Part of chasing mountain bike marathons and stage races around the globe is stepping into the unknown, being fully aware that you are about to do something that you can’t know everything about, and that you might not fully be prepared for. In the age of readily accessed information, you still yearn to know what to expect.
Although I would like to say this is something I am comfortable with – that would be dishonest. As a child, I would not get into the family car without knowing where we were going, and what we were doing. Being able to hand over control has never been something I was able to do.
And so, when I know I’m going somewhere to race, I look up the route. If possible, I arrive early and do some sort of pre-ride. I ask friends, or the race organisers, for any useful advice. In 2010, there were months spent living like this, and it was a dream. Arrive Monday, pre-ride sections of the marathon course through the week, rest, prep the bike and race on Sunday. That was brilliant. By knowing the course, knowing the area, being comfortable with where things were around the towns and valleys – I was confident.
This past week was utterly different. With a full schedule since finishing Transalp involving multiple changes for life and work the chances to plan and prepare for the the 2013 Genco Mongolia Bike Challenge presented by Orbea were greatly reduced. Come Tuesday morning, I was a mess. I was anxious. Unsure of what I really needed to pack. Could I get all the ‘real job’ work finished before jetting off to ride my bike for a fortnight? Had I sent everything off that was required for race registration? Did I really need that long list of spares and pharmaceuticals? And, did I have any form left?
And here, sitting in a Gehr below the towering silver Genghis Khan statue, after finishing stage 1, I’m happy knowing that I rode today as I would any other marathon stage race. With an eye for personal success, a wish for mateship and camaraderie, and a need for long term safety.
Stage 1: 120km, 2,900m climbing
Our start was cold but in clear sun, favourites like Cory Wallace, Jason Sager, the Zamora brothers, Matt Page and numerous others moved towards the front. The pace wasn’t really ‘on’, but it was worth being comfortable with the changes in pace between 35-50km/h, terrain dependant. Until the first climb.
“Oh, this is a Willy climb” remarked Wallace, knowing the penchant of Race Director Willy Mulonia to send the race up something a 4WD may have driven up once… sometime in the past decade. Splits started, but they came back in the next valley. Not so on the following climb, and a front group of eight developed, and I was left behind in no-mans land. Soon enough a partnership developed with Matt Page and occasionally other riders. Hardship can be best with company.
I know little of Mongolia. I do know that the City of Ulaan Bataar holds about a quarter of the population. The rest is almost all Gehr villages. We past many, some with satellite dishes, others just with piles of waste outside. There were herds of horses running wild, and herds of goats flooding the course under the lazy watch of placid shepherds. We continued to race through the grasslands, with the front group in site and then out, within reach and then gone again. Save for the distances of the feed stations written on my top tube, I was racing mostly on memory of the course profile. And it wasn’t accurate.
The final kilometres took us over sharp grass covered rocky climbs, only to shoot down impossibly steep descents to do it again shortly after. I was now alone, and ready for company again. Two figures in the distance were approaching, but I was happy to have their company at the finish, not before. Emptying the tank at the 5km to go sign (it was 12km to go) I was grateful for a last minute look up from my stem approaching a dirt crossroad, allowing me to stop in time before being taken out by a pristine white, heavily tinted car hurtling along. There was nothing else around.
Finishing at the Genghis Khan complex was a relief. I could get out of the sun, eat some real food, and even better, discuss some of the things I had seen that day. Who else saw the vultures? Did that forrest take you by surprise? Who won? Do you think there is lunch? How many skulls did you see?
And so sometimes it’s ok not knowing what is ahead. Tomorrow we race into the Khan Khentil National Park “where the valleys are full of nomadic people and their herds.” I can’t wait.