I spent a week racing along the North Korean border

From trips to Korean malls to team cars having to cover their cameras in restricted zones. Welcome to the DMZ Tour.

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A morning peruse through the latest in racing results last week turned up an interesting race name: Tour de DMZ. That DMZ? Yes, that DMZ. It’s a junior race run along the border between North and South Korea, taking in the demilitarized zone from east to west. The race skirts the edges of the DMZ and even goes into some restricted areas. It’s difficult to imagine a more unique setting for a junior road race.

So we scanned the results list and spotted young American Jack Makohon in 3rd on GC, a great result in a Nation’s Cup event. We reached out, asked the obvious question. What was it like? What did you see? He kindly penned this account of his week.

My name is Jack Makohon. I’m 17, from Dallas in the US and fell in love with racing when I was nine, which is the age they will give you a license.

I’ve raced crits, road races, and cyclocross, pretty much everything except for mountain bike and BMX. Last year I won our 15-16 national championships road race, which gave me the opportunity to race for LUX Cycling, an elite U19 development team. I would ultimately like to race professionally in Europe, so I wanted to start racing in Europe as much as possible.

I was very enthusiastic when I got the news that I was headed to Korea. I was hit by a driver in March during training and sidelined for five months, so any race opportunities were much appreciated late in the year. Rusty Miller with Onto Cycling, our director for the race, was very generous to offer me a guest rider spot on his team. With being out for most of the year and with COVID the past few years, I’ve only had a month racing in Europe and the rest all being in the US. It was also nice to have a high-quality broadcast of the race, which meant my family and friends could watch the race at home.

Racing in Korea was a great experience and very different from racing in Europe. This race was definitely the most organized one I have done and it was very cool to experience a new culture. From the moment we got off the plane right until we got back on there were race staff helping us navigate the country and adjust to the culture. The race provided each team with a bus and a translator, which made logistics very easy. The race hotels for each day were all very nice and there was a great food selection as well. Everyone seemed extremely friendly and glad to have us there.

The whole idea of the race is to travel along the DMZ [the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, is a strip of land between North Korea and South Korea – ed.] from the east to the west side of the Korean Peninsula. During the race, we went into specially protected areas very near to the border that were heavily guarded by the military. We would ride through a gate of some sort and then you knew it was a restricted area. The team cars would have to cover their cameras in those zones.

On many of the roads near the border, we saw concrete blocks stacked on platforms above the road. Our translator told us those could be detonated and block the roads during an invasion. So we certainly knew that we were not racing in a typical environment. There were also many points traveling in the team bus where we would look at the map on our phone and realize the mountain in front of us was North Korea. This created excitement among our team over where we were racing, as it was not just another field in Flanders.

We interacted a lot with the Korean riders and the different Asian teams who normally don’t get the opportunity to race in Europe. They were all very nice and friendly, and even if language was a barrier, it didn’t stop us from exchanging Instagrams or having a laugh. A lot of the guys exchanged kits with racers from the Korean teams. After the races, we would walk around the small towns where the hotels were.

The race did not provide lunch after each stage so we asked our translator to find places to eat where no other foreigners would be and so we ate at some authentic Korean restaurants. Several required us to take our shoes off at the door and it felt like we were eating in someone’s house, not a restaurant. It was great to experience their way of life, which we thought was cool and very different from our culture.

Going shopping with the Australian team at a Korean mall was also a fun time. Trying to figure out clothing sizing was not the easiest but the prices were great.

Cyclists (not participating in the Tour de DMZ) pass along the divide.

The main difference in the racing was it being on wider and less technically challenging roads than in Europe. We also had smaller fields than you would typically find in European races. It was very easy to move around in the pack, which meant it all came down to your legs. This made the dynamics of the race play out much differently, and somewhat similar to racing in the United States.

The Dutch team Willebrord Wil Vooruit brought a very strong roster and were the clear favorites. I knew Max [van der Meulen] and Menno [Huising] were the guys to mark and I tried getting in breaks with them in the early stages. I missed the big stage 1 break where they effectively TTTed the race, but I knew the fourth stage with climbing suited me the most and I needed to stay patient.

During that stage, I was the only one who made it over the final climb with them, and was able to ride in for second place on the stage. This catapulted me up to third on GC. I knew on stage 5 they would be trying to get their teammates up on GC from fourth or fifth to my third place spot, so my teammates and I had to be very vigilant and watch their tactics. In the end, we were able to close any necessary gaps and I held onto my spot.

I view myself as a climber or GC type, so European stage racing with hills is very appealing and makes races like the Tour de DMZ really important to me, where I could race to my strengths on long, climbing stages. We have a great group of guys on LUX and I was really looking forward to this year. Unfortunately, my accident derailed a lot of those plans but I did get some racing in and have to thank Rusty with Onto for the additional race opportunity.

The season is mostly over for me now, but I will have some teammates at Worlds in Australia so we will be cheering them on. The Tour de DMZ was certainly one of my favorite races that I’ve done so far. Getting great results always helps make it a memorable race.  Hopefully, I get to race the event again next year.

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