Welcome to the Mongolia Bike Challenge. After two days of touristing around the capital of Ulaanbaatar, today the Mongolia Bike Challenge commences.
Words: Alex Malone
Photos: Paolo Martelli and Cyclist
Let’s rewind for just a moment. I’m in Mongolia. Currently, I’m sitting on the top of a small hill situated above the Geo Mandal Ger Camp. The wind is crisp and the sun is setting over the surrounding hillside. It’s an amazing place to ride but writing is no easy task, there is no high-speed WiFi and barely a lick of 3G reception. But I’m here and there is really nowhere I’d rather be. That said, if the stage reports don’t come in minutes after the finish, you’ll have to be patient. This is Mongolia.
Onto the steppe
Today the Mongolia Bike Challenge will start proper. With the majority of the race staying at the Bayangol Hotel, race organisers fittingly positioned the inflatable arch way right outside the lobby.
A touch over 100km later, 1,500m of climbing and just a few real climbs to speak of, it was last year’s overall winner Elijus Civilis who would take line honours just ahead of Ryan Standish – who will wear the yellow Santini leader’s jersey thanks to his sprint to the top of the only Grand Prix of the Mountain (GPM) of the day. Oddly enough, the MBC doesn’t offer finish line bonuses so instead, the race is spiced up out on course. The majority of the stages feature at least one.
“I had no idea what to expect, both from the course and how the other riders would race. I knew there would be lots of fire road but I really didn’t have too many expectations,” said Ryan.
“I didn’t have plan as such because there was so much unknown today. I just wanted to get a feel for where I was compared to everyone else. After I won the GPM, last year’s winner Elijas said ‘I’m watching you now’. He got me at the finish but I’ll start tomorrow with the leader’s jersey because of the bonus taken at the GPM.”
Ryan may have the lead but according to Elijus, that’s just how he wanted it to play out.
“You never win a stage race in one day but you can lose it in one day. Good enough is enough. You don’t need to attack full gas. You just go with the front. You don’t need to go any harder,” he said.
“He [Ryan] is strong, super talented and he’s the man to beat. But now I know what kind of rider he is and how he can attack. Now he has the pressure with the leader’s jersey and has to work to control the race. I have two cards to play but I’m not about to do that on Day 1.”
In the women’s race, it was Caroline Collona who took a commanding victory and will no doubt be the one to take it to the men later in the week.
Let it rain
For two days we had enjoyed almost perfect weather. Sunny skies, light winds and mild temperatures had spoiled us into thinking the week would be all smooth sailing. “Remember, this is Mongolia”, race director Willy Mulonia had reiterated multiple times during the prior night’s race brief.
So, in true to form, the morning was drizzly, wet and extremely cold. Just what riders wanted for the 15km neutral roll out of town. Thankfully, by the time we had lost feeling in our fingers, the race was nearly ready to roll.
It didn’t take long to warm up. Within the first 10km a group of 15 had already found themselves at the front. Having followed some of the early years editions, it looked likely that a big group could ride all the way to the finish. With wide, double and (what we’d call) 4WD tracks essentially filling the entirety of today’s route, the quickest riders would show themselves through strength and fitness rather technical ability – something that wouldn’t necessarily work in my favour. That said, by the halfway mark there would only be around seven of us remaining.
The race may have been heating up on the course but next to us, a family pack of horses were out for a lovely stroll in the steppe. Flanked by it’s parents, a number of small foals trotted alongside for a few moments in what was an amazing sight. Certainly a big change from rogue kangaroos and the odd rabbit.
The big peak, the standout feature of the day would ultimately lead to my undoing at around the 70km point. ‘No worries, settle in and use the high-speed descent and following flatter final hour of riding to make your way back to the group’. After two stages races and a handful of one-day events under my jersey, my lack of experience finally came to the fore. A thud followed by the dreaded hissing meant any chance of catching the front six was over.
I pulled over, spotted two large slices in the tyre (my first puncture on the MTB in almost 18 months!) and went about calmly fixing the problem. Only my brain wasn’t quite functioning as I’d hoped. Unfortunately I forgot about the fantastic tyre plugs that sat neatly in my saddle bag. I’ll save the story for a time when someone cares enough to listen but let’s just say that I found myself laughing at the toil of more than 10 minutes on the side of the trail. The 13 minutes of stoppage time on my Wahoo says enough.
Fixed and on the ‘road’ again, making it to the finish without another puncture was the aim. Finally, after a little over an hour of solo time, and some lovely help from Team Cube Mongolia rider Tumen, I reached the line.
Coming in nearly 19 minutes down on the winner wasn’t exactly the plan but hey, this is Mongolia. There’s also another five stages to try and claw some of that time back.
After waking up to drizzly rain, I made a small change in kit choice, going with the slightly thicker but skin-tight Santini Redux jersey and then paired it to the Tono 2.0 bib short. The bibs have become my go-to choice for longer rides due to the elastic and seamless braces which sit independent of the lower part of the shorts. The leg grippers are also a nice touch with Santini’s Thunderbike Power Fabric using a dotted silicon grip to keep the legs in place. With all the riders getting completely drenched during the neutral, I opted for the water resistant Guard 3.0 vest which packed down easily into my back pocket once I could feel my hands again.
Stage 1 – Results
Full results available here
Stage 1 – Details
Strava activity: coming soon
Time: 4:15:17 (moving time)
Total elevation: 1,153m
Average speed: 24.7km/h
Calories burned: 3,856
Heart rate TSS:
Number of wild horses seen: 100 give or take 50 including a number of very cute foals.