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Yak Attack – 2015. Inside out.

Yak Attack – 2015. Inside out.
The NorthFace Nepal Yak Attack from TheYakAttack on Vimeo.

 ^^^ Check out the new video ^^^

Yak Attack 2015 was a very different experience for me this time. Race organiser Phil Evans asked me if I would be interested in supporting him with the day-to-day running of the event in one form or another.
We’ve become good friends over the last four years and I jumped at the chance to be involved. 
(For those that don’t know; Yak Attack is an 8 day mountain bike stage-race held in Nepal and is considered to be one of the toughest races in the world). 

2015 had been a tough year in Nepal. The devastating earthquakes in April & May decimated not only communities but also much needed tourism. This was swiftly followed by a long and still ongoing border blockade, a political crisis caused by a short-sighted, and divisive, new constitution, and deep political corruption, that has resulted in chronic shortages of essential goods and fuel.
For Phil Evans to be able to convince and cajole 29 riders to take part in the race is nothing short of amazing, especially considering it was on the verge of being cancelled at one point.

I have actually raced it three times previously; in 2012, 2013, & 2014, and with mixed results I might add!
In 2012 it was part of a bigger adventure; the first half of my trip was spent trekking the “Old Expedition Route” from Jiri to Everest Base Camp with my friends Dave Slater and Wilco Voulon after which I stayed on in Nepal and took part in the race, more for the adventure than for racing.
In 2013 I decided to do it again to actually race it proper and see how I could do. Unfortunately it ended in disaster with a high speed crash on Stage Six which resulted in a dislocated shoulder!
Fortunately (sic) that year the race was being filmed as one part of a documentary series for Channel Five in the UK and I made a cameo appearance for all of the wrong reasons.
(You can read my account of that here in Part One and Part Two).
So in 2014 I had to return again! Fortunately it went well and I finished the race in one piece and happy with the performance I put in.
And that was supposed to be it for me, “No more!” was the cry!
But it’s a special event, it is one of those races that pulls you back again and again. I’m not the only one with this affliction either, several international racers have returned two, three, and even four times. Paul Cooper, Yuki Ikeda, Peter Butt, Andre Deplechin, Sonya Looney, and Tyler McMahon are all multiple veterans.
2016 will be the Tenth Anniversary and it is set to be very special; if it can be pulled off logistically then the race might well have some new stages in The Forbidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang. I may or may not go back and race it once more; but then that’s it, no more!!! Hahaha ­čśÇ
This years event was definitely the best one yet, for a multitude of reasons, read on to find out all about it.

Phil arrived in Kathmandu a few weeks prior to the race and rode the mountain stages of the course with a group of friends celebrating Richard Williams’ 40th birthday (Richard, a former racer, is a partner in the business).
I arrived a week or so before the start, for an extended, seven week, trip.
We met up at The International Guesthouse in Thamel with a few days to spare, during which time we checked in on the progress of the trophies, met with the new logistics team from Yeti Travels, did an interview or two including one for Nepali TV’s Image Channel, went out riding around the Kathmandu Valley with a variety of nice people who were arriving from all over the world, and drank some beer! (We mostly drank beer if I’m being completely honest!)
In previous years I had arranged with friends & family to sponsor Nepali female racer Laxmi Magar. This year she was being shadowed by an American film crew on her journey from Yak Attack in Nepal through to the Sea Otter Classic in the U.S. and I spent a lot of time filming scenes with Laxmi and being interviewed for the documentary. It was a lot of fun actually, sometimes after four or five takes it was less fun but Laxmi and I made silly jokes about it and giggled quite a lot through the whole process.

Phil and Ajay checking the trophies.

The big day was marching towards us though and we finally met with all of the remaining racers at registration in The North Face store on Tridevi Marg, on the outskirts of Thamel.
It was a fun day spent handing out race numbers & kit bags, and chatting with nervous competitors about what was in store for them over the next ten or so days.

The T-Mc. More Yak Attacks than any other international ever! Four and counting.
Rainer Hillbrand and Alex Heidenberger
Phil Evans with Ajay Pandit Chhetri, 5 x Champion! Still No1!

And then, before we knew it, race day arrived.
The Greenline bus station almost opposite the North Face store was our chaotic meeting point (all of Kathmandu is chaotic!).
Racers, local riders, supporters, press, and the logistics team were scattered in packs all around, performing last minute checks, loading kit bags, and generally socialising. Phil left early with the lead vehicle to complete the route markings & Aid Stations, and prepare the finish point.

┬ęSacar Sherchan
┬ęSacar Sherchan
┬ęSacar Sherchan

Nepal’s National Champion Ajay Pandit Chhetri had the honour of leading the procession to the start line, 10kms away at the entrance to The Shivapuri National Park, and I followed at the back as we weaved our way through the belching traffic.

