When Genghis Khan was the most feared warrior on Earth, leading an army of Mongol soldiers to all conquering pan-Asian domination, he could little have imagined that one day Inner Mongolia would not only be ruled and largely populated by Han Chinese, but that this hard landscape from which so many tough warriors had been bred, wold host an event where people would traverse these hills for fun on 2 wheels, not 4 legs, travelling from locations as far away and diverse as London, Stockholm, Beijing, Taipei and, of course Hong Kong.
On the flight from Hong Kong alongside me we had Aron, our resident Swede, and Pierre, our French 'patron', whose Chiru bike brand we were racing under, and whose excellent Pulse 29ers we were riding. We were also teaming up with Tugu, the Mongolian national champion who had travelled down from Ulaanbaatar by car with his Dad, as well as Antoine (another Frenchman) and Fraser (USA), both living in Taipei. Together we would be taking on a field some 170 riders strong, including 2 Mongolian national teams on the vast rolling grassland in a race to see who has the toughest Mongol spirit.
The first challenge to overcome was actually making it to the somewhat remote location. Flying to Beijing was the easy bit, navigating to an overnight hotel at midnight and answering the next day's 4.30am alarm clock was tougher still. Another 1hr internal flight up to Xilinhot, a 2.5hr bus journey up to Xiwuqi and we arrived at Electricity hotel- a curious namesake.... But not our base- we were down the road in Unknown hotel, a fine 6 star locale with Michelin star dining downstairs. Ok, maybe that is overstating it a little, but after an excellent lunch with Tugu and his Dad, we took a quick pre- race day spin. In true rural Chinese style the town is apparently only around 20 years old with big long straight 8 lane roads (that are fair game for crossing on foot) for no reason whatsoever, but it is small and you are quickly out amongst the grasslands and the big blue sky. Coming from a Hong Kong summer it feels incredibly dry and refreshing being outside. More like a nice hot summer's day in the Lake District than the tropics- perfect!
Day 1 saw us line up in the midday sun for a 2pm start out of the very random stadium built just out of town more for wrestling and horse competitions than biking but still an excellent spot to trade some hats with Chinese police ladies in white boots and begin the photo frenzy that is a white face in this part of the world. Babies & children are of course the most important faces to capture next to gwuilo man, but we can return the gesture with podium girls...
The racing itself was fast and furious off the line with everyone battling to try and get near the front. Predictably, a Mongol based super selection was made on the first climb, where I couldn't quite make it into the first group. However, soon enough my Chiru teammate Fraser, another Mongol national team rider and I formed a chase group going at what I thought was warp speed, but still not fast enough to close the gap to the lead pack. With tactics (and speeds!) more like a road race than your usual mountain bike race, the Mongol dropped back from us leaving Fraser & I working well together and covering the first 30 of the day's 63km in around an hour.
I was thinking these speeds were completely unsustainable until a newly reformed Mongol team time trial train came hooning past us on the descent. We were doing around 45kph, but it seems 50 is more de rigour around here! I worked my big 29er wheels hard to get on the Mongol train and succeeded where Fraser (who'd arrived at the hotel at 6am that morning) had held back and all of a sudden I was sat on the crazy bus enjoying the crazy speeds. Less enjoyable was the 18 year old style of suddenly crashing in front of you over a ditch, but I was lucky enough to stay upright. In that enthusiastic way you only have at that age they might crash but they're straight back up with seemingly no damage done.
My mentalist Mongol train caught some stragglers from the lead pack with around 15 km to go and actually I had my chance to drop them all when they missed a turn, but hopefully I gained some honour in calling them to go the right way. Strange to direct the locals. Anyway, it all split up in the remaining kilometers and we made our own ways suffering up the energy sapping granny ring grassy climb into the headwind. A few more crashes for good measure and all of a sudden it was a tarmac road with the finish line arch in site. I could feel my legs almost cramping, having struggled to drink enough fluid on what turned into a scorcher of a day going at those speeds so I held off any all out sprint which cost me a few places, but I'm aware it's a 3 day race not 1, and legs will be required in the next two days. Coming in 11th place on a time of 2.05 secured fastest full time working gwuilo, for which there is no prize, but judging by some of the equipment the warp speed Mongols were riding that is more than fair enough. It's fair to say this is the first time I've covered that sort of distance at 30kph average off road over proper terrain, but at least I have equipment to match...
