Sonya Looney Rides the Mongolia Bike Challenge: Part 2 – The Harsh Reality

Race Coverage Travel

Stage 3

At 3 AM, the rain on the roof of the Ger finally stopped. The sky was inky and ominous as the morning sunlight suffocated behind the clouds. Cold rain was imminent. I packed my rain coat as I did every morning, but I had a feeling I’d be using it. The early morning was crisp. I wore booties, leg warmers, arm warmers, a long sleeve jersey, my warmer Hestra gloves, and a vest. Breakfast was the routine, but options were limited. The powdered Nescafe was actually strong and rich… it pays to be generous with the scoop! The food was another story. There were always generous plates of meat, but breakfast was served 1.5 hours before the start. My breakfasts were slightly stale bread with jam, and an occasional egg when they had it. There was also some interesting milk+oil+rice or oatmeal combo. I tried it once, but could not handle the taste and texture.

With a scream of “Shusha!” from Willy the race director, we were off. The start was another furiously fast pack riding experience. This was actually the most fun I had at a start. There were many, many giant mud holes and bogs to navigate with actual mountain bike skills. The focus was not only on pure suffering for Stage 3, but on picking a line through the field, or making your own. It was the first mental break I had from the suffering I voluntarily endured since the race started. I did well with it and made the first selection of the lead group for a change. Of course a bit later, it surged again and I shot out the back only to dangle 50 yards behind in the wind for some 10 minutes or so willing the pack to come back to me and cursing myself for not being able to hang with the accelerations. I hate road racing! Through another boggy mudhole section when the pack splintered from the “technical” riding, I caught back onto the pack only to get dropped again instantly. I picked up Rasif and Daniel after some time, and we rode the steady grade to the first aide station. The scenery had changed and there were actually trees. As we got to the pass, there were yellow aspens, green grass, and black, greasy mud. The contrast between the leaves and the dark mud and sky was stunning; a refreshing change from rolling grassy tundra. The initial descent was literally a swamp. The grade was pretty minimal so there was a lot of slow motion struggling to get even slow forward momentum. I chose a bad line and my wheel was swallowed by the swamp (hub deep!) throwing me over the bars. It was in so thick that I was concerned when pulling my bike out of the muck in fear of bending my wheel! The mud pulled back and had a life of its own. The mud was deep, thick, and energy sapping but I enjoyed it. Some of the support vehicles were stuck- sunk in up to the axles.

I wondered what the rest of the course would be like and if the support crews (and our bags) would even make it to the next camp. When I finally came out of the swamp, I was rewarded with a steep descent with small rocks lurking in the grass. There was a sketchy, freezing stream crossing with rocks that were hard to see and it was fast moving.

Not long after that, I saw Norm (one of the media guys) riding towards me. I asked him if I was lost and going the wrong way, but he said, “Finish line ahead!” Apparently they canceled the stage at 40km in due to an impassable river ahead. The wind was blowing and we were wet and cold. I put my bike down and squeezed into a van to avoid hypothermia with Matt, Catherine, and a couple other people. There weren’t enough vans for everyone and people were shivering outside as they came in. We waited to see what the next step would be. After about 45 min, it had been decided that everyone would have to turn around and go back. It was hard to accept that we had to ride what we just endured. There was supposed to be a small ger village that we had to ride to and stay there until further notice. Going back meant wading through the frozen stream, hiking up the steep descent, and even worse – crossing the cold, mucky swamp again. We rode into the wind and finally made it 20 km to the gers. There were 4 of them to hold over 100 people. We all wedged inside. There was a fire and it was warm; an improvement from before. People tried to remove their wet socks and shoes. The fire was releasing some smoke into the ger. I felt woosy from the lack of oxygen between the smoke and the people. We had no food except for what we brought for the race. After an hour and a half or so, the aide station van had made it back and we got some peanuts, granola bars, and coke. It had been over 6 hours since breakfast. People were hungry. The race results were also canceled for the day. I was again in 2nd place, but not far off Catherine and was disappointed that my suffering wouldn’t count for the day!

I thought it was funny that the website said we were “visiting nomad families” because the race was canceled. That’s a bit of an exaggeration! More like we were extremely lucky that some nomads donated their space for us so we didn’t freeze to death while the race tried to sort out what to next!! We tried to be patient as we waited for what would happen next. It had been about 3 hours of waiting in the gers with limited food and water. Finally, we were told that we were allowed to come out of the gers, 6 at a time to go into the soviet vans. The muddy bikes would eventually be loaded into a truck. We would go to the high camp (6000’) where the stage was supposed to finish. What happened next is quite literally one of the most mentally taxing parts of the race.

Continue reading for more from Stage 3, Stage 4 and full photo gallery.

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About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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