┬ęSacar Sherchan
┬ęSacar Sherchan

Riders received blessings, a tikka, and a khata for luck. (A tikka is a little red dot applied to the forehead. A khata is a silk scarf adorned with mantras and draped around the neck).
A few minutes prior to starting I got a frantic call from Phil who had been delayed at the first Aid-Station, and I in turn had to delay the start by thirty minutes. Nervous riders shuffled around. As a racer when you get to this point all you want to do is get under way.
Nervous riders shuffled some more.
Shanti Sherpa, owner of title sponsor The North Face – Nepal, gave a short speech to the riders and then dropped the proverbial flag.
A scurrying flurry of 29 racers shot off in to the distance.
The dreaded Number Thirty (Me – The Sweeper) shot off in hot pursuit of the back-markers shortly after.
Yak Attack was Go!

All of the Nepali riders together.
Ajay and I at the start line.
Stage One – 47kms: Shivapuri to Nuwakot begins with a hot and humid climb through dense jungle singletrack followed by an epic 15km descent all the way down to the river where it levels out on to 10kms of rough jeep track, and then the sting in the tail, 5kms of steep, loose, hot, brutal, jungle trail to the finish line.
I spent the day with Bibhuti Jha, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army. He’s was a really nice guy, great company, intelligent, with excellent English, but hopelessly out of his depth.
The Indian army sent a team of six. Five were very fit and reasonably capable riders, at different levels of experience; Bibhuti was sent along to accompany them as a senior officer.
He had a great never-say-die spirit but lacked the basic technical skills for riding on rugged trail. He pushed up most of the climbs, pushed down quite a lot of the descents, and happily tootled along on the easier sections. I gave him a bit of coaching and offered some simple advice from time to time to help him along. It was a long and very slow day but enjoyable none the less. I liked him a lot.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bibhuti Jha on the Shivalaya singletrack.
I had plenty of time to stop and take photographs.
Earthquake damage was obvious everywhere in the valley.

At the second Aid Station, located at the bottom of the final climb, we stopped to fill our water bottles and grab a snack. We had fun with some local kids and laughed as they tried to ride our over-sized bikes in flip-flops. Then we took on the final challenge. The climb is hard and is exposed to the heat of the midday sun. It is only 5kms and it doesn’t go on forever but it feels like it does!
We were glad to finally roll over the finish line at the football field on the edge of the village.
The first night at Nuwakot is always a treat. The Famous Farm Hotel, a beautiful old Newari building, is perched high on the ridge-line with spectacular views across the Himalayan foothills and is bathed by a glorious sunset. It’s an enchanting place. We all relaxed, enjoyed delicious home-cooked food, chatted about the days events, and drank a beer or two (some of us).

┬ęSacar Sherchan

Stage Two – 80kms: Trisuli to Ghorka (Not Dharka! – Personal joke, long story, See here for details of that little misadventure!).

During Yak Attack there are three stages that give riders the heebie-jeebies. This is the first one.
The excitement of the first day is gone and reality starts to bite; and stage two has big teeth! 80kms long and 2601m of ascent, none of which is easy. It’s a brutal stage and has a lot of riders worrying about the cut-off times. It can also be punishingly hot; temperatures up to 40c have been recorded in previous years. Fortunately the weather this year was more benevolent and the temperatures were reasonably comfortable. The change from racing in March to racing in November has proven to be a good decision, not least for the racers.
We began the day with another 10km+ group ride, mostly down hill on sealed road, to the start line just outside Trisuli. Ajay leading out and me bringing up the rear.

Roan Tamang has some tools in his box! ┬ęSacar Sherchan
The group ride through Trisuli. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

The stage has a baptism of fire, just to unsettle the riders that little bit more, a horrible 10km/800m+ climb to Samaribhanjang on very rough trail, and it gets harder and steeper the further up it you go. For my money it is one of the hardest individual climbs of the whole race, it is then followed by a further 70kms of purgatory. The stage is like a 4-in-1 separated by the three aid stations, the trail surfaces vary considerably, rough jeep road, rocky singletrack, soft & loose sand, eye watering dust clouds,  and river crossings that wash out drive-trains and cause chains to snap.

On the gas! Peter Butt, Yuki Ikeda, Aayman Tamang, Ajay Pandit Chhetri. ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Assuming the position. The dreaded sweeper! ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Yuki Ikeda fording a river. ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Nepal National Champion Ajay Pandit Chhetri stamping his considerable authority all over Stage Two. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

As expected I was accompanying Bibhuti once again. Some way up the first climb Bibhuti asked me roughly how far we had come so far and suggested to me “15… 20?” I took a deep breath and replied “about 6 or 7kms”. It looked set to be a very long day!
By the time we summited the second brutal climb and arrived at the Aid Station we were already well behind time to make the 7.5 hour cut-off at Aid Three. We stopped for a break, filled our water bottles, and chatted with the marshals. I tentatively put forward the suggestion of calling it a day but Bibhuti was in fine spirits and wouldn’t have any of it, he felt that he could comfortably ride for another two or three hours yet. I knew that the next section was somewhat easier and agreed to continue and assess again at the second Aid Station.

The Man, The Machine! Australian Yak Attack veteran Peter Butt. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

We pushed on, continuing to climb steadily up the ridge. I sat slightly ahead for most of the time, trying to keep the pace a little higher and to reduce the number of breaks. It might seem a bit harsh but the longer we were out on the course the longer the marshals and support crew would be out there too.

