Hitting the hustle and bustle of the Annapurna Circuit and heading for Besi Sahar for race start was an unwelcome feeling after the tranquillity of Manaslu and even though it meant civilisation was near, I’m not sure I was ready for civilisation. I felt unsettled and not quite myself descending from Chame to Besi Sahar. But meeting the other riders and the excitement of race start was in the air.
Riders came from Costa Rica, South Africa, Scotland, America, Canada, Australia, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, the UK and Nepal (hopefully I remembered everyone/got it right) to complete the “fast and furious” version of Yak Attack; six days with five days of racing around the Annapurna circuit, climbing to the dizzying heights of 5416m above sea level, making this race the highest mountain bike race on earth.
Day 1: Besi Sahar to Taal, 38km, 1500m climbing, in a time of 3:01:30, 1st female.
Bags packed and dropped by 7:30am for a 9am start, with breaky to fill the time in between. I had no idea how my body was going to respond after Manaslu (part 1) but my bike certainly felt light with no bags and since my CamelBak bladder started leaking two days into my trip, I was going super light. Thanks to Tom I at least had two water bottles. We had a short ride out of town with a marching band leading the way to the official start. Once the whistle was blown, riders were going everywhere around buses who had stopped in the middle of the road to let us all go. I probably started a little too fast. Whoops, I’d pay the penalty for that later.
The climbing was way harder than I remember from descending it the day before, or my 30T front chainring and 42 at the back, just didn’t cut it. Definitely didn’t get my gearing right. Oh well, I have what I have,get on with it and get strong (er). I rode on my own after the first water station. Ian, one of the guys from the UK was keeping up on the climbs but flatted soon after the water station. I wasn’t great company anyway, he was talkative, and I was not. Sometimes I just like to ride my bike, so sorry for being bit short.
I also played dodgem cars or dodgem tractors and big machinery with all the roadworks happening. I don’t even know how they get the big excavators or whatever those transformer type looking machines are in to the places they are. The manual labour is next level. In the stinking heat, road workers use their bare hands to fill these cages with rocks, that they have split apart with a hammer. No machines to do it for them. Hats off to them.
I was focusing on racing, especially as I spotted Taal in the distant. Yeeww, the end was in sight.
Day 2: Taal to Manang, 58km, 2350m of climbing,in a time of 5:14:47, 1st Female
Back to the mountains 🙂 But first, a good bit of climbing to get there. I was familiar with the climb up to Chame and then it was all new territory from there. I still haven’t decided if it’s better to know what is coming or ride what comes at you. The pace climbing out of Taal was pretty friendly and I settled in my own rhythm, cautious not to burn too many matches early on.
Doing this climb for the second time felt better, the rocks felt smoother or maybe that was because my bike wasn’t loaded up with bikepacking bags ha-ha! I was carrying my CamelBak bag today to take a warm jacket and snack. Finishing at Manang at 3300m altitude meant the temperature could drop quickly and most of the riders would beat the jeeps carrying our bags.
Turns out that carrying my jacket came in handy before the finish line. At the 38km mark, things went a bit pear shaped. I was pushing the descents hard to make up as much time as I could, because my climbing legs were slow and hadn’t really kicked into race mode, and because it was friggin the best fun in the world. Sending it down loose, rocky, wild, mainly jeep tracks and dodging the odd hikers. Full trust that your bike has got your back 🙂
It’s all fun and games until you hit an icy rock and get flung from your bike into a puddle. I slowly stood myself up, grabbed my bike and moved to the side of the track, bent over my bike. “Please don’t panic Karen, just breathe”. I needed to not only talk to myself, I needed to talk myself through this process. “Put your jacket on, stay warm”. My rational mind was fighting to stay in control of the situation. I got my jacket on and heard the motorbike coming behind me. It was Don thephotographer. Thank goodness. I felt like the world was ending, how was I going to finish this stage, there was 20km to go? I rolled down the trail into the sun. I needed to curl up in a ball on the side of the track for a minute. I could feel my arm and hip had taken the brunt of the crash, but I didn’t dare look at them. I knew the feed station was a couple of km’s away. I needed food. Don and his motorbike rider, Puspha stayed close by. I started to roll again. Just get moving. I couldn’t feel my fingers, I couldn’t change gears or feel my brakes. My gloves were soaked and hands frozen. I stopped again, and Don gave me his gloves and Puspha warmed my hands. Ok. Good to go. Made it to the feed station. Had three cups of juice and probably ten of these chocolate rice crispy bars. I could do it.
