Sunday, October 6, 2019

No stacks on the Queen Charlotte Track

The craziness - both work and riding-related - of the last few years has seen me do much of my cycling on my own.  So, it came as a lovely surprise about a month ago, when out of the blue, I got a call from Simon wondering if Sarah and I would like to join him, Claire Pascoe, and a few others on a weekend trip to ride the Queen Charlotte Track.

"Sign us up!" was our near-instant response.

I'd ridden the track three times before.  Once with Mike Lowrie, and his friends and family, way way back in the late 90s.  I did it again with Mike and co, that time also with my brother Dave who had a nasty spill when he lost his front wheel crossing a cattle-stop on the gravel road between Kenepuru Saddle and Portage.  The third time was with my Canadian colleague and riding buddy, Rich Martin, and Simon.  We'd overnighted in Punga Cove (as I'd done both times on the trips Mike organised), and while we waited for the ferry at the end of the trip, Rich taught us never to try to wash muddy legs in a café bathroom (adding water turned all the dried mud to wet mud, and then attempts to wipe it up only smeared it further around...). Simon and I mounted a search mission in the end, he was in there so long...!!!  (My own strategy of a quick wipe down with gloved hands was much better!)

I've always been pretty averse to a Cook Strait Ferry crossing, and for a while I thought my 3pm Friday lecture would give me a good excuse to fly to Blenheim, but alas, the Interislander had a 5pm sailing, which, as it turned out, everyone else was catching too.

Sarah was allocated the check-in duties, but as it turned out, I was a bit behind in my earlier stream of the same class, so finished up a few minutes before 4pm, and beat her to the terminal.  She found me there chatting to Simon, Claire and her brother Paul, and her and Simon's colleagues, Neils, Anna and James.

Aside from introductions, the short wait for our boarding call was an ideal opportunity to scope out the different gear carrying strategies.  My treat to Sarah was mounting a freeload (now Thule) rack on the fork of my Yeti Big Top, which with my trusty Revelate Viscacha would give more than enough carrying capacity for all of our gear.  Her bike wasn't completely bare - she had some tubes and tools stowed in the Revelate Vole I'd taken to Mongolia.

Discounted vehicle fare comes without ride-on privileges
I've been a pretty loyal Bluebridge customer in recent times, and our sailing only reinforced that choice.  By the time we hit the sounds, I was feeling pretty crook, and was regretting trying to avoid eating the uninspiring food that was available.  Not just because of the choice, but because I was very much looking forward to the best lamb curry in NZ, courtesy of Plaza India in Picton.

We were staying at the Villa Backpackers Lodge, and while we were in time for the complementary apple crumble, it would have meant forgoing curry... 

After a solid meal, and an almost as good sleep, it was off to the dutch bakery at sparrow's fart to get some breakfast and food to take on the ride.  Sarah seemed unimpressed that I'd overcatered, but I was going to be hauling anything we didn't eat, so didn't pay her much attention!   In addition to food from the bakery, we'd anticipated difficulty getting coffee at this time of the morning, so had brought some instant with us.  That slid down OK, and certainly better than having none at all!

We arrived down at the port just after 7am, and it was quite the sight - not a breath of wind, and hardly a cloud in the sky.

Sarah celebrating the glorious conditions
Claire had organised our accommodation, and had also taken responsibility for booking a boat delivery to Ship Cove.  When we arrived, and for some time afterwards, the marina was quite deserted, but eventually our skipper turned up, and while we loaded money into his account, and bikes onto the boat, Claire managed to track down the trail permits that we'd all overlooked getting in advance!

Loading up on our private Cougar Line charter
We'd been on the water about 15 minutes when Sarah called out "DOLPHINS" and sure enough, we were treated to a small pod of them swimming nearby.

Always a great treat to see these beautiful creatures

Before we reached Ship Cove, we saw another couple, and a seal flopping around.  We'd got away from Picton just before 8am, and were unloading the bikes at around 8:45am.

Pulling into "James Cook's favourite NZ base" (according to DOC)

I was first off the jetty, and could have literally got straight into the climb - you really don't get much more than a twenty metre warm up!

Brand new track ahoy!
While the others got themselves organised, I took a tour of the no-camping camping area, including the grand memorial, and a stunning pou, made to look even better by the native bush and blue skies behind it.

Ex MBC rig in bikepacking mode
Once everyone was set, we decided to try to do a group selfie.  Claire did a great job of setting up her smartphone with the help of one of my q-spear bungies.

Setting up for take #5 or so

Finally, there was nothing else for it, but to start on the climb,  The old route had been truly heinous, and I'd always succumbed to the gradient and had to walk.  The new route on the other hand was very pleasant indeed, and 100% rideable - a welcome start to the day.


Looking south from Tawa Saddle
Despite the climb not being long, we were well and truly strung out by it, in part due to wardrobe adjustments and photo stops.  After regrouping at the top...



... we set off after Simon who had opted to take a new track down from the saddle.  It too was a nice bit of work, though the temperature plummeted once we were in the shade, and I made a note not to strip off at the top of a sun-baked hill again.

We regrouped again at the bottom of the hill, but after 20 minutes more riding, Sarah, Simon and I had opened up a fair gap to the others.  When they arrived, we suggested that we might see them at Kenepuru Saddle for a late lunch.  It felt a bit stink leaving them, but the variation in pace was significant, and we were probably all a bit happier for the separation.

Having stayed at Punga Cove on all three previous occasions, I was amazed at how quickly we passed Furneaux Lodge (without pulling in to see if the coffee machine was on), and again how soon the turn-off up to Kenepuru Saddle came.  Rather than continue on to Camp Bay, we turned off for the grind up to the road.

After a sharp right turn off the main track, I gave it a bit of a nudge up to the saddle, and had a few minutes wait in the sun for Sarah and Simon to arrive.  There we had a wee picnic - some baked goodies from the Dutch bakery, and some peanut butter and nutella sandwiches that I'd made at home.  (Not before starting to pack a knife and small jars, before realising I could do the spreading before leaving and save a whole lot of weight and hassle.)