The descent down to the river valley is a long and exhilarating one; I took to letting off the brakes and enjoying myself for a couple of minutes and then waiting for Bibhuti to catch up, before setting off to plunder a bit more of it. Eventually it leads to a long and relatively flat traverse of the valley floor all the way to the second Aid Station. Again I sat slightly out front as Bibhuti trundled along a little way behind me, we were losing a lot of time.

Australian Fat-Biker Matt Rousu pulling in to Aid-Two. ┬ęSacar Sherchan  

The second Aid Station sits at a junction in the road where a bridge crosses the adjacent river. We were the last ones to arrive by a long margin and were now so far off the cut that I pulled the plug almost immediately. I think Bibhuti was quite relieved and happily conceded to ride the remainder in the jeep, he gracefully shook my hand and thanked me for the company. I filled my bottles, stood on the pedals, and set out at a fast pace, in a futile attempt to catch the next riders out there.

Nepal’s Raj Kumar Shrestha and Roan Tamang tend to a puncture. ┬ęSacar Sherchan 
The tenacious Tan Tryhorn (Australia) navigating a tricky suspension bridge. ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Roan and Raj Kumar again,  pushing hard on your average Yak Attack climb. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Section three is another hard one. It includes two short (by Nepali standards) but very steep climbs. I was pretty much full-gas all the way and by the time I arrived at the final Aid Station I was hanging.
I’d made up about fifty minutes on the last riders, the Swedish brothers Mithras and Morris, but they were still about forty minutes in front so I loaded the bike in to the support jeep and we set off to try and catch them before the finish line. It turned out that Mithras and Morris had made the cut-off with ninety seconds left on the clock! I was really pleased for them, we had become good friends in Kathmandu, and I knew that Mithras in particular was really worried about this stage.

It wasn’t long before I was reconsidering my decision to ride in the jeep. Ajay the driver was bonkers. At one point we were passing through a village when he suddenly screamed out “Chicken” and slammed hard on the brakes.
I laughed. Phil always warns the riders to avoid hitting chickens, apparently it’s a bad thing to do, but we never knew why. I asked Dipen and Ajay why it was so important not to kill a chicken, thinking that they must have some kind of special spiritual significance. The explanation was simpler than that; killing a chicken can cost upwards of $150! Apparently the owner of the deceased bird can demand any amount of compensation they choose based upon the potential number of eggs it might lay in its lifetime and the value of the meat. That’s a lot of money for a chicken; I can buy one already cooked in Sainsbury’s for ┬ú4.99!
In the misogynistic Nepali society killing a cockerel/rooster is even worse. Why? “Because it’s a male” was the reply. I shook my head.

Mithras Ljungberg near the end of the brutal Stage Two.

We finally caught up with Mithras and Morris with about five or six kilometres left. I chatted with them briefly through the window as we rolled in slowly behind them.
With the exception of Bibhuti everyone had finished. It was another good day.

Korean Kijung Kim is followed in to the finish area by the UK’s Paul Cooper. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

By the time Phil and I arrived at the hotel in Gorkha darkness had fallen. All of the hotel rooms had been allocated to the riders and we were going to have stay at a different one just down the road.
In my mind there were two options here. Either the race officials were getting a penthouse suite with a swimming pool, or a shithole.
It was the shithole! ­čśÇ
Actually that’s unfair. It was perfectly alright, it may not have been luxurious but it was clean and simple, and it had a hot shower. That’s all you need.

At the evening briefing we got a bit of a scare when Frederik Malmberg took a turn for the worst and had to be assisted back to his room. Fortunately it turned out to be nothing too serious; the effects of dehydration and heatstroke. The race doctor accompanied him to the local hospital to get checked out properly. Some medication and a good nights sleep saw him toeing the start line for stage four.

Stage Three – 40kms: Ghorka to Besi Sahar (The Time-Trial one)

Frederik Malmberg toeing the line after his medical scare the evening before.

This is the only stage in the entire race that offers the luxury of a down hill start (a full seven kilometres!). As usual we had a (thankfully short) group ride to the start line on the edge of town. We were greeted on our arrival by a host of local ladies in traditional dress, who gave all of the riders the customary blessings and then proceeded to clap continuously while we prepared for the start. After a few minutes I suggested to one of our logistics team that they might want to tell them to take a break, we were going to be at the start line for a good thirty minutes or more! Imagine standing there clapping for that long!

 ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Receiving my blessing in Gorkha. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

The 40km time-trial format of this stage came about a few years back after a first-corner crash during The Trans-Nepal race had wiped out a big group of riders. The riders leave at one minute intervals starting with the lowest ranked first. This means that everyone finishes the stage much closer together. The slower riders get to race at the front for a while until the elite level racers eventually roar past them somewhere down the road.
This stage used to be 60km but Phil wisely decided that racing the final 20km on the paved road was too risky with all the traffic, and it now finishes at the junction with the main road and a group ride in to town. With 700m of climbing thrown in it isn’t exactly a walk in the park but it is definitely the easiest stage.

