2017 was the eighth edition of the Mongolia Bike Challenge which has now established itself as a ‘bucket list’ race for international mountain bike stage racers. What makes this race so epic? And why do athletes travel from far and wide to compete in such an obscure and remote part of the world? Having completed this year’s edition through the Mongolian Steppe I gained some insight as to what the appeal of this race is and what makes it so unique.
To be honest Mongolia was never on my list of desirable holiday destinations. I have spent time in China and Russia over the years and Mongolia sitting between both these countries would have been overlooked if it were not for the MBC. I knew it was a former soviet state and was the home of a nomadic culture once ruled by the brutal Genghis Khan. Neither of these two facts would appear in a regular holiday brochure.
Flying into the capital Ulan Bator the appeal of the country was evident. As far as the eye could see was an uninterrupted flowing, green landscape. Being an Australian I find remoteness and isolation quite appealling. It is the beating heart of my home country as I experienced in last year’s Simpson Desert Bike Challenge and it is a similar case in Mongolia.
The green, luscious Mongolian steppe lies to one side of the capital city and the Gobi Desert to the other. The population of Mongolia is 3 million people, nearly 2 million of whom reside in the capital city. Meaning there is a lot of very remote land with scant human development. A perfect recipe for an epic mountain bike race.
What bike should I ride? Check out my Norco Revolver 29 FS.
Within 10 minutes of the start of stage 1 in Ulan Bator as an athlete I could have been 1 million miles from any human settlement, this feeling remained for the remaining 6 days of racing. We traversed some amazing scenery and the feeling of isolation was although sometimes frightening, very real. Due to the very low population density in Mongolia, things like sealed roads are rare.
If you truly want to feel like you need to ‘get away from it all’. The Mongolia Bike Challenge is the race for you. Mobile reception is next to non-existent and any vestiges of the modern world are rarely seen ‘on the trail’ in Mongolia. In myself and many people attracted to outdoor pursuits this is appealing and therapeutic. Your real senses will feel much more alive and switched on when placed well outside their comfort zone and in genuine isolation.
The Mongolia Bike Challenge has attracted some of the world’s finest mountain bike and road racers over the years. Current world 24hr champion Cory Wallace is a multiple time winner and Italian professional Nicolas Pettina also a multiple finisher at the MBC. This year the standout competitors in the men’s were Gosse Van Der Meer, a professional cyclocross racer from the Netherlands and former Lithuanian road champion Elijas Civilis.
In the women’s category former Great Britain representative at the triathlon world championship Jo O’Shaughnessy was ready to race in her first Mongolia Bike Challenge experience.
The terrain suits a powerful yet patient athlete which was a perfect match for Elijas Civilis in this year’s edition. The long stages require sustained power output. The surface is generally soft in Mongolia, a lot of grass, sand and soft dirt meaning you are rarely coasting on the pedals, it is constantly energy sapping. The climbs are not in the epic, HC category like say The Pioneer, but some days the entire stage feels like a climb such is the nature of the terrain. The climbs would usually force a selection of groups for the day, as they were long enough and tough enough to separate the stronger riders from the rest.
Different challenges are thrown at riders in the Mongolia Bike Challenge. Like food selection. The stomachs of lean Western athletes are not always accustomed to the delicacies served up in the developing world. Some rider’s fell to the misfortune of serious stomach issues in this and many previous editions of the Mongolia Bike Challenge. While travelling to very remote parts of the developing world the need for careful food selection is even more pertinent than when in cities. Having spent a few years racing in UCI road races in developing nations I had already learnt a few of the tricks of the trade to ensure good health in such situations. This can restrict an adequate consumption of nutrients and a more prepared athlete than I would have come prepared with the necessary substitutes such as freeze dried meat or other protein substitutes. I used the techniques I was taught in road racing which was eat nothing that would be washed in the local water and not boiled and eat nothing that would normally require refrigeration (fridges are a rare commodity in the developing world). This meant most of the foods I ate were from a packet, pasta or rice. Very boring but I did not get sick.
The truest indicator and dictator of success in the Mongolia Bike Challenge was without doubt mental fortitude. To merely get through each stage required a large element of grit and determination. The terrain although stunning upon initial encounter, begins to play games with your mind. The constant and unchanging nature of the landscape and the vision of a seemingly endless trail that lay ahead of you was for me a huge mental battle.
I could see for seemingly 100km ahead of me and still not have the riders I was chasing in my sight. Similar was the view behind me to those I was supposedly riding away from. This is something I was very appreciative for in retrospect. Every race has the opportunity to teach its competitors a lesson. I think everyone who competes in the Mongolia Bike Challenge will agree that they come out of the experience with a renewed sense of strength and mental fortitude. If you do not go into this race with such strength you will definitely come out of it with said strength.
The People of the Mongolia Bike Challenge
As with many other stage races I have competed in, the most memorable moments and the true joys of the experience are as a result of the relationships and communities developed amongst the people working and competing in the race. A huge hats off must go to race director Willy Mulonia and his amazing crew who worked tirelessly to make sure every element of this race ran as smoothly as possible.
To conduct an event in such a location requires a huge amount of skill, commitment and organisation. The Mongolia Bike Challenge crew do a stunning job under the most pressing of circumstances all with a smile on their faces. The race truly would not be the same without this crew of people making it what it is.
Also, as will be agreed by all Mongolia Bike Challenge competitors it is the mateship developed amongst each ‘yurt’ crew that is something special to take home. Each rider is placed into a group of 3-4 other riders who will become your essential room mates over the course of the race. I was lucky enough to share a ‘yurt’ with a dutchman (Gosse), a Lithuaninan (Elijus), a Frenchman (Nicolas) and a Mongolian (De Tumee). Going through experiences that are tough and sometimes painful encourages great connections and conversations. It is like an automatic support network granted to you by the organisation before the race has even begun. You will make some friends for life out of this race.
To experience something obscure, to experience some legitimate suffering and to share some unforgettable moments are the three takeaway ‘gifts’ of sorts from the Mongolia Bike Challenge. I learnt A LOT about Mongolia, about the people here, about what drives each individual when the chips are down and about myself at the Mongolia Bike Challenge. get it on your ‘bucket list’.