Frostbite and a handmade ‘Mad Max’ machine: training with the Mongolian national women’s cycling team

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Cycling can take you to amazing places and open doors to meeting incredible people. I’m from Melbourne yet today I’m on a bus heading to the outskirts of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. It’s a training day, so I’m carrying my cycling kit, pedals and a spare battery charger in case the cold weather causes my phone battery to freeze and die again. I’m on a bus rather than a bike because outside it’s a cool minus 26 degrees Celsius and the roads are slick with ice. I pass through suburbs of gers—traditional Mongolian felt houses similar to Russian yurts. Smoke rising from their roofs settles in a thick blanket across the city. The coal grit sticks in your teeth. This is the world’s coldest capital city, and one of the most polluted.

My bus stops outside a brick shed on the side of a hill. It’s an unlikely place for an Aussie cyclist to find herself, and an equally unlikely training headquarters for a national sports team. Inside that shed, however, are some seriously tough young women getting ready for the day’s training session. It is the home of the Mongolian Junior Women’s Cycling Team. It’s also quite literally the home of Coach Yanjingiin Baatar, who has converted his shed into a training facility. A former Olympic cyclist, Baatar raced in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964, and has dedicated his life to training young riders.

Baatar has been coaching women since the 1970s when Mongolia was still a communist state and the national cycling team was part of the armed forces. He has long since retired from the army, but not from coaching. And these days his focus is on elite junior women, the future of Mongolia’s bike racing.

Although cycling is growing in popularity in Mongolia, there are significant barriers to getting new riders involved.  The open steppes might be a mountain biker’s dream, but road conditions are not good, city traffic is chaotic and red lights are treated as meaning ‘give way, maybe’. Outside the city, roads deteriorate into potholed obstacle courses. The summer is short and winter is extreme. Year-round training for competitive road cycling in Mongolia requires extraordinary dedication.

The seven girls on the junior women’s team have that dedication. They are all teenagers with the youngest among them barely 14 years old.  They juggle high school, university and family commitments while putting in long hours on the bike six days a week. They are their own bike mechanics, and they train for both road and mountain bike racing. Assistant coach Orhontuya Batbaatar, who rides alongside the team, acknowledges that the time commitment the girls make is huge, but she says they do it to be the best they can be, because they really want to ride for their country.

When I started training with the girls it was still summer. We made the most of blue sky days and snow-free roads, heading to quieter areas north of the city. Our training diet consisted of hill repeats and motor pacing. We climbed up and down an unsealed hill, ignoring catcalls from road workers who didn’t appear to be much interested in actually sealing the road. Other days we motorpaced behind Coach Baatar’s SUV, aiming to spend as much time as possible grating our front tires against his rear bumper bar. I found it unnerving yet the girls seemed relaxed.

Towards the end of the summer, temperatures started dropping well below zero. I layered up clothes, piled on the gloves, but still the cold gets in. While the team seems unfazed by these conditions, there are days when I get home in tears because reheating my fingers and toes hurts so much. One day I discovered that there was no feeling in my thumb— my first frostbite experience, resulting in layers of lost skin. When I asked Batbaatar where she got her gloves, I expected the answer to be some mountaineering brand exclusive to Everest climbers and Mongolian cyclists. She revealed, however, that she buys them at the black market —the place for cheap clothes— and I shook my head in disbelief, wondering how I’m going to survive the winter.

Life became infinitely better when the volume of snow on the roads meant it was time to train mostly indoors. Somehow, two+ hours on an indoor trainer staring at the paint on the walls now seems like a blessing.

The indoor training facilities are novel, all crammed into a very small space. Besides two smart trainers, all the exercise equipment has been made by Coach Baatar himself. He has welded together whatever scrap metal he could find. The team trains on rollers he made. They do strength training on an unconventional leg-press machine lying on a wooden platform pushing metal plates in the air. They do sprint training on what I have christened the ‘Mad Max’ machine. This consists of three bike frames welded together with a motor attached to the chains that forces the rider to turn their legs over at above 146 rpm. The first ride was hell, and I walked like a horseman for days. The second ride was almost as bad. The girls comforted me, telling me it gets better, and they were right. It does get better. Eventually.

The greatest difficulty the team face is funding. The Mongolian economy is in decline. An estimated 28 % of the population lives below the poverty line, and the average annual income is under AU$6,000.  This makes the purchase of even an entry- level carbon road bike a significant investment. No one on the team rides a carbon frame. They use their brakes to the limits, ride their tyres down to thread, and time trial equipment is out of the question.

One day after training, the talk turned to the cost of bikes in Australia. ‘How much are they?’ I was asked. ‘How often do people buy new ones?’ I felt embarrassed to talk about what I paid for my beloved Malvern Star Oppy. It’s a fairly humble bike in the peloton at home, but here it sounds extravagant. A young rider named Bayanjargal dreamily told me she’d love to race on a carbon road bike. “It doesn’t have to be new,” she said. Forget the designer kit, the GPS’ and power meters and cadence monitors and everything else we seem to ‘need’ in Australia, a second-hand road bike would make her incredibly happy.

The funding difficulties are further highlighted when a trip to compete in the Granfondo Yunnan in China falls through the day before the event because there is insufficient money to cover the cost of travel. I felt outraged for the girls. They were disappointed yet philosophical. Maybe there was some soul searching, some wondering what all their hard work is for, but the next day they were back on the bikes working as hard as ever.

Their dreams stay big. In 2017 they hope to send two riders to the Asian Road Cycling Championships in Bahrain. Longer term, their goal is to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  But in the short term it’s back on the bikes for a month-long training camp in the Gobi Desert where it will reach a relatively balmy top of minus five degrees on some days. For my part, I will never, ever complain about Melbourne winter cycling again.

Kate Scarlett is an Australian cyclist and travel blogger currently volunteering and living in Mongolia, where she’s been training alongside the Mongolian junior women’s cycling team.

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