Daughter of the Dragon
Biking Bhutan with no shocks, no balls, and a very gracious prince
by Hilary Oliva Faxon
12:57 A.M. — 2:00 A.M., JAKAR RACE START
When I ride down into Jakar, population 4,829, the stage lights are up, and the Bhutan Olympic Committee's speakers are blaring Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." Riders, volunteers and villagers gather at the hub of this one-road town, a small rotary around a pedestal painted the traditional red and gold, ringed by dark shop windows displaying dangling strings of rock-hard dried cheese called chugo. Jigme arrives to mark my unlikely cycle with the red flagging and a checkmark sticker that signify inspection and approval.
Relief. He urges me toward some lovely, local girls in bright silk tago jackets and long woven kira skirts. It's just past 1 a.m., 57 minutes before the start of what some believe to be the world's most difficult one-day mountain bike race, the Tour of the Dragon, and it is time for tea.
Now you're in New York.
I sip milk tea to ward off the Himalayan chill and survey the competition and the schoolchildren, both out late for the big race. The former fiddle with headlamps and handlebars while the latter stare at the spandexed lady chilip (foreigner) about to attempt the 268-kilometer cycle to Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. Among the other unlikelies is Piet, age 63, who was at one point Dutch, but has been tramping around Bhutan for two decades. He showed up here straight from the remote valley of Tashi Yangtse with a bristly white beard and five boxes containing everything he owns, including the unpublished manuscript of his next butterfly book and a bike with broken brakes. Skepticism is not endemic here, but in a race that half the participants will fail to finish, these sweet, silent kids probably suspect we two are destined to quit.
The real contenders stretch at the periphery, fondling tuned, disk-braked hardtail bikes. Sonam, who works at the uber-luxury resort Amankora, holds the race record — 11 hours flat — and finished first both of the past two years. Tom, the quiet Australian teacher, won both of Bhutan's other big races, the Thimphu-Haa and the Dantak Open, when he worked here, and has returned seeking a hat trick. There is the team of pro riders from Nepal, hitting this race as a warm-up for some regional Asian championship. A cyclist known as "ST" and Ugyen are here too: they won in 2011 and 2010, respectively, though tonight Ugyen, my friend and favorite, furrows his brow and bends over to rub his flared-up knee.
Enter The Prince.
His Royal Highness Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, son of His Majesty the Fourth King and brother to His Majesty the Fifth (and current) King, holds the nobility title Dasho and serves as President of Bhutan Olympic Committee. In 2010, at age 26, he launched the Tour of the Dragon, and placed second in the inaugural event. The Prince was also the first royal I ever met, back when I lived in Thimphu in 2011. The Bhutanese love their acronyms; His Royal Highness is universally referred to as "HRH," and our competition is the "ToD."
We cluster closer now than ever before or after: the future victors, survivors, and hitchhikers trembling together in one neon homogenous heap.
Tonight HRH circles the crowd on his cycle, offering encouragement. He passes the three Japanese women, resident volunteers, who, along with a foreign hotel employee and myself make up the race's largest-ever female contingent. Only two women, a local rider and a Canadian pro, have ever completed the ToD.
The race director tells me upping female participation is a priority. When I ask about a bathroom, he looks at me mournfully and says, "That's one thing we always forget!" I walk up the rise to pee in the bush among stray dogs and big bright stars.
Concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh, / there's nothing you can't do!
All race starts feel the same. Marshalls politely herd the 43 of us into rows by chest number, where we nod greetings, pump brakes and twiddle helmet straps. An improbable drone video camera moans above the rectangular wooden arch, painted that same red with swirling gold, green and blue and, tonight, labeled "START", that will funnel us through to Thimphu. Announcements. We cluster closer now than ever before or after: the future victors, survivors and hitchhikers trembling together in one neon homogenous heap. I regret the lack of proper pre-race poop. Countdown. Clip in. Roll.
I felt lucky to be racing at all. Six and a half days before we were due to pedal out of Bumthang, I received an email containing the ToD rules. Surprise! My bike, a 27-speed steel-framed American cult classic designed to carry the bulky riff-raff of sporty nomads on transnational tour, was a ridiculous race ride that I nevertheless trusted completely. It was now boxed, tuned, sitting in the Bangkok airport for a morning flight, and, according to my inbox, disqualified.
