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Yak Attack 2013 – Part One.

Yak Attack 2013 – Part One.
Yak Attack – Half Way to Paradise.

In Nepal they refer to their natural terrain as “A little bit up, a little bit down”; I think I can safely say that my experiences of this years Yak Attack were a bit like that!
It’s a very tough event, it’s considered to be one of the hardest endurance races on the planet; it’s tough on the rider, both physically and mentally, and tough on the bikes too.
It’s also much more than just a mountain bike stage-race. It’s an adventure unlike any other. It simply cannot be compared to any other stage race, there are no similarities.

The terrain, the conditions, and the trails, change dramatically throughout the whole event.
The early stages are punishingly hot and dusty. The mid-stages start to cool and the altitude begins to take affect. The high-stages are very cold, and the altitude becomes debilitating, at the highest point oxygen is 50% that of sea level. All of the stages are very rough, and each and every one has lung-busting climbs, every stage is hard.
Added to all of this is the piece de resistance – The Thorong La – a high pass, sitting at 5416m which has to be hiked over; it is simply too steep and too high to ride.
And just to add further to the competitors discomfort, you are allowed only 10kgs of equipment. Factor in spare parts, a sleeping bag, high altitude clothing, and other necessities, and you are left with very little room for extra’s. (Read in to that as “no room for extra’s”!) It takes some creative thinking and a lot sacrifices to make the weight. (This will be changing for the 2014 event and riders will be allowed a momentous 20kgs).
Spartan accommodation, less than beautiful bathroom facilities, and pretty basic foods complete the equation. It is a race for the adventurous not the squeamish.
It’s a roller-coaster of a challenge; and I love it!


Now when I say “I love it” I’m referring to the event as a whole, not necessarily some of the individual parts!
Stages 1 – 4 are horrible! 😀
I love sunshine; however, riding in a race that has four searingly hot and dusty stages is less than pleasurable. When I say that I love sunshine what I actually mean is that I love lazing around in it, drinking beer, and relaxing under a palm tree. Not riding my bike full-pelt up and down mountains!

Day one started with a melee of activity. The riders gathered in the courtyard of the Kathmandu Guesthouse ready for the group ride out of the city and up to the start-line at the entrance to The Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park. We were surrounded by the media and well-wishers. It was nice to be getting under-way. My nerves were shredded the day before and was I looking forward to getting going and just focussing on the riding.

Yak Attack Veterans Club.
Sonya loves to ham it up for the camera! 🙂

Mangal Lama and Santosh Rai.

Moving out en-mass from the Kathmandu Guesthouse.
The group ride is fun. Navigating the Kathmandu traffic is fun! 
The final part of the group ride goes up a very long, steep, climb and one or two of the “virgin” riders were beginning to wonder what they had let themselves in for before we had even begun racing!
That steep climb in the morning sun reminded me of what was to come. I began wondering why I had let myself in for it again too!
Riders on the steep climb to Shivapuri.
The organisers arranged the start line, the media got themselves in to favourable positions, and the countdown began. 10 – 9 – 8 -… “YAK ATTACK!” screamed the riders and we were under way.
The Nepali riders along with a few others roared off. I, along with some other sensible riders, plodded off.
The Nepali riders are astonishing. They ride at a very high tempo throughout the whole race and, unlike most of the international riders, they don’t appear to suffer any great amount of fatigue. They ride just as hard on the final stage as they do on the first stage, they are hugely impressive; even more so because they are amateur athletes without the kind of support afforded to professionals. I can’t begin to imagine what they might achieve on the world stage if they ever get the chance to ride professionally.

Yak Attack 2013 under way!

The road climb from Shivapuri.
Stage One (Shivapuri to Nuwakot) starts with a steep climb up through a military base on sealed road before it turns to dirt and tops out at about 5kms. It then undulates (the race does a lot of undulating) for a further 5kms including a lovely section of steep singletrack before plunging into a thrilling high speed descent of about 16 or 17kms. That’s right, a 17km descent! Woo-hoo! It then follows the river along the beautiful valley floor for about another 10kms. Up until this point I had maintained a decent cadence and was flowing along happily. A motorbike complete with cameraman pulled along side me and carried out an interview whilst I rolled along. A group of local men began waving and shouting, and I soon realised I had missed the turn for the final climb up to Nuwakot! The cameraman was very apologetic, but I didn’t mind; it was only few metres and I’d had fun chatting with him.