Our team mate Tugu (95)won the KOM / sprint prize but managed to crash after 25km and break his handle bar at the shifter position. Despite this he still finished a remarkable 2nd place. He requested a bigger chain ring for tmr's stage... Fraser was around a minute behind me in 13th having paced himself remarkably well on his own and Pierre & Aron finished a few minutes further back having worked well together rounding out the top 15. An amazing start to an amazing race and when i had a chance to look up there were some amazing landscapes on a beautiful cloudless day. With mutton based recovery products in the evening lets hope there is still some energy in the legs for the next 2 days.
Day 2 turned out to be the polar opposite to day 1 in terms of tactics and speed with a bad day for Fraser and I. It began with me head butting the gravel in the first 5km out of town having clipped wheels with the ladies yellow jersey as Tugu made his first attack on the lead group. Anticipating the surge and at the back of the group (never the place to be in such situations) I stood up to accelerate but somehow I was soon lying on the floor. Somewhat ruffled, not to mention rather bruised and battered I was now chasing a full pace lead mtb peloton all racing for the first cannonball sprint prize, into a headwind with a minute or so ever increasing disadvantage.
Luckily for me, Aron, having lost some time yesterday, was kind enough to wait for me and so we began our Mongol-less 2 man MTB team time trial across the grassland for the next 40km. Aron was a real super hero, especially in the final Kms where it finally flattened and we had a tail wind where his TT skills could be put to maximum use trying to limit our losses. However, I still conceded around 5 minutes on most of the Mongols I had been eyeing on GC after yesterday's stage in order to try and move up to the top 10.
Less fortunate still was Fraser, who, having ridden well to catch the back of the Mongol train suffered a split side wall halfway through- patching a tire with an energy gel wrapper and a tube takes some time, as does riding solo into a crazy grassland headwind. Coming in 10 minutes after Aron & I, Fraser's GC hopes were now well gone bar a miracle tomorrow. That left renaissance man Pierre as our best gwuilo finisher of the day just outside the top 10. Of course our real super hero Tugu was another story, winning the stage in a sprint, but not gaining any time on his rival for the overall. Antonine, on the other hand, was now Go Pro'd up having given up overall ambitions sitting in the 20s.
Arriving in the artificial yurt village it was time for me to seek out the first aid tent and assess the damage to body and bike. Visually the worst was my right knee followed by minor gravel rash to the shoulder and a bit to the forehead, but nothing too drastic- I've certainly had much worse and it's part and parcel of racing bikes. More mysterious and much more painful were my even more sausage shaped than usual 2&3rd fingers on the right hand that sent shock waves of pain down my arm over the rough ground. At least it helps distract from the pain in the legs! Kit wise my ZeroRH+ helmet had some good product testing and passed with flying colours. Bike wise the Chiru held up very well- I had done a little manual straightening to the mech hanger after the crash and some more work would be needed in the evening on the rear disc rotor (handy excuse!) in the evening but nothing too major.
My journey back from the fake yurt village to our race hotel was another excellent experience typical of the incredibly friendly and honest people in the region. I waved down a Mongol team van that had a spare seat and enough room for a bike in the back who were kind enough to let me take a ride ahead of the official race transport. Inside luckily enough there was 1 guy out of 7 who spoke some English and we proceeded to try and make some small talk. Aside from being too scared to travel on the dangerous high speed Chinese rail, it turns out that despite being quite good at writing English as part of his job, my friend had never spoken to anyone in English before. Tourism is an emerging market in this part of the world.
Another hot pot mutton fuelled dinner and a new arrival on the scene of Xiwuqi was a desert like storm blowing sand in our faces on the way back to our hotel. Midway through the ladies Wimbledon final we were also to discover why the Electricity hotel was called as such- it's a marketing tool for when you experience a power cut in the second set at the rival establishment.
