I think the best word for this city is dysfunctional. 20 years of rapid population growth since the fall of communism, combined with a ballooning middle class (who all buy cars) and no road construction means that traffic is a parking lot. No road rules are obeyed or enforced and crossing the street on a green light at a crossing isn’t for the faint-hearted. The old coal-fired power stations within the greater city limits don’t help.
That said, the town centre has a rhythm (albeit an off-beat one) that a city-dweller like myself can love (it’s tough love, though). Lots of cafes, restaurants and galleries, etc, all within about 10 blocks. Government House and Sukhbaatar Square are the type of grand spaces that only communist countries ever seemed to achieve. .
The days starts with threatening skies it’s not an idle threat. No heavy rain, just very steady. It seems to have been raining on our course most of the night and continues to do so for most of the day. About 100m into the race-proper and I can hear my brake pads being worn away with every wheel revolution.
The course would have been great in the dry. Dirt roads and double track. Rolling hills and a generally downhill last few kilometres. The mud makes it a nasty little exercise though. I fall trying to cross from one side of the track to the other and land on my ribs. Nothing broken, but this will come back to haunt me later in the week. So will trying to follow the wheels of people much stronger than me. Will I ever learn to control myself on day one?
The afternoon and evening are spent with new brake pads for everyone and trying to do some washing of bikes and clothes. The race director gets on the sat-phone to the Ulaan Bataar bike shop and orders every brake pad they have in stock.
The rain goes away, but leaves some muddy puddles. The big climb at the end of the day is really about 20km of false flat followed by a sharp kick to the summit. I’m clearly relatively strong on the flats and weak on the hills. I get dropped by my group on the kick and don’t make it back on. This means I fight 5km into a head wind by myself to the finish.
Camp is in a beautiful setting at the head of the valley.
I put my pump on the water truck while I wash my bike and forget about it until well after the truck drives off. This will also come back to haunt me later.
I’ve had a massage the night before and decide that today is when I want to try and overtake the rider (Marcel – Catalunya) who is eight minutes ahead on me in 3rd in our age group (Masters 2). The groups sort themselves out after the initial helter skelter of the starting bunch and I bridge across to Marcel just before the 1st water stop. He spends time there getting extra cups of water and/or coke. I see this, just grab my bottles and go. A climb follows and I seemed to have got away. I’m making every effort in what must seem like a slow motion race to those watching. But then I glance back and spot Marcel about a minute behind. I redouble my efforts but he catches me at the top of the climb. He’s just too strong.
I gap him on the descent, but he passes on the next climb. I pass him on the next descent but then nearly kill myself at the bottom, when the track turns in the opposite direction to that which I expect. A bit of off-piste work, bunny hopping a hole in the ground, avoiding a nasty big rock and stopping to pick up a water bottle that my mad skillz had dislodged and Marcel is away again. I catch him on the remaining decline, but he and another rider just slowly grind away from me on the next climb. I never see them again.
I realise here that Marcel is too strong and that I’m better off taking it easy to make sure I can get through the whole race and maybe pick up a stage podium place along the way. At lunch after the stage we discuss in a mix of broken English and broken Spanish and agree that my training in flat Sydney hasn’t helped compared to his training in mountainous Catalunya. He’s a true gentleman as he hands my butt to me on a platter.
I take it easy today, just cruising the initial hilly bits. I join up with Jen Crake (3rd on women’s GC – Canada) and tow her through a stunning set of rocky valleys. We pass Liesbeth Hessens (Belgium – 2nd on women’s GC) who is fixing a flat with the help of Stephen (also Belgium). About 10 minutes later they come flying past, trying to catch Libby Adamson (Australia, 1st on women’s GC). I jump on the Brussels Express and just sit on Liesbeth’s wheel for the ride. I’m not putting in any more effort than before, but I’m going about 10kph faster.
