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Cory Wallace sets fastest known time on Mount Kilimanjaro

Also, why you may not have heard of the Canadian endurance cyclist and why he's one to follow.

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On January 28, endurance MTB pro Cory Wallace rode his bicycle from the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro to its 19,341-foot summit and back down to the base in eight hours and 55 minutes, setting a bike FKT on the Tanzanian peak. 

Unlike many pro cyclists who’ve embraced the fastest known time trend during the past few years, Wallace did not have a film crew with him to document the feat, nor did he get much attention in the media. In fact, Wallace wasn’t even sure if the “Kili” trip would work out, due to the onerous permitting process and regulations on the mountain. Aside from his bike and pair of beat-to-hell cycling shoes, he had very little personal gear with him. 

Most of his stuff was back in Canada “gathering dust” since October when he left on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to South Africa to compete in the Cape Epic.

Because of COVID-19 complications and then because he’d realized how wonderful Tanzania was for winter training, those three weeks turned into four months on the African continent, so Wallace made do with what he had and what he could buy at local markets.

Cory Who?

Are you still wondering who Cory Wallace is?

Like setting an FKT on Mt. Kilimanjaro on a bike with bald tires and sporting a secondhand backpack, the Canadian has flown mostly under the radar during his pro career. Nevertheless, his penchant for adventure travel by bike and talent for long, hard efforts might soon bring his name to the top of a finisher list near you.

When Wallace posted his FKT attempt on social media — the closest he came to producing any “content” around it — a few other MTB pros shared it, likely drawing more attention to the original post. Both Payson McElveen and Geoff Kabush shared Wallace’s post, using the mind-blown emoji liberally.

Both of those mountain bike pros said that Wallace flies well under the radar, but that his lack of a self-spotlight belies his incredible talent.

“I’m a big believer that timing is as important a factor as any when it comes to people rising to prominence,” McElveen said. “Cory being an unknown name to some has absolutely nothing to do with his success or abilities as an athlete. As a now three-time 24-hour world champion, just a decade or two ago his name would have been a household one, just as that discipline launched folks like Chris Eatough or Nat Ross to stardom.”

“I think he flies under the radar a bit in the US because he cares more about doing stuff than dramatizing it and telling the story,” Kabush said. “He has raced a bit in the U.S. and won major events like the BC Bike Race, 24-hour world champs, but he spends more time abroad racing events that don’t have the media coverage. As long as he can get enough support to keep doing what he is doing he is probably happy. I think he just pieces it all together in foreign lands by just being nice, genuine, making friends and talking to people.”

Wallace with the rangers at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Cory Wallace)

From his hotel in Arusha, a town in northeastern Tanzania, where he’s been recovering and relaxing since the FKT, Wallace speculated on why more cycling fans don’t know who he is.

“I think being based out of Canada, we don’t have as much media out there,” he said. “In the past, I won Canadian marathon champs two times. I won the BC Bike Race a couple of times. I’ve won some pretty big races but my main focus has been 24-hour world champs. That’s kinda a fringe market. I think that’s part of it. I won that three times, but it’s not that well-known.”

Wallace has been racing on the Kona factory team for ten years. He’s the reigning 24-hour world champion and his primary race focus for the next few months is 24-hour worlds — officially known as WEMBO World Solo 24-Hour Mountain Bike Championships — in Finale Ligure, Italy at the end of May. 

He also has a slew of North American gravel races on his calendar, including a fourth go at Unbound Gravel where each of his three previous attempts have been thwarted by mechanicals and bad luck. Last year, he won the inaugural BC Bike Race gravel race. 

Yet Wallace’s most inspiring accolades are usually earned far from North America. His love of travel and penchant for long, arduous adventures on the bike makes for a marriage that breeds things like FKTs in far-flung places. While he’s at it, he also competes in dozens of ultra-distance and stage races around the world that western folks have never heard of. 

That’s the other reason Wallace thinks he doesn’t have the name notoriety as other record-setters. 

“I spend a lot of time in foreign countries racing around so you don’t get the publicity or maybe the respect,” he said. “If you win a race in Nepal it doesn’t mean much, but if you win Unbound you’re famous. I guess that’s really it, I do a lot of obscure adventures.”

Fastest Known Kili

Wallace only ended up in Tanzania because he was trying to get home to Canada. 

In October, the 37-year-old traveled to South Africa to compete in the Cape Epic MTB stage race. He planned to stick around for a week or so to sightsee in Capetown to have some dental work done. The dental work took longer than planned, so Wallace hung around and rode with Lachlan Morton. He finally finished up with the dentist in late November, just as the Omicron variant introduced itself in South Africa.

Morton told Wallace he was going to book it out of the country as soon as possible. While the Aussie was able to find a circuitous flight back to Europe, Wallace wasn’t so lucky. 

It didn’t bother really bother him. 

Morton gave Wallace his entry to the Munga, a 1,100km single-stage mountain bike race through the middle of South Africa. After that race, Wallace traveled to Namibia for another event, the Desert Dash, a 400 kilometer jaunt through the Namib Desert from the capital of Windhoek to the ocean. 

By that point, Wallace hoped to be home by mid-December. 

“It was just fun to kill some time while I waited for a flight home,” he said. “I had a flight for December 13th, but then Canada wouldn’t accept a PCR test from South Africa or Namibia. I heard Tanzania was green so if I went for two weeks I could quarantine and go home. I was gonna fly home on December 28th. But I got to Tanzania and was having a good time and didn’t want to miss New Year’s where I was so I canceled my ticket and here I am.”

Wallace admitted that his dream of a Kilimanjaro FKT wasn’t nearly as spontaneous as hopping into random bikepacking races the weeks prior.