Waking up to day 3 the super sand storm appeared to have subsided and the winds were down. So was the power in our hotel kitchen. This led to an impromptu breakfast from our new friends at the local one stop convenience store, not so ideal for the hardest stage of the race- a 100km ride into the still strong Mongol winds. Given the length of the stage and the propensity the younger Mongols had shown for fading as the race gets longer, we decided to play the long game and try not to get too caught up in the temptation to blow a gasket in the first 10km.
And so the race would play out as Fraser, Pierre, a Taiwanese guy & I formed a good chase group slowly picking up more and more Mongols as the KMs ticked over. I was hurting on not just the climbs trying to hold Fraser's pace, but also the descents as my sausage fingers formed a death grip swelling over the rough ground. By the last water station our group had also swelled to around 8 and the war of attrition had begun. Pierre was starting to cramp having lost a water bottle and the Mongols, presumably fuelled by fermented horse milk (not electrolytes) were showing clear signs of suffering. Digging in that much deeper Fraser and I managed to get a small gap over a short sharp granny ring climb with around 15km to go, pulling out the attack on the descent. We were joined by the Taiwanese guy and quickly established a trio to work together and try to solidify the gap.
The classic Asian 'Im knackered and couldn't possibly do any work before I beat you in a sprint' bluff appeared to be in full force, but with 10km to go our Taiwanese friend did genuinely blow a gasket and wasn't seen again. Fraser, having done the lions share of shielding the winds for the day, was now starting to suffer also, and it was my turn to try and tow us to the line. That was until my nemesis double groin cramps kicked in and I was left stranded trying to shake out convulsing legs. Having suffered through the day with my sausage fingers I wasn't going to let this ruin my race and slowly but surely I got things going again and managed to solo on into the town for 7th place on the day. Fraser, whose surname is now Voight in my head, was around 30 seconds ahead in 6th and slumped over the bars at the finish it was a rather painful handshake (my 2 fingers now a strange shade of purple) and the unfulfilling chink of plastic water bottles. But what a day- epic is not the word. With or without injuries that will go down as a day of extreme pain and suffering made worthwhile for both the beauty of it all as well as Fraser & I's best results of the race.
The time I'd made up today was also enough to bring me into the top 10, my goal for the race, making 9th overall. Pierre, as the most consistent rider on 'full time job' team Chiru, was not far behind in 9th for the day giving him 10th overall and champion in the over 40s category. Aron had his turn of bad luck also, having missed our group over the first climb he then sheared his granny ring bolts before getting lost in the final 10km and doing an extra 5 for good measure. He would roll in a good half hour down on us but as ever he was in good spirits and eager to chat up the local ladies.
At the real business end of the race Tugu won the stage once more attacking solo at 20km. However, he couldn't gain more than a minute, with his rival's Mongolian National team mates providing a better job at protecting their lead rider than us. Despite being the strongest rider over the 3 days Tugu's snapped handlebar on day 1 cost him dearly and the yellow jersey eluded him. But such are the pitfalls of racing at such speeds over this terrain.
No one said this race is easy and it certainly isn't. A unique event in so many ways that will be as much remembered for the people and their landscape than the racing itself. It's a bit tough to miss the first Brit to win Wimbledon since the Stone Age, and a 12hr delay in Beijing Terminal 3 hardly made the journey home a piece of cake but I think it was worth it!
1 Altansukh Altanzul MGL Mongolia CCN
2 Tuguldur Tuulkhangai MGL Team Chiru-WTB
3 Myagmarsuren Baasankhuu MGL Team Attila
4 Hu Hao 胡浩 CHN Team Specialized
5 Khangarid Naran MGL Team Attila
6 Erdenesuren Munkhtulga MGL Mongolia CCN
7 Jambaljamts Sainbayar MGL Team Attila
8 Ulziibaatar Jamsran MGL Mongolia CCN
9 Edward Cluer GBR Team Chiru-WTB
10 Pierre-Arnaud Le Magnan FRA Team Chiru-WTB
11 Liu Shuming 刘書銘 TPE Team Enervit
12 Fraser Young CAN Team Chiru-WTB
13 Enkhtaivan Bolor-Erdene MGL Team Attila
14 Daniel Carruthers NZL Team WTB
15 Aron Akesson SWE Team Chiru-WTB
Full results up here
More photos up here