We catch Libby and her group. Libby then sits on Liesbeth’s wheel as she just wants to defend today. I decide to continue my bludging as well. But about 23km out from the finish line, there’s a reshuffling of the pace line around some mud puddles and I find myself on the front with Libby on my wheel. I set the pace she wants and a couple of minutes later glance back and see that the Belgians are in trouble 10m back. I tell Libby and we decide to make it stick. There’s no real increase in the pace, but it just doesn’t slacken off. The Belgians have a flat spot and the gap grows. A Mongolian women comes with us, but she’s well down on GC, so Libby doesn’t mind.
I sit on what is my limit for the day for the rest of the stage. We catch a young Mongolian male racer and the women shouts some instructions. They take off, but Libby can’t handle the pace so I let them go and tow her to about a kilometre from the line, when my desire to not drop too much time on Masters 2 GC gets the better of me, so I sprint the remainder. Libby trails in and we wait for Liesbeth who is another minute behind. I feel satisfied with my work and all agree that this was proper bike racing, not just time-trialling in the dirt.
The edge of the Gobi Desert, although it’s quite green. I hear the word ‘washboard’ so many times in the morning I let some more air out of my tyres. A flat stage, so I hope to make the podium for the day in my category. But my ribs are getting worse and ibuprofen isn’t doing the job. I can barely crawl around inside my tent or bend over and pick things up. On the bike is better, but not perfect. I see the race Doctor and he applies a Lignocane patch over the sore bit.
The race starts and it’s a scramble for the wheel in front of you. I just avoid two crashes (one has a bike in the air next to my head). The front bunch gets away on some gentle rises and I vainly try to get back on. Just as I’m spent, Marcel comes past and my chances of a stage podium fade into the distance.
Later on it’s getting hot and I’m sitting in. I’m not doing any effort but I’m suffering like a dog in the heat. I have to let my bunch go when I have a mechanical and from then on it’s just a death march to the finish, as riders continue to pass me. I get picked up by Alex Ramsey (Australia – Lynskey silly bike) toward the end and he helps me limp across the line. Thanks, Alex. I stay under the freezing showers until I’m shivering. Shivering never felt so good.
I’ve ridden in the heat before (Central Australian Bike Challenge when it was in February) and not had this happen. Some post-race internet searching suggests the lignocane may have played a part. The patch didn’t help the pain anyway, and the Doctor gives me some Diclofenac tablets, instead.
After yesterday, I decide to just cruise. Some more near-desert, then we go inland. The last half of the race is a gradual climb to the head of a spectacular valley. At the base of the valley I take some horse milk cheese from a local. I ride up next to a Mongolian to see if it’s ok, but she’s already eating her’s, so I take a bite. I think the noises and faces I make are very amusing to her.
Let’s just say that it’s an acquired taste. At the end of the day I attempt to report myself to the race referee for taking outside assistance but it’s decided that there’s no real assistance involved.
I have to stop about 5 times up the valley and turn around to admire the view. There are a lot of fat yaks here. At a particularly sharp rise toward the end, some children barely taller than my wheels run along side. Clearly the satellite dishes on their gers were streaming the tour last month.
I roll across the finish line satisfied that I don’t feel like the crap I felt yesterday. The camp site more than makes up for the last two day’s riding.
The Queen stage. My plan is to again take it easy and hope to bag something after the rest day after my rivals have worn themselves out racing each other.
In the morning there a dark skies in the distance, but I think we are all used to first world races where there are accurate forecasts readily available, so few take their good rain jackets. I ride with Jack (USA – Moots 29er). We have fun riding up and down embankments and along the moto track (more fun and less washboard). As we ride up a climb, more children run alongside. One girl is giggling and hyperventilating at the same time. A highlight of the day.
A third of the way up the first GPM climb the weather hits. Good heavy rain and the steep track is a muddy nightmare to negotiate. Jack and I reach the GPM point and the water/food stop in the clouds with thunder crashing all around. We shiver and stuff food into our mouths.
Jack doesn’t even have an undershirt, just arm warmers, So he grabs a garbage bag and tears head and arm holes in it. I have an undershirt and windproof jacket, as well as arm warmers, but I miss my knee warmers and gortex, so I do the same.