I sent a panicky reply email contesting the last-minute requirements: mountain bike frames only, with a minimum 1.75" tire diameter. My hybrid tires were only 1.5" wide and my frame lacked suspension (shocks), which made for a hypothetically faster and certainly bumpier trip. I had ridden these roads and rougher before, I argued, and already waived all the Committee's liability in case of my death or dismemberment.
I had ridden these roads and rougher before, I argued, and already waived all the Committee's liability in case of my death or dismemberment.
No luck. A guy named Jigme wrote back. His response began: "Dear Ms Hilary, Rules are rules."
If I had been raised to believe that, I would never have signed up to race across half of Bhutan. On the flight into Paro, site of Bhutan's only international airport, I met two other Americans, Austin-based ultra-sport junkies who had run, hiked, pedaled and trekked their way across much of East Africa and seemingly everywhere else. Hubris loves company.
How'd they find out about the Tour? A flier in Leadville, Colo. They knew a bit about Bhutan because they had long wanted to climb Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan's highest peak, which stands sacred and therefore off-limits at 24,836 feet. When told even the King couldn't summit, they had asked, "What's the next hardest thing to do in this country?" After discussing the feasibility of attempting to trail run the 25-day Snowman Trek (a schedule the baggage-yaks couldn't handle), they landed on the Tour. One had just completed a 78-hour canoe race, so how hard could this be? Of the ToD's course, 150-plus miles and 17,000-plus vertical feet of elevation gain on Bhutan's ramshackle, gorgeous, and only east-west road, he said, "I think it might be a little boring ... they should put in some single track."
My first stop in Thimphu was to see friends and eat momos, tasty Tibetan dumplings served with chili sauce. My second was the Bhutan Olympic Committee. Their offices are downtown by the river in the chilly concrete skeleton of the National Stadium; I huffed up the stairs in the thin mountain air to inquire after my e-correspondent, Jigme. For readers who ever find themselves facing a conundrum in the Kingdom, I suggest the following: Be a blond woman. Name-drop mutual friends. Speak a little Dzongkha. Seem a little distressed. Don't go away.
This strategy yielded radical change in "rules are rules" Jigme. Soon, my frame had been approved, and we were bouncing through Thimphu together in the back of an ancient Olympic Committee van, needing only cheap 1.75s to replace my skinnier tires.
Jigme told me about how he got into biking: after graduating from Bhutan's premier university, Sherubtse, in 2010, he and some buddies cycled back west to spread climate change awareness. At the end of the summer, someone floated the crazy idea of joining the Prince's one-day group ride from Bumthang over four mountain passes to Thimphu. When the boys showed up, they discovered (surprise!) it was a race. So the Dragon was born.
Jigme with wider bike tires at Kinga’s workshop. (Hilary Faxon)
The Tour de Bikeshops revealed that Thimphu's cycling industry had grown substantially since my last visit, up from three to five stores. Jigme joked that most would shut down after Saturday's race. We picked up fat tires at a new shop in a steep, semi-residential neighborhood above downtown, right by my old apartment, then descended to cross the Thimphu river via a bridge decked out in faded prayer flags, headed up the opposite slope for some more bike work. On the way, I asked about another recent revelation: all the previous material had advertised the race as 268 kilometers, but the "guidelines" document listed only 255.5 kilometers. Jigme stood by the second number — he had measured the course with a GPS, he said — and explained that road widening and erosion accounted for the lost 12.5 kilometers. Rules were rules, but sometimes the Department of Roads was wrong.
Under a trendy cycle cutout silhouetted against a bright green wall propped against the relentless rise of the Himalayas, we met Kinga: official ToD mechanic, unofficial artist and multi-tool-wielding mountain bike heartthrob. Kinga was tall, quiet and confident: he had been playing with bikes for almost a decade, which made him rather senior in the nascent local scene. He started this shop last year after returning from a technician's course in Oregon. Later, he would explain — it was foreigners who taught him how to take care of the cycle, and what it can give back to you in return. Now, he wanted to spread the message to the local people.
Sigh. I'm a sucker for a mechanic with a mission.
I was anxious about my rusted cable in patched housing, rigged to a stuck shifter with a stripped bolt. Also those new tubes and tires, and hitching a ride 12 hours out to Bumthang, where the race would start.
