Cory Wallace on What It Takes To Win the World’s Highest Mountain Bike Race

Words by Cory Wallace. Photos by Rupert Fowler.

The Yak Attack is by far the most scenic race I’ve been to, riding through the heart of the largest mountains on Earth and into the hidden world of an old Buddhist kingdom. A region rarely visited with stunning mountain peaks, true mountain people and a mystical sense of being on a different planet.

This race kicked my ass in 2014 coming to Nepal in great shape, but unprepared for the x-factors that racing here comes with. Being found ill in the ditch on Stage 6, I had the gutted feeling of waving the white flag and DNFing the race. Fast forward 2.5 years later and my 2nd shot at the Yak Attack, this time the race was bigger and better then ever before celebrating its 10th anniversary taking on the Annapurna circuit and also 5 days in the Forbidden Kingdom of the Upper Mustang!

The Annapurna Circuit: Stages 1-5

This is the classic portion of the Yak Attack as we started at 800 m above sea level in Besisahar, the gateway to the Himalayas, crossed over Thorlong Pass at 5415 m and then onwards to the Upper Mustang. The first stage turned into a gongshow racing a 32 km time trial in the jungles and rice paddies surrounding Besisahar. The day before I had spent hours patching and gluing tires together as the new ones ordered from India three weeks earlier never arrived. They said they would take 3-4 days maximum to deliver, but first they sent them to Kolkata, India, instead of Kathmandhu Nepal, then there were some holidays and who knows what else but three weeks later still no tires. My head was left wobbling side to side. On race day, the front tire went flat five minutes before the start, and the rear one 1 km from the finish. It was a full on gongshow and to top it off the body was backlashing from the race efforts and requesting for a few more days off.

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Already down 7-8 minutes from the three leaders and heading into the Yak Attack’s toughest stage it was a rough sleep. Arising at midnight after two hours of rest I would lie awake for the duration of the night feeling ill and having flashbacks to my race ending meltdown on this stage in 2014. Running a tube in the front tire and an extra patch in the rear my Kona Honzo and I tackled the 65 km climbing stage on an insanely rough and scenic jeep road to Chame. The route was amazing following a tight gorge, hugging cliffs and steadly climbing into the heart of the Himalayas. Four riders (Thinus from South Africa, Ajay from Nepal, Yuki from Japan and Peter from Australia) set a steady pace from the start as I dangled about a minute or two behind for the first first hour. My fingers were crossed as I repeatedly told myself “don’t meltdown, don’t meltdown, don’t meltdown, no more flats, no more flats…” Seeing the race flash before my eyes the body suddenly started showing signs of life and by the middle of the stage the system was back online. Soon catching the leaders, I dropped them and put 7, 10 and 18 minutes into the top 3 in GC as they seemed to lose some gas towards the end of the big day. Game on!

Chame is a cold little town tucked into the shadows of 7000 m glacier-covered peaks vertically straight above. From here we climbed along more roads snaking along cliffsides before breaking out into the broader and sunnier valley leading to Manang with views of the huge Annapurna mountain range above. It was pretty epic with loads of trekkers out on this route as it’s the second-most popular trek only behind Everest base camp in Nepal. We tried not to scare the hikers too badly as we ripped by on our bikes but some of them seemed to be suffering from AMS and off on another planet. Up at 3500 m now we had a scheduled rest day in the old Tibetan style Nepalese village of Manang. This place is a proper old school western town with yaks wandering around the dusty streets, loads of tea houses for weary travellers, a “Yak Theatre” to watch movies on Himalayan adventures, and a surrounding mountainside full of glaciers, monasteries and hidden valleys to explore.

Stage 4 from Manang to Phedi had 17 km of singletrack heading up to 4500 m. The Nepali boys went hard out of the gate this morning but thankfully blew up a bit as Thinus and I dieseled past them and onto a tough battle for the next 1.5 hours. With 5 km to go I put in a good effort over a small hill which put both Thinus and I in the red zone and on the verge of tipping over as the thin air up above 4100 m was like trying to breathe through a straw. Thankfully we ran into a herd of donkeys portering stuff up the mountain and were blocked for a few minutes on the tight trail. Soon after we hit a herd of yaks and then another herd of donkeys. In a normal race this wouldn’t be ideal, but we both enjoyed the small pause in racing, giving us a chance to catch our breath and look around at the stunning mountain landscapes before gasping our way to the finish line with myself claiming a narrow two-second victory to make it three in a row.

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Stage 5 is the classic “pass day” as the race starts with a 5 km hike a bike over Thorlong Pass reaching a dizzying 5416 m before launching down a crazy singletrack descent down to the village of Muktinath. The organizers had a wild idea of starting the race at 4am to try and avoid the “wind” up top. I lobbied for a later start figuring a proper sleep, daylight and the warmth of sunshine would trump any amount of wind we may have to deal with. I lost the discussion, so after a couple hours of sleep we were awoken at 2:30 am to prep for “the pass.” The Nepali boys traditionally own this day and set a high pace from the start. I tried to keep up and suprisiningly did alright, eventually passing them as I found a few areas which were rideable.