The climb up to Nuwakot and the end of the stage is about 5kms, it is steep, loose, and miserable in the hot sun. I completely imploded. I couldn’t believe how quickly I went from cruising to crawling. Every rider behind me sailed past and I dragged myself over the line in last position. (One other rider actually came in after me, a nice guy called Richard Williams, but only because he got lost and took a longer route).
On the plus side I had knocked well over an hour of my 2012 time. In 2012 I had suffered an illness in Kathmandu, before the race began, and I had to drag myself through the first five stages with every ounce of willpower I could muster. My target for the 2013 event was to try and knock at least 5 1/2 hours off my previous time. It had started well.

The accommodation at historic Nuwakot is wonderful. The Famous Farm is a beautifully restored, traditional, Nepali Farmhouse. and it is one of the only luxury stays during the whole race. Everyone loves it here. It is set high above the valley, with spectacular views, and the town itself is a delight to visit. If you ever get the chance to go there grab it with both hands.

Beautiful Nuwakot.
Sunset at Nuwakot.

Stages Two & Three are very similar to each other. Long, hot, dusty climbs, and long, fast, descents. And not much in between.

Stage Two (Trisuli Bazaar to Dhading Besi) starts with a 10kms group ride down a fast sealed road to Trisuli Bazaar before starting officially just on the outskirts of the town.
Yet again it starts with a long climb up a dusty broken road followed by a ripping descent of about 8 or 9kms and then undulates up & down for a good while. I spent a fun day riding with Steve Edwards (Wales) who was having a tough time of it. We blasted down another good descent, steep, loose, fast and a heap of fun to a river crossing in the bottom of a valley. This is followed by a very hard climb and is made all the harder with the increasing heat of the morning sun. We kept glancing hopefully at the stage profile on our GPS units, sometimes laughing at the absurdity of the climb, and often groaning as it continued to point upwards, on and on.. We sang songs too which works wonders for your morale.

That way then!

Eventually we crested the high point and enjoyed the final long descent to the edge of town; Dhading Besi.
We had spotted another rider some way behind on the last climb, and presumed it to be Matthius Schneider (Germany) who we heard was having it really tough on the stage. We were surprised to see Australian rider Jeremy Soawyer roll in to the finish. Jeremy had been the surprise package on Day One after coming in third behind Narayan Gopal Maharjan and Ajay Pandit Chhetri; and it had created a bit of a buzz around camp. It turned out that Jeremy had taken a wrong turn somewhere on the stage and had added about 10km to his race! He was upbeat though and was optimistic that he could still manage a top ten placing overall by the end of the race. Yak Attack does seem to attract that kind of person; which is one of the reasons I love it so much.
Prior to the start of the stage Race Director Phil Evans had informed us of a potential problem in Dhading Besi. There was a student protest in the town which could cause some security worries. We were to be escorted in by a vehicle, in small groups, from the finish line. When Matthius arrived I shook his hand and congratulated him on toughing it out. I knew from personal experience how hard this race is if you are not feeling 100%. He appreciated it and, later, told me how much it had encouraged him.

Waiting at Dhading Besi for our vehicle escort.

Our escort in to town proved to be incident free and we all arrived at the hotel unscathed. There was a large and visible security presence all around town and most of the protesters seemed to be gathered in small groups, milling around and doing nothing much at all.
I joked with the other riders that it was the worst protest I had ever seen, and that we should go out and start throwing some stones or something just to get it going a bit!

The days soon slot in to a regular routine. Get up early and drop your bags off for transport. Have breakfast. Race. Find the hotel. Eat. Clean and service the bikes. Relax. Explore. Eat some more. Sleep. Then start all over again the next day. This is our routine. With plenty of down-time everyone gets the chance to get to know each other and strong bonds are formed with your fellow riders. This year we had another great bunch of people and I enjoyed getting to know everyone and hearing their stories.

Nothing changed for Day Three (Dhading Besi to Gorkha). The usual routine. Group ride to the edge of town for the official start line and then begin with a monstrous climb of about 17km in the glare of the relentless sun. What had changed for me was that I had fallen victim to The Yak Attack Plague. Few international riders seem to escape this purgatory. It is some kind of traveller virus that causes fatigue, stomach problems and a temperature. It usually passes after 24 to 48 hours but can completely ruin your race for a stage or two. Today was my turn and it was horrible. The ride from Dhading Besi to Gorkha is a simple one. Massive climb, massive descent, massive steep climb, finish. Simple.

