Mastering the Mongolia Bike Challenge

14 October 2015

Have you ever dreamt of doing a big stage race, but always thought it wouldn’t be within your capabilities because you’re just an average rider? In this article Matt Turner shares his experience in training for – and completing – the Mongolia Bike Challenge (MBC). This is a 7 stage, 900 kilometre MTB race in … Mongolia!

I started mountain biking and cycling seriously six years ago when I was 33. I had never been an athletic person, in fact at times quite the opposite. If I didn’t instantly enjoy the sensation of mountain biking when I first started, there would have been no way I would have persevered with it as much as I have, such is the difficulty of the sport. In order to be able to do something like the Mongolia Bike Challenge it was going to take hard work and progression over a long period of time.

In my early years I was naively attracted to the big ultra-endurance adventure mountain bike races but with no realistic expectation that I would ever be able to do them. The MBC was one such race that I had been following in awe from my desk chair since 2011.

The Goal

Fast forward to 2014. I had been doing the same old local races for a couple of years but hadn’t done any structured training. Without any big goals my riding had stagnated. I was following the MBC that year and was becoming obsessed by it. The seed was planted that I was going to do this “whatever it takes”, so I convinced a mate to come with me and we signed up a year out from the next edition.

Commitment

Today’s Plan came along at just the right time and by 1 January 2015 I had signed up to a 16 week training plan with a target on endurance. At this time I was also establishing my own business, so life was busy. I believe that having a structured training plan that told me exactly when, and for how long to train, allowed me to fit everything into my schedule. Busy people get things done, but organised people get things done well ! I didn’t have to stress about whether I was riding enough or if I was riding too little, I knew that all the thinking had been done for me, so I didn’t have to spend any more time trying to “self coach”, which I’d attempted (unsuccessfully) previously.

Preparation and Training

The premise of signing up to an online “automated” training system is that you are putting an enormous amount of trust into the system and that it will get the results that you need. The Today’s Plan team were happy to add the MBC as an event [Editor: please tell us if you’d like us to add an event for you] that could be added to my training plan as a goal to tailor the plan around. The analytic tools helped me track my progress and kept the focus and motivation throughout. It wasn’t just the cost of the plan that I had invested in; that was the cheap part. I had booked flights, accommodation, time away from my business, and of course all the hours spent training. In addition, I did yoga classes, physio and bike maintenance, which was all time away from friends and family. Building up to such an adventure can be a very self-centred pursuit and you’ve got to know that you are doing everything in your power to get the best possible outcome from your target event.

For me, I definitely wanted a good result. Not necessarily a good result compared to others in the race, because I didn’t know how good they were going to be and I didn’t have any control over their ability. I had started late in the sport, had done a lot of things that were bad for my body prior to that, and I knew that these were limiting factors. What I have learned in my relatively short time in the sport is that discipline and determination can get you a long way.

I live in an area with cold and wet winters (okay, not as cold as some reading this!). I signed up to a second 16 week plan which would bring me all the way up to the target event in late August this year. All through (Southern Hemisphere) Winter, five days a week I was out on my bike following “the plan”. This meant riding in the dark after work, in the fog, in the rain, in the freezing headwinds on my own out on the muddy fire roads and back laneways around my house. As part of my program I scheduled a number of big one day races around the country, including the National Marathon champs. Because of a “transport malfunction”, I arrived late and had no choice but to race in the elite category (which is above my pay grade!). Big occasions call for big efforts and that day I recorded a new threshold heart rate of 165 BPM, up from 160 when I did the initial threshold test at the beginning of my training plan. Even though I was way out of my league, I felt that it was one of the best personal performances I had ever done.

I avoided a lot of the smaller local races that I normally did and stuck to my long weekend endurance rides. A few weeks out from the big race I was feeling flat. I was worried that maybe I had done too much too early and now I had already passed my peak. To be honest, some of my scheduled bigger weekend rides did blow out by a couple of hours extra on a number of occasions and this was only my own fault for letting my ego take over. I cut the riding right back and focussed on getting ready for the trip.

The Race

Once on the ground in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia we set up the bikes and went for a couple of short rides in the days before the race. I felt okay but not amazing. Looking at the vast landscapes around me I wondered how I was going to pull this off.

Day 1 felt very tough. It was a rude awakening to what was in store for the legs. I slashed both my tyres on rocks which obviously cost me a lot of time but otherwise I didn’t feel very strong anyway.

Day 2 was a different story. My legs had been warmed up from that initial first hard day and my engine was starting to fire.

Day 3 I was just able to go hard all day, much harder and longer than all the tempo and threshold efforts I had done in training. Now I knew what it had all been for, all the months of long efforts of moderate intensity had been designed to allow me to ride solidly for hours at a time, day after day without breaking down. Each day I placed higher up the field.

Day 4 and 5 were 170 km long which I completed in 7.5 hours but it didn’t seem to be that hard.

Day 6 the 50 km time trial seemed like a doddle!

Day 7 was the the 84 km final stage. Even crossing the finish line on the final day after 40+ hours of racing in a week I was basically sprinting!

Upon reflection

The Mongolia Bike Challenge was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was worth every minute of my preparation and training time. My big tips to anyone who’s thinking of taking on such a challenge is to properly prepare; yourself, your bike, your life in the time leading up to the event. One of the reasons I enjoyed MBC so much was because I was properly trained for the specific type of event I was doing. As a result, I actually felt and got stronger as the race went on. I compare this to a previous attempt at a stage race where I tried self-training but ended up doing too much, too soon – my immune system was stressed and I ended up getting sick and not finishing.

Final tip

You can do it!

Matt Turner

A big thank you to our intrepid adventurer and stage racer, Matt Turner for this write up. He’s pictured here about to start one of the stages of ‘MBC’.

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