Luckily all the climbing was done. The riding now was flatter and faster. The k’s ticked over quickly. I needed to eat again but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not that far to go but the last few k’s dragged. Patrick came into view and asked how I was doing? He had ridden down the trail taking pics. I mumbled a couple of words, I couldn’t talk. If I talked, I would have cried. I think he got the gist of the situation so just rode with me to the finish.
Bags had already arrived, veggie and egg fried rice and a cup of tea fixed my wounded body, followed by some of the best pastries I have ever eaten. The place we were staying was surrounded by mountains. A comfy bed, hot water, a fire place in the dining rooms, and apple pancakes for breaky. What more could you want?
Day 3: Rest Day 🙂 – Manang
If you’re going to crash, make sure you do it just before rest day.
Most of the group went on a hike organised through the race. I opted to rest, do a bit of bike maintenance, it was time to change tyres, my trusty old Clif bar wrapper had held up well. Nienke and I went for a shorter walk later in the day. A group of us went to the movies, Nepalese style and watched Sherpa. We experienced some of the local culture and received a blessing to cross the pass safely. The night ended with a talk from the doc from the local clinic about altitude sickness. I’m pretty sure everyone was pooping in their pants and thought they were going to die!
Day 4: Manang to Thorong Phedi, 17km, 1350m climbing, in a time of 2:05:16, 1st Female
Today was a good day. But don’t be fooled by the short distance.
The rundown on the course from previous years was that the start was hard, lots of steep climbing, the air is getting thinner and the course gets easier towards the end. Sweet. I’ve got this. Good reminder to listen but don’t count on other people’s experience to be the same as yours.
The day started with climbing and climbing with very thin air. But it was manageable. The cheers from hikers and the single track made for tolerating the uncomfortable feelings. After watching the Sherpa movie at least I wasn’t doing laps of Everest with a 20-40 kg pack. The trail flowed more than I expected and there was more descending early on than I expected, and I wasn’t complaining about that. There was a little bit of pushing up some steep pinches that would be totally rideable if you weren’t breathing through a straw or your name was Cory Wallace. Today was fun, I had people to race with and against. Pierre was ahead of me with his bright orange helmet and I chased that damn helmet for whole day. Mr Costa Rica was close by and Carlos was catching me. As I went cross the swing bridge, I caught a glimpse of Laxmi not too far behind. Shit. Get the pressure on the pedals. Let’s move.
The further the race went on, the harder it got. Who was theone who said it got easier towards the end? It was fun, today was mostly rideable with my heart rate in my eyeballs.
One of the bests parts of racing is sitting around afterwards with all the beautiful people, eating noodles and dahl bhat reminiscing about the day that you had, even if you don’t all speak the same language. Everyone has such different experiences, some good, some not so good. Stage racing is such a test of character. We get to curl up in our little teahouse huts, sleep and do it all over again.
Day 5: Thorong Phedi to Kagbeni, 27km, 900m of climbing, in a time of 4:23:38, 2ndFemale.
The pass day; Nervous. Cold. Excited. Maybe a little over-confident.
Some people had their bikes strapped to bags on their back, some pushed and/or carried and if you’re Cory, you ride. I’m not sure where or how everything went so pear shaped so quickly. I started, probably too quick again, and then like a swift kick box to face I couldn’t move forward. My hands were frozen, my helmet was choking me, multiple times I tried desperately to unclip it but without success. It felt like my body was freezing from the inside out. Everyone was passing me, offering kinds words to keep moving. But that wasn’t happening. Tom, who had given me the water bottle on day one, saved me again. As soon as he unclipped my helmet, I could breathe. I could slowly move again. One foot in front of the other. Nienke seemed concerned at the colour of my face and kept checking in to see if I was ok. I had pretty much fallen to the very back apart from the doc, who was organising a chopper to get Christian back to Kathmandu. Christian unfortunately had a rough time with the altitude.
I could see the sun up ahead and knew I would be ok if I could get there. One foot in front of the other is not too much to ask. In a split second I thawed out and was a completely different person. Got moving like nothing happened. I saved a packet of red jelly beans to get me over the pass, caught up to Tom and Brett, shared the love and took some photos. There were some spots to ride so I was glad not to have my bike strapped onto my back.
The race had organised the tea houses on the way up to have warm water and tea for us. But I bypassed, feeling better I wanted to get to the top. After a quick photo, it was time to descend. Yeewwwww. So many trails going everywhere. Mind not comprehending where to go. Cory had mentioned to me to try to cross the top with a Nepalese rider because trails go everywhere. I now knew exactly what he meant. But was not with anyone who had a clue. Carlos caught up to me and I followed him down. We ended up on this rocky jeep track and could see the donkey’s over in the distance with our bags. Whoops, we are supposed to be over there.
