Introduction by Francis Cebedo:
Sonya Looney is a podium girl. No, not the one that kisses the dudes in the Tour de France Podium. She’s the one that stands on top of the podium. Send her to a high mileage race with lots of climbing and she will kill it. She’s not 110 lbs and always on a roadie diet either. She loves food, beer, coffee and all things that involve cycling. She will go up the highest peaks, do a cross race here and there and she will descend with the best of them. She will crush you with a smile.
She embodies what’s good about mountain biking. She loves cycling and she loves life. She infects everyone around her as she seizes every day to reach new heights. Recently, she tackled the Yak Attack 10 day stage race in Tibet. We caught up with her as she got back from her adventure.
It’s time for you to get to know her so here’s some Q&A:
Who are you? What’s your mtb specialty/core strength?
Sonya Looney, NM native, CO transplant, mountain junkie. My mountain speciality is ultra endurance events (100 milers, please) and stage racing. My favorite events are ones that have tons of singletrack. I seek out difficult events with adventure in mind!
What makes you tick? What makes you happy?
I’m generally a happy person. I’m the person you see in the grocery chuckling randomly. What really makes me happy is sunshine and being on trails in the mountains – especially high alpine. I’m driven by overcoming challenges and enabling others to try things(on the bike) that maybe they are intimidated to try.
How did last year go?
Last year was one of my best years! With my 2nd year of being selected to the Marathon Worlds team, getting the experience of trying a bunch of new events, and some unexpected results, it gave me the courage to dream bigger. So far, 2012 is off to a fantastic start.
What are your goals for this year?
I’m doing 4 stage races this year, and I would like to try to win them all! That’s a tall order. It is also my goal to bring the experiences I have abroad back home and create an authentic experience for all my friends interested in what I’m doing. I’m also racing Leadville for the first time, and while the course does not entirely suit my strengths(road power), I want to overcome that, put up a strong fight and ride at my very best.
What exactly is the Nepal race and who goes there?
The race in Nepal is called the Yak Attack. It started as a 6 day stage race, but last year, was changed to be a 10 day stage race starting in Kathmandu and covering the Annapurna Circuit on a mountain bike. It’s a non-profit event supporting Nepalese mountain biking. The race is capped at 30 or 40 riders due to permits and the remoteness of the event. They allowed 15 international competitors this year, and the remainder were very fast Nepalese racers. Prior to 2012, no woman had attempted or finished the 10 day distance. I’m proud to say that there were three females this year(USA, Canada, Japan) and we all finished. I was excited to be the first despite having to overcome a few difficulties, one being pretty major. The majority of the internationals were from the UK, with a few Aussies, and with Jeff Kerkove and I representing the US portion of the bunch. It’s different from all the other stage races I’ve done because it involves a lot of hiking your bike, including carrying it on your back over the highest and longest pass on the Annapurna Circuit – Thorong La at 17,769′. Another difficult aspect is that you are only allowed 10 kg of gear for 60% of the event since a porter has to carry your stuff from village to village. The villages on the circuit are only accessible by foot or animal. There is very limited support on the race course as well, so there was a huge element of “roughing it.” Wearing the same dirty chamois for days (you can’t wash it or it’ll freeze), cold showers, no heat in the buildings, and not having what you’d normally want to carry in a race in the form of extra clothes, spare parts, sports nutrition, etc. Jeff and I are very thankful for the support we received from Ergon to compete at this event. It really was an epic adventure and an experience I’ll tell my grandkids…well, if I have any!
What was the decision process for doing the Nepal race? Anything else coming up like it?
Well, Jeff found the Yak Attack on facebook and won a competition to get a free entry. I stewed with jealousy until there was an offer for discounted entries for females to get some to come race. It was surreal that we were going to Nepal, to highest mountains in the world to ride our bikes. It still gives me goosebumps. It’s the highest mountain bike race in the world.
After that, I googled the hardest stage races in the world and added those to my bucket list of events. I don’t think any event can compare to the Yak Attack in that it’s isolated and in a poor country. The Mongolia Bike Challenge is of interest to me. I’m also interested in going off and doing more adventure riding(not necessarily an organized race event) to placed off the beaten path, planning some routes never attempted by bike, and doing some adventure photography and videography. I would like to explore the possibilities there.
How did you train?
…with lots of clothes!! We left for the race at the end of February meaning that the months leading up to the event wer ein the dead of winter in Colorado. I did as much climbing as I could, and living in Boulder the perfect training ground. Each day of the race ended up being over 5000′ of climbing in about 20-30 miles. I rode up the steepest canyons (Sunshine and Magnolia) to the Peak to Peak Highway which sits above 9000′, and would absolutely freeze on the way back down. There were days my Garmin read 12F outside. I’d say I did climbing rides like this 4-5x a week and also did a 10 day training block encompassing 36,000′ of elevation gain and about 300 miles. I also did some hiking with my bike on the snow covered mountain bike trails and got some funny looks. I spent some time in the gym strengthening my upper body as well.
How did it go? How did it meet goals? What surprised you?
It went pretty well. The main goals were accomplished -to finish and to win. After 4 days, I noticed myself slowing down and I’m still not sure if it’s because I got a brewing sinus infection or because I went to hard the first few days. I was disappointed in myself for slowing down, and it made it extra tough because I felt like crap on my bike! There was a day that was 15 miles and it was only 33% rideable. That day was probably the hardest 15 miles I’ve done! The biggest surprise was Thorong La Pass. I knew it’d be hard (we started at 4 AM) and it’s only 3 miles to the top. The fast guys carry their bike up in 2.5 hours. I think it took me 3 hours. I thought I’d be my usual stoked self at the top, but I wasn’t. I was freezing (a lot of people got frostbite!) I had 7 layers on and was still shivering with blue lips. I don’t have my normal look in my photo at pass sign. I wish I would have held my bike overhead and smiled that I made it. Instead, my eyes are watery, my lips are blue, and I’m not smiling. I had no desire to have my bike next to me. I didn’t enjoy being at almost 18,000′ and that was a surprise. I want to do it again to prove that I can be in a good mood up there! After that, it got worse with massive brake failure and losing over 2 hours in the GC. There was trash talking and racing against the guys, so that mattered. Fortunately, I didn’t lose my overall lead in the women’s race that day… We had a 9000′ descent, and I got to walk most of it.
What is your beer?
Mmm, just reading this sentence makes me want one! I really can’t pick just one beer!!! Normally, I reach for IPAs, especially the imperials. A short list of some favorites: Marble Brewery Imperial Red (ABQ brewery, seasonal), Avery Maharaja IPA, Dry Dock Double IPA, Stone IPA, Dogfishead 90 minute… I also love stouts – especially now that Lefthand has the milk stout in a bottle with nitro!! I’ve also really been enjoying red wine. My favorite right now is Michael David Winery Earthquake Zin. Heaven!
Sonya’s Yak Attack Race Report
Yak Attack Pre-Race & Stage 1 »
Yak Attack Stage 2 »
Yak Attack Stage 3 »
Yak Attack Stage 4 »
Yak Attack Stage 5 »
Yak Attack Stage 6 »
Yak Attack Stage 7 »
Yak Attack Rest Day »
Yak Attack Stage 8 »
Yak Attack Stage 9 »
Yak Attack Stage 10 »
Yak Attack Last Day in Nepal »
She would like to thank her sponsors: Ergon, Topeak, Bear Peak Dental, Michael David Winery, El Pinto, FasCat Coaching