Out of the blue, Sarah said she was going to head off.  Problem is, she didn't think to ask what Simon and I were up to.  Once she'd gone, he and I had that conversation, and I learnt that he was keen to wait for the others.   Rather than hoon after Sarah, I decided to go in search of coffee - an adjacent sign suggested it was waiting for me a mere kilometre down the road. 

The road was predictably steep, and as it turned out, the café was right down at the water's edge.  In any case, it was a damn fine coffee, relatively speaking, and the climb back the way I'd come wasn't too bad, especially given that I'd taken the bag off the freeload rack before peeling off all that elevation (still had my overnight gear, mind you).



By the time I got back to the saddle, Claire, Paul and Neils were well into their own picnic, and Anna and James arrived a minute or two after me.  It was nice to catch up with them briefly, before Simon and I set off after Sarah.

I'd ridden this stretch only once before, with Rich and Simon, and didn't have clear memories of it.  I certainly didn't recall the leg-searing pinches, but nor did I remember the sweet views.

Kenepuru Sound in the background.  The corner was a slow one, but the previous few minutes had been intense...

The track was pretty old school, but in such glorious conditions, it was a pleasure, especially in Simon's company.

One of a couple of these marker posts
Eventually, we heard a shout, and there was Sarah - she'd been waiting 40 minutes for us, and was starting to get nervous!  She'd picked a great spot to wait, with a seat in the sun, a great view over Queen Charlotte Sound, and a cheeky weka for company.


After a few minutes, we got riding again, and soon passed a hut.  Unbeknownst to me, Simon decided at that point that he'd had enough of riding at our pace, and he stopped to wait for the others!  Sarah and I pressed on, and after a wee snack at the Black Rock shelter...

Looking towards Picton from Black Rock shelter
... we were soon bombing down the final descent to Torea Saddle.  From there, it was a minute or so on the sealed road down to Portage.

Torea Saddle

Claire had booked us all into a backpackers in Portage, though she'd warned us that while we eight would all fit into the room, it was usually configured for five.  Sarah and I decided not to go straight there, and instead stopped by the hotel restaurant at which we were booked for dinner.  It was around 4pm, and our booking was for 5:30, and we initially whiled away the time drinking coffee, gassy water and a beer, and snacking.

After 45 minutes of that, it was time for a wash.  Riding far was unappealing, and given the impending squeeze, we asked the barkeep if there were any rooms available at the hotel.  At least one was, and by virtue of us being a couple, it was actually not much more expensive than the two berths at the backpackers would have been.  10 minutes later, we were arm-wrestling over who would have the first shower, feeling ever so slightly guilty about bailing on the others...!

Once cleaned up and in our evening-wear, we strolled back down the restaurant, and were delighted to find our companions had arrived.   We 'fessed up about the room situation, and then enjoyed hearing about their ride.

The most dramatic element was that James's freehub was running a little too free, and as a result, he'd only been able to ride downhill.  They'd tried to jury-rig up a tow rope, but the available string wasn't up to the task.  Luckily James is a keen tramper, and was happy enough to run the flat bits and the climbs (some of which the rest of us had tackled on foot too!).   One damn good three course meal later, we were wishing each other a good night.

The next morning we woke to another still day.  The restaurant weren't doing breakfast, so we made do with more of our peanut butter and nutella sandwiches and some instant coffee.  My front load was getting lighter by the minute - not the usual situation, but one which was welcome.

Kenepuru Sound ex Portage
We were booked on an early ferry, as was Simon, so we'd arranged to meet at 8am.  We rode up the driveway to the backpackers, to find that everyone was preparing to roll out, despite being on much later sailings.  James was making for a water taxi, while the others would be cruising behind us.

While I'd ridden the Kenepuru Saddle to Portage section of the track only once, I'd never ridden the next off-road section, and was looking forward to it despite being warned by Simon that it was pretty steep in places.

Sure enough, the ground beneath our wheels ramped up immediately after leaving the asphalt, and it did not let up for quite a while.  All was not lost, and the rapidly gained elevation afforded lovely views of the sound.

Portage, on the shores of Kenepuru Sound
The track was mostly rideable, and I was pleased with how I was handling it with the loaded bike.  I think if anything, the freeload rack on the fork helped on the steeper stuff, though a few tactical walks seemed a good idea (not to mention the walks that I had absolutely no choice over)!



With a couple of weeks between the ride and the write, on reflection, I think I actually enjoyed this section most of all - certainly more than the section to Portage.  While the native bush was much better elsewhere, the views were glorious, and the terrain was a lot more engaging - long climbs requiring good concentration (and power), and fun descents.

Simon part way through an exhilarating descent!

The final section of track had a bunch of switchbacks, from which we could see Queen Charlotte Drive, and signs of the new link track tucked away in the bush.



We'd made good time, arriving at the road-end at about 10am.  After a quick bite to eat, it was a short blast down the road before it was onto the Anakiwa Track.  Sarah set a cracking pace initially, and then Simon went to the front.  I hung behind Sarah for the most part, and enjoyed following her - she's been doing a lot of MTB commuting recently, and it was showing through both her skill-level and fitness.

Sarah nearing the end of the Anakiwa Track
We emerged from the beech forest into Anakiwa just before 10:30am, giving us plenty of time to get back to Picton for our early afternoon ferries.  No sooner had we stopped for a snack, I started getting bitten by sandflies, and managed to negotiate a prompt end to our rest stop.

Blue skies abound

The Link Track began almost immediately, and while I bypassed the very first section, I jumped onto it at the next opportunity.  For the most part, it was very pleasant, though one (probably very expensive) bridge almost spat me straight into a wire fence and I wondered whether 100m of road riding would have been a less risky prospect for everyone, not to mention cheaper.

At the intersection with Queen Charlotte Drive, while still on the gravelled track I opened up a gap to Simon and Sarah, and figuring they'd stay on the road and catch me soon, kept going.