Today was mostly downhill, after the pass anyway. Shortly after the pass ing the feed station my rear tyre pressure was dropping. A quick stop to put some air in it. Carlos was waiting just down the trail. After descending for so long any slight incline was a shock to the legs. With about 7km to go Carlos flatted. Ahshiiitt. I wasn’t sure how far in front Laxmi was. I couldn’t stop. He wasn’t carrying a tube or pump (face palm to head. I am the worst at not having things but usually I have the bare minimum), I gave him my saddle bag and apologised but I had to keep rolling. I’m friendly but not that friendly that I wanted to lose first place. Kagbeni came into sight. It kind of reminded me of the old school western movies.
Day 6: Kagbeni to Kalopeni (non-race stage to Tatopani), 66km, 1050m of climbing, in a time of 3:14:10, 1st Female.
Today was my favourite stage. There was a bit of everything; flattish riding, single track, choose your own adventure and follow the blue tape, a bit of hike a bike and a couple of good climbs. It was a fun way to finish. A couple of near turn misses. But thanks to some friendly locals for quickly telling me I missed the turn. I was happy to see the finish line.
Day 7: Tatopani to Pokhara
I don’t have the stats for this day but approximately 100odd km’s. The race was over, but the riding continued. It was either ride abit, then bus the rest of the way or ride the whole way. I had now pretty much committed to a trip solely by bike (apart from to/from airport in Kathmandu). There was about 12 people doing the ride back to Pokhara. Some of us were stopping off at the suspension bridges doing a bit of touristing. I am discovering as I get older, I’m not that great with heights. Ha-ha I didn’t get far across the bridge and Rajkumar had to turn my bike around, so I could get off. Get off quickly.
Today was a solid day, there was one relentless climb that all I could do was stare at Tom’s wheel and not drop it. Meanwhile Rajkumar was soft pedalling behind me like he was barely working. The descent into Pokhara was totally worth it. There were so many moments that make you smile so hard and the joy filled every cell in my body.
I did wish I had an extra day in Pokhara. I was tired. My body drained. But I didn’t have the luxury of time. I had a plane to catch in 4 days’ time. Laxmi was our (Nienke and I) guide back to Kathmandu, she had said yes to the crazy idea of riding back to Kathmandu in 3 days (that is another story for Part 3 of Nepal) and starting at 8am (not even a sleep in). But first to enjoy presentations.
A massive thank you to all involved in the organisation – Phil, Corrine and the team at Mountain Biking Worldwide and Ajay and his team at MTB Nepal. Everything ran so smoothly and the help organising our bags to and from Kathmandu so we could go exploring more of Nepal was so appreciated. Entries for 2019 are open so get on it folks. All you ladies out there, if you’re considering it but scared. Just do it. Happy to help in whatever way I can. https://www.mtb-worldwide.com/the-yak-attack/
Stayed tune for Part 3 – Pokhara to Kathmandu
Tips for Yak Attack from a first timer
- Warm clothes – especially gloves. I thought had warm clothes and gloves but no. I’ll pretty much be taking an Everest suit with me next year. The morning crossing the pass was the only day I didn’t have warm enough clothes.
- Bike – Appropriate gearing- This will make the big climbing days so much more enjoyable. Strong tyres, this is not the race to a be weight weeny with tyres.
- A GoPro type camera – I really missed coming home without photos. While the memories are imprinted on my heart, I like tangible things sometimes.
- A good attitude – be flexible, adaptable and never in a hurry (unless you have a plane to catch and people are faffing about).
- Good fitness level, lots of hills before the race. Not only physical training, don’t forget to train your mind. This race is definitely achievable and Neil Cottam’s blog Chase the Rainbow has great articles on what to expect going to Nepal for the first time.
- If it’s an option, get some altitude training in (I trained at Bodyology in East Brighton for 10 weeks). This is not essential and I have not done a race at altitude without altitude training to compare. Many people complete this race without altitude training.
- Food – Take some of your own snacks -you can buy nuts, raisins, muesli bars in some villages and definitely be able to stock up in Besi Sahar. Although feed stations are pretty well stocked, I like to have my own race food. Also, recovery snacks as food is cooked to order. I also take two Vital Green sachets (no I’m not sponsored by them) each day to keep vitamin, mineral and probiotic intake up (I did not get sick tummy the whole trip). Breakfast and dinner is provided during the race and I enjoyed the food. Dietary choices such as vegan, veg, gluten free could easily be managed. Coeliacs may have a harder time as you couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be contamination.
- Bike carry over the pass – I was happy pushing my bike over the pass so I could roll some sections but this will be a bit of personal preference. Practice whatever you are going to do in training.
- Have the best time 🙂 Contact me if you would like more info.