The combination of pushing and riding left the other boys in the dust and after 1.5 hours I was cresting the pass and onto the epic descent. It was still pitch dark, cold and sketchy as hell as I couldn’t see a lot with my pocket headlamp. The body started to chill pretty good after the sweaty climb so I stopped to dig a puff jacket and thicker gloves out of my pack but was denied by my numb hands fumbling with the zipper. Figuring the process would take too long I resorted to Plan B, hopping back on the bike convincing myself the faster I descended the quicker the temperature would rise. Arriving in Muktinath at 6:10 am the finish line staff were still sleeping. After riding around in circles for a bit I made my own finish line and started time keeping for the rest of the riders. It’s always interesting racing in countries where bike racing is still fairly new as some of the locals don’t realize just how fast wheels can be, especially downhill as they can turn a 3-4 hour hike into 20-30 minutes!

A big part of the Yak Attack experience is trying to stay warm and healthy as the living conditions can often be a little dodgy hygiene-wise and rest can be tough to find some nights between barking dogs, giggling trekkers, and roosters. Every morning we would hand our luggage in to the porters between 6-7 am and then proceed to drink litres of hot drinks to keep warm before race start at 9 or 10. After racing we would continue our sessions of drinking pots of tea, and eating loads of Dal Bhat (rice, lentils, curried veg). Sometimes our luggage would show up on time, other times we’d be in our bike clothes for a long time as some of the porters seemed to enjoy lolligagging and being tourists themselves. All in all every day turned into a proper adventure somehow.

The Forbidden Kingdom, Upper Mustang Valley: Stages 6-9

The Upper Mustang was a restricted, demilitarized zone until 1992 which has kept it isolated from the rest of the world, preserving its people and Tibetan culture. It’s just recently opened to the public but a $500 USD visa just to enter the area keeps the tourist numbers low. My tires from India finally showed up as we had re-supplies come in from Kathmandu after the Pass. Unfortunately they had sent the cheapest possible paper thin wire bead versions which would self destruct within seconds on the rough ground up here, not the tough tubeless ready Maxxis Ikons which were ordered. After confirming three times with them the tubeless versions were being sent, it was a bit of a shock but not really surprising. Those tires are in the hands of some local Nepali kids now, while I lucked out and borrowed some tires from Paul and Tetsuo, two racers who had spares and kindly offered them up. Running tubeless again was important as the terrain in the Upper Mustang was rough as hell.

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Stage 6 started with a sweet climb overlooking Dhaulagiri (the 7th highest mountain in the world) up to a pass where we crossed into the Upper Mustang and dropped down a kick ass single track. It was like a line was in the ground as the topography changed drastically with steep cliffs, dry dusty roads, and snow clad Himalayan peaks in the background. The racing up here was out of this world with roads full of thick bull dust, boulders and sections of ice where waterfalls crested the road. Thinus road great this day as I suffered through a rough last hour, finishing a couple minutes down. At the finish line in Ghilling I looked at the race organizer Phil “this is it, where’s the 5 star resort?” as we stood in a wet grassy area with a couple rough looking mud covered guesthouses in the background. It was a different world up here: mud floors, rock walls, no heating and layers of dust everywhere. The locals were tough as nails, you could see it in their eyes that they were the real deal as far as mountain people go. They were also very hospitable, cooking up some great buckwheat meals as we all adjusted to the surrounding region and tried to keep our bodies in race capable form.

The next four days we headed up to the headquarters of the region in Lo-Mantang “The Walled City”, spent a rest day exploring cave dwellings up on the edge of Tibet and then had a couple stunning days racing back down valley to the Lower Mustang. Up here the living was simple with the locals piling fire wood and dried dung for a long cold winter ahead and butchering yaks to fill their food stores. Seeing the butchering of a yak was an experience many of the racers turned their heads to. It was brutal, but probably important to experience for anyone that eats meat so they can understand the process that getting a burger on your plate requires.

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Racing-wise I went into a conservative mode trying to avoid any catastrophies, soaking in as much of the Upper Mustang as I could while keeping an eye on my strong South African competitor. Thinus was a real sportsman and great to race against. Racing hard he would win three straight days with Nepalese hero Ajay winning the final stage. After 11 days up in the mountains and a rather epic journey I would take the overall title by a comfortable 13 minutes to become the first foreigner to claim it in the race’s ten-year history.

This is a race which will go down in the books as one of the all time greats. It’s rough, hard, and a struggle at times but the payoff is big in the form of insane views, an inside look into some ancient cultures and the experience of seeing how the mountain people of Nepal make a living in such a harsh environment. I’ll be crossing my fingers to have a chance to return to this region again someday soon

My season is officially over after 12 months. A couple weeks of downtime in Nepal lies ahead before transiting back over the pond to Canadian soil for a taste of home over the holidays.

Over and Out!

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