The Link Track was a nice bit of work, and I did enjoy cruising along it.  Initially it was between Queen Charlotte Drive and the sound, but at Momorangi Bay, it switched across the road and got a lot steeper.

A bit of beach riding on the Link Track at Ngakuta Bay
At Ngakuta Bay, the track switched sides of the road again, but was only briefly on the seaside,.  A bit of riding on the sand, and a sweet boardwalk, later, the track popped up to the road again.  From there, counter-intuitively, you had to ride away from Picton for 100m or so before diving off into the bush, and going back the way you'd just come. 

The track was unsustainably steep in places, but maybe the road alternative will keep people off it when it's really wet, and it might just hold up without becoming a maintenance nightmare.  From time to time, the road would be visible far below, but for the most part, the track was tucked away in the trees, and it was a lovely alternative.


While the Link Track was much slower than the road would have been, with plenty of time in hand, I wasn't worried about the check-in deadline for the ferry.  That said, I was fascinated to know where Sarah and Simon were.  As it turned out, Lady Luck smiled on us all, and we were reunited in spectacular fashion.

When I emerged from the track at the point above Shakespeare Bay, a quick check to the left for traffic revealed my darling wife - had I been 30 seconds earlier, or any later, I'd probably have completely missed her.  She'd not spotted the back-track along the road at Ngakuta Bay, so had bypassed the section of track I'd just finished.  However many minutes she was behind me at that point was exactly the amount of time she'd saved going on the road!

She and I rode onto the next section of track together, and 20 seconds later found Simon's bike leaning against a tree.  He'd walked up a side track to check out a signposted viewpoint, and a couple of minutes later, the three of us having spent the last 30 minutes or so riding alone, we were able to cruise into Picton together (along a cracking bit of track, no less).

After a quick celebration of getting to the end with all the blood on the inside...



... it was off to find a café for lunch.  I made an appalling call, and after about 40 frustrating minutes, we'd not eaten, and Sarah and I had to bid Simon farewell on empty stomachs.  While he'd booked a return on the Interislander, we had a slightly earlier sailing on the Bluebridge - the very best way to finish off a ride into Picton, in my opinion.  We had a cabin booked, and as well as a lovely double bed, there was an infinite supply of hot water in the adjacent shower!

Nothing beats a Bluebridge cabin at the end of a ride into Picton

With a comfy bed to curl up in, my fragile brain barely registered any swell that was running in the Cook Strait, and soon enough we were given our "WAKE UP CALL" in Wellington.



Once off the boat, the grey skies and gentle climb into Karori were a fitting way to cap off the weekend - a very nice reminder of how stunning the conditions had been!!!

The trip definitely made me wonder why on earth Sarah and I hadn't taken Kaitlyn and Khulan down there for a family weekend away!  There are certainly more moving parts involved than just turning up to a trail head with bikes, but as far as a scenic and active weekend away goes, the Queen Charlotte Track fits the bill nicely.

Thanks so much to Claire and Simon for inviting the two of us along, and Paul, Neils, Anna and James for the company.

* * *


Ride data:  Day 1 // Day 2
Services:  Villa Backpackers // Cougar Line // The Portage Hotel


Claire's moderately successful Ship Cove selfie!
L-R: Claire, Paul, Neils, Anna, James (by a whisker), Sarah, moi, Simon, and an inquisitive weka.
Photo:  Claire Pascoe

Sunday, August 25, 2019

10th anniversary Mongolia Bike Challenge

A few weeks after getting back from the Tour de France (One Day Ahead, check out the movie, streaming now!) an advert popped up in my social media feed for the Mongolia Bike Challenge.  I tend not to bugger around when it comes to making decisions, but the early-bird discount gave extra incentive, and literally 16 minutes after first emailing Sarah about it, I'd pulled the trigger on the entry.

During that quarter-hour period, we'd discussed the merits of us both entering, but the opportunity cost for Sarah was much greater than for me - this would be her first trip home for almost a decade, and no doubt spending time with the people she most missed had greater appeal than seeing a 650km swathe of her country from the saddle of a mountain bike.

It took me a while to enjoy the bike after France, but by the beginning of the year, I was going at full(-ish) steam - a 232km addition to my suburban set on the longest day, 21 December, and a loaded 1000km week-long cycle tour with Sarah, two cases in point.

The wheels fell off in mid-February, soon after Sarah had fallen of her wheels during a romantic long-weekend getaway in Melbourne.  Her front tyre had torn on a rough bit of road and had blown out sending her down on her chin and fracturing her jaw in two places.  Her ordeal had lasted a while due to a complex recovery process, and I'd had both physical and mental reactions to that which culminated in a ten week layoff.

My legs bounced back remarkably quickly, thanks in no small part to a wonderful cycle tour with Brendan in early June, followed by an even sweeter one in Taiwan with Sarah.  The latter had been positioned to take the edge off winter training, and rather than use it as a launchpad for a solid month's training, I capitulated to work (and my mood disorder) and did a pitiful amount of riding in July.

As always, it is a balancing act for me between feeling shit about not doing enough, and feeling shit about having too little time for anything else.  As it turned out, this time around it was more of the former.  But at least I wasn't worried about getting through.  "I'm fit enough to finish, and not fit enough to race properly" became a common refrain during farewells.

I fretted more about bike choice than I did about training, but eventually my Yeti Big Top hard-tail 29er got the nod.  I was partially influenced by its water-carrying capacity, also its reliability, but in no small part due to the race accepting 3T as a sponsor - they only make a gravel bike and surely the course wasn't going to be so rough as to break the couple that would be in the field.

The last time I rode the bike was almost a year ago, and then it was set up with a rigid fork.  By the time I'd transferred a suspension fork and a couple of new Maxxis Ikons onto it, I managed only an on-road commute to make sure it was all running OK...  Gah...!

