The Genco Mongolia Bike Challenge
is a mountain bike race that covers some of the most intriguing landscape on the planet so when I was presented with the opportunity to photograph it I obviously agreed immediately. I'm currently living in Uzbekistan, which made travel to the race a little more complicated than if I were at home on Vancouver Island; I decided to embrace the crazy travel options and flew to Beijing where I met up with friends for a few days before taking the Trans Mongolian Railway up to Ulaan Baatar.
The new seven day race course is shorter than previous editions but retains all the challenge of racing in the middle of nowhere. This is not simply a race, it is an adventure and a truly unique experience. It is not for everyone though; travel is difficult, shelter is rudimentary, weather is extreme and the days are very long. That being said, if this is your idea of a good time, it doesn't get much better than this!
A Canadian living in Uzbekistan flies to China to get on a train to Mongolia...
Even though Beijing is huge and very busy I found it strangely easy to find peaceful moments there.
The Great Wall is awesome, even when it's 46 degrees and humid as hell. That's a whole lotta stairs!
Amilal is an ex-pat bar in Beijing that specializes in whiskey and craft beer. Perfect!
Found some BCBR racers also hanging out in 'the Jing' before heading to Mongolia.
Bikes are found everywhere being used to transport everything; they're all in various states of disrepair.
The Trans Mongolian is a ride few get to experience. We arrived at the train station super early to try and negotiate a way to fit the bike boxes in our cabin - turns out we were the only people in our entire carriage and three of only a handful of foreigners on the entire train.
The highrises of Beijing quickly turned into dense manufacturing plants and clouds of dust and smog that, even with the train windows shut, still found a way to coat everything inside. Eventually the plants turned into small rural cities and villages which in turn led to rich green steppe.
Mongolia uses the Russian gague rail size, which is different than China's. The Soviet Union originally used a different width rail system so that if anyone tried to invade, they wouldn't be able to roll in with their own trains. In a small town on the China/Mongolia border the train carriages got hoisted on these huge hydraulic jacks and the entire wheel and undercarriage assembly was switched for a slightly smaller one.
Ulaan Baatar is a wild town; a huge expansion due to a sudden influx of foreign investment in mining is clashing with a traditional nomadic way of life. Land Rovers, Hummers and G Wagons idle side by side with Lada's and UAZ's in the horrendous traffic between Ger (yurt) slums and Armani boutiques. We checked out one of the largest bazaars for deals on fake Nike's.
Everybody had a different idea of the perfect bike for the race. The unboxing and re-assembly of bikes is an exacting process for many.
The UAZ 452 - the ride of choice for the MBC.
Mongolia still revers Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) and his influence is everywhere. The race started at a huge statue and museum dedicated to him owned and operated by the race's title sponsor, Genco Tour Bureau; I drank a pretty significant quantity of (very good) vodka named after him.
Mongolian skies are the most beautiful I've ever seen; the clouds slide across the sky letting pockets of light dance across the contours of the landscape.
The man, the legend - Jammer - taking off.
As incredible as the 452's are, they require constant fine tuning. Each driver knew their vehicle intimately and could diagnose and repair almost any problem on the spot with a ridiculous assortment of tools, old oily parts and bits of string.
Who said there were no trees in Mongolia?
I have been to some big places before and very little compares to the scale of this place.
Ger's like this dot the countryside.
Horses are everywhere in Mongolia. Some are very comfortable with humans. Others, like these two, ran as soon as they heard me.
Every day I had the luxury of stopping to photograph scenes like this and spend time chatting with Mongolians while racers spun past Ger's, yaks and horsemen.
On day three the mud started getting tacky early into the route but quickly turned into full on swamp.
Stage three was neutralized when a routine river crossing was deemed too dangerous to attempt after intense rain the night before (also the cause of the swamp). Riders were put up in Ger's while they waited for the 452's to come pick us up.
Not everyone rode the race on a brand new carbon frame!
There was only enough space in the vans for the racers, so the course officials, volunteers and media crew stayed at the Ger's till the shuttle vehicles returned from the race camp. This is our new friend Norgema making mutton noodle soup for everyone.
Meanwhile, her husband took me into their living yurt and showed me his dog-eared Mongolian to Russian and Russian to English dictionaries. He writes out words in Mongolian and translates them into Russian with one dictionary, then, using his other one translates them into English; he has over 90 pages of notes! Between my crummy Russian and his crummy English he told me that he's upset his son has moved to the big city (Ulaan Baatar) to pursue western dreams. "Young people only care about cars and movies now, nobody reads newspapers anymore." He also shared an intense homemade vodka, made from fermented horse milk. I drank half a liter out of politeness - big mistake...
Can you imagine if this was how you met your friends to catch up on the latest gossip?
When you've got enough of something, you should definitely line them up.
Morning warm-up rides don't get much better than this.
Racers routinely spun past scenes like this; while some were there solely for the race, many stopped for a few moments to snap a couple quick pictures. Fortunately I had a little more freedom and was able to spend some time chatting with people and exploring their lives.
Feed zone frenzy.
While not overly technical, the longer stages were still brutally difficult.
Willy Mulonia - the founder of the Mongolia Bike Challenge. Legend has it that he rode over 10,000km throughout Mongolia looking for the perfect route for the race.
Every bike race has a dedicated team of mechanics who work late into the night every night of the race. The MBC is no exception.
Finish line - Day 7.
Champ Corey Wallace (right) and Jason Sager survey the finish line.
A pretty spectacular number of supporters made it out for the end of the race!
Some stoked finishers!
Overall winners - Corey Wallace and Catherine Williamson - will they be dethroned next year?
We were told there would be a small bonfire to celebrate on the last night...
Sunrise over the final camp - not a bad way to cap off an amazing week of racing and exploring in Mongolia! Are you coming next year?