But I never could stay stressed long in Bhutan, or by a bicycle. I loosed the wheels to pass to Jigme while Kinga tackled the headset. The tiny workshop bustled with ToD talk. Some of the guys were riding 1.9s on the front and 1.75s on the back for minimum flats and maximum velocity. Jigme worked the tire levers around the rim, replaced the tubes, and pumped. I scored the number of a rider making plans to drive out to Bumthang on Wednesday, and passed Kinga my new women's saddle (wider seat for wider hips). I fielded the first of many comments on my curved handlebars and lack of shocks, which, I decided, beat remarks on my ample breasts and lack of balls.
Jigme asked, "Speed or traction?" We slotted in the fat new tires, tread faced forward, for speed.
0 km100 km200 km
1st leg: Jakar to Trongsa Viewpoint
Elevation: 3,435m max, 1,997m min
Landmarks: Yotang La, Trongsa Town
2nd leg: Trongsa Viewpoint to Takay Zam
Elevation: 3429m max, ~1,500m min
Landmarks: Pele La
3rd leg: Takay Zam to Clocktower Square
Distance: 80 km
Elevation: 3,149m max, 1,310m min
Landmarks: Messina, Dochula
2:00 A.M. — 6:27 A.M., JAKAR — TRONGSA VIEWPOINT
Once we start, we are all just lights, bouncing and bobbing alongside the rush of an invisible river. Someone whirs past in the first 500 meters, calling out "Safe ride!" Within a few k, the top 10 hopefuls are strung out in a line hanging above me, already climbing the switchbacks up to our first pass, Kiki La.
Once we start, we are all just lights, bouncing and bobbing alongside the rush of an invisible river. Riders gather at the starting line in Jakar. (Hilary Faxon)
Kiki is a speed bump compared to what lies ahead on the landslide-strewn national highway. When I pass my Americans pulled over to fiddle with equipment and one of the Japanese women breathing hard on the 9-kilometer climb, I already know they probably won't make it. I set a steady pace, pushing it a little to jockey for position ahead of some of the boys, whom I suspect will be willing to brake less on the pitch-black descent.
Kiki La is on the way to Yotonga La, 40 kilometers and 1,000 meters above Jakar town. It's the most mellow of the course's three big climbs: ahead lie the 1,600 vertical meter, 60 kilometer ascent to Pele La and then the killer 2,000 vertical meter, 37 kilometer climb from Messina to Dochula. There's a 6 p.m. (16 hour) time cutoff at Dochula, the final pass. Between these exertions are a dark, foggy drop from Yotong La to Trongsa, a long, steep descent over 2,200 meters from Pele La to Takey Zam, and the short final spurt down from Dochula into Thimphu. Personal bags of snacks, clothes, and fluids are stationed at Trongsa and Takey Zam; showers, friends, and beer await in Clocktower Square. Fourteen other student-staffed "feed zones" with water, bananas and Indian candy bars, plus mobile support teams with technical aid and peanut butter sandwiches, will provide intermediate relief. The "highway" looks maybe 80-percent pavement and 1.5 trucks wide. We'll be sharing the road with all of the nation's cross-country vehicular traffic, which, thankfully, is minimal.
Kiki La is a nice warm-up. As I turn up my light and coast past a rectangular structure, the whitewashed, gold-capped brick chorten, marking the summit, my muscles are loose, my breathing regular, and my blood spiked with caffeine and adrenaline. The road is mostly paved, but patched with gravel and mud. I'm climbing again soon, and ride for a few minutes with Reika, a tiny bird of a woman with a rapid cadence and a massive backpack of supplies. I've been told the Japanese cyclist is quick, and sure enough, she soon drops my Italian-American thighs and steel frame to bob ahead as pilot light. I tell myself I'll catch her going down, but I won't see her until Thimphu.
It's a shame we can't see Bumthang as we exit. The district is comprised of five adjacent valleys, some of the most beautiful in Bhutan. This time of year, the last of the monsoon clouds get caught at the tops of the forests that cover the omnipresent mountains, surrounding us in a misty dense green that contrasts with the valley's ice-blue rivers and brightly painted homes. Jakar hosts the "Three Jewels," ancient and especially sacred Buddhist temples, and a microbrewery and European-style cheese operation, both set up mid-century by an eccentric Swiss national, who, understandably, fell in love and never left. Now I'm climbing through Chumey, which always stuns me, coming in from the west, with its openness. Compared with the steep slopes from Trongsa to Thimphu, Chumey is Kansas.