One by one I set the riders underway. As race leader Yak Attack veteran Yuki Ikeda (Japan) was the last to leave.

As current race leader Yuki Ikeda was last to go.

I waited around for a few minutes so that I might get a clear run at the descent; it’s fast and loose with some great corners, and I fancied pinning it all the way to the bottom! That notion was laid to rest after about three of those great corners. As I swept around a wide bend, kicking up a rooster tail of dust, I happened upon Rainer Hillbrand (Austria) with his bike inverted at the side of the trail. Puncture.
Every year the race throws up a surprise package; this year it was Rainer Hillbrand. Fifty-five year old Rainer is the owner of an outdoor equipment store in his native country. He is also an astonishing athlete who was mixing it up with the young guns from day one, putting the wind up riders more than half his age. Amazing guy.

The inspirational Rainer Hillbrand from Austria.

Once Rainer was re-inflated we bombed down the trail.
We passed through a small town, crossed over a bridge, and joined a paved road section. Rainer, in race mode, was too strong for me, so I eased off on the pedals once the road started to kick up steep and let him drift off in to distance.

It was perhaps twenty minutes before I caught the first of the back markers (Rainer was long gone by this point!), the other two Swedes Frederik Malmberg and Elias Sjostrom were resting at the top of the climb and taking photographs. Elias was feeling a little under the weather too and they had elected to take it a little bit easier.
It wasn’t too long before we rolled up behind Bibhuti and I waved goodbye to them. It was back to cruising along with the Lieutenant-Colonel. With perhaps 10km remaining Bibhuti suffered a mechanical fault so rather than mess around trying to fix it we secured his bike to the jeep and I set off alone again to try and catch up with whoever was next. It was nice to be able to stretch my legs and go at it at full steam; I really enjoyed going at the trail in full attack mode!

The race is on. Elias Sjostrom chasing down Frederik Malmberg ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Nepal Elite: Aayman Tamang ┬ęSacar Sherchan
 Nepal’s Female National Champion Laxmi Magar ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Swedish brothers Mithras Ljungberg & Morris Hasselberg ┬ęSacar Sherchan

I didn’t catch anyone, we had been too far adrift; I rolled in to the finish with a cheer from everyone waiting there, I may also have pulled a wheelie for the camera’s.
The bulk of the finishers had already ridden in to town so the rest of us jumped in to the support vehicles for an easy cruise to the hotel.
The hotel had a swimming pool! Yeti Travels had pulled it out of the bag again! I was used to staying in a slightly less-than-luxurious place in Besi Sahar, not this year, no sir-eee! ­čÖé

Me having fun chasing the pack!  ┬ęSacar Sherchan

After settling in Phil and I went in to town on a mission to find supplies for the Aid Stations. All of the Torq Performance stuff that should have been available throughout the race was stuck in an airport in China due the blockade/fuel crisis, so we mustered up whatever we could. Peanuts, cereal bars, trail mix, oranges, a couple of hundred bananas, anything really that we thought might fuel hungry racers. We laughed a lot at our rubbish negotiating techniques. The local shopkeepers had a good days trading.

By the end of stage three riders start to get depleted. Hard racing, in an extreme race, in an extreme environment, wreaks havoc with the body leaving you vulnerable to infections. In a partially weakened state the immune system comes under constant attack, and with a large group of people spending many hours in close confines someone is going to go down. Today Australian Matt Rousu, Swedish racer Elias Sjostrom, and Japanese racer Tetsuo Shimoda where the first ones to succumb to stomach problems, late in the day. Observers can get the impression that everyone gets sick during Yak Attack, that’s not true; but it does happen and it will always happen. International racers going in to an alien environment are the most likely to suffer but it also takes down local riders too. It is normally about five to ten percent of racers at any given point, this year that meant that two or three riders were likely to be suffering with something each day. The medical support is very good and everyone gets treated quickly and effectively. If you are unfortunate enough to be stricken with something it usually only lasts about twenty four hours, sadly for the worst effected than can mean a stage DNS or DNF (Did Not Start/Did Not Finish).

Stage Four – 72kms: Besi Sahar to Chame. The (mostly) uphill one.

Gathering for the group ride. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

It’s another of those heebie-jeebie days! A lot of steep relentless climbing, with the worrying spectre of cut-off times. That’s worth repeating: a lot of steep, relentless, climbing!
The cut-offs are actually very generous to be fair and unless you are having a very bad day you will get in comfortably. They’re not  really anything to worry about, unless you are very sick…
Because we were now going in to the mountain stages we had a chat with Bibhuti and suggested that he might better support his team from the Aid Stations. He was very gracious about it and took our advice. His bike was loaded on to the jeep and he would rejoin it again in Kagbeni for the final stage. He had already DNF’d so he wouldn’t be getting a finish time anyway.

The stage starts at the bottom of a hill about a kilometre from town, on the Annapurna Circuit proper. It undulates for a little while and then begins its march ruthlessly skywards. 72kms and close to 3000m of ascent with the finish at 2700m above sea level. That’s about the point where altitude starts to have a significant impact.
Sounds like a whole heap of fun doesn’t it! Yeehaw!