The travel to Ulaan Baatar went wonderfully, and thanks to an upgrade from Economy to Business on Air New Zealand, and the Skycouch we'd already booked, both Sarah and I had a lie-flat flight between Auckland and Hong Kong.  There, we didn't have to clear customs, so there was no risk of getting tangled up with the protests.

Always nice to see I've packed the important bits at check-in!
Once in UB, Sarah and I had a couple of days before my parents flew in, and in that time I was able to reassemble my bike, and Sarah sourced one for herself from a friend's son.  Both bikes were put to good use for a jaunt out to the airport to greet Mum and Dad.

Standard selfie grimace
It was a full week before the race began, during which time we were able to see Sarah's school in Darkhan (the second-largest city in Mongolia, about 200km north of UB), catch up with my sister-in-law and niece (both of whom had visited us at home in the last few years), meet plenty of Sarah's old friends, as well as a few Mongolians who'd first met Sarah while in Wellington.  With no shortage of things to do, as well as some poorly timed foul weather, we only rode once more around UB before it was time for the grand départ. 


Exploring a side valley on the outskirts of UB

Our apartment was a mere two minutes' walk from the race HQ, so registering on the penultimate afternoon was simple, as was getting my luggage to the venue on time for it to be loaded into the transport the next morning.   It also made it very easy for Sarah and my parents who were keen to send me on my way.

No friends, yet...
Roll out was at 8:30am, and we were treated to a police escort and priority at all intersections through to the western edge of the city.  This was mostly great, though it was apparent that the lead vehicle wasn't used to leading a cycle race, holding constant speed whether the road was flat (cruising), uphill (full-gas), or downhill (riding the brakes, grrr).

Stage 1

In all, we were neutralised for the best part of 30km, which was a cool opportunity to start chatting to people.  I spoke for a while to Ozzie from Texas (a detail that stuck in my head, thankfully, despite next talking to Phil, an Aussie from Singapore!!!) - he was wearing a Hopecam jersey, which I came to learn was an American charity founded by another rider in the MBC (Len), which has raised an incredible amount of money to connect kids in cancer wards with their classrooms at school.

The peloton on its way out of UB.  Photo: mongoliabikechallenge.com

Eventually, the inevitable happened - we crossed to our left, off the main road, and after about 200m down a dirt road, we found a table set up with food and drink.  Bottles and pockets were reloaded, bladders emptied, and then it was time to roll.  Within a few minutes, the group was spread out over nearly half a kilometre, with me somewhere in the middle.

Over the next five hours or so, I learnt some valuable lessons about Mongolia, all of which blew my mind in one way or another.

It is beautiful, yet unlike anything I've ever seen.


People live in portable homes, and in very isolated fashion

(but/so are very happy when people drop by for tea)
It is very hard to understand what's going on in the engine room when there's little to judge scale/slope by (and the air's thin, and particularly if you're not as fit as usual).


The place is vast.


In hindsight, it was useful to have done something like an Everesting challenge (or two), where the end was not really in sight until it was upon you.  In Mongolia, the vastness and featurelessness combine to make riding psychologically tough.  Best to ignore it, I found - keep pedalling and all will be well.

The final 25km were fantastic, largely on account of a stonking tail wind, and for a last-minute sharp right-hand turn to avoid a steep climb that had been visible from a long way out. 

Our first ger camp was great, but for the fact that the gers were "fake" (in that they were made of concrete).  Nonetheless, they had the genuine low doorway, and after I clipped my head for a second time, I swore that I would not make the mistake a third time (I almost kept my word, but for lightly grazing my neck on the way out on the final evening).


We all ate well, had a good wash (the fastest riders in warm water, the rest of us in cold or colder). and most marvelled at the hour-long thunderstorm prior to it arriving overhead.  I shared a ger with Americans Tyler and Jeff, and enjoyed conversation with them before lights-out.

Stats:  122km ridden, 7 hours 07 elapsed. one wrong turn.  Temperature range 18-33 degrees Celcius.

Other stats:  15th in category (out of 25), 47th overall (out of 102 finishers).

Stage 2

There had been a lot of rain in UB since Sarah and I had arrived, but there had been literally no sign of mud during Stage 1.  I feared the worst after the overnight rain, but it turned out I needn't have worried.

Well not about mud anyway...

BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
I'd finished with sore hands the previous day, and had asked the mechanics to swap a spacer from above to below my stem.  That helped for a while, but the corrugations (or washboard, for my north American friends) were sapping my will to live.

After a lumpy first 60km or so, with the run to the finish from the previous day still fresh in my mind, I had high hopes for the 30km descent that followed.  Unfortunately, the highlight was seeing a pair of camels...


and crossing a concrete bridge, which I swear I rode so slowly if only to savour the smoothness for a bit longer.

Bridge ahoy, and a brief respite from trying to avoid the worst corrugations
Immediately upon finishing, the afternoon's request of the mechanics was to try to soften up the fork a bit.  That off my plate, it was straight to lunch, and from there the showers.  These ones were a little warmer, and I found that the pressure was much better if I sat on the ground rather than stood.

Despite the ride seeming longer, it was actually a lot shorter than the first day, which made for a chilled out afternoon.  Once fed and clean, there was plenty of time in the afternoon to enjoy the camp (this time replete with the traditional throw-it-on-the-back-of-the-truck-when-you-want-a-change-of-scenery ger.  These gers housed five, and as well as Luke (a bike store owner from Chicago), I was sharing with Urban and Borut from Slovenia, and Vladimir from Moscow.

And Russian vans
It was a good day for wildlife.  While I'd seen the dead goat on the way home, I'd missed the "20 buzzards" feeding on it that my room-mate Luke had startled when he passed by.  But, I'd seen the camels, and a band of horses put on a great show for us in the nearby Tuul riverbed.

Oh, wonderful neigh-ture
I spent a lot of time lying in the ger reading my kindle.  At some point, there was a strange noise coming from outside which seemed familiar, but I couldn't place with certainty.  Upon investigation, my suspicions were confirmed.