Tonight, the road is punctuated with bonfires and bovines, hosting cheering spectators and not giving a damn, respectively. Once these thin out, we enter blue pine, and the grade ticks up. I'm not riding with any sort of speedometer, a decision born from romanticism and nurtured by my lack of cash — or vice versa — so my memory of the route and read of alpine ecology must provide what a watch and sporadic mileage markers do not. It starts to get foggy and cold as I wind ever upwards, shifting between 2-2, 2-3, and 2-4, saving my lowest gears for daytime climbs. I want to hit the top by my time goal — 4:30 a.m. — but have to pee again. I am negotiating with my bladder when I notice a single, silent light coming toward me.
"You're almost there," HRH calls. "Just a few more turns. I'll ride with you to the top."
The Prince rides a clean white trek and wears a helmet with a pull-down, probably polarized, visor. It is impossible to resist the white knight metaphor, so here you go. The two of us pedal out the last couple of kilometers sharing HRH's light — "Save yours for the descent; use mine." I think we summit just after my time goal, but I forget to check. I thank my gracious pacer, pound a few bananas, relieve myself by a bonfire, and then don fleece and gloves for the descent to Trongsa.
I lose a taillight flying 30 kilometers downhill and cliffside through patches of sand and cloud. For a while, a support car gets stuck behind me, and in its headlights I can see the hairpin turns and rocky edge enough to let myself ride faster, crushing the curves as I shiver, living completely in the cool terror of this pitch-black bomb. As I drop toward Trongsa Dzong, the fortress-monastery that marks the historic crossroads of eastern and western Bhutan, the sky goes pink. Vertical walls of green stretch from the river gorge far below to snow-capped peaks. I turn off the light, but I'm still cautious; Kinga has told me about his own brutal ToD accident, just below Trongsa town. He split open his knee and sat in shock for an hour or so before medics arrived, believing he could continue until he saw bone. He completed the race the following year, but sports a swath of scars and still fights pain. Actually, he was using tires just like the ones he put on my bike the other day ... I repeat the story to myself as I tap the brakes.
I hit Trongsa vegetable market at 5:42 a.m. It's a good time, says the race marshal who hands over my bag of calories, clothes and electrolytes. My time last year, exactly. It will be another 45 minutes, down to the bridge and back up through dirt tracts where landslides have swept the road away, before I reach the Trongsa viewpoint checkpoint. From there, I can see Trongsa Dzong across the gorge — sprawling walls of white and red clinging to the opposite cliff, just a short, imaginary, zip line trip away.
The sun and the climb have me running hot. I dump my fleece, windbreaker, leggings and finicky GoPro with a plea to Kinga. HRH calls from the roadside, where he sits with a silver platter of sandwiches.
"Here," he beckons, "try the Bumthang cheese."
A few days earlier, on the drive out, we stopped at a wooden, one-room shop in Trongsa for road beers. I sat in the back middle of the pick-up's cab, crammed in with a driver, two Bhutanese brothers, a Canadian ex-pat, our local brews and packaged Indian snacks. The bikes were tied and tarped down in the bed. We had traveled a bumpy eight hours already, eyeing the road and swapping strategies. The brothers had practiced the race's big, final climb twice, cutting their time to just under three hours. Scott the Canadian had biked from the Indian border north to Thimphu, a net elevation gain of around 7,000 feet. Everyone had climbed Cheli La, a steep pass on the Tibetan side of Thimphu, a few times last summer.
I live at sea level.
As we all swayed sideways, Scott said that a friend once tried to count the curves on this road, and gave up after a thousand. A driver's life is a golden life / every turning, another wife. Bhutan is full of sayings and superstitions. One of the brothers told me that if a cat ran across my path on race day, I should get off the bike right then, because my race would only end badly. A black cat? No, any cat. Training regime be damned.
The lack of brand names was a reminder of the newness of the sport here and Bhutan's general isolation.
The shop talk and race banter continued when we met the rest of the racers the next morning in Jakar. As we boarded a Bhutan Olympic Committee bus, for a day of pre-race activities, I learned that someone had doubled Scott's border run, pedaling 300 kilometer Thimphu-India-Thimphu round trip in a single day. Another contender had practiced out east on Thrumshingla, climbing around 10,000 vertical feet, starting among bananas and monkeys and ending amid the massive mountain rhododendrons at the pass.
