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Mongolia Bike Challenge 2017 - A brief history of time

Typical view from my stay in Mongolia

The Mongolia Bike Challenge 2017

Tired, heavy eyed, suddenly sitting in my office chair but my brain and body are traveling at Boeing 777 speed over the Pacific with the hum of jet engines in an unconscious area of my mind. I sit and try to get ready for the upcoming work week but the afterglow of a twenty day vacation as far away from home as possible is flashing a slow motion slide show of landscapes and feelings experienced while gone.  Prior to arriving in Mongolia I had little knowledge of the terrain.  I only knew what I found online and what one local professional racer was willing to share (not much at all). I composed this post to answer questions for those who are interested in the Mongolia Bike Challenge so they feel more informed than I did.

Tamir Wellness Ger Camp
I've wanted to visit Mongolia since seeing pictures of it in a geography class in high school. Green is all i remember and green is what I got. I witnessed endless miles of green grass and cows, gers (yurts), yaks, horses, people, rocks, a tree here and there, dirt, goats, eagles, hawks and more green grass. I have experienced Big Sky Country in Montana, but Mongolia is to Big Sky Country as New York City is to my hometown of Saluda, NC. The sky keeps going and going and going. In my experience with travel in the western regions of USA, the area of Mongolia I visited was most similar to the the North Dakota Badlands with its Maah Daah Hey Trail and where the Indigenous Dakota and Lakota people continue struggling to control their lands.  The landscape is a mix of  Wyoming’s prairie grasslands and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

My home away from home
Japan Rob & Myself - both finishers

The main purpose of my visit was to participate in the Mongolia Bike Challenge.  

I arrived six days prior to the race start in order to relax and make certain my bike arrived and was set up to ride. For five of those nights I stayed at Tamir Wellness Ger Camp in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park where I was fed three meals per day, and had access to running water and a hot shower all for USD $425. Laundry service cost extra. Sleeping in a ger is like sleeping in a large canvas tent but with a suitable floor and a wood stove in the middle. Of the three gers I slept in while in Mongolia not a one lacked at least a slight hint of mildew, dank stank. The stank was not as bad as walking into a true northeastern home's cellar, but you could smell it in the air. Luckily, the roofs of gers (which look a lot like the Millennium Falcon cockpit)   have windows that open to allow significant air flow, especially when the hobbit sized entry door is open. Most gers seemed to be of similar size and included four beds, a few small tables, foot stools, and a wood stove. I only needed the wood stove once and it made that little ger as warm as a Swedish sauna. Overall, ger living is not too bad. It sure as hell beats a tent but it is not the Hilton. Most gers include linens and pillows but I highly recommend you bring your own sheets, pillow, and sleeping bag. I am on the picky side when it comes to bed linens and even bring my own sheets to hotels sometimes. I saw no bed bugs, though. Heck, the only bugs I witnessed in the entire trip were snapping grasshoppers and a few spiders. I suppose the -40F winter temps kill most bugs better than Orkin.

What my bike saw
Mongolian prayer flag
Tamir Wellness Camp down below
I rode each day while staying at Tamir Wellness. Those rides are posted on my Strava (David Cook) feed so you can check them out. Each day I wandered a little further from camp, getting bolder and more comfortable in my new surroundings. The view from the hobbit door of my ger was spectacular and included an appetizing ridgeline that I knew would meld with the grooves of my new Maxxis tires. Other nearby sites that I visited by bike included a Monastery, Turtle Rock, multiple Buddhist shrines, multiple statues in the middle of nowhere, and a place called Red Rock Resort to pilfer Internet and good coffee on their restaurant's veranda (two mile ride each way). Overall the riding was spectacular. Very steep climbing and many rocks to explore and ride. There were roads or existing horse and cattle paths going to almost every mountain in sight. Riding off the paths was easy since Mongolia employs millions of meandering grazing animals to continually mow the grass. The prairie animals are free to graze until they become tasty treats on a plate. If I desired to change course while riding on a path or, all I had to do was ride through the grass. Easy as pie. Just point and shoot. 

View from Monastery
The stay at Tamir Wellness camp was what the doctor ordered. I felt rested and relaxed, which helped me be ready for the race part of my journey. For an additional US $45 a driver from Tamir Wellness took me and my bags back to Ulaanbaatar where I stayed at Bayangol Hotel…modernity with full accommodations. Racers were rolling in and the pre-race buzz was in full swing.  People were sporting race shirts from past events, fronting and wondering who's fast and who's slow (e.g., me). Race day arrived and off to the country we went. 

Day 1 race start
Here is where I give detailed information regarding the Mongolia Bike Challenge that I could not find prior to racing. Imagine the longest double track dirt road ever. Now throw in climbs that last an hour or more where you can see the top but have no idea how far away the top actually is. Arrive at said top and cry because it was a false top that allows you to see the actual top which is another unknown distant in the far, far future, or is it a cow? Multiply this occurrence by two to three times per day and revel in my mental anguish. The big sky of Mongolia plays with your eyes and mind as the double track never ends. About 97% of this race was on a double track path/road. Of that 97% about 65% was hard packed dirt. The remaining 35% was split up between grass paths, non-technical rocky paths and a small amount of sand. I rode my Steve Potts custom Ti Hardtail and it was perfect for this course. I'm certain the carbon bikes were lighter and faster but I knew I'd have no problem with Titanium hitting rocks and exploding. I rode a Maxxis Ardent 2.4 in the front and a Maxxis Ardent Race 2.1 or 2.2 in the rear. Both tires had the EXO sidewall for good protection and it was necessary in my opinion. There were not too many overly rocky sections, but there are sharp rocks which increase the likeliness of a sidewall slash. If you were careful with the rocky sections, a Maxxis Icon or Kenda Small Block, 2.0 - 2.2 would also be a suitable tire set up.

