Words and photos by Cory Wallace.
The 11-day Yak Attack stage race is the highest mountain bike race on Earth as it traverses through Nepal’s grand Himalayan mountain range. It starts out on the World famous Annapurna trek, taking us up over Thorong La pass at 5416 m. From there we’ll drop down to 4000 m and head into the tourist restricted area of the Upper Mustang Valley, eventually reaching the border of Tibet. Over the course of the race, 8.5 of the 10 stages will be between 3500 m and 5416 m with the temperatures anywhere between +25 and -20 degrees celsius. It’s part race but more so a proper mountain adventure!
In 2014 I came here unprepared and had my ass handed to me, getting sick on the first day and never recovering. The combination of turbulent food, rough living conditions, high altitude and tough riding has meant the local Nepali riders have dominated the race winning every one of the 9 previous editions. As far as a race goes, it’s the most scenic MTB race I’ve been to in the world, and per kilometre one of the toughest. The days are short – averaging 35-45 km – but they can be deceptive, often requiring some hike a bike, extremely rough and unforgiving terrain, cold temperatures and thin air.
Trying to ride at 3000-5400 m above sea level slows things down considerably. The oxygen level of the air is still the same as sea level at around 22%, but there is less air being inhaled with every breath as there’s less pressure in the atmosphere. By the time we hit 3000 m the effective oxygen will be cut down to 14.5% and by the time we hit the top of Throng La Pass at 5416 m it will be around 10.7% – half of what we take in at sea level. This means a lot of long slow breaths and trying to diesel our way through the days instead of bursting efforts which would surely leave us gasping for air and in a world of hurt.
Since the MTB Himalaya race ended in India, I set up base camp in the Indian mountains at 1950 m for 2 weeks, with 3 nights up around 2800 m. 1950 m is on the cusp of being good for acclimatization, as 2200-2600 m seems to be the desirable level but after having a decent crash, it seemed smarter to stay down a bit lower in higher oxygen levels to help with the recovery. Since coming to Nepal my buddy Peter Butt and I headed up onto the race course and stayed in the town of Manang for 5 nights at 3500 m. The first 3 days we felt the effects of the altitude as our heart rates went up and our sleeps were disturbed as our bodies acclimatized. By the fourth night our bodies seemed to have come around and everything shifted back to normal although our rides during the day left us gasping for air, especially once we hit over 4000 m!
The lead up to the race has been a real experiment and will be interesting to see if the pre-altitude training has any positive effect once we start racing. One thing which has been a bonus has been living in the India-Nepal region for the last 6 weeks getting used to the sketchy food/water and adapting to the cultural differences. It’s starting to feel a bit like home which should help control these Nepali mountain goats in the coming days. Theres also a handful of fast foreigners here which are wildcards and should keep the race interesting as it always a battle trying to race over here.
Kona has a new distributor in Nepal and one of their shops, Pancbike, helped sort out some last minute gear and tuned up my bike. It’s great to see the Kona brand come into the Nepalese market as these guys have some perfect terrain for mountain biking and they certainly need bikes which are durable and can take a beating!
Stage 1 of the Yak Attack was a bit of a shocker with a flat tire just before the start and one at the finish. In between the body was running really hot and misfiring after feeling pretty good in the lead up. It seems the curse of the Yak Attack from 2014 is still lingering around but there are ten more days to go. Hopefully things will turn around and I’ll finally crush this demon. After this it’s officialy game over on what has been a solid 12 month race season starting all the way back in Costa Rica last December.
With the most recent update, Cory is sitting in 1st overall after five days’ racing. Looks like the acclimatization is paying off! Good luck Cory and we look forward to hearing about the rest of the Yak Attack!