia Challenge, as the bike riding isn't the only hard part. It reminds me of a line from a great article about La Ruta: nothing is particularly hard about this race, but none of it is easy either. You can't point to any climb, descent, camping technique, etc. that on its own crushes you. Wrap it all into what this is, and nobody in their right mind will say anything about this is even remotely easy.  Look at the faces outside the showers covered in dirt after riding  100+ km days where at some point they cracked off the pace at the front waiting for their chance to hose down with ice cold water in the wind and you won't see the look of ease - and by my estimation the group who self selected to be here is a tough group. Cory will tell you it's tough - although I'll assert he's tougher - he did ride 90km back to Ulaan Baatar on "day 8" with some half ass directions which is an awesome Cory move.

I didn't think I minded cold water, and in the grand scheme I don't, but daily cracking on long rides and an ice cold hose to welcome you at camp isn't easy. So is ger sleeping on rocks waking up cold at 4am just trying to get a few more winks without being cold until 6am breakfast daily. These aren't newbies who decided to give a stage race a try. The crowd like Jack, Andre, Richard, and Bob who had his 66th birthday on stage 6, have more stories each than a lifetime of stuff Indiana Jones ever did. Andre still has Gerry's Deadgoat hat and wears it with pride. He said maybe he could be an honorary 'goat - finishing this and doing the other races he's done definitely qualifies him. He's a Frenchman living India that has stores back to skiing with Jean Claude Killy and working at Val d'Isere in the 70's. 

The younger crowd doesn't seem to be the xc lap race centric bunch - its a really neat group of people this attracts. The attrition rate is pretty high on this race, and we didn't even get the 175km day. Chatted a bunch with UK Matt who has Mike Hall as a riding friend at home and took interest in hearing about Craig. 

Note: if you ever see a TransMongolia race - train. We dabbled in a small part of this country and I felt dwarfed like an ant.  I've only heard stories of when it went into the Gobi and it sounded hard as it comes. Joao is pulling his bike touring trailer to the Gobi right now before heading back to Portugal. 

This was without a doubt one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. For me all racing is escapism - you forget a little of the "real world". It's like taking out a clipper and shearing back the stuff that doesn't matter. This hacked away the trappings of my usual routine with a battle axe. No electronics really - no connection all week and this phone hasn't been charged all week. No hot water, plumbing, temperature control, walls, or creature comforts. We haven't seen a single product advertisement in a week. Sunrise, sunset, bike, eat basic food. It feels like centuries have been rewound looking across these landscapes. There's no fences. Animals roam. Wild horses run right across our path like flocks of birds.  We can't tell, but it really seems they do it just for fun. The camels just hang out. Here's a captive one that was actually reasonably personable. 

My cat friend looks like it froze part of an ear off. It just showed up on my bed all skinny and friendly. Cows, dogs, goats and sheep are smaller and thinner too. People aren't fat. Getting enough is hard work - this isn't a land of excess.

People are tough to survive here, but warm. Law of the land is you can go in any ger and have food/tea/sleep if you're stuck outdoors.  Humankind is cooperative to make it work here.

There's a definite absence of rules here. All the basics appear to be in tact - people stop if there's a fender bender, city seemed orderly enough, I didn't get the feeling theft and murder were particularly prevalent. But all that happened without the appearance of excessive "don't do this" signs and mindset. I swear I only saw 6 traffic signs outside of logs with arrows and come Cyrillic written town or landmark 80km off in another direction. There were even fewer traffic lights. I couldn't wield my camera fast enough for the skull and crossbones sign on the highway, but that kind of says it all -  they don't mess with the small stuff here like speed limit signs (non existent). 

This race was small enough to be friendly and not overwhelming. I look down the GC list now and almost all the names have a face, a place, a personality, a riding style, the ups and downs of the week, a reason that drew them here like moths to the light. Camp was community.  You can pick the Mongolian names out of the GC list, and don't let the results fool you - these guys didn't sit in and ride for place. They are hard as nails and animated the race, taking huge pulls and making huge efforts when it got tough and others wanted to sit in. Their places don't reflect their contributions. That Altanzul guy is a powerhouse of epic proportions. If these guys had travel budgets, they'd be awesome at tour divide. They wouldn't have to pare back gear from a North American mindset... and the route would seem relatively populated!

