Photo courtesy Cory Wallace
Photo courtesy Cory Wallace

Mountain marathon on two wheels

Cycling more than 200km through the Annapurna mountains in under 24 hours? All in a day's work for Canadian cyclist Cory Wallace.

The average trekker takes about three weeks to walk the 215km stretch of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. A few trail runners have managed it in three days, as did Phil Evans, a cyclist, in 2010. 

When Cory Wallace lined up with his bicycle on the midnight of 3 December last year, he hoped to traverse the same distance from Besisahar to Beni in under 24 hours. 

It was a goal quite against the odds, given the rugged terrain and the gruelling climbs, including the steep ascent to the freezing climes of Thorong La (5,416m). While taking on a personal challenge was one thing, the Canadian’s bigger goal was to raise funds for a training centre that could benefit the cycling community in Nepal. (He eventually raised $2,300 through a crowdfunding campaign.) 

“Nepal is a mountain biker’s heaven and it’s growing every year. What seemed to be missing is a hub to bring the riders together, so that’s when this idea came up," says the 33-year-old.

Alone on the trail

When a few local riders backed out, Wallace decided to go the distance solo. He prepared for the challenge by racing at MTB Himalaya and the Yak Attack—both multi-day stage races in India and Nepal; a part of the Annapurna Circuit is also a part of Yak Attack.

However, when he told the authorities—guards are appointed by the Nepal government at regular intervals on the Annapurna circuit to check permits and for security—that he needed a permit for a day, they laughed. He was eventually issued a permit for six days. 

It was the same reaction at various checkpoints, where they just refused to believe that he was heading for Beni on the same day. 

With minimal logistics in place, Wallace set out—with some essentials such as layers of warm clothing, a battery pack, maps and caffeine pills—on a moonlit night in sub-zero temperatures. While terrain like this is the norm for most mountain biking races, such distances are usually covered over a few days. 

Wallace had ridden 380km during the 24-hour Solo World Championship in Italy earlier that year, but that was on a flat track (one that’s 9.6km long; Wallace did 38 laps)—a far cry from the Annapurna’s altitudes. Add to that the lack of a support vehicle, aid stations and route markers, and you have what was a self-supported ride in its truest sense.

The journey almost started out on a terrible note, just after midnight. He first encountered a roadblock of some 30 villagers, who he thought were Maoists. Then, a fierce dog forced him to use his bike as a shield. In about four hours, he ran out of water, not accounting for the fact that most shops in the villages en route would be closed at that hour—around four in the morning. 

By 9am, he was in Manang—the final human settlement before a 23km climb to Thorong La. After a quick meal of pancakes, “sketchy" peanut butter and some chocolate, he was off, hoping to make it over while there was still light. 

However, after 18km, he was at the base of the pass, nursing a churning stomach and severe weakness, having gained close to 4,600m in a span of 13 hours. The plan of negotiating the pass in the comfort of a warm midday sun had gone for a toss, as he now hoped to get across before the sun set. 

“I could barely walk straight, let alone ride. I had to use my bike as a crutch to get through this part. For the last 2km, I felt like a drunk with a bad hangover and would have to break every 20-30 seconds. What should have taken me an hour and 20 minutes took me three hours," he recalls.

But his misery was alleviated as he started his descent, with a glorious sunset over Dhaulagiri in the distance. As darkness took over, Wallace rode into Muktinath (3,600m) after 17 hours on the trail, with 100km still to go. 

Sunset over Dhaulagiri, see on the descent from Thorong La. Photo courtesy Cory Wallace
Sunset over Dhaulagiri, see on the descent from Thorong La. Photo courtesy Cory Wallace

Pushing on

At Muktinath, he was tempted to hit the sack and eventually finish the ride in two days. But he pushed on till Jomsom, with his body now threatening to pack up.

“The altitude affected me hard and I became ill, unable to eat anything except a sausage and a few energy chews for the last 10 hours of the ride. I was really concerned about my health as I felt like throwing up for quite a bit. If I had collapsed somewhere I would’ve been in trouble without support. Luckily, things stabilized and I could continue," he says.

The headaches and the nausea continued, but as the moon came out, it lit up the snow on top of the mountains. It was enough to recharge his spirit at a time his body was screaming to retire. It then didn’t matter when he went off route, losing over an hour and a half while negotiating the riverbed plains between Kagbeni and Kalopani, or when he had to deal with a flat tyre soon after. 

With 20km to go from Tatopani and an hour to the cutoff, Wallace knew that he would have to bank on the last of his reserves to meet his target. With three minutes to go, he finally reached Beni. 

There was no welcome party to cheer him on arrival, nor any celebrations that followed. The villagers were fast asleep and finding accommodation was almost impossible. 

Wallace encountered a policeman, who asked him where he had come from. When he mentioned the starting point, Besisahar, once again, the routine disbelief and banter ensued. 

Instead of going through the ordeal of explaining what he had achieved yet again, Wallace asked the policeman for a space to sleep. After 24 hours of riding, his body sore beyond measure, he ended up with a dingy room and a filthy mattress for the night. 

Nothing mattered in that moment, for Wallace was finally at ease, blissfully plotting another attempt in his dreams.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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