In all this gnarly riding, there wasn't a Power/Clif/Luna/care bar/gel/gu/block in sight. The lack of brand names was a reminder of the newness of the sport here and Bhutan's general isolation. Scarce stock presented an extra challenge. In the words of one local, "I think you cannot make it to Thimphu on bananas alone." Even if you did, you would certainly be sore — there's no chaffing butter or Gold Bond here, either.
Instead of a pre-race expo, we hit the temples. Traditional Bhutanese architecture consists of blocky, whitewashed buildings with thick, pounded-mud walls, topped with wooden roofs and adorned in red and gold. The temple walls swarm with exquisite Buddhist iconography: the wheel of samsara, the four friends, intricate, tantric scenes that make modern pornography seem staid. One shrine hosted 1,001 small golden Buddha statues. All were permeated with the smell of incense. In each room, we made three full prostrations before the altar adorned with colorful sculptures carved from butter, then three more toward the chair where high lamas sometimes sat. We cupped our hands to receive the monks' holy saffron water, poured from silver teakettles adorned with peacock feathers. In the first few chapels, or lhakangs, when I pressed my small bills to the center of my forehead to make my offering, I prayed for the other racers I had met; Please let the friendly, HIV-positive, activist-rider finish. At later shrines, I prayed for our safety. Finally, I prayed to meet my goal: to reach the last pass, Dochula, before 6 p.m., the time cutoff.
After morning prayers came a group ride to Membartsho, or "Burning Lake." The Prince led the pack as we crossed the wide, glacier-blue river and headed east out of Jakar town, past clusters of cows, kids and houses with bright red, lucky, flying phalluses hanging from roof corners. A lovely ride: the route was (relatively) flat, and the road wide enough for two cars or clumps of cyclists to (carefully) pass. Our destination was a waterhole amassed with offerings, pilgrims, and prayer flags. Legend had it that Buddhist saint Pema Lingpa once retrieved hidden sacred scrolls here, diving into the river with an oil lamp and returning with the Guru's goods and the fire still burning; proof of his status as a terton, or treasure-revealer.
On the way to the sacred site, we rode together, experienced racers and rookies swapping tips and tricks for the upcoming race. A Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch Clif Bar contains 250 calories, 230mg of potassium, 10g of protein, and 90 percent of the Daily Value of Vitamin C. But we had sunshine, smooth roads and spiritual satisfaction.
Just beware the cats.
6:27 A.M. — 11:47 A.M., TRONGSA VIEWPOINT — TAKEY ZAM
It's a gorgeous climb to Pele La. Clusters of school kids in traditional uniforms dot the road every few kilometers, waving tiny orange-and-yellow Bhutanese flags, brandishing bananas and water bottles, and shrieking, "Try your best, Madam!" I'm rolling westward on the valley's northern slope. Below is a steep drop to the river, and across it lie some of the country's most charismatic villages, clusters of farmhouses surrounded by fields of buckwheat and potato. After the colorful, waving prayer flags and massive white hump of the sacred Chendibji Chorten, I cross from Trongsa into Wangue-Phodrang district, and downshift.
The last time I rode across this country, I crashed by the turn-off to Recubji. I was going the opposite direction — soaring down from Pele La with loaded bikes, headed east past Bumthang to Sherubtse College — and collided with my riding partner when he hit the brakes to catch the sharp right turn onto the steep, rocky road down to the village.
He was an environmental engineer living, like me, in Thimphu, but had spent a few months in Recubji working on the village's micro-hydro dam. We were freezing from the descent — it had been snowing at the pass — and looking forward to food. But after we brushed ourselves off, made it down to the village, and climbed the wooden ladder into the dark, massive farmhouse, we learned rural Bhutanese usually skip lunch. Instead of curry, we had a few pints each of suja, salty butter tea. I had never cared for the traditional beverage, but huddled by the wood-burning bukhari stove with incredulous children, feeling the mountain wind blow through the window cracks, suja hit the spot. When we made it to our friend's mother's house in Trongsa town that evening, we ate so much rice that the whole family still talks.
