The Mongolia Bike Challenge met my expectations on the first stage. When asked, before the race, why I was there and what I wanted to accomplish, I had said “I want something that will break me, that will be so hard that I have to stop, get off my bike.” The first stage (of nine) delivered in spades.
We started a bit later than normal, from our campsite just off the tarmac at the Delanzagad airport in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. By the 10am start time, I’d already been baking in the sun for 3 hours, and it only got hotter from there. The stage itself was a death march 80kms into a massive headwind on sandy roads. By the third aid station, at km 60, I did the unthinkable – stepped off my bike, and lay in the shade beside the support van for more than 10 minutes. Thankfully, I had companionship in my suffering, as fellow Canadian Tom came by, persevering the stage despite serious abdominal issues from contaminated food. We both made it through, stage one and the eight that followed. There’s no logical reason to go through this suffering; middle of the pack sees no glory from winning or prizes. We work and endure each day for the privilege of seeing some incredible countryside, meeting and getting to know fellow travellers, and the satisfaction of checking another epic race off the bucket list.
I’d signed up for the race almost a year in advance, pretty much as soon as I got last year’s trip report from my Swiss friend Horst. But leading up to my departure in July, things started to unravel and I seriously questioned whether I should go. My business was struggling, and could use me around. My marriage had just fallen apart after 15 years, and my ex-wife was becoming increasingly hostile. I came into the start of the race in a more tenuous emotional state than I’ve ever been in my life, but ultimately I think I made the right choice. This was a mental race, and not being focused definitely hurt my results. But at the same time, there was a zen to being completely disconnected from the world, and to rolling large parts of the stages solo, against the harsh realities of Mongolian roads, sun, sand, and rock. I definitely feel stronger from the experience.
The first four stages were all exceptionally hot; by one of my fellow racer’s measure, 48 degrees on some days. And when you’re midpack you’re riding for 5-8 hours per day with no trees or anything else to offer shelter, and only bathwater-warm water to drink. And these are not leisurely rides on paved roads. These are wind-swepped, corrugation-ridden, dirt hole roads laden with sandtraps and nasty tire-slashing sharp rocks. Even now, it’s hard for me to imagine that we did some rides of 120+kms that were entirely washboard and sand. It’s unfathomable, the photos and videos of the race certainly don’t do the terrain justice, and I don’t expect anyone to understand just how hard those seemingly “easy” flat stages really were.
Stage 5 saw us transition away from the Gobi into the foothills of the mountains to come. A brief respite from the harshness of the race, this was a reasonably straightforward false flat climb of 120kms. My first top-20 finish, and into 31st position overall. One of the best parts of the race is that you come in to the finish and get to hear about what happened up at the front of the race. The leaders were finishing hours ahead of me, and it was a tough fight for the top-spot. Marzio Deho from Italy was the returning champion, facing stiff competition from Canadians Cory Wallace and Craig Richey. A handful of other riders were in the mix as well, to the point where every one of the first five stages had a different winner. A really exciting race to watch, and we were watching it from the inside!
Stage 6 was the Queen stage, the second longest stage with 2400m (8000ft) of climbing. The temperature in the mountains was a lot more pleasant, and I was riding significantly better these days compared to the first four. I rode the first part of the stage with Tom and Mel (the women’s leader, from Australia). Then I was plagued with a slew of mechanical problems – my chain kept jumping, like it was ready to snap, my front derailleur had been knocked out of alignment and wouldn’t let me shift into my top cogs. As I persevered through the grinding, and walking some of steeper pitches, the worst was yet to come. The last 22kms took me 4 hours to complete, thanks to two flat tires and bad luck. The first flat was on a long rocky decent off the second King of the Mountains checkpoint. I was showing off for my camera, just hammering this really nasty rocky section, when my rear tire went flat. Turned out that my spare had holes in it, a patch wouldn’t hold (because I’d snakebite punctured in two places), and my pump didn’t work. Tom had used his spare on a flat earlier in the stage, so had no way to help and went ahead. I was in no mans land, waiting for a total of 90 minutes until I was able to get another tube and a working pump. Then, flat again on the last decent into camp, and at that point I just gave up and walked the last 4kms pushing the bike. It was a disappointing day, because the Queen stage was what made me excited about this race. But it was also a beautiful day in the mountains, and despite it taking so long, I felt energized as I came into camp.
The organizers were kind enough to incorporate a rest day into the schedule. We spent a day rolling rocks, eating, napping, and cleaning and repairing our bikes. The setting was idyllic, a beautiful green valley beside a river, with majestic cliffs and hawks soaring overhead. I got the best sleeps of the race those nights, lulled to sleep by the flowing water and the chilly mountain air.
