Mongolia Bike Challenge: Judder Bars!
Its only day two of this epic nine-stage Mongolia Bike Challenge, but my body is already screaming to stop! It was my hardest day on the mountain bike in my life, period. Nutrition wise I was doing great, making sure I had plenty of fluids from all three feed-zones and eating enough food to sustain my energy levels throughout the 126kms through the mountainous area of the Gobi Desert; what was the killer was the amount of sand and judder bars (speed bumps) we had to ride through. It was relentless and required mental strength just to keep going. It did not matter which line you took, it was constantly bumpy and then you would lose traction in the sandy areas.
I started well, making the lead group of 18 riders and I even put in a couple of small attacks to see if I could get away, but I was just left dangling and not gaining any time. When Italian Marzio Deho attacked at the 25km mark, it strung out the group and I was off the back. Fortunately, the group sat up and I was able to catch up again. It was good fast riding for the first 40kms on hard packed, undulating surface and I was feeling good and at the first feed-zone I grabbed my bottles, one of them containing my REV 3 Surge energy drink and a handful of dried fruit. I quickly resumed riding, but disaster struck when my right cleat got very loose that I could not engage my pedals. I did not have an Allen key with me, but after waiting for a minute or so, I was given one by a passing rider. Then Maxmas, the race mechanic came over to help. Shook out the dirt and tightened the cleats up; I had lost several minutes and was now riding alone. I did a climb and then a descent into a valley, which was extremely difficult to ride. It was loose washboard and required to frequently change lines to maintain traction. I eventually found a goat track and was able to ride that for the rest of that valley.
Nearing the start of the climb out of the valley I was caught by two Mongolian National Team riders and one of them edge ahead of me but once cresting the climb, I was able to bring him back and I continued to ride strongly on the hard packed dirt road that was undulating along a ridge with a fine view of the craggy rocky mountains in the distance. It was great riding through this section, passing by several Nomadic flocks of sheep and the Mongolian Nomads on the side of the road waving me on. There were quite a few sharp pitches that must have been 25-30% but were very short. It was like a roller-coaster ride and I could see one green rider in the distance as I sped down the mountain.
After riding the first valley with the loose washboard stuff, I knew which were the good lines to take when I went through another section that was same kind of surface. I had the momentum and continually switched lines, left and right to carve the good lines. I caught two riders through here and the one in green was Tom Skinner (a pro from Canada) stayed with me to ride to the second feed-zone. Skinner has not been having a good bike race so far due to his stomach issues but today he looked stronger than the first day. We both rolled into the second feed-zone together where I collected another two bottles and some more dried fruit. I also had two cups of Coca-Cola and took a granola bar. Tom Skinner rolled out and we rode together for some more. But from this point, my race went downhill. I found the climbing on the sandy road extremely tough and going was excruciatingly slow. Tom started to edge away and I was riding on my own again. The sun was beating down on me and I felt very hot and sweating profusely as I turned every pedal stroke. At the start of the day, I had talked about going easy to conserve energy for the later stages to come. Well, there was no hiding – even if you were with a group, the rough sandy road would take it out of you. My feet were starting to hurt badly as I could never maintain a fluid pedal stroke. That section, a long false flat with sand everywhere was extremely hard and I could never maintain a comfortable momentum. Tom Skinner pulled over on the side of the road with some cramp.
The Mongolian rider caught up with me and seemed to be finding the better lines as he was going ahead at full-steam. Two more riders passed me, one of them was on a full-suspended bike and he was motoring. Just left me eating his dust. In what seemed an eternity, I finally arrived at the third and last feed-zone at the 100km mark. I stopped and it gave my feet a welcome break; they had been threatening to cramp on me. I grabbed more of the dried fruit and downed some more coke. I filled up my water bottle with the coke as well. Also got two more bottles of water. Unlike yesterday, I made sure I took full advantage of the feed zone.
According to my Garmin, it was a gradual downhill all the way to the finish for 26kms and thought it would be easier. However, the going just got tougher and tougher. It was so rough that I could not find any line that would give me respite. For 26kms, I had to endure this energy sapping desert road that was full of those judder-bars all the way. There was no smooth line to take and my arms and feet were taking a pounding. On some of the short descents, I had to grab the seat with my thighs to relieve pressure on the feet. Several times they came close to cramping and was in constant pain. I even moaned a few times as I soldiered along. About 10km from the finish, I could see the golden sand dunes of the ‘real’ Gobi Desert. These final miles seemed to take forever and when I got to 3kms to go, there were several sections I could not ride and had to push the bike over. The last couple of kilometers were very hard, and I was breathing heavily just to maintain momentum. I rolled across the finish line and was pleased to learn that we are sleeping in Gers tonight! Some form of luxury after what was the toughest day on a mountain bike in my life. I don’t know how much longer my body can take this severe punishment. Tomorrow is the last day in the Gobi before we head into the mountains where I hope the road surface will at least be more forgiving.
The other piece of news is that I have two gigantic saddle sores that required a doctor’s visit. Now I feel like I am wearing diapers and will be visiting the doctor after stage three to get them removed! It’s going to be a painful day.