Monday, 15 August 2011

Mongolia Bike Challenge

I think it's the hardest race I've ever done.... definitely the longest. It was pretty much like riding half of a Tour de France. My total riding time over nine stages was just over 50 hours, which is what I would normally log in three weeks of riding.

Here are some quick notes from each stage. I'll include a summary of the race at the end, because it's hard to talk about the scenery, terrain, and what you're doing between stages in a race report.

Two days before the start, the riders met in the hotel lobby with our bikes and we rode to a big town square with police escort to line up behind our country's flag. We walked and rode under the starting banner to signify the start of the race, and watched performances from local Mongolian singers and dancers. The opening ceremonies were really cool. Afterwards, we dropped off our bikes in front of the hotel to be driven 6-8 hours away to the first starting town of Dalanzagad. Craig and I walked through town to look around, and sent some postcards home with the intention that they would arrive before we did.

Day 0 - Today the plan was to wake up, catch a one hour flight to Dalanzagad, build up our bikes, and get ready for the first stage of the race the following day. When I got up I felt horrible. I obviously ate some bad food the day before and anything other than the fetal position was uncomfortable. Arriving at the airport, we checked our small bags and boarded the plane, all while I was trying to remain lying down. Half way through the plane ride I felt like I was going to barf. I went to the bathroom and stood over the toilet, but I started to get really hot and then very cold. I got crazy goosebumps and when I looked in the mirror I was so sweaty my hair was soaking wet. I started getting light headed so I staggered back to my seat but I felt like I was going to faint so I laid down in the aisle. This caused a few people to get worried, but I just needed to lie down. After getting off the flight I couldn't hold down any food, so I had a glucose drip for dinner and got lots of sleep the night before the race.

Day one started off fast. Everyone was fresh and wanted to show everyone else how strong they were. I was feeling fine until about 20k in when I got popped off the lead group of fifteen riders, and from then on it was pretty ugly. I just had no energy and was riding insanely slow. Riders kept passing me as I kept suffering, and I must have been doing 15km/hr on flat open roads. The course had no singletrack and was all dirt road with lots of corrugation. The best comparison I can think of would be riding 90km of railway tracks into a headwind. I finished, but realized that I was already out of the battle for the overall win. From now on my goal was to survive, and possibly win a stage later in the race. It was good to hear the news at the finish that Cory and Craig had gone 1-2 on the stage, and that Cory had taken the first leaders jersey of the race. Another reason for me to get healthy and to stay in the race was to help my fellow Canadians win.

Day two was even harder than day one. I finished the stage, but when I crossed the line I needed help. It was very hot and the course was still flat and bumpy. I was out riding for 6 hours and after I finished I laid on a cot inside a tourist centre in the Gobi desert. Today was hard, but all of the other riders in the race kept encouraging me, saying that I was strong for finishing despite being sick. It makes it harder to stop riding when people tell you that you've got great spirit, or that they think you'll win a stage later in the race. 

Over the course of the race I kept notes on a piece of paper, just to remind me of the stages and of anything of significance. My notes for day three read, "Hot, horrible, wanted to die. This race sucks. Easily the worst race I've ever done. Had a saline drip in a sweltering hot gher right next to the race doctor as he inspected other riders' asses and their saddle sores". Even though the race organizers told us that we would be leaving the desert today, we rode in hot sand for 133km. I threw up my breakfast about 15km in, and I can tell you that there is nothing more mentally deflating than knowing you have to ride the next 115km with no food in your belly.

Day four might have been my mental low for this race, but maybe only by a little bit. After racing for 5 hours I told Craig at the finish line that I would definitely not be starting the next day, because I was sure that I was doing long term damage to my body. Today was the first day in the race that I didn't throw up, but I experienced lots of dizziness and chest pains while racing. I had to stop multiple times. As I'm writing this two days after getting home, I'm glad that I didn't drop out at this point, but I thought about it a lot throughout today's race.