Annapurna. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Because of the potential for a very long day, and changeable mountain weather, I strapped on my Alpkit Koala Seatpack and loaded it up with extra clothes. In fact it stayed on for the next three stages.
I got to cruise along with a few folk at the rear for a while. until the climbing began in earnest and the field finally started to string out.
Elias pulled over around the 15km mark and called it a day, he was too weak from an infection to carry on. It’s a heartbreaking decision to make and I really felt for him.
For most people Yak Attack is a huge investment, not only in time and money, but physically and emotionally too.
When I crashed in 2013 I had no decision to make, the dislocation put it out of my hands. To have to call it yourself must be almost unbearable. He cut a forlorn figure as he climbed in to the jeep.

The early part of the stage isn’t too bad! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

I pushed on. I had a job to do. The next rider was Tetsuo Shimoda, a Vet50, from Japan, hailing out of Breckenridge in Colorado, who was also suffering badly from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. By the time we rolled in to the first Aid Station at about 20km we were considerably behind schedule for the cut-off at Aid Two.
Australian Fat-Biker Matt Rousu (He was racing on a Fat Bike, he isn’t a fat cyclist!) was also there and struggling badly with diarrhea and fatigue.
I got them both together and chatted with them about the possibility of pulling out, suggesting that they could consider going in the support jeep, saving energy and recovering for the next stages, but it would be their decision either way. It would mean that they would be out of the race standings but still able to continue. I found it emotionally really difficult, I know how much it hurts, and was choking back tears when Matt broke down for a few minutes.
It wasn’t something I would want to consider, and I genuinely didn’t want either of them to quit, but I had to give them an option, and sometimes we can all be too stubborn to admit when we are done.
Matt came to me after a few minutes of consideration and said that he wanted to try and make the cut. I shook his hand, “Good decision dude”. Tetsuo was of the same mind. We moved on.
Matt left us behind fairly quickly. Tetsuo was deteriorating fast.

If Ajay has to get out of the saddle then you know it’s steep! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Part way up a steep climb Tetsuo stopped for another toilet break, after ten or so minutes of shitting and vomiting I had to make the decision for him. Another casualty boarded the jeep.
I pushed on again. Matt was stood outside the little restaurant adjacent to the Chyamche waterfall after stopping to use the toilet. I pulled over. Matt made his second dash to the toilet in as many minutes. We sat and chatted for a few minutes. He made the painful decision to pull out by himself. He wanted to ride the rest of the race and knew that if he continued on today that he might put that in jeopardy.

Yuki Ikeda being tended by medics after suffering a collision. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

We loaded our bikes on to the support vehicles.
I went on ahead with the lead jeep. Vivek Basnyat, the owner of race logistics partner Yeti Travels, was the man behind the wheel.
We chatted merrily the whole way, he was an interesting guy, and handled the four-wheeled drive monster superbly. The road around this area is very dangerous and very exposed, I was very pleased to have such an experienced and precise pilot.
Frederik had pulled in to the second Aid Station just before us.
He was twenty minutes out of the cut-off time.
I looked him over and we had a brief chat about how he was feeling. I looked at my watch and weighed the situation up. The trail conditions were good. I knew that the worst of the climbing was behind us. I also knew that the last six or seven kilometres of the stage were relatively flat.
As a race official I made a judgement call, I wasn’t about to eliminate a healthy rider for the sake of twenty minutes (see, I’m not a complete bastard!). I also believed that Frederik could make it in comfortably before dark, so that was that. I grabbed my bike from the roof of the jeep and we set off for Chame at a high tempo.

Tyler McMahon grinding it out.
Tyler McMahon and Guy Dekelver grinding it out!

A Korean film crew were following their countryman, the slightly eccentric Kijung Kim, throughout the whole race. (Actually he’s completely bonkers! But in a nice way).
They were very excited about our arrival at the finish for some reason. 
With a camera almost touching my nose their interpreter asked me “Neil, what is it like to come last every day? How does it feel for you?”
“Well” I replied “It’s my job to come last every day. I’m The Sweeper”. This seemed to cause some confusion.  I reiterated my point and laughed “I’m the race sweeper. It’s what I do. I come in with the last rider“.
A very brief and very animated discussion took place before they about turned and promptly marched off to interview someone else. I don’t think they ever filmed me again! ­čśÇ

Guy Dekelver feeling the burn! ┬ęSacar Sherchan 
Paul Cooper, UK. ┬ęSacar Sherchan 
Tan Tryhorn and Bart Jan van Beuzekom plugging away.  ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Bart Jan van Beuzekom and Tan Tryhorn . ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Stage Five – 30kms: Chame to Manang.
Chame sits in a deep, sheer sided, ravine, flanked on both sides by huge peaks. Glacial melt-water rushes through in the river below. The race no longer passes through the foothills.
This is The Himalaya.