The following descent would have been interesting on a dry day. Steep. My back wheel locks up and fishtails. I grab more front brake and that wheel locks up. I end up in a barely controlled roll/slide until the road is better. I have bigger brakes than Jack, so I’ve ridden away from him on the descent. I also pass a van that has made 4-5 riders, who have stopped riding and jumped in, get back out again and walk so it can negotiate the descent. One of the riders is using an emergency blanket as he is suffering from hypothermia (Kristoff – Belgium – has very low body fat). Edmund (Malaysia) has previously said that cold is below 29 deg C. He’s not greatly amused with my banter about the weather as I pass.
The next valley is awash with mud and other brown agricultural product. There’s water crossing after water crossing and I have to pedal down hill. Then we turn right into another valley and I have to go through the same again, only uphill. I pass one rider/walker who’s rear hub is freewheeling in both directions. I’m driven on by anger at myself for not having better clothes.
Then there’s some more nasty muddy uphill track, until it becomes sandy and rocky, but steeper, with some descents. I catch Iwona (Poland via Reading) and decide that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. We walk, ride and chat. What we can see of the range through the clouds and rain is lovely – rolling ridge lines with big rock formations around. The bad news is that we pass the broken down beer truck.
Jack catches us as we get to the part of the tack that the guide says is 29%, but ‘can be ridden due to the firm surface’. Ha! The second GPM emerges from the mist and we’re told that this is now the finish line for the day. ‘Only’ 104km. I start shivering in the 2 minutes I spend taking the front wheel off my lefty so the bike can go inside a van, so I tell the race organiser that he’s made the right decision. We cram into a van next to Arnold (China), who also has low body fat and has hypothermia, rolled up in his emergency blanket. He says that when the thunder was crashing around him that he thought that he would die.
The van makes the initial descent from the GPM with apparently barely more control than I had on the way down from the previous peak, but we make it. Rolling into the valley floor I spot a bike on the side of the road. Fabio (Germany), has wanted to ride the whole stage, but got so cold on the descent he stopped and went into a ger. We wait until there is a van that can take his bike.
The rest of the valley floor has been turned into a marsh and we make slow progress. We must get out and walk the uphills so the van can make it up. We finally roll down from where the last GPM would have been to find the camp across the other side of a very swollen river. Our driver doesn’t want to drive across, so they send across our big truck (ex Russian army) to tow us. The local race crew wonder why we prefer to ride across in the back of the big truck, rather than risk it in the little van the diver didn’t think would make it.
We get excited when the beer truck arrives, but it stays on the other side of the river for the night. Luckily, there are some room temperature (ie, cold) ones in camp and the race director gives everyone a free one. There’s a remarkably happy mood after this. Plus, we know tomorrow is the rest day.
The rain hasn’t really lifted by morning and at breakfast it’s announced that Stage 8 will be cancelled because it’s a route that’s a river in the wet. We would, instead, transfer to the start of Stage 9. The rest day is spent watching my clothes from the previous day not really get any drier or cleaner on the line, resting, wandering up the hill to get a view of camp and doing some servicing on my lefty. Kristoff (Nootens) is a renowned lefty mechanic and he gives me a hand (= does most of it).
The bikes go in the vans early on as there was some chance we might have left that day. The decision is made to stay the night however, but the bikes remain packed, so there is no chance for further maintenance (which everyone wants to do).
A highlight of the day is that the kitchen and mess tents are threatened by the river, so they are moved up the hill while semi erected, like Chinese Dragons at new year. My tent now has un-interrupted water views (but is well up the hill).
Stage 8 – transfer
The weather is good and we pile into the vans and set off up river. We get to a crossing where the river is wider, but there’s still a deep section that the vans won’t handle. It’s decided that the big trucks will tow each van across with the passengers in them. As this proceeds, the water rises up the the wind screen on the vans and they are lifted up enough that they float slightly downstream before the truck manages to pull them out of the river. It’s entertaining both inside and outside of the vans.
