Reflections: What to pack for the Mongolia Bike Challenge

The brief: Travel to the land of Genghis Khan, a country where nearly 40 percent of the population remain nomadic and monk vultures are more common than bike shops, pack your bags with everything you might need and race a six-stage mountain bike race.

Words: Alex Malone

Photography: Paolo Martelli and Alex Malone

Every bike race or event is a little bit different and the Mongolia Bike Challenge, a unique six-stage event spread across the vast Mongolian steppe, presents its own gear-related challenges. The bike is a given, you’re going cycling after all but the intricacies of the setup along with spares and the lingering anxiety of excess luggage will also play a part in how you pack and how much you take.

After The Pioneer and Crocodile Trophy I’ve got a pretty good idea of how much I can take for a week-long and what can be left at home. With anywhere from 70 to a few hundred other riders all doing a similar thing, there’s a good chance if you leave a piece of the puzzle behind, someone might have a suitable alternative. Keeping in mind mountain bikes are pretty specialised these days and most, if not all, require some form of proprietary or dedicated parts. Those are the essential items you must take along but others, like tyres or even sealant, can be kept at a minimum if you’re worried about taking too much.

With the bike packed it’s really pretty straight forward. Just kit for six days of racing, nutrition to keep you fuelled, casual clothes so you can get out of the chamois immediately after the finish, a bunch of cold and wet weather gear (just so it doesn’t rain), some camping items if the race includes this sleeping arrangement and finally all that other stuff you need for travelling like ear plugs, hygiene essentials, power adapters, your Aeropress and favourite coffee mug. It’s a bike race, not a survival camp so a few luxury items will make the week all the more positive.

So, here’s the list of gear I took across for the Mongolia Bike Challenge – all 40-odd kilograms of it. Thankfully, the weight of my baggage was significantly less on the way home. Burning more than 3,500 calories each stage on average – keep in mind the TT was only 1,500 – meant I steadily ate my way through much of what I took over. I did however, come back with plenty such was the fullness of the feed zones.

Once you’re done here, take a look at the 9 lessons from the Mongolia Bike Challenge. A few more of these stage races and I might be able to get the learnings down to just one or two.

Bike

1 x Trek Top Fuel 9.8s – modified spec.

This season I’m fortunate enough to have a Trek Top Fuel 9.8s at my disposal – until after The Pioneer. With a strong relationship with Shimano Australia and with no push back from Trek Australia, the Top Fuel was stripped from new with my previous Shimano XTR Di2 groupset installed. This is the same group used during last year’s Pioneer and Crocodile Trophy. It’s done some serious mileage but a few things have been replaced along the way. The Trek uses what is commonly known as Boost spacing so this meant new wheels (Shimano XT – not light but absolutely bombproof) and a new crankset with wider spacing.

Previously, I haven’t had as much time as I would like on the bike before packing it up for a race. The Trek has been in the stable since early in the year and with the MBC now done, it’s nearly clicked over 2,000km. The suspension is now well overdue for a service which will be done in the coming weeks.

The Top Fuel always garners plenty of attention and not just because of its Racing Red paint scheme. Renowned for being an extremely complete and competent race bike, the Top Fuel is a standout from the three bikes I’ve now ridden in multi-day stage races. The Specialized Epic was fast but not the most forgiving (the latest is apparently vastly improved), the Merida NINETY-SIX was light, quick but a little uneasy at the front and the Top Fuel is just plain-old solid. It’s not the lightest package around but it’s just so planted when the terrain gets hectic and yet, when obstacles larger than your tyres can roll over approach, it doesn’t mind getting airborne, not one bit.

After years of pulling apart bikes and writing Build Reports for RIDE Media, I’ve developed an appreciation for what separates the best from the rest. The latest offerings all look great from the outside but it’s the finer details like pivot hardware, internal tubing smoothness and lack of creaking or random noises that places the Top Fuel in the front echelon. It’s still got a few thousand kilometres to go before The Pioneer but at this stage I’m extremely happy with the package.

Now, where’s that new XTR groupset already! That should be fitted in time for Pioneer, fingers crossed.

