STAGE 1: NUHT – BAYAN UNJUUL (334 kms)
As I sat at the gate at 8:00 am on day one, moments away from starting something that began all of eight months ago, I thought to myself "So, this is it. I made it this far." I looked around in awe of the terrain of the exotic country I was in, and all the motorcycle competitors around me, suited up and ready on their bikes. We were in Nuht, just outside of Ulanbaatar, and like thoroughbreds at the starting gates, we were all chomping at the bit to start our own amazing desert race.
From the day I decided to go, the preparation had been all encompassing. First I had to buy the bike, prep it, get the required visas, airline tickets, crate and ship the bike. Then I had to find a few sponsors to help out with the whole process. As I sat there half way around the world, butterflies fluttered in my stomach and adrenaline was pulsing through my veins.
But things did not start well, when a mere two hours after the start and I found myself veering wide in a turn and heading straight for the infamous camel grass. Although it doesn’t sound too dangerous – essentially a clump of grass that takes root in sand – in order to anchor itself in the shifting sands the grass builds a hard dome shape structure at its base. Put a whole load of these together and you have the equivalent of a motorcycle racer’s mine-field!
My front tire absorbed the first impact, but as the rear tire hit it produced a catapult effect on the bike. You can guess the rest – I flew over the bars and landed with brutal force onto my right shoulder. When the dust settled, I took stock of my injuries – a major deformity to my right collar bone, which was later diagnosed as a Class 2 tear of the cartilage that holds the collar bone to the breast bone.
The good news was that my bike survived the incident unscathed, and I rejoined the rally with only a few minutes lost.
But this was not the only misfortune to hit me on my first day out. Two hours later I felt an uneasiness swelling in my abdomen, as if my guts all wanted to exit from my lower orifice. So, what do you do when you have all your riding gear on and are racing at 140 km/h in the Gobi desert? Well, let’s say I set a personal record for stopping and disrobing.
This was not to be an isolated incident, and I had to drop the bike and visit the desert floor a total of seven times that day. Each time, I watched my fellow competitors speed by as I showed them a Canadian moon. The only thing I could do was wave like Queen Victoria from my improvised desert throne.
I started the stage 16th and finished in 37th place. Not only did I drop 21 places and numerous hours, but my survival gear and my one and only pump had vanished somewhere along the way. All said, this was an incredulous start to day one. Only nine more to go!
STAGE 2: BAYAN UNJUUL – ARVAYHEER (502 kms)
Day 2 was over 500 kms of wide open sandy plains and very high speeds. At such speeds it’s vital to not just scan and learn the terrain ahead, but also to concentrate on the navigation. The trick to this is: one eye on the map, one eye on the terrain. The result was a trouble free ride and a leap of ten places up to 27th.
STAGE 3: ARVAYHEER – BAYAN HONGOR (427 kms)
This day would be a day to remember, a true adventure. The terrain was a mixture of rock and sand with a 3,000 meter mountain pass to navigate.
My first spot of trouble hit approximately half way when I punctured a tire. I managed to get the KTM to a fuel stop and set up for a tire repair. "Wait a second..." I realized, "my tire pump disappeared off the bike yesterday!"
I had decided to go to Mongolia to have a desert race and an adventure, well the adventure had now started.
The Mongolian people are extremely warm-hearted, curious and very helpful, which also proved to be my tire-changing downfall. As riders we had the status of celebrities out in the middle of the desert, and everyone young and old was eager to assist in the tire changing process. It's hard to turn away offers of help when people are so genuine!
They proceeded to get various tools and a BIG pump from their nearby nomadic tents (known as Gers). What would have normally taken me ten minutes ended up taking two hours; between puncturing more tubes, attempting patches, and finally fitting a new tube, borrowed from one of the local’s Russian made motorcycles.
This two hour process was filled with humour and gave me memories to last a lifetime. And even with this delay, I managed to advance four more places to 24th overall.
STAGE 4: BAYAN HONGOR – BARUUN BAYAN ULAAN (396 kms)
Day 4 was predominantly fast and open sandy plains, and the start of the Gobi desert. My navigation was spot on and I was up to 12th place during the early part of the stage. But my luck didn’t last and as I crossed a series of rollers (a succession of small sand dunes) I inexplicably found myself flying arse over tea kettle!