After Stage 7, I remember commenting to my video log that “Willy Mulonia is a sadistic bastard”. I’d hoped for a repeat of the stage before, but that’s not the way this race works. This is “9 worlds in 9 stages”, and the world of the day was river crossings and rocks. Fearing another flat, especially since I had no way to pump up my tire on the trail, I’d inflated my tires to very high pressure – 42psi in the back, 32psi in front. No way was I going to flat, but man would I feel every undulation. And stage 7 was essentially a 130km rock garden. As with the corrugations in the desert, I don’t think anyone can truly understand the suffering of being on a rigid bike with high pressure tires, riding a rock garden that goes on for five hours – interrupted only by dozens of river crossings, some waist deep and fast moving. It was an insane day, but somehow still less painful than most stages up to now. My body was adapting.
Stage 8 was the longest stage in the race, and one of my favourites. The day was overcast and rainy, and we had some great variety of terrain. Anyone who’s spent any time riding with me comes to know two things about my style – I always like to be at the front, and I never know where I’m going. Twice during the race I got lost, and stage 8 was the tactically most offensive. I was riding strong, minutes behind the chase group. I was pulling three Mongolians at about 90kms in, when a truck speeds up beside us and starts yelling. Apparently, we’d missed a turnoff, and were headed the wrong way. Ack, an extra 10kms put us (and the dozen or so riders following our route) way back in the field, and worse than that, completely sapped my motivation to keep pushing hard. My salvation in the stage was a can of redbull that I’d brought with me from Beijing for this long stage, and downing it at 115kms in gave me wings to finish.
The ninth and final stage was the fastest and easiest of the race. There were a couple of nice climbs in the first 15kms, then another 90kms of flat and rolling terrain. You’d think that after nine stages your body would be spent, but the opposite occurs, you get stronger as the week progresses and your body rises to every challenge. I looked behind as I climbed the last ridge into town and the 5kms to go sign. There was no one there, so I relaxed and took in the city of Karakorum and its inhabitants out to welcome us. Then 500m from the line, I looked behind and saw a big group of Germans closing fast. Not going to happen, I dropped into my biggest gear, sat on the nose of my saddle, and hammered the race home. My race started and ended in the last 500m!
If you asked me in the first four days if I would ever do this race again, the answer would have been a resounding NO. We even joked about how much the organizers would have to pay the pros to come back, with consensus around $5-10K. But now, looking back, I saw the real Mongolia with all its warts. The roads are absolute shit, the corrugations and rocks hellish to ride on, but in exchange you are rewarded with some stunning scenery and camaraderie that doesn’t come from leisure club rides. And next time, I’ll be riding low-pressure tubeless tires and a fully.
Check out the great photos and videos of the race at mongoliabikechallenge.com.
Ack! Made this video late at night. Ignore the distances in the captions – race was 100 MILES (160kms).
2011 Lumberjack 100 mtb race, Northern Michigan.
The “Donut Ride” is a Toronto institution, an unaffiliated group ride that leaves Laird & Eglinton for 90-130km rides EVERY (almost) Saturday, Sunday, and Statutory Holiday, year round. And has been going for almost 40 years!
In good weather, there’s a big group; 100+ riders is typical. I took this footage on a training ride, testing my camera setup for filming Paris-Ancaster next weekend. The camera mount failed its test. Footage is not great, and on top of that road riding has to be some of the dullest footage ever. We can be riding 50kph and it looks like we’re out for a leisurely jaunt. But I trimmed the video aggressively, tried to give it a nice soundtrack, and added a few glib remarks. I did what I could to make this watchable, and at the very least this will serve as warning to anyone considering riding with the group.
For more (and better) videos, check back soon – VeloEpic.com. We’ve got some amazing races in the pipeline, including the Mongolia Bike Challenge July 2011.
It’s cold in Toronto in February, so we packed up and headed South for a couple of days. Here’s a short video from Raccoon Mountain, just outside Chattanooga Tennessee. Battery ran out, so limited footage, but you’ll get the idea. The place was a blast! Rollercoaster fast!
We listened to a lot of local radio while driving around. This tune stood out. To really appreciate it, replace all instances of “pickup” with “SRAM XX Cassette”. If you’ve seen one of these beautiful pieces of equipment, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
First off, let’s get the basics out of the way. Minnaars are flat-soled sneaker-style shoes. They lace up and have a velcro strap for extra security. These are NOT XC-style shoes at all. That being said, they DO have an optional SPD cleat. If you want the cleat, you pop off a rubber insert and screw Shimano or Crank Brothers cleats in. I don’t know if other cleats will fit in the space provided or not.
For riding, these are stiff shoes, much stiffer than the other Five Tens sneakers I ride. That makes sense: My other sneakers aren’t SPD shoes, so they’re meant to be ridden on flat pedals pushing down with the middle of the foot. Flex isn’t an issue. But with SPD pedals, if the sole flexes you lose your pedal stroke. The downside is that these are going to be slightly less comfortable when walking around. That matters as well: One of the advantages of a sneaker-style shoe is that you can ride your bike somewhere, lock it up, and walk around in the same pair of shoes. I walked around all night in the Minnaars and they were fine, but they wouldn’t be my first choice for sneakers to wear all day.