I started slowly and went down hill from there, although I did enjoy the actual “downhill”.
I had enough fluids to get me to the planned feed station where I would be able to replenish and struggle on. As I approached the spot I expected it to be at, just after the fantastic descent, I was confused; “Where is it?” I thought. In 2012 it had been just over the river crossing before the hard climb up through a plantation. I was really struggling and wondered if the medics had already left and I had missed them? Psychologically this was a blow. I was suffering. As I dragged my sorry ass up the start of the climb, swearing out loud,  I was caught up by the Race Sweeper, my friend, Ajay Rana. I was glad of the company and Ajay selflessly offered to share his meagre supply of water with me. I was very grateful for his generosity. He too was confused by the missing feed station. The climb was a real battle; I had to stop every couple of hundred metres to recover and take sip of water. It went on and on. At one point my stomach decided that it needed to “evacuate” and Ajay managed to negotiate the use of someone’s toilet for me. It was explosive to say the least and I made a hasty exit from the scene of the crime (I did leave it as I found it). Eventually we stopped in a small village and bought some more water and a Coke. I don’t usually drink Coke, I don’t particularly like it, but it has remarkable powers of regeneration to the fatigued rider. It helped me to carry on until we stumbled upon the missing feed station. The medics, Yvonne & Natalie, explained that the Jeep driver had refused to go any further and they had had to set up the feed station here. They gave me a pill to help settle my stomach, and more pleasingly they gave me a banana too. Ajay and I soldiered on and eventually I crawled over the finish line to be clocked-in by Snow Monkey, the timekeeper (Mukhiya Gurung). 5h 11m 16s of digging deep. And remarkably it was still faster than my 2012 time of 5h 18m 10s!
Today Matthius shook my hand.

Wasted after a tough day on the trail.

Gorkha, home of the legendary Gurkha soldiers, is another impressive place. Once capital of Nepal and seat of the royal family, it has some fantastic sights including a fort, temples, and a palace. Well worth visiting.
I cleaned my bike, ate, and hung out in the sunshine.

A very camp image of me courtesy of Nepal Sutra.

Day Four (Gorkha to Besi Sahar) is a race of two halves, trail and asphalt. The start from Gorkha is unique in The Yak Attack, it goes down hill! The only stage in the whole race that begins with gravity assistance. It is also a long stage at 60km+. This year saw a change in the starting format. Yak Attack’s little brother is a stage race called Trans-Nepal and it also passes through here, and due to a mass crash on the first corner of this particular race it had been decided to stagger the start for Yak Attack. Starting with the lead rider (Narayan Gopal – Nepal) each rider would then be released with a thirty second gap to the next, with finishing times adjusted accordingly.

Ajay Rana preparing riders for the staggered start.

Waiting my turn at the start of Stage Three – Gorkha.

I enjoyed myself immensely and passed half a dozen riders on my way to the valley floor. I do like a good downhill! This is the lowest point in the whole race before we begin days of climbing, up to the summit at Thorong la. Frustratingly I was having some gear shifting issues and the chain had flicked off the ring a couple of times on the descent. I put it down to a lack of lubrication, having only applied one coat, and made sure to remember to apply two coats during the remainder of the race. It then climbs for about 12kms including a vicious kick upwards near the top, just to make sure that you’re concentrating, before an undulating descent to the start of the sealed road around the 30km mark. Somewhere on this descent I misjudged a wide, flat, corner and hit the deck with a thump. No warning, no progressive loss of traction, just thump! It hurt too. I skinned my right elbow and knee and took a knock to the knee as well, but, much to the bewilderment of a few locals, who looked clearly worried for me, I brushed off the bright red dirt, jumped on the bike and sped off again. Once at the sealed road it begins to climb steadily all the way to Besi Sahar, about 30kms. I don’t particularly enjoy riding on asphalt and I have a tendency to drift in to a steady plod. This day was no different and I had to remind myself, a couple of times, to push a bit harder. On the plus side it meant that my earlier shifting issues reduced considerably, simply because I used fewer gears on the road, I was grateful for this.

