After the sixth day, we all welcomed a rest day camped in the middle of nowhere; a beautiful setting beside a flowing river and green grasslands surrounding us. It was a nice location to relax and regenerate for the last three stages as we pushed for Karakorum. It was nice to sleep in, enjoy a late breakfast and take care of a few chores including washing dirty clothes from the first six days in the freezing cold river water and also giving the mountain bikes a good clean up. Later in the day, I spent a couple of hours wondering the grasslands taking photographs. I saw hundreds of Yak, a Mongolian young cow-boy riding on his horse bareback and checked out an abandoned Ger settlement that also had some Yak pens for the winter.
Where we were at 2,500m above sea-level, the weather can change very quickly and the temperatures dropped to freezing during the night. Once the sun was gone, it too cold to shower! Since I had been waiting for my bags to come (the baggage truck) had broken down enroute during stage six, I did not get the chance to shower that day. My bag was one of the last ones to come to camp and by this time the sun had disappeared and I was just too tired! So went to sleep that night without showering after the Epic Queen Stage. I must’ve stank badly! At least I did wash my head, legs and arms.
I awoke to a freezing cold eighth day, and there was a thin layer of white frost covering everything, the bikes, tents and grass. I emerged from my tent wearing my toasty warm Mavic jacket and had on arm/leg warmers and my skull cap. Everyone else was the same, but the sun was out blazing and steadily thawing the camp. I could tell that it was going to warm up quite a bit during the stage, so I made the decision to peel all the winter layers off just prior the start at 7.30am. After I had finished taking care of all the pre-race chores, I made it to the start line with only 30 seconds to spare! Actually, I was not even on the start-line proper and was still putting my gloves on when the field took off. I was at the very back and it was an extremely tough start as it was uphill on rough steep grassy slopes that climbed about 200m in elevation before you could recover and go fast on a dirt track. I worked my way through the field and by the time I got to the dirt track, I was in about 14th position. I could see at the head of the race it had splintered into fragments. Two riders, Cory Wallace and Marzio Deho, were racing away into the distance while another group of four riders was chasing. There was another group of about half dozen riders, but they quickly fragmented and were dotted along the trail. I slowly picked up riders as I powered along the rough pot-holed puddled road leading to the first KOM climb of the day. It was a steep climb that did not offer much traction and for a good portion, the best path was a goat trail on the side that was steeper but offered a smooth surface. The last 400m of the climb was back on the rough shifting road. I crested the summit in 11th position and bombed the steep descent with canine-delight. I hit the river crossing at the bottom with a lot of speed, but the deepness of the water killed the momentum very quickly. I saw Tom Skinner on the side of the trail right there with his bike upside down with the TV crew filming his predicament (he punctured right after that river crossing). The trail snaked downwards through a small valley and I had my next rider (an Italian) in my sights. I kept pedaling with power and felt like I was flying. The valley was dotted with Mongolian Gers that emitted wispy morning fire smoke as the inhabitants were having breakfast when we flew by on our bikes. There was also plenty of Yak sightings along the way.
There was a total of 59 river crossings during this stage and many of them required a dismount/wade through swift flowing cold waters. There was a splendid valley with interesting looking rock formations and yet more hidden valleys spanning out from the one we were riding in. The surface alternated between extremely rough rock strewn tracks to the hard clay surface that you could build up some good speed on as you kept climbing relentlessly (not steep) all the way to the second KOM of the day. The last couple of kilometers leading to the KOM were rough again and angled upwards more steeply. I was continuing to ride well but the problems with my Exustar pedals were becoming more frequent. My feet kept popping out and causing major disruptions in my pedaling and momentum. I had passed two more riders in the valley, the French Chiru rider and the Contador lookalike from Spain. I continued to gain some time on them on the climb and I chose not to stop at the second feed-zone so that I could maintain that gap and hopefully even extend it on the 50km downhill that was coming up. Shortly after going through the feed zone, disaster hit. I had hit a rocky river bed that had a drop off that I just bombed due to too much speed and pinched flatted. All of my good work undone. I only had one tire lever with me so it took me a while to work the tire off the rim to change the inner-tube. Within the first couple of minutes, three riders passed me and since I had a tiny pump (the width of my hand) it took me a good 10 minutes to pump enough air. I lost 20 minutes! Right before I was ready to go, Tom Skinner and Dutchman Roel Van Scalen passed me. When I got going, I could see the pair in the distance and normally I should’ve been able to catch them; but the terrain just got rougher and rougher. Massive sized rocks were strewn all over the road and what made it worse was the fact there were no lines to take! Your body just had to take the pummeling for the next 50kms. My feet also kept popping out of the pedals and kept getting worse. It was dangerous. One time, I almost crashed when both of my feet popped out and I felt my whole body weight slam down on the saddle. It could have broke the seat post. I was lucky to barely keep control of the bike with both my feet out! The frequent cold river crossings made the going tough. It was only the last 10kms that were easier to ride, with more dirt trails and more options to take on offer. But I could not pedal full force as the feet would just pop out otherwise. I was caught by two more riders and I kept them within 15 seconds of me the whole time and in the last one kilometer I almost caught them, finishing two seconds behind for another six hour plus day in the saddle!
I was not the only rider that suffered punctures as Cory Wallace who had been in the leaders pink jersey till he suffered three punctures (he was on tubeless!) and ultimately loss over 25 minutes to Marzio Deho and the overall lead. Sven Gerber from Germany had been high on GC till he also suffered multiple punctures and was seen on the trail-side pleading for another tube.
The camp was nestled among large pine trees and right next to another river. I had an icy cold swim and shower in the river! It was refreshing and then spent a couple of hours napping..
Stay tuned for the stories from Stage Eight and Nine. Due to the internet problems while racing in Mongolia, I am behind with my updates and have been kept busy in China with my other writing projects.