We then hear that one of the kitchen trucks is stuck in the mud and the Russian army truck is sent back to retrieve it. We hang around on the riverbank, doing yoga, playing frisbee, visiting gers and scrambling for snacks for a long while until the tucks appear on the ridgeline, cavalry-style. There are certainly less-appealing places to be stuck waiting for a truck to return.
The convoy sets off. Half way up the next pass our van stops and the driver starts working on the engine. He pulls out what looks like a broken fan belt. We jump back in and keep going, so it mustn’t have been a critical part. The pass is spectacular. Huge rock formations on both sides.
We keep going, cross a smaller river where one of the vans gets stuck and needs a tow, cross another pass and then enter a town where we have a look at the old monastery while the camp is set up. This is nowhere near where the organisers had hoped we would be tonight. In hindsight, this would have been a great stage to race, but the race directors had no idea of the conditions on the track.
Then there’s some frantic bike-tinkering before dark and dinner. We’re told that the stage would start from the camp, but that distance and profile was unknown at this stage.
During the day I had noticed that my limbs were swollen. The general consensus is that I have had too much water and not enough electrolyte but I haven’t been having anything different to my usual race diet. After the race I [popular search engine] Diclofenac and find that one of the ‘severe’ symptoms it can cause are swollen limbs.
An unknown. At breakfast we find out that the race director has driven along a possible route of 100-105km, using a GPS, then returned to camp at 5am. He has then up-loaded his GPS trace so we can see a profile, and turned around and set off marking the course ahead of us. A truly
Before the start I am running and riding around full of energy. After the start I am a hopeless also-ran, my cankles unable to turn the pedals at the speed I want. At about 5km, on a rocky descent, I pass a string of people fixing flats. One is a women with a leaders pink jersey and I absent-mindedly start to slow to help before I realise it’s the Belgian, not the Australian.
I puncture a short while later, with a cut through the tread. After putting in a tube, I find that the pump I have borrowed since Stage 3 is no good. As I am the last in the queue of punctures, it takes 15-20 minutes for the Mechanic’s truck and its track pump to reach me. After inflation is done, I decide to kick it into cruise and enjoy the day as I am now DFL and the balloons on my limbs are made of lead.
I play leap frog with the sweep van all day. After the top of the major climb I think I have gone the wrong way and ride 500m back up the descent before a van comes over the top to reassure me I’m on the right track. The sweep van passes me at one point and asks me whether I want to put my bike on top. As there’s 4 hours to go to the cut-off with only 30km to go, I politely decline.
I attempt to do a wheelie across the line, DFL, but my mad skillz desert me.
Only one day to go.
As we’re nowhere near the start of the ‘correct’ Stage 10 and the organisers are very keen that we finish in Khar Khorym, there is a morning transfer to a new start point with an unknown course of 90-95 km and ’1000m’ of climbing.
At the start I mention to Jack that I would pay $1 a sheet for some toilet paper, but I start in the hope that I can control it. Like yesterday, my cankles won’t turn the pedals at the desired rpm, so I’m soon DFL. I pass a rider (Ivan – Spain) who has fallen and broken his arm a few kilometres in. He’s being attending to by our staff and Doctor.
At about 15km, I have a greater wish for some toilet paper. Let’s just say that, one day, some Mongolian is going to find a pair of MTB gloves and get a nasty surprise. When the next vehicle passes me I beg some paper, just in case, but at the first water stop am able to swap it for
a small packet of tissues. I have to get people to hand me the food from the stop as my hands are, no doubt, now contaminated.
I’m glad of the tissues in between water stops one and two.
Water stop two is followed by the big hill of the day, where I get great encouragement the gallery, then there is 10km of nasty rollers, followed by a descent I would love to do on a big bike, while fresh. We then have 15km along a river back, where I catch another rider. We cruise along the river and then through Khar Khorym and finish together. All done.
The next day is an eight hour transfer back to UB. The less said about that the better.
After presentations there’s a great after party. Most people are leaving the next day so they are throwing their soon-to-be useless Tugriks into a pile for the bar bill. When I leave at 1:30 I go to pay for my beers and find that it’s already be taken care of. Sweet.
As Jack e-mailed after getting home – “Mongolia!! Wow!”