Mongolia Bike Challenge
The outlining of this site and all its listed events stems from a single event. While the 50k ultra-marathon and 100k mountain bike were uncommon ventures for a “triathlete,” they weren’t obtusely out-of-the-ordinary pursuits. The Mongolia Bike Challenge on the other hand, was a far departure from the norm. It forced me out of my comfort zone from the get-go and never let me get any closer as the race progressed. In short, it was the hardest endurance event I have ever done.
Within an hour or two of the first stage, I knew my training didn’t suit the races’ demands. Though, I’m not sure where I would have prepared for long, soft grassy climbs, washboard-like trails, sandy trenches, muddy pits, and swift rivers. Regardless, I didn’t spend enough time on my mountain bike. The #400in4 was undoubtedly beneficial, but getting through day 3 of that seemed exponentially easier compared to getting through the second stage in Mongolia.
Each day on the bike was long – I averaged 5-hours and 11-minutes of ride time per day. Recapping each stage in detail would result in a novel-like post, so, I’ll spare you that jumble of words and highlight the best and worst parts of each stage instead.
The best and worst part of Stage 1, was Stage 1 itself. It was the best, in that the race was underway and I was getting my first taste of the Mongolian countryside. The rolling green hills, Instagram-worthy clouds, and trails were nothing short of awesome! However, the course was more like a welcoming slap than hug. The course thrashed my legs with climb after climb after climb. Given that we climbed so much, we also descended a lot. Being that the roads there are nothing like a fire-road stateside, I got jostled around and felt aches and pains that I have never felt before.
The best part of Stage 2 came with about 25k to go. I was riding with two others and a strong sense of fatigue was starting to settle in – I needed a distraction. As we cut across a field, a murder of crows took flight on our left and together they flew as if they were a set of rolling waves. The guy leading our group, Jammer, sat up, flapped his arms, and cawed as they cawed. That serendipitous moment probably lasted 5-seconds or so, but it was just the jolt I needed to find another gear and finish strong(ish).
The worst part of Stage 2 was realizing a hard-tail was not the ideal bike for this race. It literally felt like I was being spanked for the duration of the ride over the rough terrain. My total ride time for the day was 6:31:24. My bum hurt.
*Stage 3 did not go according to plan, as we received heavy rains overnight. The stage started without a hitch, but it was discovered that a river along the course swelled up and was now impassable. Before reaching the 44 km mark, where the race was halted, we “raced” through numerous puddles and a vast mud pit. The stage was originally scheduled to be 148 km.
The best part of Stage 3 was… uh… regaining feeling in my feet in a warm Ger (a.k.a. a yurt).
The worst part of the stage was the vast mud pit. That mud pit was supposed to be the start of a fast descent, but the thick mud made making forward progress slower than the climb leading up to it! That, and it was hard to tell how far your tire would sink into the puddle ahead. All in all, it made for a cold, muddy day.
*Stage 4 had to be shortened, because all the riders and their bikes had to be transported to where Stage 3 would have finished. Being that only small vans were available and the drive to the next camp was 5-hours, the start of Stage 4 was pushed back and shortened to accommodate the logistical madness that ensued. The stage was originally scheduled to be 175 km.
The best part of Stage 4 was the tailwinds! No matter what direction we rode, we benefitted. Making the day even better was the downhill start. The day was fast. Very fast!
The worst part of Stage 5 was thinking I missed a turn when I saw the finishing line at 95 km instead of the declared 126 km – the race organizers had to shorten the course on the fly due to an impassable river delta.
The best part of Stage 5 was when the media van drove alongside the trail, with the videographer, Pelle Gustavs, hanging out the side door filming. Seeing the van drive alongside snapped me out of my leg- and saddle-hating state. Without hesitation, I rode off the trail and into the grass to be a camera-whore. The surge to catch the van in the grass hurt, but I was smiling.
The worst part of Stage 5 was the lack of cooperation amongst riders. Whoever went to the front, often got left for dead up there. More often than not, someone enjoying the pull would feel compelled to increase the pace and surge, leaving the pack leader (i.e. me) in the dust.
The best part of Stage 6 was crossing the finish-line and being done. Yes, the day sucked that much!
The worst part of Stage 6 was… hmm, where do I begin!?! Perhaps my expectations led me astray, because all I remember is people saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Only 400-meters of elevation gain over 60 km.” On most mountain bike trails, 400-meters is nothing over 60 km, but during Stage 6, it was awful. From 50 km onwards, the trail was either sandy, bumpy, grassy, or a terrible combination of all three. From there on, it was also a gradual climb or false flat. Into a slight headwind. Making matters worse, just when you thought you reached the top of a hill, the vast expanse continued upwards. Again and again. Truthfully, I wasn’t mentally prepared to take on such a day and it messed with my head quite a bit!
The best part of Stage 7 was coming over the last GPM (or KOM) like a boss! I didn’t realize it was a GPM, since the signs were removed right after the leaders rode through. That meant that everyone else didn’t know how long the climb went on – unless they were dialed in with a GPS device. I definitely wasn’t in a happy place grinding up that hill, but I did not, even for one moment, consider dismounting to hike my bike over the climb like myself and so many others had done throughout the week.
The worst part of Stage 7 was the misplaced “5k To Go” sign. While Stage 7 wasn’t the only stage where that happened, this instance was particularly frustrating. I always charged home and finished strong(ish), but the hills and lack of riders visible ahead or behind made me seriously question if I had made a wrong turn. After all, some the of the trails were quite derelict. Regardless, I stuck to the course and finished more frustrated than elated, which is disappointing in retrospect, as I had just suffered through and completed my first epic cycling event grossly undertrained.
In total, we rode 766 km (476 miles) and climbed 9,662 meters (31,700 feet). While the route was planned to cover 867 km (539 miles), I don’t feel short changed in the least bit. After all, I was feeling it after the opening 245 km! Days of 148 km and 175 km undoubtedly would have made the suffering more severe.
Overall, the Mongolia Bike Challenge kicked my ass! It made me feel like a newbie triathlete who bought a nice bike and jumped straight into Ironman after completing a sprint-distance triathlon; I bought a mountain bike in March, did a single-day 100k, and Mongolia started in September. Simply put, my body wasn’t prepared for that sort of punishment – even with daily post-stage massages. Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience! The country is as gorgeous as it is vast, the Mongolians were warm and hospitable, my fellow riders were inspiring badasses, and I left there with very fond memories and a sore bum and legs. Truthfully, I didn’t want to return to the states afterwards – to no one’s surprise. However, I have a 50-mile ultra-marathon to prepare for. It’s three weeks from this Saturday…