Ajay Pandit Chhetri and Narayan Gopal battling it out. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

The way to Manang flows upwards through primal forest before opening out in to Mustang terrain. A desert-like tundra, not dissimilar to Utah in The U.S. It’s a beautiful stage if the weather is fair.
We were blessed with fine weather. The altitude however begins to throttle riders with an asphyxiating grip. At 30kms and 1000m or so of climbing it can look relatively straight forward, it isn’t. The reward for arriving in Manang, a rest and acclimatisation day (and bakeries & good coffee), is enough to spur on weary riders. 
I spent most of my day accompanying Tetsuo. Tetsuo laboured with tremendous character, determined to ride as much of the circuit as possible. Our progress was painfully slow. Most of the climbing is done during the first half of the stage and eventually I had to ask him to take the jeep again.
It was an easier decision this time, he had effectively retired from the race yesterday.

The higher you go the bigger it gets. ┬ęSacar Sherchan 
Sonam Drukpa, Bhutan, styling the bunny hop! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

I battled my way up what remained of the brutally steep climb, relishing another opportunity to ride at a harder pace.
The descent in to the valley is shaded and cold, and holds on to some snow pack. This year the snow wasn’t too bad, which made the descent a little more pleasurable than I had been used to previously. The real delight was to come. Normally the traverse across the valley is a miserable, tyre-sucking, mud-fest. With the dry conditions the ground was pretty firm and I whizzed along merrily all the way to Manang. Hammering on the pedals for all I was worth! Coffee and cake were within touching distance and I wanted some of it!

The landscape begins to change as we head in to Mustang territory!

I love Manang; I think it’s my favourite place during the whole race. Not just because we get a day off, and coffee and cake, but because it so awe inspiringly beautiful. It is a clash of old and new, ancient houses and modern trekking lodges, a dramatic landscape of desert and Himalayan giants, overlooked by Buddhist temples and dripping glaciers. It also has cake.

Sunbathing in Braga.

We awoke on the rest day to find that Paul Cooper, a Yak Attack veteran, a hard man of the hills, a friend, hailing out of Sunderland in the north-east of England, was confined to barracks. He got sick overnight after arriving in Manang. Paul is such a nice guy, and even through adversity he maintained his cheery disposition. I was rooting for him to recover quickly.

Welcome to The Yeti Lodge.
A view from the lodge.

 We all went our separate ways for a while, some headed out on a guided walk around the valley and hills, others chilled out and recovered from fatigue. Morris and Mithras wanted to go and get some photographs together, with big mountain backgrounds. I knew just the spot. The village of Braga lies a short way back down the trail from Manang, it is an unspoiled wonder of ancient houses, temples, and bridges, with a pristine backdrop.

Neil Cottam. ┬ęMorris Hasselberg
Neil Cottam. ┬ęMorris Hasselberg
Neil Cottam. ┬ęMorris Hasselberg

Whilst out with Morris and Mithras I had spotted a few gnarly lines in the landscape that I wanted to try and ride. We’re not exactly talking Red Bull Rampage here but on a 100mm hardtail they weren’t exactly straight forward either. I stripped everything off the bike that I didn’t need and stuffed my Alpkit Atom Litepak with some clothes for a bit of back protection in case I f***ed it up!
I’m not one for getting big air, I don’t mind getting my wheels off the ground, but I prefer really good technically difficult riding these days. When it comes it comes to stuff like this my mate Mitch Bryan is a surgeon, he can slice his way down a rock garden with poise and precision, he has beautiful technique. I, on the other hand, have a tendency to be a Blacksmith with a big hammer; hence the backpack.
Phil grabbed his camera and GoPro and we rolled back out of town to get some promo footage. (or perhaps Phil was hoping for a monumental cock-up on my part to get himself some nice little YouTube clips! The varmint!)
We found some really cool stuff. Some of the lines I wanted to try had poor run-outs in to a forest of thorn bushes, others were OK. 
The best stuff to ride ended up being right in the middle of the village. Tiny little foot-ways following the path of least resistance, and a huge set of stone stairs dropping steeply from a temple up on the hill. You can see some of the results in the video posted above.
It was great.

Another view of the Manang Valley.

Stage Six – 16kms: Manang to Thorong Phedi (The toughest 10 miles on earth).

The way to Phedi. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

16kms. Easy right? Nope!
Think about this: on your average trail a rider can comfortably do 20km an hour without too much trouble.
The route to Thorong Phedi can take upwards of four hours. Four kilometres an hour! On a bike.
At sea-level a nice walking pace is 5 or 6km/hour. The oxygen saturation and not the level of difficulty is what comes in to play here. The trail itself is actually quite nice, lovely noodling singletrack climbing a thousand metres. The instant it points up slightly it becomes almost un-rideable for most mortals. Some Yak Attackers are less mortal than others. With a distinct lack of snow and mud the dry trails meant record pace, even for the back-markers. Everyone sailed in in under 3h 35m!
Stage winner Narayan Gopal Maharajan did it in 1h 35m 48s. Unbelievable!