“This just opened the door to do it,” he said. “I spent Christmas in Zanzibar and thought, ‘why would I go home?’ It’s freezing, they have lockdowns. Right now I have mostly everything I need to do Kili. So I thought, I’ll just start bikepacking toward Kilimanjaro, and if I get there I’ll see how I feel and if the weather is good, I’ll go up. I thought it would take five days but it took three weeks because I kept finding amazing places and great training along the way.” 

Eventually, Wallace made it to the base of the summit. He was dismayed to find out that he couldn’t get a one-day permit for his attempt; the mountain is highly regulated, and only five-day permits (at $250 per day) are administered. Furthermore, anyone attempting to hike or bike Kilimanjaro must be accompanied by a guide. 

Wallace carries his Kona Hei Hei, the bike he brought to Africa for the Cape Epic, up Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Cory Wallace)

“So I thought, let’s go check it out,” he said. “I’ll do it in three days. If it looks good and feels good, I’ll try for the FKT on the fifth day. I really didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Mostly known as a bucket-list hike, Kilimanjaro is less frequently visited by cyclists. Like seemingly everything, it’s grown in popularity with cyclists in recent years although it’s still relatively obscure. Wallace said that he’d heard of a retired French road pro who had summited in 11 hours years ago, and guides and porters told him that some locals had done it in around 20 hours.

The total elevation gain from the base to the summit is 10,482 feet, 3,280 of which are mandatory hike-a-bike. 

None of the obstacles deterred Wallace, although he said that a lot of negotiation was required in order to make the summit push in one day, the final day of his permit. After he’d made it to the summit in three days doing things legally with his guide, Wallace needed to get back to the base on day four to be able to go for the FKT on day five.

First, he had to convince the authorities to let him ride back to the base of the mountain without his guide, who didn’t have the equipment to move at the same pace as Wallace. Fortunately for Wallace, a rescue vehicle was coming up to the Horombo Hut to rescue some South African hikers, and the rangers agreed to let Wallace descend solo if he followed behind the vehicle. 

He also had to convince them to let him go back up — and down — the following day, without the guide, for the FKT. 

“That took a lot of negotiating but I showed them what I did in Nepal and they were like, ‘ok you can go.’” (Wallace has ridden the 220km Annapurna Circuit, Nepal’s famed trek, three times, setting an FKT in 2021).

On day five, Wallace left the ranger station at the base at 7 a.m. and rode back up to the Kibo Hut, where his guide had stayed behind. They did the 3,280-foot hike-a-bike together (it took three and a half hours; Wallace did it in running shoes), and then Wallace hopped back on the bike to summit. He arrived seven hours after he started. After spending ten minutes at the top, Wallace flipped it, rode back down to his guide, hiked back to Kibo Hut with him, and then rode to the base of Kilimanjaro for a total time of eight hours and 55 minutes. 

“Just all the cards fell into line in the last second even though it wasn’t that well planned,” he said.

The future

It’s impossible to write about Wallace’s time in Tanzania both before and after his Kili FKT without veering into travelogue territory. Yet, there’s a method to his madness.

Bikepacking trips in fill-in-the-blank country have always served Wallace well as large training blocks for the race season. In fact, bikepacking is how he builds his base foundation. Riding from Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro? That’s training for Wallace. Around six hours a day, fully loaded, with plenty of sightseeing to pass the time. In fact, the Kili FKT was the end of a four-week block of training.

After a week of recovery in Arusha, Wallace set off (all his possessions strapped to his bike) toward the Kenyan border to spend some time on safari. There, he combined base miles with big game and some luxury glamping with And Beyond safaris.

After that? He’s thinking of riding to Iten, the Kenyan marathon running hotbed which also has excellent gravel riding. 

Eventually, Wallace will go back to Canada to top off before 24 hour worlds in Italy at the end of May. He’s as much a racer as he is a traveler. It’s his unwillingness to sacrifice either and make them both work that sets him apart.

McElveen witnessed Wallace’s unique skillset when the two went head to head at the Mongolia Bike Challenge in 2016.

“His FKT on Kili is impressive, but not a surprise,” McElveen said. “He’s been doing stuff like that since long before the White Rim craze. I first got to spend time with Cory at the Mongolia Bike Challenge, where we spent six days in a tight battle in a far-flung corner of the world. I remember winning stage one and feeling enormous confidence for the rest of the week. Cory had had a tough day but did not seem worried. He knew the stage racing game, especially ones that take place with a more adventure-oriented backdrop. I remember him graciously congratulating me, but also remember being intimidated by how calm he was about losing time on day one. Spoiler alert, he had an ensuing stellar five days and forced me to fight for every second until the very end.”

Races like Unbound Gravel and the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder sound fairly benign — and boring — when held against stage races in the Himalayas or Mongolia or Africa. When I asked Wallace why he was jumping on the North American gravel bandwagon, he gave two reasons. 

“I’ve raced mountain bikes forever, and I love gravel,” he said. “I’ve always ridden my bike on gravel and now it’s popular so it’s good. And, it suits my style — I’m good at long distances. Mountain bike racing has become short and technical. World Cups are an hour and a half, which is not my bread and butter.”

Wallace’s last Unbound attempt was in 2019, where he was plagued by punctures. Nevertheless, before the mechanicals, he was riding at the front — one of eight who wasn’t like the others.

“The year that Colin won, we had a lead group of eight,” Wallace said. “Just after the midway point, I was probably the only guy that wasn’t well-known in that group. We attacked one climb, Colin and Lachlan and me. Colin didn’t like the group so he sat up. Then, I triple flatted. So that year I could have probably put my name on the result list, but I had some rough luck. I hope I can get some good luck this year and show that I belong with those guys. Until you have that breakout race, you kinda fly under the radar.”

If you’re doing it like Cory Wallace, under the radar isn’t a bad place to be.