It’s hard to know where to begin when trying to describe something that is, essentially, indescribable. But that is exactly what riding a mountain bike over 900 kilometers (560 miles), while climbing over 14,000 meters (45,900 feet), in seven days in Mongolia is — indescribable.
When people ask me, ‘How was the Mongolia Bike Challenge?’ my eyes glaze over and I go into a thousand-yard stare, losing my capacity for language for a moment as the imagery of that amazing experience floods my mind. It’s as if the Mongolian landscape has seeped into my skull. Where once there was syntax and a fairly reliable source of thoughts, now there’s little more than visions of mile upon mile of a vastness of the land of Ol’ Genghis that words can’t come close to encompassing.
It’s a curious thing, being out there on the steppe, in a land with no walls or fences, with 4,500km stretching out before you, where there are no rules, no barriers, and no place to truly anchor yourself, neither physically nor mentally. The closest comparison I can think of is when you’re out on an ocean and have lost all sight of land. Mongolia harkens back to the world before we got here and screwed it up. It’s huge and, yes, it is empty. But it’s also not — it is a land full of potential and possibility, of hope, and — forgive the cliché — of dreams.
You don’t experience Mongolia — it experiences you. It envelops your senses and invades your bones. It’s so pervasive that, despite the fact that you might be racing for a podium spot, the results just don’t matter. When you’re in a place where you have to carry, by the order of the race referee, a heat blanket, a whistle, and a mirror (in case you need to catch the attention of the pilot of a rescue helicopter), and when the day’s riding can last up to 12 hours, you become thankful for just getting through each day in one piece.
Race director and official MBC sadist Willy Mulonia is the man who got the event rolling. He went to Mongolia 10 years ago to ride his bike and had such a profound experience that he decided that he had to share it with someone. So, he started the MBC. He’s kind of nuts like that. Logistically, it is a huge operation, even though the race entrants are capped at 108 people each year.
If you’re used to the relative luxury of stage races, such as the TransAlp, and staying in hotels with fancy bits like, um, carpets and walls, then the Mongolia Bike Challenge might be a bit of a shock to the system. But if you go with the flow and just let things go, then the rewards for being out there in this unbelievably beautiful land are limitless.
This is proper, back-to-its-roots bike riding. It’s an adventure like no other you can have on a bike, too, and it’s no surprise that the MBC is ranked in the top-10 hardest races in the world.
Though, as Willy said, “results come on a piece of paper, they can be ripped up. But not this experience — this… you will have this in you forever!” Still, it is indeed a race. The warrior that won was Canadian Cory Wallace (Kona). Wallace is the Canadian national marathon champion and his win this year made it three in a row, a stunning achievement. He was pushed hard this year by Italian Nicholas Pettina, who unfortunately took a wrong turn on stage 1 and lost valuable time that he just failed to make up by the end of the race.
Pettina was famous among the other riders even before we’d left the official race hotel. He went for a 40km training ride the day before the race, into the Gobi Desert, and got lost. He spent the night shivering around an open campfire in his Lycra with four nomads who had shouted to him, “Wolves!” when he motioned to head off to the city, whose distant lights he could see twinkling miles away.
He decided, wisely, to wait until dawn before making his way back over endless valleys. Finally, on the outskirts of Ulan Bataar, he was stopped by police who, upon seeing this now filthy, bearded man with a wild look in his eyes, immediately assumed he was a terrorist and escorted him to the nearest police station. Soon it was all cleared up and he arrived just before we were about to leave for the first day’s camp by coach.
After that, though, every time he stepped onto the podium, he was hailed, brilliantly, with chants of ‘Taliban! Taliban! Taliban!’ Who said cyclists don’t have a great sense of humor?
Personally, I had an interesting race, riding for the first time in my age category, coming home with two second places and four first places; a cracked frame on stage 3 cost me over an hour and a half since I had to push my bike for about 30km. Amazingly though, I was not really that bothered about it. I just figured, ‘Well, heck, if there’s anywhere I’m gonna be having to push my bike, it’s here.’ Wild horses lingered about, curious about this weird looking animal covered in dust and singing ’80s pop songs at the top of his lungs to pass the time.
I was fourth in my age category and tenth overall, but, as I mentioned earlier, if there is any event where the results really do not matter, this is it. Never have I suffered so much and loved every minute of it. The race organization was faultless, the race crew were all highly professional, and, crucially, having a blast too.
I remember riding down one hill on stage 5, in the midst of a brutal 170km day, with my eyes full of dust and my mouth bone dry, my ass aching like you would not believe, and my bones rattling loud enough to get an echo back from the valley walls — and I started to laugh. I was eight years old again, flying down my street on my Diamondback BMX, racing my buddies and without one single care in the whole world. I was, in a word, free.
There was no wifi, no connection on my phone, no schedule to worry about other than getting back alive — just me, some wild horses, and a few buzzards, and a handful of like-minded nutcases out there, and we were loving every minute of it.
One of the true gifts that Willy bestowed upon us through creating the MBC was that of friendship. You meet some truly exceptional people out there. They may not be just like you, but there they are busting their guts over those hills and experiencing a total immersion of every sense in Mongolia.
I thought to myself at times, as I was begging for the finish line to appear or getting my legs ripped off by Nicholas and Cory, that the Mongolia Bike Challenge should be called the MLC — the Mongolia Life Challenge.
I’ll be back next year for sure. Willy, you’ve created a Mongolia junkie.
Lee Rodgers is an independent professional mountain-bike and road cyclist, journalist, and cycling coach. He is also the official coach of the Mongolia Bike Challenge. He is also the man behind www.crankpunk.com.