According to World Bank figures, Mongolia’s landscape is marked by a mere 11,200km of roadways, only 1,500km of which are paved. Compare that to the some 398,350km of tarmac that snakes across the United Kingdom.
Hmmm… Mongolia sounds like a good place to own a mountain bike, which immediately leads on to one question: What about racing one?
Willy Mulonia, Race Director and Founder of the Mongolia Bike Challenge, appears to have answered that question in spades. MarathonMTB.com spoke to Willy about the evolution and challenges of creating the epic 10-day stage race, which will get underway with its third edition on 30 July 2012 in the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Batur.
MarathonMTB.com: The race is only a few editions old, but when did the idea to hold a mountain bike race in Mongolia come from?
Willy Mulonia: We had been looking for a long time for a destination like this to run a multi-day stage race. One year, we came to Mongolia to organize a mountain bike expedition with our company, Progetto Avventura. It was love at first sight. I knew this was the perfect place to hold a mountain bike stage race. It also met my most important criteria – it was going to be a huge personal challenge to organize a race like the Mongolia Bike Challenge.
MMTB: Mongolia is seeing a lot of interest from foreign companies and countries – particularly those in search of minerals and mining opportunities. I recall a documentary describing how little paved roads existed in Mongolia until just a while ago. It would seem mountain biking is the most appropriate form of cycling to do in the country?
WM: Our race route is 1,400 kilmetres long – only 10 of those kilometers are paved. Mountain biking is by far the best way to experience Mongolia. And, in my opinion, it’s best ridden on an Orbea Alma 29er! (Orbea, who have sponsored previous editions of the race, will act as presenting sponsor of the 2012 edition – ed.)
MMTB: Do many Mongolian riders take part?
WM: About 10 per cent of the riders have been local and they have been really strong. In 2010, the second place finisher was a local Mongolian rider, Tuguldur Togo Tuulkhangai. There were 5 other Mongolians in the top 10. For us, this was just great to see.
MMTB: Judging by the first couple of events, the race already has a broad representation of international riders. What are your long-term goals for the race? Where would you like to see riders coming from to race?
WM: Well, it looks like there will be at least 18 countries represented at this year’s Mongolia Bike Challenge. Seeing riders coming from places like Singapore and the U.S. makes me really proud of what we have created. We had articles appear in Chinese magazines this year and it looks like there will be Chinese media there this summer. The word it out there – it’s a tough race, and it’s a ‘must-do’ race.
MMTB: Is there much interaction between riders and locals? How do locals react to seeing mountain bikers?
WM: Since the first edition, the race has been received with great enthusiasm by everyone – from government authorities to the nomads we pass by during the race. The nomads know exactly who we are as we pass through and are always happy to see us – the whole race is covered on national television and picked up on the satellite dishes attached to the top of their gers (yurts). Every night our camp is visited by nomadic families who are living in their summer camps.
MMTB: Does the race receive any support from the Mongolian government? Presumably the race is very beneficial for tourism…
WM: We have had a great relationship with the Mongolian government since the beginning. Our race obviously provides great exposure for the country. It is an absolutely amazing place to visit. This relationship has made it easier in terms of obtaining permission and permits.
MMTB: How did you decide on the route for the race?
WM: In some ways it is very easy to find mountain bike routes in Mongolia. The whole country is stunningly beautiful with so much to offer. But overall, it has been a huge challenge. A lot of time has gone into scouting and designing the race route. I personally cycled over 10,000 km and made numerous visits over a 5 year period, piecing the route together. It was an immense task and its ongoing. In fact, this year’s race will have 5 completely new stages.
MMTB: What do you think sets racing in Mongolia apart from other stage races in the world?
WM: Come race the Mongolia Bike Challenge; you’ll find out pretty quickly.
MMTB: What are your thoughts about the development of cycling in the Asia region in general?
WM: It’s amazing to see. Asia has a lot of talented riders and some amazing areas for riding.
The 3rd edition of the Mongolia Bike Challenge will take place between 28 July and 11 August, 2012 (racing takes place 30 July – 9 August). For more information about the race and registration please visit here.