I can't think how many future tough ass situations I'll face in the future and think "this would be easier with a Mongolian here".  I knew nothing before, know very little of them now, but am just seriously impressed after just one week. Altanzul, the guy who pulled 50% of the 165km day into headwind and blew in the last 5km blew everyone's mind.  The guy can push a gear into the wind like few I've ever seen. So strong. 

There's a veteran Mongolian guy here who's badass. He was in their army in Vietnam. He wore nothing more than bibs and a jersey every day. He washes it and puts it on damp in the morning when the starts are cold. No gloves. His bike only has a front brake. He's got an aluminum 26er frame from another decade, if not two ago. The front derailleur cable stop came off, so he routes housing through the hole in the seat say bridge that most people use as a fender mount. He's nothing but sinew and muscle - I'm fairly certain he'd twist my flabby whiteness into a pretzel in about 60 seconds if he needed to without breaking a sweat. He's done every Mongolia Bike Challenge so far, and he quit his job before the race this year as apparently they weren't going to give him the time off so he said f- them.  Mijid Batmunkh is one awesome guy. Believe it or not, we hung out a bit and he requested this photo so I handed my phone over for one too. 

I find it hard to remember why I'm so busy doing so many things when what this week had is pretty much all I ever want. People at home who think its hard to ride bikes to work in the cold winter have no idea how soft at least urban Canada is in modern times.  With modern cars and central heat, cold seems hardly worth talking about compared to ger life, animal raising, and living so far from "stores".  I need less, not more. Even UB doesn't seem easy, my guess is it'd be bleak in the winter. Even on a 15C day its dust, concrete, rocks and square apartment blocks leave you feeling devoid of anything cozy. 

Each night when I'd take a piss I'd marvel at the stars. No lights anywhere to be seen in any direction to fade them. Millions of them, bright from the horizon up. What a treat.  But really it shouldn't be. 

I had 3 solid days, a couple tougher, and the unknown transfer day I was feeling good for the start until the aid one where it was cancelled. The good days on a bike are just are golden. This kind of beating down with hard rides makes me feel more alive than dead although people espouse the opposite in finish line talk.  Suffering isn't having your chin on the stem in a headwind, it's letting prime years slip by wilting into frailty.  I'm closer to dead when I'm flabby, sedate, in temperature controlled environments under the fluorescent lights. I'm fully alive when it's cold starting, windy, heart pumping, legs burning, and can tag onto a 20 person lead group of respectable engines that's drilling it. I think I respond to high training loads and just don't do jack shit all at home usually vs efforts like this. I fully get structured training, but it doesnt touch racing. 7th day was a 5 min max climb right after wakeup from a cold start followed by 15km of threshold stay in the group by the skin of your teeth, chase back on into a headwind, climb to drop some, pull last 15k and chase down two more in last 3km. That's crazy amounts of effort. Last couple days I've just felt the engine come alive, god I wish I could bottle that up. I don't really care how I do, I just love the feeling of being able to pound it out for three, four, five or six hours. Feeling that way, looking around at such landscapes, I feel so alive and lucky to be able to do it. It doesn't hurt that I'm down a belt notch. 

Real world seems a million miles away; I don't really want to go back. Here's what I left for the long trip home... our fort. 
Where we finished riding yesterday. 
Thomas thanks so much for talking me into this adventure!  Sportsman champ - you rode awesome all week!

Here was by my favourite river. 


  1. Appreciated your reflection of "the real world"! thanks

  2. Hey Eric, I'd come across your blog before but nice to put a face to it. Was fun riding with you a bit during the week. Great write up too! Cheers Seb

  3. Just read every entry. Love your perspective on the event. I'll keep cjecking in our on your - great writing style. Hope the arm is on the mend. Will miss you at TransAndes this year.