Race kit

1 x Santini Tono 2.0 jersey

2 x Santini Redux jersey

2 x Santini Tono 2.0 bib shorts

2 x Oakley Flight Jacket sunnies

2 x Santini gloves

2 x Santini Lieve base layers

2 x Santini socks

2 x Attaquer socks

1 x Wahoo ELEMNT GPS computer (with Mongolia map loaded, included with App)

1 x Lazer Z1 helmet

1 x Bont Vaypor G shoes

1 x Santini Ace bibs

1 x Santini Redux Roadsuit

1 x Santini Guard 3.0 rain jacket

1 x Santini Guard 3.0 vest

1 x Santini Ocean long sleeve jersey

1 x Santini Behot arm warmers

1 x Santini Behot leg warmers

1 x Santini Lana long sleeve base layer (worn casually)

1 x Sealskinz Ultra Grip Gauntlet gloves (long finger, purchases from LBS Wheelhaus)

1 x Redux aero socks

1 x Santini cycling cap

The Mongolia Bike Challenge doesn’t have a list of mandatory safety gear, as does The Pioneer but provides recommendations to bring clothing suitable from below 10 degrees up to 30 degree Celsius. Last year the race was inundated with rain meaning drying kit was more difficult. We had a splatter of rain during the neutral on Stage 1 and then another little sprinkle one evening. Otherwise, the blazing sun and dry cool breeze rapidly dried kit if hung off the side of the ger.

Much of the heavier clothing items stayed in my bag and were not used at all. That said, depending on your riding objectives, you might find warmer clothing necessary during the stage. I’m a sucker for racing and as such, only ever found myself removing a base layer prior to a stage start or unzipping a jersey during the day.

I hand washed my kit for all but two days when our accommodation offered a high-speed laundry service. Some other riders simply brought six kits and two large plastic bags. I can’t imagine what that gear must have smelt like when they got home…

Daily gear

2 x Co2 25g canisters (packed in Speedsleev)

1 x tube (tucked into Speedsleev)

1 x tyre boot (discovered on Stage 1 to have never made it into my saddle bag, readied from Stage 2, made from Gorilla tape)

1 x Crank Brothers Multi Mini Tool 17 (it took a fair bit of research to settle on this thing)

1 x tubeless valve

1 x Shimano 11-speed quick link

1 x tyre plug kit (with three plugs)

1 x tyre lever

MBC organisers list a number of items in the Race Information Package which are “recommended” and also deemed “mandatory”. These are really items you’d quite likely pack anyway but just in case; winter cap, warm gloves, warm socks, winter base-layer, rain jacket, rain pants, winter bibs or leg warmers, shoe covers and a back pack (my guess is to carry all these items during inclement weather). The only truly piece of mandatory gear however, is a GPS computer with mapping capability. While the entire route is marked, this is Mongolia and any number of things can occur meaning the signage is down. These include but not limited to; goats eating the flags, cows knocking them down, locals pulling them out or wind blowing them across the valley. All the stage maps were made available and as such, no one got lost. Well, the organisers got lost one day and tried to send Nico Raybaud and myself in the wrong direction but we knew better.

Spares

6 x bidons (mix of 800ml for frame and 600ml for behind seatpost)

2 x Shimano XTR BR-M9000 metal brake pads with fins (pairs)

2 x Shimano XTR chainrings (32T and 34T. I ran a 36T for the duration)

2 x Finish Line Speed Degreaser (never leave home without it)

1 x Wend Chain Wax Kit (despite some commentary around its lack of efficiency, I didn’t once endure a dry or squeaky chain. This is what matters in a stage race like the MBC).

1 x Maxxis Ikon (used after Stage 1)

1 x PRO Slide On Race grips

1 x Shimano XTR chain

1 x additional tube

1 x Trek Top Fuel rear derailleur hanger

1 x Shimano XTR Di2 rear derailleur

1 x Shimano XTR Di2 shifter

1 x assortment of Di2 wires

I stripped down my regular spares kit for the trip to Mongolia primarily due to a flight booking error for my journey to the race. In the end I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase an extra bag very cheaply at the airpot but prior to that, neither Miat or Cathay Pacific Airlines could assist in adding additional luggage. At $80 per kilogram a likely outcome at check-in, I went lighter than usual. That said, I had the essentials in case something went wrong. My drivetrain was new for the race, along the tyres but I still managed to destroy my rear Ikon on Stage 1 after running the pressure too low.

The Speed Degreaser is honestly such a great product, even if a little luxurious to be taking all the way across the globe. The can features a high-pressure spray and quite literally blasts everything in sight off your drivetrain. It dries without rinsing and while it doesn’t remove wax (I used the Wend Wax Off for that), it obliterates any grit or grime from chains, cassettes and chainrings. It’s a cycling specific product so it won’t destroy anything but don’t go spraying it on your brakes.