I haven’t the slightest idea what had happened, but as I gazed up to the sky I felt pain in my left ribs. But this was no time to sit and moan, I righted the bike, checked it for damage, and took off once again. I wasn't even half way through the rally and I was now nursing my ribs as well as my collar bone.
The crash slowed me down somewhat and I finished the stage in 19th place overall. First stop after the stage was with my new friend – the doctor.
STAGE 5: BARUUN BAYAN ULAAN – ZOUMOD (441 kms)
The rally now passed through high-walled canyons and dried up lake beds. The scenery was beautiful throughout the day, with the stage finishing at an oasis right out of Lawrence of Arabia. There was a clump of trees in the middle of an ocean of chestnut coloured dirt, amassed around a small stream bubbling up from its sub-terrain layer.
This was going to be our home for the next day as well, as the next day would be the rest day. This allowed us not only to recoup some energy, but also make much needed repairs to our bikes, and ourselves for that matter. I took the opportunity to fit the bike with a fresh set of Bridgestone Baja tires to attack the final 2,000 kilometers.
STAGE 7 & 8: ZOUMOD – HONGOR – TSGF OVOO (976 kms)
Throughout these two days I had to manage with a broken road book holder, and getting really lost for over two hours; but even so, my placing didn't change dramatically and I finished 22nd overall.
STAGE 9: TSGF OVOO – BAYAN UNJUUL (502 kms)
I was on kilometer 499.3 (three kilometers short of the end of the stage), trying to pass another vehicle in a cloud of dust, when the dust cleared just enough to reveal a boulder directly in front of me. It all happened so fast – at 100 kilometers per hour – and I hit the boulder before I even had the chance to register what was about to happen.
Bang! I launched over the bars and landed face first on the ground, my bike catapulting end over end beside me. I survived the ordeal relatively unscathed but all my navigation equipment was thoroughly wrecked. I finished the last three kms and paid another visit to my friend the doctor!
STAGE 10: BAYAN UNJUUL – ULANBAATAR (155 kms)
This was the last day and, at only 155 kms, the shortest, with a return to Ulanbaatar and the awards celebration.
Waking up that morning, I was very sore and stiff – feeling all of the 3,500 kms I had done over the last nine days. This was not only my last day of the rally but the last day of sleeping on the ground, and that I would not miss. Today, I had the proverbial carrot dangling in front of my nose. All I had to do was deal with my broken road book, go at a steady pace and make it to the finish – no pressure. I could do that.
The riding was easy this day with more open plains, and only a few passes to contend with. But the more I rode, the more I felt myself slip back into race mode. A racer cannot easily change this mind set and relax into a steady pace.
By the time I arrived at the finish line I was flying, but without a road book to tell me how many kilometers I had completed I was unaware that the finish line was indeed the finish line! Stopping briefly, I immediately started to race away, thinking it was just a check point. Everyone had to literally hold my bike and convince me it was indeed the finish!
“What ... could I actually be finished? I still have a few kilometers left. No, I made it? Oh my god.” Suddenly I was ecstatic, the emotions flowed out of me. It was over, and I made it – and I was still alive. I had finished what I had started eight months ago. I lifted off my helmet , and began to congratulate the other competitors while we waited for the rest of the field to finish.
Photos were snapped and hands shaken, and we then assembled for the police escort into Ulanbaatar for the awards banquet.
Back at the hotel I relished the opportunity to take my first shower in 10 days. It was heaven. Later that night we had our awards banquet where we were treated to the many customs and foods of Mongolia. Needless to say, I drank more then one beer that night …
THE HANG OVER EFFECT
Months have now passed, the pain has vanished and the injuries have healed. I am very pleased with my 17th place among the 42 bikes that entered and 21st overall among all the 80 competitors – trucks, cars and bikes.
If I ask myself the obvious question of whether I would do it again, the answer has to be yes. It was an amazing experience, an incredible adventure. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life but also one of the best. I was pushed beyond my limits, but managed to pull through both mentally and physically.
This was my first desert race in an exotic land and I am proud of my success and have fulfilled a life long dream. The lessons learned will be used towards my next big race, wherever that may be ...
Cycle Improvements for all their help in getting my KTM ready for the BTOU.
GPS Central – Everything GPS.
Bridgestone – tires.
661 – body armour.
Performance Under Gear – for the underwear.
Baxters Foods – nurishments!