Dinner was served at 7:30pm, and as well as fantastic and plentiful food (a relief, as we'd been on restricted rations at lunch), we were treated to entertainment in the form of a couple of young Mongolian men,  One was playing a horse-head fiddle and was an adept throat-singer to boot.  The other played a regular guitar, and sang beautifully.  It was all the more enjoyable for the smouldering horse or cow dung, which did a fantastic job of keeping the sandflies away.  A tried (over centuries) and true method, no doubt.


I was struggling somewhat with the ice-breaking part of being in a large group, and doing so much solo riding wasn't helping.  Rob, a lovely Peruvian-American working in Japan did what I couldn't, and a lovely conversation ensued, joined by Lenny, an airline pilot from Singapore.  As seems always the case, the social contact I regularly avoid is uplifting ex post.

Stats:  101km ridden, 4 hours 31 elapsed.  Temperature range:  13-22 degrees.

Other stats:  14th in category, 44th overall.

Stage 3

While I was really happy with my post-stage routine (eat, wash, rest), I still hadn't quite got my mornings dialed.  Our breakfast started at 7:00:01, a detail Spanish race organiser Willy Mulonia had been at pains to point out (the crew's only private time was from 6:30-7:00).  Our suitcases were due at 8:30, while the race start wasn't until 9am.  The commuting distances in the camps were in some cases sizeable, and it was well worth not ending up walking further than necessary, and definitely bad to try to manage bike and luggage at the same time.

The heavens opened soon after breakfast, but luckily before it was too late to adjust clothing.

Vladimir, no doubt contemplating the merits of his attire
I'd ridden without a backpack on the first two stages, facilitated by the Big Top's two bottle cages and the awesomely capacious Revelate Vole I'd picked up just before leaving home - this was accomodating two tubes, a couple of tools, a bottle of chain oil and a rag, my shakedry jacket, and a buff, leaving me with only a pump and tyre plugs, a couple of bars and my phone in my jersey pockets).

Contemplating clothing, post luggage hand-in.  Photo:  Urban Majcen


After some humming and hawing, I decided to start in a Castelli Gabba, with my lycra jersey in my backpack in case the weather improved dramatically.  I was in the process of putting my shakedry jacket on over my backpack when I heard the hooter.  As I ran outside, the rain stopped, and before too long, I was stopping to adjust my clothing.  Jacket and gabba off, lycra jersey on - Vladimir had nailed it after all.

Prior to the clothing stop, I'd dabbled with riding with others, but hadn't managed to gel with any individual or group (the missed start hadn't helped).  Consequently, for most of the first half of the 137km "Queen" stage, I rode alone.  I enjoyed the smoother surface, and the fact that the adjustments to my fork pressure and rebound had worked a treat.  The vastness, and emptiness hadn't gone anywhere, on the other hand.

A bid of prey overhead
A small group of riders arrived at the second aid station just as I was leaving it, and after another 10km or so slogging away on my own, I decided to sit up and wait for them.  For a brief moment we were six - five of us from behind converging on a rider ahead (Andy, from the Yukon) who'd just been checking out what looked like a football from afar, but turned out to be a human skull sitting on the "roadside".  I'd been fairly active with my camera to this point, but decided it was appropriate to keep it in my pocket.

Not long after, Andy and an Australian, Cameron, dropped off one by one, and as Pau, Alfredo, Arjan and I sailed off, it was nice to see the two of them connect in the rearview mirror - no one deserved to ride in this shitty wind alone!

My three amigos
In fact, the wind was so shitty, it motivated me to learn some Spanish.  While we'd been too rooted (and/or impolite) to introduce ourselves, Pau spoke great English, and was a great teacher - I don't think I'll soon forget "putas aires!!" [best shouted].  Fucking wind, indeed.

No matter, all was going to be fine, because we had a 25km downhill run into the finish.  Sadly, we'd overlooked the "PUTAS ARENA".  I think by the end of the 75 minute "descent" we were all sick to death of constantly fighting to keep the bike moving in the desired direction.


The camp was another really nice one, and I was allocated to a ger with three Spanish riders.  While their English was orders of magnitude better than my Spanish (and less crude), we didn't really have the capability to converse, so I was able to check out socially for a while.  Aside from the eat, wash, rest routine, the only matter at hand was to locate the bag of gear I'd ditched at Ref-1 (refuelling station one).

Stats:  137km ridden, 7 hours 46 elapsed.  Temperature range:  12-25 degrees.

Other stats:  14th in category, 41st overall.

Stage 4

A beautiful day dawned, and while the wind picked up a bit between photos...

8:19am

8:51am, with the race leader having to repair the line he'd inadvertently just trampled

... it looked like we had a lovely day's riding ahead of us.  But first, we had the mini-Gobi sand to deal to.  After a few minutes on the bike, we had on average 15 minutes on foot, before we'd crossed the dune.  All, except for the one fat-bike in the field which I enjoyed disappearing as he rode away from the other hundred or so of us.


I think the company in the final half of the previous day's stage helped me realise there was absolutely no need to isolate myself during the race, and in fact, my enjoyment of the riding was likely to be more, not less, with company.  As a result, I started a bit more aggressively on this fourth stage.

The sand dune distorted things slightly, because all of a sudden different attributes had come into play.  Nonetheless, when the "dust" started to settle near the end of the first hour, I found myself in reassuring company.

Pau and I were together again, and this time wasted no time in making proper introductions.  Pau had ridden up to me with Xavier, a 62-year-old Spaniard whose strength I had witnessed in Stages 1 and 2 (on neither occasion had I the strength and/or willpower to hold his wheel).

Also in our group was Martin Wisata, an MBC veteran, and someone who had morphed from a participant to having a formal role in the organisation (taking on prizegiving and media obligations).  He'd been having knee issues, and I'd caught him adjusting his saddle height just before Pau and Xavier joined us.