Prior to flying I had posted a photo to Instagram mentioning the Wend Wax product. According to the experts who painstakingly measure things like efficiency and effective costs of using different lubes, the Wend product doesn’t even get a mention. However, during a race like the MBC all I really care about it the lube staying on during the stage – no easy feat when going through rivers and mud bogs – and providing a clean-running driveline. The Wend product achieved exactly what I wanted and given I’ve never had a lube that could withstand such treatment without a mid stage application, it gets my vote. At the end of a race like the MBC I think many people would be happy to replace the chain anyway so the cost is really negligible.

Dave Rome over at CyclingTips wrote a large feature on chain lube. It’s worth a read if you’re not happy with your current choice of lubricant.

Nutrition and food

5 x Skratch bars/SiS gels/Skratch Fruit Drops for each stage (approximately)

2 x Skratch Hydration bags (I gave half away to Elijus Cervilis after getting bored with passionfruit mid race)

1 x Skratch Recovery coffee flavour (all the calories, easy to stomach and not too many ingredients. I shared this amongst my ger pals)

I probably over catered for the MBC as I came home with a lot of bars and gels (I took more than the amount above but that’s all I really needed). The Fruit Drops became my favourite during the race mainly for their sour taste and easily digestible structure. They’re a bit of a pain to shake from the bag but opening the packet before putting it in your pocket makes life much easier.

The Skratch Anytime Bars come in some really delicious flavours but I found them to be a little heavier to digest if you really scoffed it down. The best way to eat these was in small bites as they also pack a 200-calorie punch. I did however, find myself throwing one down at the very end of a couple of stages when I was either dropped or really starting to feel low in the energy department. The common saying for stage races is that ‘you’re always eating for tomorrow’ and the Anytime Bar is a good way to keep the fuel intake up across the week.

I’ve always been a fan of having one bidon with water and another with mix. I maintained this strategy for the feed zones and all stages barring the final one where I planned to skip the first feed zone and only pick up two bottles at the second. On this day, I ran all the bottles with some amount of Skratch Hydration primarily for the extra energy.

Clothing

3 x Cyclist t-shirts

2 x long pants (pairs)

1 x pair of Nike Kawa slides (worn with socks, of course)

1 x Santini Eroica Confine wool hoodie

1 x lightweight Macpac puffer vest

1 x Katmandu puffer jacket

1 x Rapha Randonee shorts

1 x beanie (never worn)

1 x cap

1 x pair of boardshorts

1 x pair of casual shoes

1 x compression socks (forgotten, only ever used for flying)

Each rider is permitted to bring one 100L bag but given the relaxed nature of the event, you wouldn’t be chastised if you went slightly over. I also had a small back pack carrying my laptop and this was placed in front of a van each morning. If you’ve got the weight allowance, think about a case with handles and wheels. Dragging a 16kg-pluss duffel up to your cabin or ger each day gets tough.

Camping items

2 x USB battery packs

1 x Macpac Escapade 700 sleeping bag (Ratings: Comfort 2°C / Limit -3°C / Extreme -18°C)

0 x pillow (I forgot to pack it)

0 x sleeping mat as Willy kindly provided one (it is essential for the camping evening)

With only one evening of camping you don’t need to go too crazy with the equipment but a few things would definitely be considered for next year. These include a head torch. I do own one but didn’t really need it. A better sleeping mat would have been a good addition too. Elijus splashed out and brought his airbed. Elijus had a great sleep that night.

Extras

2 x power adapters

2 x bags of muesli (there was ample at breakfast but was nice to have a different type. Purchased in Ulaanbaatar)

1 x bag of mixed fruit and nuts for breakfast (purchased in UB)

1 x Aeropress, Porlex hand grinder, Cyclist mug and enough Twenty One Coffee for the trip (yes, plenty of people were jealous but no, I didn’t share the coffee)

1 x Cabeau Evolution neck pillow (game changer)

1 x Kindle

1 x trigger ball (mainly used during lengthy airport transit)

1 x iPhone charging cable

1 x Wahoo ELEMNT charging cable

1 x Fuji camera

1 x camera battery charger

1 x Apple Mac 11″ plus charger

1 x toiletries bag

Have we left anything out? Feel free to comment below.

We learned a lot over the week. Be sure to check out 9 lessons from the Mongolia Bike Challenge.

 

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