By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
There are all kinds of ways to mark a milestone birthday. Some people choose to ignore it altogether, while others celebrate with big parties. And then there’s a handful, like JD Bergmann, who take the plunge and tackle something big on their bucket list.
For his 40th birthday, the Bay Area resident and Aptos High graduate decided to fly more than 6,000 miles to Mongolia to compete in what Outside magazine recently called “the hardest mountain biking race on earth.” The Mongolia Bike Challenge is an epic, six-stage mountain bike race in the land of Genghis Khan. It was Bergmann’s first time to the country, which is sandwiched between China to the south and Russia to the north. For the 375-mile race this past August, Bergmann traversed grassy steppe and climbed into mountainous terrain in a land that is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
The population of three million people, primarily Buddhist, is concentrated in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city — and the location for the start of the race. The Category 1 racer and member of Team Clif Bar Cycling typically competes against professional racers, but things shifted unexpectedly during his race. Spin City talks to Bergmann about his fat tire adventure where about a quarter of the 65 racers didn’t make it to the finish line.
Q: How did you decide to take this trip?
A: I’m primarily a road racer. For the past six years, I’ve traveled around the U.S. with my team racing the bigger criteriums. I do a few a mountain bike events. This trip was a birthday present to myself. I’d first heard about it two or three years ago and it appealed to me. It’s a way for me to go to a place I would never otherwise go. I had the chance to see a different culture and place. I had the bike as a way to connect with people.
Q: What did you notice about the culture?
A: The culture is way more Russian-influenced than I had thought. All the signs are in Cyrillic and the architecture looks like Eastern bloc facades. People are 10 times more likely to speak Russian than English. One night, after the race, we joined the one Mongolian racer for a night at the local bar. That was fun.
Q: Tell me about your athletic background.
A: I went to Aptos High School and UC San Diego. I didn’t start racing until later when I was 23 or 24. I got fat in college and when I was done I decided to do something. I did triathlons and then remembered I hated running. I discovered bike racing and that made things more fun. Before Mongolia, the Leadville Trail 100 in the Colorado Rockies was the hardest mountain bike race I’d done.
Q: What kind of training did you do for this event?
A: I did my normal road race training for crits plus one four-hour mountain bike ride per week. I usually rode after work, at night, solo in Albany and the Berkeley Hills. I ride about 15 to 20 hours a week and cover probably 250 to 400 miles a week. I work in a bike shop in the Bay Area and do massage therapy, so my work is flexible.
Q: Nutrition is a critical part of any endurance event. What was the food like?
A: The food was not particularly good. We actually both got stomach viruses before the race started — dysentery issues. That’s not good in the middle of these giant wide-open plains. As honored guests, we got the fattiest cuts of meat. In Mongolia the year-round average temperature is 5 degrees below zero; there are three months where it’s 40 degrees below zero. The food is 100 percent about calories, not taste. So we had beef, lamb or goat. The Mongolian soups were tasty. We also had pasta, drink mix and Clif bars. Good rice would have been good.
Q: How did getting sick right before the race impact your expectations?
A: I wasn’t going into it thinking to win, but I was expecting a top-10 finish and to race well. But when you end up with a crazy stomach bug the whole thing turns into, can I finish the race? I knew it would be hard, but it wasn’t a question of can I do this. For a lot of people there, it was a lifetime challenge.
Q: Where did you sleep?
A: I spent six nights in yurts called gers. They were touristy but of traditional construction. No one actually lives in them. There were six of us on beds with mattresses and a fireplace in the middle. One night we camped in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park by a beautiful river. My favorite thing is, one night there was thunder and lightning, and one of our Mongolian friends said, “The dragons are fighting.”
Q: Did you have to dodge yaks and wild horses? Describe the land.
A: No yaks. There were herds of cows, sheep and goats that would not move off the road, so you had to quickly zigzag through them. The scenery was amazing — completely mind-blowing. Mongolia truly is big sky country. You’ll be riding along and there are crazy green hills and white clouds. You can see cyclists off on the horizon miles away. There were plenty of times I was completely alone with no one for miles around; very cool. The solitude stuck out.
Q: What the hardest part of the race?
A: The second day, the longest hardest day of the whole thing, with 85 miles with 9K of climbing, I was halfway through at the top of the biggest climb. I had spent the whole night before the start throwing up. On the first day, none of the food was going to stay down. On Day 2, I was able to eat a little more, though not enough, plus I was stopping behind the bushes. That’s metaphorically because there were no bushes. At the top of the biggest climb, on Day 2, there was a rest stop and I laid down for five to 10 minutes. I had to regroup. For me, it’s all about the competition. It just comes down to letting as few people beat me as possible. I knew I would get up. If I were healthy the whole way through, it would have been a different race.
Q: What was the best part of the Mongolia Bike Challenge?
A: Getting to sleep every night in a ger halfway around the world. I went into this with an adventure mindset. For me, it was exactly what I expected. I wanted get off the grid and be out there in the middle of Mongolia. When you don’t have a phone and can’t speak the language, it feels like some crazy adventure. Who knows what could happen. We could die out here, I could get lost and never be found and you’d find me next spring. The biggest takeaway for me is going to different places outside out of your comfort is a good thing do.
The Mongolia Bike Challenge is open to both professional and amateur racers. For more information, visit: mongoliabikechallenge.com. Karen Kefauver (karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.