It’s not all up. Yuki Ikeda about to enjoy some gravity. ┬ęSacar Sherchan 
Roan Tamang enjoying it too! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

We start with a cruise through the little alleyways that lead out of town and begin the stage at the base of an ordinary looking climb (Hah!), which summits near a chorten and then eases to more undulating (updulating) terrain. It’s only when you begin to pedal up it that you realise the gravity of the situation (pun intended!). Anywhere else in the world you might snigger at someone struggling with such a trifling ascent. Within a couple of hundred metres virtually all but the elites are off and pushing, breathless. You can’t quite believe that you are not able to ride.
Things settled down and I got in to a steady rhythm riding with the kooky, and also slightly bonkers, Tan Tryhorn from Australia (I see a theme developing here!).
Tan rode in 2014 too and she’s proved beyond doubt the value that good training can achieve. Last year she finished last, this year she was mixing it up with the boys! Today though she was finding it a struggle and I let her in to the secret of surviving at altitude. Spin and recover. Spin at a cadence you are comfortable with, staying just within your limits, no more no less, and only attack very short sections where necessary, otherwise you grind to a halt. Take every opportunity to recover oxygen to the muscles, this means easing slightly at even the smallest depression in the trail, the body responds remarkably quickly and even just a second or two will give you the boost you need to continue spinning upwards. It’s a very simple process and one that will get you  to the top of virtually any trail efficiently, and especially at this height.

Tan Tryhorn and I pushing up the steep incline near Deorali. ┬ęSacar Sherchan 

The weather, as usual now, held fair. The trail conditions were superb and virtually the whole route was rideable, with just the odd very short push/carry on the too-steep-to-ride bits.
It was even pleasant at Thorong Phedi, and that’s not something you will hear said very often! We are normally greeted with a whiteout, snow, and extremely cold temperatures. People were sitting in the sunshine enjoying cups of tea!
After dinner and the daily stage briefing everyone slipped off quickly to bed. The thought of a restless nights sleep at 4500m and a 4.00am start in the morning puts paid to any evening socialising in Phedi. 

Stage winner Narayan Gopal making it look easy as he passes a cycle tourist on the trail. ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Tan and I enjoying the way to Thorong Phedi.  ┬ęMatt Rousu.

Stage Seven – 25kms: Thorong Phedi to Kagbeni (The Pass day).
The fearsome Thorong La Pass, the one feature that sets Yak Attack apart from any other race on the planet.
5416m above sea level.
This is the stage that has people talking about it the most, and fearing the most. On a bad day it is a brutal and deadly environment, the wind chill alone can bring you to tears. On a benign day you could be fooled in to thinking otherwise; it is however always an exercise in oxygen-deprived, godforsaken, abject misery.
Never underestimate Thorong La.

As is often customary in Nepal the early breakfast we had ordered was late. This meant the start was again delayed. By the time I had everyone lined up in to something like race order it was 04.30am.

┬ęSacar Sherchan
┬ęSacar Sherchan
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Morris and Mithras descending. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Within a few minutes the cluster of headtorches became a snaking line tramping gradually up the steep face. The 5km hike-a-bike to the summit gains over 900m in height. Most of it comes in the first 30 or 40 minutes from Thorong Phedi to the trekking outpost of High Camp. Another baptism of fire, and the higher you go the harder it gets. Gradual it may be after High Camp but it doesn’t get any easier. Every time, every time!, I ascend Thorong La I swear I am never doing it again! I reached the summit in 3h 15m. If you had asked me a few minutes before I would have been certain I had been walking for five hours. The conditions though were superb, with only minimal snow cover for the most part, but it felt, for me, like the hardest one yet. Several of us arrived at the summit around the same time (I was absolved of sweep duties today, we had organised a walking sweep team to follow through). Rajan Bandari (the race mechanic), Raj Kumar Shrestha, Tetsuo, and Morris & Mithras were all in attendance.
For the first time in four visits I finally got myself a summit photo. In previous years I had “gotten outta Dodge” as quickly as possible.

Thorong La 5416m.

And then it began… 
20km/2500m of gratuitous gravitational glory!
If you had the tools, and a smattering of derring-do, it was possible to ride all the way from the summit cairn.
We were trail pirates plundering the bounty!
Never before had it been possible to ride from the summit, it was normal to carry the bike at least another 3kms down the snow laden precipitous slopes. I had drooled over YouTube videos for years.
Today we were living the dream. The snow pack at the top was ridden mostly sideways like a speedway racer. Once we cleared the snowline most of the steep, hairpinned corners were ridden sideways too! (I want to swear a lot, right now!)
Everything from drifty corners to technical singletrack and all things in between! Steep, loose, bonkers. I can die a happy man.
It wasn’t quite the greatest day of my life, but it was one of them!

Just about to step across my bike for one of the most exhilarating singletrack descents ever! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

At the base of this cycling dreamscape the ground levels out a little and we swooped through the multiple lines of rocky singletrack, popping, hopping, and skidding all the way to Muktinath.
Rajan and I checked in with the guys at the Aid Station for a few minutes then whipped out of town on the screamingly fast jeep road to Kagbeni, a virtual game of chicken ensued, trading the lead, racing each other, trying not brake through the wide gravelly corners, and laughing a lot. Yeehaw some more!