Day five was better. I was able to ride in the main pack for 111 of the 116kms. A couple hours into the stage Craig bridged up to a small group of three riders to form the day's break, so I helped control the pack and monitor anyone who tried to chase. It was really good. I was able to ride tempo at the front, but couldn't go with the attacks at the end of the race. I rode the last five kilometers steady and tried to recover some more before tomorrow's massive mountain stage. In the end, Craig ended up working with Aussie Rohin Adams to get back a bunch of time and almost put Craig in the race lead. Since they both had something to gain, Craig didn't outsprint Rohin at the finish line and said that it made him happy to see Rohin celebrate so much at the finish.

Day six I wanted to help again. My goal was to stay with Craig and Cory as long as I could so that I could help them defend their first and second positions in GC. After 20k the lead group was down to about 15 guys, but I had a slow leak in my front tire. Before stopping to fix it, I asked Craig and Cory if they needed any food or water, and that was my day. For the next 6-7 hours I rode in survival mode with fellow Canadian Ross McKegney and made it to the rest day. 5km from the finish line I took a hard fall on a loose rocky section, even though I was telling myself to be careful and just make it to the finish. Fifty meters before the finish line there was a wide deep creek crossing where there were lots of photographers, but not being in the best mood I carried my bike in front of my face so that no one could take pictures of me.

The rest day was great. It was sunny and warm and I didn't have to get up at 5:30 to ride my bike. I slept in till 8, did some laundry in the river by our camp, and rolled rocks down a big hill with Craig and Ross.

Doing laundry in the river
A short walk to stretch the legs out

Today definitely lifted my morale and gave my body more time to recover from my sickness. I worked on my bike and fixed my tire from yesterday, and learned how to play backgammon from the Aussies.

Day seven started a new race for me. From the start line the course went immediately uphill and continued that way for the first thirty minutes. There were a few rolly sections before the last steep climb to the time bonus 10k in, and I passed over the top with Craig, Rohin and another Aussie named Alex, in third through sixth. Coming down from the top of that pass, the road was very loose and rocky. I tried to stay towards the front on the descent and was forced into bunny-hopping a massive gap in the road after a section had been washed away. It was pretty scary and I just made it.

At the bottom of the descent I had flatted again! A small slice in the sidewall of my tire should have been filled in from my tire sealant, but I think four days in the desert made it all dry up. I changed the flat quickly and got going again, but after another 5k the same thing happened. I changed the flat, but didn't have a way to inflate my tire until a dutch rider named Roul came by, who Craig and I had been spending a lot of time with during the week. Roul lent me his pump, and waited for me until I got going again. For the rest of the day we rode together nice and steady through lots of river crossings, open grassy valleys, and dried up creek beds. We chased a herd of goats and I got it on Roul's video camera. The day was tough, but it was good knowing that my fitness was improving and that I could eat food comfortably on the bike again.

At the finish line, I thought that no one could be having worse luck than me, but today Cory flatted THREE times and lost 30 min and the race lead to Marzio Deho. I think Craig and I were just as disappointed as Cory was, and with only two stages of the race to go, it would be hard for Cory to make that time up.

Day eight was the longest stage of the race. 144km including some significant climbs, but no major mountain passes. The climbs were all less than 15 min, but over the course of the race they definitely added up. In the approach to the first climb of the day, Craig and I worked to box Marzio Deho in, while Cory attacked just before the first ascent. Cory punching it split up the main group, and up the climb I found myself in the same group as yesterday, ripping down the other side of the climb with Craig, Rohin and Alex. The descent was fast, grassy, false flat road, and each of us would take turns spinning out our hardest gear. The grass turned to gravel and we climbed again, but on the flats we were rejoined by a group of 4-5 riders from behind us. As we got closer to the finish, we approached climbs that were more rooty and shaded. They looked more like a smooth trail at the Canmore Nordic Centre, or a climb through Thetis Lake. One of the highlights from today's stage was riding over a fast climb and being surprised that we were about to enter a large town in the middle of nowhere. Police had closed the roads and Mongolians were everywhere cheering us on. It was a good feeling to see people with smiles on their faces, and their encouragement definitely lifted my morale.