Covered in red dust in Besi Sahar.

Besi Sahar is an unremarkable town, but like every town in Nepal it is surrounded by stunning landscapes of which it is impossible to tire of. It is a watershed town in The Yak Attack, it marks the end of properly connected civilisation. From here on in it get’s rural. The trails become rougher, facilities become basic, and the climbing becomes pretty much a constant with little in the way of descending. It also becomes more temperate and is a much more pleasant environment in which to race. I enjoy the mountain stages tremendously. It also means reducing your pack weight down to 10kgs. I was asked for my advice from a couple of riders and my advice was simple enough. “Take only what you need to ride your bike & only what you need to stay warm and survive the pass. Everything else is superfluous shit and you don’t need it!”. There is a lot of head scratching in Besi Sahar.

Excess baggage being loaded for Pokhara.

As a consequence of this riders are left with little in the way of spare clothing and when some of us took a walk around the town later a few eyebrows where raised by the locals. Peter McCutcheon (Australia) elected to walk around in his compression tights. Now for anyone unfamiliar with compression wear it leaves little to the imagination. They are skin tight. Nepal is a fairly conservative country and the local ladies were clearly impressed with Pete. Sonya and I laughed a lot. I thought that Pete was about to be responsible for a baby boom! Most of the husbands seemed quite pleased about it too because they obviously realised that they were going to be having a lucky night. I think when we return next year there could well be a statue of Pete in the town centre!

Peter McCutcheon causing a diplomatic incident in the town!

Day Five (Besi Sahar to Taal) started off badly. The authorities are in the process of extending the roads further up in to the Manang District and this involves a lot of rock blasting. Today of all days the military were carrying it out and the powers that be were reluctant to issue our entry permits for The Annapurna Sanctuary because of safety concerns. 
We hung around in small groups for most of the morning, hoping for good news. I was getting hungry and so I wondered around the corner with my friend Aayman Tamang and we purchased a couple of large bunches of  small, delicious, Nepali banana’s and then shared them out amongst our fellow riders.

Hanging out at Besi Sahar.

The race start was delayed several times before the organisers managed to secure our access. It was agreed with the authorities that the stage would be neutralised and we would ride as a group to Taal. It was that or stay in Besi Sahar for another night. A number of riders had been struck down with the dreaded virus and it was a lucky break for them to be able ride without the pressure of racing. It gave them a chance to recover for the next stage.
It was nice to ride all together socially and we stopped to take photographs all along the way. A few of us pulled over at a small roadside stall and ate some of the most delicious, spicy, samosa’s I’ve ever tasted, and all for the princely sum of about 12 pence each!

Enjoying Samosa’s on the trail.

We gathered at the small town of Chyamche. This is the point were the race picks up The Annapurna Trekking Circuit and in previous years was the start of a very long hike-a-bike section all the way to Taal. One of my favourite bits!
However with the new Jeep-road extension the race had been scheduled to follow this instead. I decided that I was going to take hiking trail just for the fun of it and a couple of other riders jumped at the chance to do it too. This could well have been my last opportunity to enjoy this hike as the government were planning to build an hydroelectric dam in the area and flood it completely. It’s a beautiful and challenging hike and it is such a shame that it may well disappear in the next few years. 
And so I, Steve Edwards (USA), and Tyler McMahon (USA/Nepal), pointed our bikes down the very steep and technical singletrack trail towards the river in the bottom of the valley. I fell off spectacularly near the bottom and luckily managed to dust myself down and re-mount the bike before Steve and Tyler spotted me! We then crossed over the suspension bridge and shouldered our bikes for the long 1.5 hour climb up to Taal. It was wonderful, so much more rewarding for me than the scar of the road that cuts through the rock face on the opposite flank of this beautiful valley. Progress can be an ugly bedmate sometimes.

One of my favourite Yak Attack challenges.

Tyler McMahon shouldering the bike.
Steve Edwards enjoying the hike-a-bike to Taal.

See you soon!

Yak Attack 2013 – Part Two coming soon.

About The Author

Neil Cottam

Neil is the founder of Chase The Rainbow. He has spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors, from a childhood climbing trees and scrambling his bike around old pit heads to hiking in the Himalaya and backpacking around Europe and Asia.

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