The seventh Mongolia Bike Challenge started with a bang as 5 of us had an epic battle going from the gun tackling six days of racing across the high plateaus (1400-1700 M) of the Worlds least densely populated country. During the 13th century, Ghengis Khan and his horseman conquered much of Asia and Europe in becoming the Worlds largest ever continuous empire. We may not have been fighting for an empire but there was a pink jersey on the line!
Stage one kicked off with an off-roading Toyota Prius with a hot-headed driver trying to overtake our lead group on the rough roads before bottoming out on a big rut and losing the battle. From there American young gun, Payson Mcelveen went on to take the win sneaking away while last year’s winner, Nicholas Pettina (Italy) and I watched each other. On stage two Payson, Nicholas and I had a solid battle over the 122 km course. Payson took the first KOM, I took the second one and went on to win the stage in a wild sprint finish with an oncoming Jeep nearly taking us out on a blind corner heading into the finish arch.
On paper the 120 km stage three looked to be the decisive day in the race with substantial climbs and numerous river crossings. Nicholas is a top Euro World Cup racer and has had a podium at the U23 level. He showed off his high-octane engine attacking early on with only Payson able to follow. By the 40km mark they already had a 5 minute lead on myself, with the Japanese duo of Yuki and Hiroyuki another five minutes back. I figured the leaders were going a bit too hard and would eventually tire out, also crossing my fingers my diesel engine would eventually fire up. During the chase a couple defensive dogs came after me for getting too close to their owners Ger. Jumping off the bike I used it as a shield as one dog bounced off of it, hucking a water bottle at the other one before the owners finally called the hounds off. This helped fire up the adrenaline as the time gap started coming down. At the 60km mark it was 3.5 minutes, 90 km mark down to 1.5 minutes and with just over 20 km to the finish it was down to 30 seconds
The 3 of us were all within under a minute in the overall classification and things were looking good as the two young guns seemed to be running out of steam. Closing in I saw the two leaders take off in what looked like the wrong direction as from years past I remembered going a different way. The problem was the direction signs clearly pointed the way they were going.
Cresting the next hill I could see the leaders looking confused as they descended a hill and started cutting off into the middle of a pasture. It was evident they were lost, I knew where to go from years past and thought about taking off for an easy stage win but my mind wouldn’t let me do it. Having won the race three times already, I had no desire to win it in this sort of fashion as it wouldn’t be legit. The longer I race the more I’m starting to value the good competition and the battles that go with it. Thus the decision was made to ride over to Nicholas and Payson, who were now stopped near a Ger in a lost state and lead them 3-4 km back to the course.
In the past when courses are sabotaged and racers take all different routes to the finish line the race is neutralized and you line up again the next day on a clean slate. On this day we were split up at a feed zone 15 km from the finish as a few more racers caught up to us and we casually rode into the finish in different groups. Shockingly the organizers decided to keep the times from this stage giving the stage win to Hans, a Master 2 rider and giving Payson over a five minute lead on Nicholas and myself. With the tightness of racing going on and the flat, shorter stages to come this was going to be a big deficit to try and overcome.
Stage four I attacked from the gun as the best chance to get away would be through the swampy technical section in the first 10km. This was to no avail. With 120 km of flat riding across the Mongolian plains to the finish it turned into a roadie style day. The day ended with a sprint finish into a fence as we had a tough time navigating the home stretch. Payson recovered the quickest to take the win ahead of myself. Nicholas decided to race-neutral due to the questionable decision the day before.
Stage five we road in a large pack to the first feed zone, apparently some of the racers were upset with my attacks at the start of stage four while they were still trying to digest their breakfasts and attacked through the feed zone while I was off my bike.
This caught me off guard as we had been waiting for each other all week at the feeds. I took this as a compliment they felt this was the best way to drop me. I chased hard but Nicholas and Payson were working well together battling the headwind and slowly extended their feed zone gap. I would settle in for a scenic ride to finish with my buddy Yuki.
The stage ended at a Ger camp reconstructed to imitate a 13th-century war village complete with guard towers and a giant central Ger for eating and relaxing like Kings. It’s a highlight of the trip as you feel like your living back in the time of Ghengis Khaan with nothing of the modern World within sight. The dark sky at night topped it off with some stellar stargazing.
Stage six was a 25km time trial around the rocky outcrops of our camp. Nicholas had a superhuman ride to take the win, I came in second and Hiroyuki who had been battling hard all week finally got a podium place in 3rd. Payson had gotten lost again and came in 4th, losing the overall to Nicholas.
Unknowingly to the rest of us, Nicholas showed some good sportsmanship and told the organizers he didn’t want to accept the Pink Jersey after all the controversy over the week and felt Payson deserved it. They decided to adjust the times to put Payson back in Pink, dropping myself to third and Hiroyuki off the podium on the stage. Payson and Nicholas had ridden solid all week and one of them deserved the Pink as I was having an average week, but it was too bad to see Hiroyuki not getting credit for his efforts on the stage. In the end it was a weird end to a weird week of racing.
What I will take from this year’s event is a number of great new friendships and some stunning flashbacks to the amazing Mongolian countryside we rode through. This country never disappoints as the more you travel here the more it intrigues one’s senses as you get to understand it better. The simple nomadic life the Mongols live is something which is increasingly special as our lives are slowly overtaken by the chaos and electronics of the modern world. I’ll be looking forward to returning to Mongolia again in the future, possibly one day travelling deeper into the countryside via the old school way on horseback.
The days after the race were spent relaxing and eating loads of home cooked free range organic protein with my Mongolian family, Hutch, Aagii and there two kids. Thanks for the place to recharge and get ready for the next round.
I left Mongolia in an attempt to get to Bhutan for the next race, The Tour of the Dragon. Both luggage bags are lost and apparently still in Mongolia so things are a bit of a shit show right now. Generally travelling goes pretty smoothly but when you toss Air China into the mix it turns into a gong show. The last two times leaving Mongolia they smashed my bike, this time it just didn’t show up. Right now I’m trying to deal with what I can control and crossing my fingers the lost bags show up in time for the 268km one day race across Bhutan this Saturday. Otherwise it’s onto Plan B, a week holiday on the beaches of Thailand, or maybe Indonesia.
Over and out.