Reflections: 9 lessons from the Mongolia Bike Challenge

Ask questions, take notes, get advice from previous finishers and quiz organisers around anything you don’t understand. Do this and you’ll be prepared but there’s always so much to learn after completing an event like the Mongolia Bike Challenge. Here we present 9 lessons from the six-stage event.

Words: Alex Malone

Photography: Paolo Martelli and Alex Malone

Cyclist has done the pairs thing a couple of times at the Pioneer and Reef to Reef now but the Mongolia Bike Challenge is all about the solo rider. True, there’s a team category of three riders which can be created prior to registration or even ahead of race day – when you’ve made a few new friends at the official briefing – but on the steppe, you’re really on your own.

My most recent individually ridden off-road stage race was the Crocodile Trophy. I learnt a few things during the eight-day race back in September 2017 but in hindsight, the Croc was easy. A short flight to Cairns, food I recognised and a bunch that was primarily fluent in English. The Aussie outback is far from the most accomodating place on earth but there was comfort in knowing I was not ever far from home.

The trip to Mongolia was far more considered. Visa applications, currency exchanges, multiple flights, more than 24 hours of travel each way and that was before the race even begun. Thankfully, I have a few mates who have conquered the MBC before and using their combined experience – the first one having ridden it back in 2013 – I had a good idea of what lay ahead.

I prepared the body, prepped the bike and packed my bags to the brim, given the luggage allowances. Unlike the Croc and Pioneer however, the MBC would have racers only imposed with camping on one evening. “For the true Mongolian experience”, explained race director Willy Mulonia. If it was up to him I’m pretty sure he’d have us in a swag under the stars each night, such is his hardened spirit for adventure. For the remaining nights we were in fairly comfortable gers, sleeping four people or more depending on your particular group.

The small things like getting ready in the morning without getting your feet dirty or wet was quite the treat but it wasn’t all Mongolian fudge and apple crumble. Things still got tough (at times) and given my chance again, I’d make a few changes to how I prepared for the event. Then again, everything more or less went as expected.

With my third off-road stage race now complete and plenty of air time to reflect on the experience, I have compiled some of the key takeaways from the six-stage race. Many of things learned during this week-long trip can be taken to other similar events so don’t be put off just because you’re not travelling to Mongolia anytime soon.

Once you’re done here, jump across and check out what to pack for the Mongolia Bike Challenge. You might just find an item or two left off your last adventure.

1. This is Mongolia

I arrived in the country’s capital a couple of days before the race start. We were met at the airport in Ulaanbaatar by the race organisation and soon enough, after waiting for another flight to land, we were off to Bayangol, the official race hotel. Check in was a breeze, the room spacious and with everything a fairly generic three-star accomodation would provide. WiFi was available around the hotel’s entirety and for the most part, it worked sufficiently for what I expected. I did however, hit a few road bumps trying to access a couple of backend sites needed for uploading articles such as this one along with our eDM platform. So, if you plan on doing any sort of work prior to the race start, just remember it won’t be as smooth as you might want.

“This is Mongolia”, said race director Willy Mullonia during the pre-race briefing. Basically that means that if things don’t play out like you may like, well, too bad. Once racing you can expect very limited phone service and data availability. Buy yourself a local sim from Mobicom and you’ll at least be able to stay in touch with loved ones back home – some of the time. You’ll be ‘social dark’ for a couple of days but don’t be scared, you’ll have signal soon enough.

I won’t sugar coat it. The showers will be cold nearly all the time. It’s a bike race, you finish, shower when probably still hot and that’s it. One shower per day times six stages. You can do this. Apart from being off the grid, suffering through cold showers and washing your kit each day – one camp did have a laundry service which I used for two days – everything else just works.

2. Work hard, enjoy the experience

There’s no fluking it through an event like the Mongolia Bike Challenge. You won’t ‘find form’ out on the steppe during the Queen Stage. It’s simply not going to happen. Work hard at home, put in the hours you believe is enough (or your coach prescribes) to prepare yourself for up to 35 hours of riding across the week. The fastest rider this year did it in a little under 25 hours of total ride time. Personally, I had four days in a row of nearly five hours for each stage. Six stages in total and around 30 hours for the average finisher – what’s the biggest week of training you’ve ever completed? If 15 hours is your biggest ever and you were left a dribbling, Monday sicky-type mess, you might want to adjust your expectations on when best to sign up for such an event.

Of course, there’s no harm in just doing the minimum and instead employing the MBC as the ultimate boot camp. Dom from the UK had completed a total of six rides over 40km before arriving in UB. He got through it just fine, he’s done this sort of thing before and relished the experience. Something tells me however, that we’ll see a Dom 2.0 in 2019.

The real takeaway is to practice riding your mountain bike as much as possible. The MBC is run across terrain that lacks single track technicality but the difficultly lays in the time spent on your bike across rough and demanding terrain. The road bike will get you fit but the mountain bike will build a stronger you. This is my experience.