Having put on two brand new tires the night before I was sure that my equipment was solid for the rest of the race. On a nice flat patch of grass with 40km to go however, my rear tire started to leak and I told Craig that I would see him at the finish line. We could only laugh at my bad luck and I hopped off my bike to change my flat as fast as I could. After the group disappeared, a couple stray riders passed me just as I was getting going again, but up the very next climb I had dropped them and was in search of the pack. The climbs from this point on were good. Some flatter sections split up the steep pitches, but the last 30km was mostly flat grass with a strong headwind, so it was impossible for me to rejoin the front group. With only one day left, my mood was a bit mixed; I wanted the race to be over, but my chance for a stage win was disappearing and the Canadians only had 100km left to get Cory back into the race lead.

The last day was my favourite of the whole race. We started into the sunrise with a cool mist in front of us, and with about 5k covered a herd of horses ran full speed right across our view. The main climbs of the day were early on, so with a couple kilometers to the base of the climb I decided to accelerate away from the group and get a head start. My plan was to make Deho chase me so that Cory and Craig could sit on and rest, and it worked. At the top of the first climb I took the GPM bonus and descended down into the valley with the lead. I lost about twenty seconds in the valley after a very stubborn bull yak blocked my path and wouldn't move, but I still started the second major climb with a good gap and held it all the way to the top. Heading down the second descent the speeds were unreal. We were flying and were tucking to get more aerodynamic. Deho pulling up the climb had split the group down to 5-6 riders, but more joined us on the flats after the descent. The rest of the course profile said that it was downhill all the way to the finish, but after about 30km there were actually some significant climbs. I worked with the group and tried to make Deho do as much work as possible. The only bad luck Craig had during the race was getting some wire caught in his rear wheel with about 40km to go, but I waited for him and helped him bridge back up to the lead group.

With 20km to go the pace just got too high for me, and I think I should have eaten more during the final stage. I dropped off the front group of five riders on a long twisty open climb and knew that I wouldn't win a stage in the race. It was a bit disappointing, but I kept powering along and finished strong with a group of three other riders just behind the lead group.

Finishing after going through such a long spell of sickness and discomfort was satisfying. At the end of any race you always forget the pain you went through in order to get your result, but during those first four days I promised myself that I would never forget how painful it was just to finish. I don't know if I was right in thinking that I was doing long-term damage to my body while racing sick, but even if I'm not physically tougher now than at the start of the race, I'm definitely mentally tougher than when I started.

The final stage of the race finished at the very first Buddhist temple in all of Mongolia. After wiping ourselves down and getting something to eat, the riders explored the temples and the city nearby. That night we stayed in traditional Mongolian Ghers, and the next morning we loaded up the vans for a bumpy 6 hour drive back to Ulaan Baatar and the closing ceremonies.

The Mongolia Bike Challenge was definitely a life experience that I will never forget. The scenery just outside the six-foot bubble of pain really is enjoyable to look at, and it feels like you are riding from page one to page nine in a book of Mongolian postcards. Besides drinking hot water in the desert, the food every morning and evening is very easy to wolf down without any apprehension, and the daily routine gets your body into an excellent rhythm.

The highlights of the race for me were helping Craig and Cory gain time on stage 5, climbing strong and leading the group on Stage 8, riding alongside herds of horses, goats, sheep and yaks, and making so many friends with fellow riders and race staff throughout the week. Laughing and joking with people even when everyone is tired helps to shake the stress of racing off, and there were many people who helped me do it over the nine days. The closing ceremonies and having my name announced as one of the finishers of this race was definitely something that I won't forget either, and all of the support that I received from race organizers, friends and family at home, and fellow racers is something that will stand out in my mind any time I think of this race.

Spinning the prayer wheels

One of the main temples at the finish

Inside a temple

The Aussies relaxing in the shade

Holding a Golden Eagle at the finish
A special thanks to all of the people who helped us make it to Mongolia and helped us take part in this adventure: Fawcett & Co Cycling Expeditions, NOP Systems, BC Bike Race, Oak Bay Bikes and Rocky Mountain. We tried hard and dug deep to represent you with the tenacity that you deserve, so we hope that you are pleased with our efforts. Thanks guys!

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post Tom! Can't wait for the whole truth!