Our compatibility was immediately apparent to all of us, I think, and we promptly slotted into our collective work.  After marvelling at Xavier's power for a while, I asked Pau to please "ask Xavier which pro-team he used to ride for".  Similar enquiries had obviously been previously made, because Pau's immediate response was that run for Spain at three olympic games back in his youth.  I can attest that he still has an awesome engine!

The stage profile had looked fearsome - the stage was essentially a 90km climb, followed by a 10km descent - but I should have known better than to ignore the axis scales.  For the most part, the uphill gradient was imperceptible, and pretty much perfect for me.  The occasional steeper pitches stung a wee bit, but I was holding my own in the group OK.

ЁСӨНЗҮЙЛ in the rearview mirror, according to the map!!
We'd past by a couple of wee towns - a novelty, as we really hadn't seen more than a few gers together outside of our camps - and collected from ahead a lone Argentinian rider.

L-R:  me, our Argentinian friend, Martin, Xavier, and Pau.  Photo: mongoliabikechallenge.com

Whether his addition caused a slight change to our riding style, or maybe due to my nutrition during the stage, I struggled for half an hour or so, and thought that I was going to be dropped.

If only cyclists got this sort of reaction at home!
I managed to hold on, and once we'd crested the final climb, my mass started to work in my favour and I had a strong ride through to the finish.  Even relative to the day before, it had been quite a different riding experience, and one I was much happier for.  It was good to feel a bit more fire, both in my legs and in my belly - something that I definitely registered.

Lolo did a great job allocating our sleeping arrangements each day
For the only time, we were camping overnight, and so we were allocated to large canvas tents.  I was delighted to find I would be sharing with the Mongolian trio who'd finished first, second and third (in various orders) in all four stages to date, and would continue in that vain through to the end of the event.  Also, the fourth Mongolian in the race, and Luke (who I'd bunked with a couple of nights earlier), Ryan from Florida, and finally Sebastian from Denmark (whose rear carbon seat stay had been rocking a steel-rod splint and hose clamps since early in the event, but whose cracked frame would nonetheless survive the event).

The meals were being catered by a UB restaurant, Rosewood, which happened to be just around the corner from our apartment, and which had been where Sarah and my parents had dined the previous evening.  While people were already raving about the food, halfway through my lunch, I had some wicked stomach cramps and had to excuse myself from the dining hall.   Fortunately, fireworks didn't really ensue, but I didn't have a great appetite at dinner either, so ate little.

My guts didn't spoil the afternoon though, and I spent a lovely hour telling the Mongolian racers, Buyana (Buyntogtokh), Bilguunjargal, and Bolor-Erdene about Sarah and Khulan, and showing off my entire Mongolian repertoire:  sain baina uu (hello), bayarlaa (thank you) and uuchlaarai (excuse me), and looking through a bunch of each others' cycling photos.

It was a lovely interaction to have, and gave me an insight into what a powerful inhibitor the language barrier can be - a lack of confidence in one's ability to communicate effectively can easily appear like a lack of interest (as it might actually be if everyone spoke the same language).

We'd had rain pretty much every night, and as the skies darkened, three of the four Mongolian riders in our tent ominously made a run for it, presumably to sleep in one of the many Russian vans.  The rest of us hunkered down, and fortunately the tent coped both with the gale force winds, and also the rain, by and large.



Stats:  104km ridden, 5 hours elapsed.  Temperature range:  19-24 degrees.

Other stats:  9th in category, 22nd overall.

Stage 5

The night had been a wild one, and I don't recall anyone reporting a good night's sleep.  The tents flapped very loudly all night, and it was obvious from the noise they made that a mob of horses was sheltering between them.   I would have loved to have gone out for a piss, but was worried my body wouldn't be content with just that, and wasn't prepared to make the 300m return trip to the temporary long drops in the wind, rain and pitch black.

When I did finally get around to using one, it was quite the experience.  A small, shallow trench had been dug for each one, which was straddled by a plastic seat, and then a tall, square "tent" for modesty purposes.  The trench was half in and half out of the tent, and as it happened, was pretty much in line with the wind direction.   I can assure any inventors out there that there will be NO market for a toilet that blasts ice-cold air at your rear end while in use. Not a nice feeling at all, even for someone who'd been riding a hardtail mountain bike off-road for four days...!!!

Anyway...

... it was the one morning my canvas Cactus trousers supplanted my Metallica board shorts, and they were absolutely perfect for the conditions.  While waiting for the start, but after handing over all of our luggage, Ryan, Sebastian and I stood in the tent shivering, and wondering what the hell we were about to step into.  My GPS would soon confirm that it was pretty freaking cold: 5 degrees, not counting the significant wind chill.

I had to laugh at Hutch's beautifully ironic, and coincidentally worn, jersey, reading "ZERO WIND"
Despite the limited food I'd eaten since finishing the previous stage, I ambitiously lined up near the front of the grid, also taking a punt that I'd be warm enough in lycra jersey, armwarmers and sleeve-less vest under my shake-dry jacket, and knee-warmers for the first and only time in the event.

Perhaps in an act of solidarity by the front bunch given the conditions, or maybe just because the Mongolians had not slept well, I was able to hang with the hitters for 10 minutes or so.  But, a short rise soon put paid to that, not only for me, but for others, and it took another 15 minutes or so for smaller bunches to form from the debris. 

I found myself with Alfredo from stage 3, Glenn (an Australian living in Qatar who'd got horribly sunburnt on the first day, and again on day two, from which point he was probably inundated with offers of sunscreen), and the Spanish fat bike guy, who introduced himself as Donny, corrected me when I later called him Danny, and after the stage had ended revealed himself to be Toni (sounds like "Donny").

Toni took charge of us beautifully.  It was clear he had a great engine, but probably just due to the massive rotating mass of his wheels, didn't much like unnecessary accelerations and was not shy of reminding us by calling "TRANQUILLO" and gesticulating appropriately.

He was also averse to wasting momentum, and so it was that he and I pulled away from Alfredo and Glenn on a climb, and decided to press on alone.  We had very compatible riding styles, and motivated each other well, both physically and mentally.  Toni also produced entertaining noises - either creaking when he was in the saddle, or a delightful "WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP" as his low-pressure tyres deformed when he was out of the saddle.

