HANAH returns to Bhutan to ride the 10th annual Tour of the Dragon on Saturday September 7, 2019. The Tour of the Dragon starts in Bumthang, Bhutan, and travels 270 km over four Himalayan mountain passes before finishing in Thimphu town square. If interested in joining us in 2019 to experience one of the most magical kingdoms in the world, please visit our website HANAH Ventures or reach out to us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Joel Einhorn
This year’s Tour of the Dragon (ToD) was a different story in many ways. (Read about last year’s event: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
2017 was a fact finding mission. This year I was prepared. No surfing or upper body workouts for two months before the race. I started the race at 165 pounds rather than 180. I was also in decent shape. In terms of pre-production, we stepped it up a notch. We brought Scott Yorko with us, who is writing an article on the ToD for Red Bulletin, as well as Justin Bastien, Josh Huckabee and JD Raper.
These gents were introduced to us via the Red Bulletin and after the intro we realized we had a bunch of common friends. Justin and Josh worked on Jimmy Chin’s latest film Free Solo, so we all figured we’d mesh well and everyone would be able to endure the harsh conditions and long days. The idea was to arrive in Bhutan eight days before the race, acclimate, train and shoot. With filming and an elusive drone permit in place, we were off. Upon arrival in Bhutan the vibes were high, and we all quickly became close friends.
Shooting video can sound romantic. Even with an A team, shots need to be set up, and with variable light conditions and no controlled set, this can take time. Everything needs to come together and we all needed to be on top of our games at all times, which is exhausting. Our Bhutanese friends MK, Tshering and Arjun were by our sides the entire time and did their best to keep things running smoothly. As we were working together with the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) on the Tour of the Dragon video, we hired a local film crew led by Sonam and his gang of friendly filmers.
So we’re rolling deep in Bhutan, I managed to get a few training rides in, while the team got set up for the day of the race.
During the race, Justin shot photos, first and foremost, for Red Bulletin, and he needed to be able to move easily up and down the 268 km race course, dodge landslides, sinkholes, oncoming traffic, hundreds of cheering school kids, volunteers, cows and dogs, to capture the riders. The solution? A Bhutanese motorcycle rider named Thinley. We also need to get Josh, JD, a drone and all their camera gear up and down the course. It was a big job, and the boys pulled it off majestically with the support of our Bhutanese team.
The race started from Bumthang town square with a cheering crowd of locals at 2:00 a.m. when the 48 riders took off. The pace was quick up the first climb, which is about 45 km to the top of Yutong-la. Byron (of team HANAH), Scott and I made it up in a little over two hours, which was fast. Now we faced the uber-dangerous, muddy descent down to Trongsa. It was hairy in the pitch dark, but very doable running at about 50% of your downhill speed. All it takes is to come up on one bend and look over to see a sharp drop off. This kept me honest. As we arrived at the waterfall in Trongsa the sun began to rise. Up until now there had been no rain which is very unusual at this time of year. The views were majestic. Words will not come close to describing what this was like, as we started the 75 km climb up to Peli-La.
Partners in pain
At this point I was riding with Andy, an old friend of HRH from Oxford, and we could hardly believe what we were experiencing. We rode quickly up to Peli-La, and then I started to feel a sharp pain in my right knee. I dropped back alone and stopped to stretch it out. Last year on the descent to Trongsa, my right cleat came loose on my shoe. I had to tighten it in the thick mud, and it didn’t reposition in the correct spot. I rode another 200 km that day and something tweaked in my right knee. That small injury had silently haunted me for the past year, and now it decided to show up in full force. My cruising speed uphill had been between 15 and 20 km/hr. Now I was looking down and seeing 10km/hr along with a sharp pain on every stroke of the pedals.
One of the BOC cars drove up alongside me and asked if all was alright. I told them about my knee. They pulled over with me and gave me a herbal medicated knee patch along with a medicated spray. This cut the pain by just enough so I could continue. I took the spray with me in my jersey to be sure.
This dance went on until the finish. The pain unbearable. This is unfortunate and can seriously dictate the outcome of your day. I decided to spin high cadence and lighter gears, and to just keep going. I made it up to the top of Peli-La very quickly, arriving by about 11 a.m. This was quick. On the way we ran into the film and photo team along the route. Justin was hanging off the back of Thinley’s motorcycle in the deep mud and was able to grab some epic shots.
"Try your best!"
There was a great feeling of camaraderie in the air. Cyclists were stopping to help out other cyclists, and everyone was working together beautifully. As so happens in many of these events, there is the tendency for egos to take over. While we all wanted to finish, the chants of, “Try your best,” from the local Bhutanese children along the course encapsulated the overlying theme of this race. Work together, and try your best.