Laxmi Magar in Kagbeni bearing the scars of a high speed crash during the descent.

One of the best things about this day, what with the horrible 4.00am start, is that you finish very early! We were sat in the sunshine, seemingly swimming in oxygen, and recounting our adventure, all before 09.30. It’s strange to think that on the way up the lack of oxygen at Manang feels choking whilst down here in Kagbeni it feels rich and glorious. Both sit at 3500m. The human body is a remarkable machine.

Roan Tamang won the stage in an astonishing 2h 55m. 21 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. 20 minutes before I reached the summit!

The other best thing about this day is YakDonalds.
Fresh hand prepared yak meat ambrosia. Everyone loves YakDonalds.
(Except Phil Evans, who is a vegetarian. He likes the apple cider though!)

YakDonalds and the infamous Apple Cider! I think I’m ready for a shower and a shave!

Stage Eight – 58kms: Kagbeni to Tatopani. The (mostly) downhill one.

The way to Tatopani!

And so we begin the final day, the mostly down hill one, with an uphill start! It’s a steep one too; the concertina effect of 29 riders piling up the same bit of trail ends up with quite a few racers having to get off and push. Not something you’d expect on the downhill stage!
After that it’s largely plain sailing.  About 35 kilometres of fast undulating jeep road with odd river crossing thrown in for good measure before a balls-out, big-ring, don’t-dab-the-brakes, 25km decent from Kalopani all the way to the finish line at Tatopani.
It’s absolutely ace!

Lieutenant-Colonel Bibhuti Jha in the shadow of Dhaulagiri.

I rode the first twenty-or-so kilometres along the valley and through Jomsom with the Lieutenant-Colonel. This was a day that I would really have liked to have kept up with the racers.
Bibhuti and I almost left Jomsom on the wrong side of the valley! We missed a turn; fortunately I realised our mistake fairly quickly and detoured across a suspension bridge and back on to the route.
On the short climb out of Jomsom Bibhuti snapped his chain. With no spare quick-link to repair it his race was over yet again.
If I’m honest I was actually a bit relieved; selfishly I really wanted to hammer it today. I left him at the side of the trail with strict instructions to wait for the jeep as I headed towards the Aid-Station, a couple of kilometres away, to let them know the situation.
I had a cup of tea with Rajan and then decided it was time for me to chase down the next riders, a good 25-30 minutes ahead by all accounts. Excellent, the race was on! ­čÖé

If truth be told I really wanted to fly past Mithras on the downhill
(Purely for devilment and my own childish amusement you understand!)
I went at it as hard as I could. Just before the trail starts to drop I caught up with Elias & Frederik, made sure that they were okay and then left them to it. I knew that the broom-wagon was following through just behind so I had no concerns about abandoning them on the trail.
Not long after that I came cross Indian Army racer Mukesh Kumar. These Indian Army boys are made of stern stuff; a crash the previous day left him pedaling the stage with one leg! And he wasn’t last! (On Stage Four another one of them ran 30kms with the bike after snapping his chain, he didn’t finish last either! Unbelievable character.) Again I made sure that he was okay before letting go of the brakes and plummeting headlong towards Tatopani. 
As the village came in to view I thought I’d blown my chance to wind up Mithras, when all of a sudden I spotted them rolling in to the little alleyway that passes through the centre of the village. 
Oh Yeah! I laughed to myself, gave it one more hard push on the pedals and managed to squeeze past both of them, hollering obscenities as I did so.
Mithras hollered a few back!
All that was left for us to do was PARTY!

Comrades in arms, sharing a beer. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Watching on as my friends Mithras and Morris finish Yak Attack 2015. ┬ęSacar Sherchan
Laxmi being interviewed by the American film crew.
The Nepali contingent relaxing at the finish.
The actual finish line!
A little welcome sign made for us by the hotel owners children. 
See you next year! ┬ęSacar Sherchan

The temperate weather, dry trails, minimal snow, descending Thorong La, fantastic accommodation, and superb logistical support, combined to make 2015 a truly world class event. But most of all, as always, it was the people who made it great.
The riders definitely had it easier this year, but that’s like comparing a life sentence in two different prisons.
Phil Evans’ Yak Attack dream is finally coming of age.
The 2016 “Upper Mustang” edition should send it in to the stratosphere!
I absolutely love this race and everything about it. Maybe I’ll do just one more…

Applications for 2016 are available here
You can see more of Yak Attack here:

You can follow Chase The Rainbow here;

The Podium. 1st Ajay Pandit Chhetri. 2nd Peter Butt. 3rd Narayan Gopal. 4th Aayman Tamang. 5th Yuki Ikeda. ┬ęSacar Sherchan

Thank you to Phil Evans for giving me this fantastic opportunity, I enjoyed it immensely.

For a man who doesn’t particularly relish public speaking or interviews Phil has become an adept and slick media machine after all these years! Haha ­čśÇ

Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed it please like, share, and tell your friends ­čÖé
See you next time!

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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