3. Fill your plate wisely

Mongolian fare is delicious when prepared properly but you’re not here for a culinary tour of the country. The capital has a bunch of great restaurants serving a worldly assortment of cuisines and there are a number of supermarkets where you can quickly fill your basket with all matter of calorie-packed essentials. In town, its safe to choose whatever you like – the Rosewood catered the night we camped – but think about steering clear of anything fresh. I’m looking at you salad. The water quality isn’t great in Mongolia and the reality is that anything fresh has been washed and my bet is they don’t drown the lettuce in bottles of Evian. A week off the salad and maybe even the veggies. This is Mongolia. You’ll be fine.

Out on the steppe, when you’re moving from camp to camp, the food will also vary in quality. Don’t try a little bit of everything unless you’re the IRONMAN of gut strength. Refrigeration is limited and the meat itself is generally accepted to be ‘heavier’ than what many of us are used to back home. So, your diet may become a little limited by self selection during the race but there are always ways to ensure you come home fighting fit, not a withering mess. We’ll get to that below.

4. Plan your pack list

I found a Trek store right near the hotel for some last minute needs but once outside UB, you’re on your own, to some extent. Official race mechanics come equipped with plenty of gear but here’s the catch, unless you’re on their list of pre-purchased mechanic package customers, they might not have the specific parts for your bike. You need to be self-sufficient when it comes to proprietary parts but your local bike shop should be able to provide advice around the critical items to pack. If they want you to pack an identical twin to your Top Fuel 9.8s, speak to a mechanic with more experience.

It’s not just about the bike. In some respect, the bike is the easy part. You’ve been riding it for months in exactly the setup you’ll be using at the MBC so things are familiar. You really just need the key spares, which we’ll cover in a separate article. The tough part is what to put in the bag you’ll be carrying to your ger at the end of each stage. On and off-bike clothing, nutrition, hydration, treats, snacks and other essentials like toiletries, supplements, vitamins or other medications. This is Mongolia. Think about the annoying little things that could impact your race and throw in a few of the items that might help elevate the pain.

Break your list down into key areas and start writing down all the things you want to take. Then start taking things away. An example of headers and sub-headers could be:

– Bike (spares, lube, cleaners, rag)
– Race kit (kit, helmet/s, eyewear, footwear)
– Clothing (T-shirts, shorts, pants, wet weather gear)
– Sleeping (sleeping bag, liner, pillow, ear plugs)
– Nutrition (coffee, race food, snacks, treats, recovery)
– Hydration (powders, tablets, post-stage rehydration)
– Health (vitamins, creams, balms, suncream, tooth brush)
– Extras (trigger ball, foam roller, charging bank, Kindle)

Get our full kit list and read What to pack for the Mongolia Bike Challenge.

5. Race as much as you want

It’s called a Challenge and the interpretation of its meaning is for you to decide. There’s a race briefing the evening before each stage and Willy breaks down the day providing key information around specific points on the course, feed zones, GPMs and the all-important time cut. If you want to be a Khan, you’ve got to make the time cut each day. It’s generous but miss it and you won’t be considered an official finisher. No Khan jersey for you. That said, not everyone is at the MBC for a race and in fact, most are there for the experience. I know three others that have travelled to Mongolia previously but none of them visited the country for holidays – they all visited to ride the MBC. Coming to a place like Mongolia is a gift in itself, you don’t have to race unless that’s what you really want to do.

Willy might not want his event diluted to a level where people arrive with the idea of a hop on, hop off tour around Mongolia but he’s a reasonable guy. If you fail to finish a stage and there’s good reason you can ride the next day, he’ll make it happen. This is Mongolia. He might even be able to modify the course for the day so you’ve got a few less kilometres and climbs to overcome. But you didn’t hear that from me.

At the front of the bunch, you’ll find plenty of competitive spirit but it’s all in a very relaxed manner. Each stage has between two and three feed zones and if you’ve dropped your bottles into the specific tubs the night prior, you’ll find them placed perfectly at the feed zone. The group always stops at the feed zones (except when it doesn’t) and for good reason, they are stacked with plenty of salty and sugary goodies to help fuel you towards the next part of the route. You’ll also be sharing your accomodation with others and if it’s anything like my Khan group, we spent the entire race with each other so it pays to get along with your fellow racers. Who knows, if you play nicely with the right people you might just be able to swindle a deal that presents an opportunity for you to have a little more fun on the course.

6. Look left, right and up

It’s easy to get lost in the moment of a race, failing to look anywhere but the wheel in front or your Wahoo ELEMNT route guidance. But check yourself at least once each stage. This is Mongolia. There’s every chance you won’t return here again – unless it’s with the bike – so savour the moments and soak up the expansive views. More importantly, remember to look around when you’re on and off the bike. The country is absolutely stunning and there’s beauty to be found if you take the time to look.

Tell your fellow racers what you’ve seen, ask them what they saw or about the most special moments of the day. The experience isn’t just about what’s surrounding you out on the steppe but also it’s about those who are there doing it right alongside.