Selfie practice
Chenggis Cook
While my choice was a Ti Hardtail, if I owned a lightweight full suspension race bike I would have used it instead. The seemingly endless hours on the saddle would have been a little better on my arse callouses if they were resting on a double squish bike. I saw no "all mountain" bikes at this event. I considered taking my Transition Smuggler but with the newly added Ohlins coil, it would have been severe overkill for the course. There were a few "danger" signs on the course and by the bottom of the downhills indicated as "danger" I often looked back to identify the danger. Evidently 20 years of USA East Coast roots, rocks and crazy Pisgah National Forest terrain has numbed the "danger" button in my brain. I puckered once or twice during this event due to high speed only. To a pure roadie, some of the descents may pose a risk but if you spend most of your riding days in extreme technical terrain, you will have no problem with any of the Mongolia Bike Challenge course as it was in 2017. I do recommend that you spend many hours in the saddle in preparation for this race. The days are long and offer no respite to an untrained participant. I finished well in the last 2/3 of the overall standings but my goal was to participate and be an official finisher. I achieved both but barely. On day 2 my body decided it had enough and stopped processing the food in my gut. I powered through the 71 mile day and 8,000'+ climbing and finished with 30 minutes to spare thanks to prayers answered and Rob from Japan. The docs in the medical tent were superb but lacked Goldschlager-laced IV's. Instead they administered regular IVs and I felt great the next morning. 

The remaining days of the race were superior to day 2 for me. I completed the remaining days with time to spare. Constant awe-inspiring views almost became mundane by day 6. Every mile included a spectacular view, 1-2 metric tons of grazing animal poo, thousands of snapping grass-hoppers that sound like rattle snakes, and many smiling faces. 

Camp conditions are superior to sleeping in a small tent most of the time, but if someone were to set up a tent for me every night, I would have used it instead of the gers. Gers are loud. If people in the adjacent ger stay up late and get rowdy on Mongolian vodka, you will hear everything. You may not understand it all since most likely the conversation will be in a language other than English but it can be loud. Cleanliness declines after a few nights of shuffling your gear from place to place. Granted, the race organizers provide excellent gear transfer from camp to camp, but it is hard to keep all your necessary schtuff organized and clean. Seven to eight hours in riding attire results in severe stink that overrides the dank stank of the ger. Multiply that times four (typically four people per ger) and you have a stink tank. Showers were available after every race. Be prepared for a brain freeze. A hot shower was a luxury available only once during the race. Water was typically tanked in and somewhere close to freezing. The race organizers do a fine job of providing cold showers. After 8 hours in the saddle, I don't care if the waters cold, I'll deal with it. 

Bring food you like. Bag space is limited to a 100L bag for all the gear you'll need for the six-day race. My suggestion is to stuff one quarter of your bag with easily digestible food you enjoy. The food provided is not bad but it's food different to what most people outside of Mongolia consume on a regular basis. It's not a matter of, ‘will I need the Ciprofloxacin?’ Instead, it is a matter of, ‘did I bring enough for everyone’? Intestinal distress is compounded by the lack of a good shitter in the outback of Mongolia. Think one hundred racers + staff vs. ten available toilets. The math doesn't work and eventually you snag some toilet paper and wander off to fertilize the steppe. Two camps had proper toilets, but not enough of them. The night of tent camping (eight people per very large tent) we had freshly dug pit latrines that were actually not too bad as long and you held your breath. At the 13th Century ger camp (nights five and six) the toilet conditions were bad. Also, by day six the stomachs of most participants sounded like a Mongolian throat singer chanting a spiritual hymn. I can't blame the food solely for the stomach problems because every stage race I've participated in included group stomach problems by stage five. I do attribute the stomach problems partly to using increasingly disgusting water bottles that you have not had a chance to clean.

Camp three’s meals were prepared on-site by Rosewood Kitchen which is in Ulaanbaatar. Rosewood Kitchen is an oasis in the city. A chef from Boston started the restaurant and he serves delicious food. I ate there at least seven times while in Ulaanbaatar. The food they made for the race was also excellent. If you eat at the restaurant in the city, have the cheesecake, Mediterranean panini, sauteed chard, and the Margarita pizza. 

Official finisher
Overall Mongolia is an excellent place to visit during its summer. The Mongolia Bike Challenge is a solid race that should be on your bucket list mainly so you can see the vast, open steppe. Don't expect pampering, short days, or a bag full of cool swag. Participants received a commemorative Selle SMP saddle and official race finishers received a t-shirt and a finishers jersey via mail a month or so later. Order your hotel stay directly from the Bayangol because the price is cheaper than online platforms and the race promoter's marked-up fee. The promoters did an excellent job providing a safe camp environment, logistics for the race, race doctors, food (but bring some of your own), and an endless supply of bottled water. Correspondence with the race promoter was very good. They always responded to our questions and the care and love of what they do for the racers is obvious. Will I return? I probably will not; not due to anything associated with the race or Mongolia, but just because I want to see too many other places in the world. 

Here is a video re-cap of 2017's race. It made me teary eyed and made me want to do it all over again.




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