Toni, approaching Ref-2
On the long climb up to Ref-2, we could see a couple of riders behind us.  TRANQUILLO, I was reminded, and we just tapped away at our own pace.  We made an ever-so-brief stop, and during it identified Alfredo and Hutch (an American who'd been living in UB for years with his Mongolian wife and young children) as our assailants.  After a fast descent, Toni and I regrouped, and were soon joined by Alfredo.  I looked back, and while Hutch was agonisingly close, the rules of the day were to focus on what we were doing, and to ignore anyone else's predicament.


We saw a couple of young kids on bikes - this one was the less bling of the two, but I was better organised with my camera!
Toni and Alfredo conversed in Spanish for a while, and I amused myself by imagining that Toni was laying down the law.  Whatever was said, there was no detectable change to our dynamic, and nor was it noticable when Alfredo slipped off the back on the climb to Ref-3.

There, we caught Martin (who I'd ridden with on the previous day), Lance Portman (a gym owner from Perth, whose Dad and brother were spectating the race, and clocking up plenty of Russian-van-miles in the process), and Vladimir (from Moscow, roomie from night 2).  I was keen to roll through, but a quick stop saw all three of them take off before us.

For about a minute, I felt like I was in Colorado, bombing down a gully through trees, but that promptly ended, and then I felt like I was riding in Mongolia again.  Down in yet another river valley, we could see Martin and Lance ahead, and two - presumably Hutch and Alfredo - behind.  It was unclear what was happening to the gap between those two duos, but the gap ahead of us was steadily shrinking, and that behind getting increasingly large.  TRANQUILLO, Toni urged, unnecessarily.

It was clear we were moving quicker than Martin and Lance, and before we caught them we had a quick chat about whether or not to linger.  When we did make the catch, it was clear Lance was pretty blown, but now in the company of probably the three biggest blokes in the field.  With a decent wind shadow to hide in, and three content riders ahead, things proceeded without awkwardness.  A couple of times I praised him for his choice of company, but I think he mistook it for a dig that he wasn't on the front!

The final kilometres were about as close as we got to singletrack.  We'd entered an old lava field, and the dirt road ducked and dived its way through it.  We mostly did too, although at one point there was a strange noise, and I turned to see Toni completing his over-the-bars manoeuvre having steamed into a big rock in an attempt to short-cut a corner!  I dare say any other front wheel in the race would not have coped with that, but luckily the 4-inch tyre saved the day, and only Toni's pride was dented.

Soon after, Martin enquired as to whether our truce was finishing at the line or the 1km mark, but in the end it was gentlemanly through to the end.  I was mightily tempted to let fly, simply because I could have - strength I'd not before felt at this event.

Always a good sign when you arrive to see this many uncollected bags
I was thrilled with the stage, and acknowledged to a few riders afterwards how good it felt.  I'd admitted to them (and myself) that while I was comfortable with participating in the event at a level well below my best (a bed I'd long since made for myself), I was delighted with the sensations of the day.  I wasn't quite at the pointy end, but the 16th place finish overall felt a lot closer to my potential than the 47th place had on Day 1.  I knew I had nothing to prove to anyone, or myself, but it felt really fucking good to ride well.

The early arrival was put to good use, in what I thought was the nicest ger camp of the lot.  They had soda water in the fridge, which was something I'd been missing, a great hot shower, and abundant good food.  Also, some better-than-decent surroundings, with a stunning river gorge below the camp, and the outline of a whopping great horse drawn on a nearby hillside with white rock.  I can't for the life of me find it on the internet, but it was very nice!

The Orkhon River with said horse in the background (slighty left of centre)

I shared a lovely traditional ger with two very lovely Phils - Phil Routley (the Australian working in Singapore who I'd talked with on the ride out of UB) and American Phil Smith who was kicking arse in the Veteran category (50+).

Stats:  126km ridden, 6 hours 13 minutes elapsed.  Temperature range: 5-19 degrees.

Other stats:  6th in category, 16th overall.

Stage 6

Our sixth and final stage was the shortest - having left the modern capital of Mongolia five days ago, we were riding to the ancient capital, Kharkhorin (commonly referred to by foreigners - or to them - as Karakorum, even though the K in the Mongolian Kh is silent - go figure).

I started the stage feeling more like a racer than a rider, not in an aggressive sense, but one of self-assurance and focus.  I wasn't going to roll gingerly off the line, nor was I going to let wheels go for no good reason.

The first few kilometres saw us heading back out through the lava field, which again was a bit of a hoot.  As ever, gravity eventually proved the best sorting mechanism, and I found myself in a small group with Martin, Lance, Hutch and Glenn, all of whom had featured in the previous day's stage.

Unfortunately, we were sucking dust for a while, with various vans overtaking us (with mixed success) on the upwind side of the road.  "FUCK OFF!!" plus an angry wave didn't have the desired effect, so we simply had to wait for the terrain to come to our rescue.

L-R:  Glenn, Hutch, Lance.  Vast and empty ring a bell?
Lance seemed to have recovered well after his afternoon-sans the day before, but the first decent climb of the day saw Hutch and I crest alone.  I'd enjoyed flicking through Buyana's photos with him a couple of evenings ago, and while he'd won yesterday's stage, today he was having bike troubles - none of which it looked like we could help with the couple of times we passed him on the roadside.  He generously offered us his wheel the second and last time he flew past, but we nobly declined!

After the next climb, it was lucky the descent was so open - had it been wooded, I likely would still be digging splinters out of my lips after carrying a bit too much speed into a tight off-camber corner.  But, in Mongolia, you just find a new line, and keep an eye out for rocks or holes.  No harm, no foul.