7. Embrace the routine

The best part of being a cyclist. Ah, but you’re not one for routine. You just get up and ride your bike. Don’t kid yourself. To reach the start line of the MBC in any sort of reasonable physical and mental condition requires a certain level of dedication to your craft. Your level of dedication will differ from those around you but get the routine down and you’ll have a much better time over the course of a week-long race. Let yourself go and you’ll be that guy or girl on the start the next morning wearing a smelly jersey or riding out with a squeaky chain. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So, from sunrise to sunset, here’s how I got through each day with a plan. Keeping in mind of course, the best plans don’t always turn out how you wish. Stay flexible.

0700-0730 Wake up, grab your coffee and supplies (if you’re picky about these things) and head to the breakfast room.
0800 Kit on, pockets filled, final check of bike, body and mind.
0830-1300 Race on!
1300(ish) Cross finish line, get stuck in to a recovery beverage immediately. I used Skratch Labs Endurance Recovery but there are plenty of tasty options out there. Endura make the carbo-protein blend Optimizer and Science in Sport have a delicious Rego recovery shake. Just make sure you’ve used it plenty of times previously to ensure it works for you.
1300-1330 Or call it within an hour after finishing the stage. Shower, wash kit, get warm (or cool depending on the race) and head to lunch.
1330-1500 Lunchtime. Don’t rush this part as it’s crucial to give yourself some time to properly cool off after the race and digest your food. It’s also a great time to sit down with other riders to talk about their day along with general socialising.
1600-1700 Wash your bike! Yes, wash it everyday and ensure the drivetrain is clean and lubed ready for the next stage. Wash your bidons, sanitise as necessary (also dependant on location), fill them up, get your spare bottles ready for the feed zones and then relax before dinner.
1800-2000 Next day briefing followed by dinner.
2100-2130 You might not be ready for bed but your ger roommates will be already drooling on their pillows. Don’t be the guy (me) who’s busy tapping away on his laptop after others have gone to sleep. Get the jobs done promptly!

Repeat.

8. Don’t skimp on gear

Getting to the start line for a race like the MBC takes time, hard work, annual leave forms submitted plus a fair bit of financial commitment. You’ve spent months or even a year or more building up for your event so cutting corners on gear and equipment is to be avoided at all costs, literally. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about having the most expensive gear. The level of equipment is your call based around needs and budgetary requirements. What I’m concerned about when heading to a place like Mongolia is the quality and functionality in relation to the conditions.

I’ve been running Maxxis tyres since the Pioneer in 2017 and had yet to puncture in a race scenario – until Stage 1 of Mongolia. I took the advice of MarathonMTB.com Mike Blewitt and the choice has been rock solid. One puncture from thousands of kilometres (not on the same pair) is pretty good in my opinion. Don’t go with a lightweight race tyre for a multi-day event. Two watts saved from weight and rolling resistance will be immediately wiped out when you’re bombing down a descent you’ve never ridden, hit a bad line and puncture. I’ve heard some good things from number of riders using the latest ‘Cape Epic specials’ from Mitas which might get a trial over the coming months ahead of Pioneer – where the terrain is a little more unforgiving.

The same goes for things like wheels – unless you’re racing for the win. Ride the gear you know is going to stand up to the job and if you’re unsure, ask someone who has ridden the race before (there are often Facebook groups for entrants) and do your research.

There’s a good chance you’ll be riding for more hours across consecutive days than you’re used to in training. You’ll also be flying across terrain never seen or ridden before so it’s even more likely that your body will take some additional pounding. Look after your caboose and pack the most comfortable bib shorts you own and if all of them give you grief in training, look at alternatives before flying out. I’ve ridden in three different brands over the three stages races; Pioneer-Rapha, Croc-Giordana and MBC-Santini. The Santini Tono 2.0 bib is currently my most favoured piece of gear and I washed and dried the same pair for nearly every stage. I wore the Redux Roadsuit for the final two stages mainly to squeeze as many marginal gains as possible and to save what little energy I had left.


9. Consider extra services

This year the MBC had a company called +QUEBICI who provided mechanical support along with massage services. They did a stellar job but one thing that didn’t become clear until the race begun was that mechanics had limited resources for any additional work outside of those who pre-purchased the mechanical package. The team came from Spain and my guess is they brought enough mechanics to cope with the work load of the 25-odd people who purchased the service during registration. I know a few riders were able to squeeze in for the odd massage but it’s worth considering both of these sorts of things if a: you’re not mechanically sufficient and b: think you will need massage each day.

+QUEBICI didn’t offer their mechanical support – apart from emergencies where they were always available and also on the course – in parts. This meant you couldn’t pay them for a degrease and clean during the race. They simply didn’t have time. This is largely why I packed the Finish Line Speed Degreaser. Just in case they couldn’t help a brother out.

That said, most races will have mechanics and massage services but just think about what you might need. If in doubt, get in touch with the organisers prior to departure. To be fair, I only wanted my bike cleaned each day so I could have a little more time for post-stage reports. The +QUEBICI team had informed me prior to the race that they wouldn’t necessarily be doing on the spot services like cleaning but I thought an appropriate amount of Euros or local Tughrik would entice them. Alas, it did not.

Think we missed something or want further information? Feel free to comment below.

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