The newly paved descent down to Wandgue was insane. You take off from about 4,000 meters (11,000 feet) as you look over a huge valley. I stopped to look down and when you see the rivers and houses at the bottom of the valley it doesn’t seem real. The road stretched out ahead of us, carved out of the mountain, and visible enough that we could see there were no cars coming for a while. This enabled us to open it up and really fly down the new asphalt. The combination of new bitumen and mountain bike tires was like velcro, and the sensations were out of this world. The descent take a long time, even at high speeds. After about one hour, the air started to warm up heavily and we hit the bottom stretch of this descent down to Wangdue. As we neared the bottom and took a sharp left, we hit an area that is known as the windiest part of Bhutan. The wind was gusting around 50 km/hr and we were riding straight into it. The road was slightly downhill, and it was still necessary to pedal with a lot of power to his 24 km/hr. This was zapping me, as well as the heat.
Dochula aka "Dante's Inferno"
We’d made it to the bottom of Dochula. I’d bumped into His Royal Highness, Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck (HRH) for a second time and we had a nice chat as I approached the gates of Hades and/or enlightenment, which is what I was calling the Dochula climb all week “Dante’s Inferno”. At this point my knee was in tatters. I’d done the calculations and I had about 40 more kilometers to go to reach the top of Dochula. This climb is a beast. I’d say it’s the hardest paved bike climb in the world. And it messes with your head, and such a f*&ked up way. As I make a hard left on to the base of the real meat of the climb, with 40 km to go to the top, I'm greeted by a slew of waterfalls, monkeys, and a very hot wind. What’s so messed up about this climb is that I see it. It’s right in front of me, and it’s huge. It’s almost hard to conceive that I’m going to the top of that thing in front of me, covered in clouds and looking quite nasty. It’s monstrous, and the mind starts having conversations with itself, against my will.
The sun is beating on my back, and my feet start to ache. I’ve released tightness in my shoes was seems like five times in the valley, and they hurt. I stopped on the side of the road with 35 km to go and jumped in cold waterfall run off. This was a lifesaver. My feet had swollen up with the massive change in temperature and altitude, and were now feeling better. Back on the bike, the kilometers are ticking away very slowly. The knee is in bad shape, and there is no respite on this climb. It’s a steady 8% and it pitches to 10 and 14% in places, rarely dropping below 8%. This taxes the entire system.
With 20 km to go the weather started to cool down a bit and I settled in on a steady, pace with the desire to pick it up a bit on the last 10 km. I didn’t want to blow too early. My goal was to finish in under 16 hours, and this was definitely going to happen barring any disasters. As I creeped closer to the top, that top that looked so daunting from down below, I see that there are still a good 15 km to go. Turning the corner there it is, another mountain, on top of this mountain, to climb. This is what’s so devastating about this climb, it messes with your head. Cars and truck are visible far far away atop a misty and cold looking peak. But is that that peak? Who knows. I’m pissed. I figure the quickest way out of this purgatory is to just go faster. I pick up the pace by 50% and figure I’ll have enough energy to make it this last hour of climbing. The pain all over is quite heavy. The stomach is weird, knee in agony, like a tiny little magic dwarf knife in my patella. My undercarriage is begging for some Gold Bond (Thanks JD) and I’d really like a Druk Lager.
Right, let’s be quick then
I made it to the top at around 4:30 p.m. on September 1st. The BOC team, HANAH crew and film team were there to greet me, and it was a tremendously grateful moment to be standing there. I sent it on the descent down to Thimpu and finished the race at 17:09, 15 hours and 9 minutes after the 2:00 a.m. start.
The first person I saw at the finish line was Nidup Pelor, who had just arrived to the square. Nidup is the head of Bhutan Philanthropy Ventures, which organizes all of our trips to Bhutan, as well as our work with the traditional medicines. It was great to be greeted by my Bhutanese friend and partner at the finish.
The entire race was full of magical moments, the efforts of HRH, the Bhutan Olympic Committee, Tour of the Dragon, and over 1,200 volunteers that made our journey special. My hats off to the entire team who helped orchestrate such a magnificent bike ride.
I highly recommend joining HANAH next year for the 10th anniversary of the Tour of the Dragon. Learn more on our HANAH Ventures page here.
Learn more about "toughest single day mountain bike race in the world" the Tour of the Dragon:
- Prepping for Bhutan's Tour of the Dragon mountain bike race (Part 1 of 3)-
- HANAH ventures deep into Bhutan for the Tour of the Dragon mountain bike race (Part 2of 3)
- The Tour of the Dragon begins (Part 3 of 3)
- Tour of the Dragon—the toughest mountain biking race you’ve never heard of