Glenn, Hutch and I regrouped at the bottom, and hit the bottom of the final lumpy climb together.  Channelling Toni, I rode at my own pace, and found myself alone midway through the ascent.   Soon after, Costa Rican, Irving Mathews Soto, flew past me, and I caught the other NZer in the race, Hamish Morrin, currently residing in Frankfurt.  We rode together briefly (during which time I almost missed a sharp left turn), but eventually he wished me well and eased up.  He'd had a really solid race, but was now paying for some tough days which included two 5th places overall, and a 7th.

The organisers had saved the longest, steepest climbs for the finale, and I decided a tactical walk was required for the first time in a few days.  I tried not to worry about what was happening behind, focusing instead on what was going on underneath me - that was all I could control.  I had occasional glimpses of a rider I thought was Vladimir up ahead, but as far as my legs were concerned, that gap was insurmountable.

Kharkhorin in the distance
After the stage's highpoint at the 69km mark, it was downhill to the finish - on average.  There were a couple of short but nasty climbs that broke both rhythm and will.

Willy Mulonia was at the finish line greeting everyone, and got a big, dusty and sweaty hug from me for his troubles.  About a minute after I'd grabbed a fistful of rear brake to minimise Willy's chase, a white 4WD pulled up and from it emerged Sarah and my parents.

Always nice to be reunited!  (Even when one of us is filthy!)
I was really looking forward to introducing Sarah to my Mongolian friends, particularly Buyana and Bilguunjargal with whom I'd chatted a couple of days prior.  I was stunned to hear my Mongolian vocabulary reported back, and that between the three of them, they'd recalled not only Sarah's name, but also Khulan's.  It really was a special moment for me, to think that they'd chosen to retain all of those (random!) details, and in the meantime finished 1-2-3 in another couple of stages.

L-R: Bolor-Erdene, Buyntogtokh, Bilguunjargalm Sarah, Ma (by a whisker) and Pop

Hamish arrived soon after, and then Toni, and it was great to see them both.

Hamish Morrin and I
Soon after, I started getting itchy feet, and mounted up to finish the descent to the city (and our ger camp) with Sebastian, whose cracked BMC had survived as long as it needed to.

Sebastian with Kharkhorin in his sights (the left stay is the damaged one)

A couple of times on the descent, I made the mistake of thinking I was looking at the ocean off in the distance.  The colour and uniformity of it were unmistakable, weren't they?!


The final shower was glorious, but I definitely held back on the lunch!  The afternoon was filled with great conversation: hearing more about the Mongolian cycling scene from Bilguunjargal, riding in Denmark from Sebastian, out and back beach racing in the Netherlands from Arjan, MTB racing in Slovenia from Urban (The Four Islands race, in particular), life as a commercial pilot from Lenny, or winters in the Yukon from Andy, not to mention one of the best travel mishap stories I've ever heard from Andy's mate Thomas - heading home from last year's Pioneer, no less!

Stats:  83km ridden, 4 hours 10 elapsed.  Temperature range:  11-29 degrees.

Other stats:  4th in category, 16th overall.

PS:  Stage 7

The hardest stage turned out to be the bus ride back to UB.  I didn't turn a pedal, but boy was it gruelling.  I can't believe I didn't accept travel in relative luxury with Sarah and my folks!


Reflections

This is now the second international mountain bike stage race I've completed, the first being the Cape Epic back in 2012.  That field contained 1200 riders, and was a team event.

The Mongolia Bike Challenge was a lot more intimate - capped at only 108 starters, for logistical reasons, I guess - and riders compete as individuals.  I think both these features contributed to me making connections with people, which I hope will endure both time and distance, including mainly riders, but also crew.

Having spent three weeks in Mongolia, my hat is off to Willy Mulonia, for pulling off not one, but ten editions of the MBC.  The level of organisation that I experienced was pretty much perfect, testament I'm sure, to the care and passion he and his team put into the event.  As I said on the Stage 6 wrap up video:  "get yourself fit, get entered, and come and enjoy this incredible country."  Mongolia's not the easiest place in the world to get to, but it is bloody unique, and the Mongolia Bike Challenge is as good an event as your likely to find.

 Featuring Lance (12s), Lenny (16s), Urban (18s, and with the last - beautiful - word), Len (24s), Bilguunjargal (37s), Luke (44s), Toni (Polar jersey, in the screenshot and at 2m18), 

My progression during the race was very welcome indeed.  My overall placings steadily improved: 47th, 44th, 41st, 22nd, 16th and 16th, for 32nd overall on general classification (pretty much the arithmetic average of the six placings, as it turns out!).  Similarly, in my Masters 2 category:  15th, 14th, 14th, 9th, 6th and 4th, for 12th place on GC.  I wasn't there to ride fast, but I was glad when I was finally able to.

I think the improvement happened for a few reasons.  Firstly, my physical condition improved over the six days - call the first few some much needed training...!  I hadn't put enough time into getting the bike set up, and I suspect my saddle position relative to the pedals and the handlebars was very different to my Crowe-Rishworth, and it took time for my body to adjust to it.  Finally, I think I relaxed, and started riding without worrying about riding.  Three sources of improvement which added up nicely.

I was initially surprised by how many of this year's participants had done the event before.  Now, it makes perfect sense to me.  The country is beautiful in its unique way.  I'd feared it would be monotonous, with reasonable predictions of the terrain and its nature.  But it was never boring - the regularity of it all was a thing to behold.

I will always have a special connection to Mongolia (would you believe, on return Sarah and I picked up a new car which coincidentally has a regular number-plate beginning with MGL, the IOC code for Mongolia!!!!), and while I usually have a preference for new experiences over repeated ones, I'd go back to this event in a flash.

Having seen Sarah speaking her own language, with her life-long friends, and in her own country, it is clear to me that we need to regularly.  When the next trip is on the horizon, rest assured I'll be getting in touch with Hutch, Buyana and Bilguunjargal for help figuring out which bike I should bring with me to best ride with them, and if the timing of the MBC fits well with our window of opportunity at this end, wouldn't hesitate to drop Willy a line!

Things last a while, I'm sure.  But these memories will last forever.

Lucky me.