I should also point out that they are heavy, noticeably heavier than my other Five Ten flat shoes. I don’t now why this is the case, but if you have visions of doing a hundred miles uphill in these shoes, snap out of it right now.
I tried the Minnaars with a pair of Crank Brothers Mallet 2 pedals. The shoes have a hard plastic midsole covered by a thick Stealth rubber sole. You remove the rubber inserts covering the cleat mounting hardware to screw in your cleats. I found that the rubber sole was so thick that I needed to use a shim to help the cleats mate with the mallet pedals. This might not be necessary with other pedal designs. One advantage of this recessed cleat design is that when you walk in the shoes, the cleat doesn’t protrude and make contact with the ground. That’s nice.
I rode around Joyride150, including the pump track, a simulated rock garden, and riding a log. This tested pumping, handling over uneven terrain, and maintaining balance. I didn’t test them riding the simulated cross country loop. I figured 800m is not a real test of riding cross country, so why bother?
I ride the pump track “chainless” ( I don’t really remove my chain, but I don’t pedal either). This means pushing the bike with force over the bumps. The shoes were flawless, I flew around the track. The traditional pedal position took some getting used to for me, but if you already ride a clipless pedal these shoes will probably feel fine. In fact, I felt faster with these shoes, probably because I can now use my calves to push. Score one for the Minnaars, you ride faster with them than with flat sneakers.
I rode over to the Sport Skinnies section and jumped directly onto the rock garden without warming up. I figured this would be a great test or end my night with a trip to the hospital. Well, it was no problem. The Minnaars are actually aimed at the downhill and freeride crew, people who are hitting big stuff at seed. The idea behind a clipless pedal in these situations is to keep your feet from slipping off the pedals when the bike is being banged around rather than having anything to do with pedaling efficiency.
I figured a rock garden would be a good test, especially if I hit it hard instead of picking my way through it delicately as is my usual habit. So I flew onto it. Well, I shook a few fillings loose but my feet stayed on the pedals and I never felt out of control. I wondered if the different foot position would feel awkward, but no it was fine. Score another point for the Minnaars, I think they’re more secure for situations like hitting rocks at speed.
The log was next. I hopped up on it and rode its length. Again, everything was fine. At the end I slightly muffed a wheelie drop, but I survived without falling, so I was fine again. On the other hand, being clipped in is bad if you need to leap off the bike. I’d give a half point to the Minnaars for this. They weren’t in the way, but they weren’t any different than flat pedals.
Next I tried unclipping the Minnaars and riding them as flat shoes on the mallet pedals. You’d do this if you were to hit a high skinny or something else where you might need to leap off the bike and do a “West Coast Bail,” not just put your foot down. Uh uh. The Crank Brothers “eggbeater” cleat projects above the pedals’ bed and you can’t get a secure grip on the pedal. This is bad, but as I didn’t try another type of pedal, I don’t know if it’s the Minnaars or the Mallets to blame. All I can say is, the combination of Mallets and Minnaars is no damn good for super technical riding, in my opinion.
That being said, if you’re riding Minnaars clipless (even on Mallets) and you put your foot down, the super-sticky “Stealth” rubber is a lot more secure on a rock or a log than a typical XC shoe. It’s terrible to put your foot down and then have it slip! And if you want to walk your bike through a super technical rocky section, the Minnaars are a lot more comfortable than XC shoes. So I am going to give the Minnaars a point even thought I hated, hated riding them unclipped on the Mallets.
After discovering that I wasn’t effective riding them unclipped on the Mallets, I put my ordinary flat pedals back on and tried riding the Minaars. They were fine. I rode expert skinnies, practised a new rear wheel hop technique, and worked my quarter pedal kick off ladders all night in the Minaars. I left the cleats in, and they never interfered with the pedals. They were comfortable. I like that, because you can leave the inserts in and use them as purely flat shoes, and you will always have the option of putting cleats in them if you want. I will probably take them with me the next time I do a winter ride up in Mohawk/Hilton.
Overall, I am impressed. They are great flat shoes and they have the option of taking a cleat. Greg Minnaar seems to do downhill just fine with these shoes and Crank Brothers Mallets, so I won’t say anything about that. I found them good for everything up to super-technical riding with cleats engaged, and I found them great on flat pedals. I’d recommend them to anyone interested in “all mountain” riding using cleats. I’d also recommend them as “Townie” or “Commuter” shoes for riding in the city where you want to get out and walk around. If you want to do super-technical stunts, I suggest that you select your pedals carefully.
Sweeeet! check out this video from The Baconator. GoPro cameras are fun!
“Computer science professor Shimon Schocken is also an avid mountain biker. To share the life lessons he learned while riding, he began an outdoor program with Israel’s juvenile inmates and was touched by both their intense difficulties and profound successes.” (from TED.com)