My face and neck are caked in salt. My nose drips sweat. It is hard to imagine snow now, as the sun pushes high. I pass the trailhead for the Snow Man Trek and cross a tributary, then wrap around another switchback. I have mentally marked this as the point where the serious climb starts. The ride, though still stunning, is getting both steep and boring. My legs have been making the same motion for almost eight hours, and the right side of my upper bum and lower back is plagued with a worsening twinge.
I start the mental games. Calculations of pace. Fantasies about the Thimphu pool. A review of what I've packed for the next bag drop. Fatigue numbs my appetite, but the bedrock of my strategy is a firm commitment to out-eat the competition. I tuck a Snickers in my sports bra and force myself to reach in and bite every 20 minutes.
I love running and backpacking, I adore singing and sex, but soaring down the Himalaya on two wheels and a piece of metal is best.
And so I'm quite pleased when the Prince turns up again to ride and chat a bit with me and my chocolate-smeared chest. We discuss Connecticut, where both of us have lived, and Lance Armstrong, who once expressed interest in the race, but has since suffered a small career setback. Maybe he's just humoring me, but HRH says he wants to create a "Daughter of the Dragon" event, perhaps to counter the ToD video's tag line, "There can only be ONE Son of the Dragon!" The Nepalis, he reports, are in the lead, with Sonam and Tom just behind. It is just after 10 a.m., only eight hours since the start. Incredibly, they are already climbing Dochula.
Royalty aside, the presence of a pleasant, sane person really boosts morale mid-extreme sport. Handsomeness helps. When HRH turns downhill to encourage other riders, I buoy my way past sacred painted caves, over the pass and down toward Wangdue town.
I love running and backpacking, I adore singing and sex, but soaring down the Himalaya on two wheels and a piece of metal is best. The descent requires unwavering focus and an addiction to endorphins moderated by both a desire to avoid and at least partial acceptance of death. On the way down I bank past my all-time favorite traditional Bhutanese house painting — two mirrored hands masturbating a pair of 5-foot penises, curved and cuming across the doorway — and drop into the land of brilliant orange flowers and cacti. When I reach my second supply bag I feel like a Greek God, with a titanic craving for salt.
Overlooking Trongsa Dzong, the largest in Bhutan. (Jean-Marie Hullot / Flickr)
On the Thursday before the race, HRH held an audience to discuss the coming event and the future of the ToD. We sat outside, in chairs arranged in a circle, sipping tea and munching snacks as HRH solicited our feedback. He recommended we elect two representatives to the race committee, which guides the planning for each year's race. Initially, his suggestions were greeted with deferential silence. HRH encouraged us: "So boys, this should not be a dictatorship, this should be a democracy! We want as many voices heard as possible."
Of course the chilips spoke first: Try an extra aid station on the climb to Dochula. Make it clear that foreigners will need to apply for their own route permits. These two gentlemen I just met yesterday seem like they would make great committee reps.
The Bhutanese were more reserved. Royally-moderated direct democracy is new territory. The Fourth King had voluntarily abdicated the throne in 2008, ushering in a new era of constitutional monarchy. K4 first announced his intentions to a small gathering of his subjects in Bhutan's remote North. According to some accounts, many reacted with alarm to the prospects of losing their leader and imminent self-governance.
We shared some of their anxiety. I sat next to Ugyen, the original ToD champ who would soon be voted our first committee rep, a lanky, friendly guy who had trained as a bike mechanic in my hometown just outside Boston. When we chatted before the meeting about bike brands and touring in Ladakh, he conveyed warmth and ease. But now his body scrunched under the weight of egalitarian expectations. Once the white people died down he whispered to me with palpable agony, "I have to say something, because I want the back-up cars in."
Rules are rules, but it turned out I wasn't the only one complaining (poor Jigme!). For serious riders, the controversy centered on the decision to ban support vehicles, which in past years had provided warm meals, dry clothes, back-up bikes and, rumor had it, even a lift. This year, the race had replaced personal cars with stationary aid stations and prohibited outside assistance, and those who had counted on the help were peeved. Sleepy Bumthang was buzzing with subtle lobbying aimed at reinstating the old procedures.
Ugyen stood to make his case with a bowed head, lilting voice and an abundance of polite la suffixes — bring back the back-up, he pled. HRH said this was something he had thought about over countless nights, but it wasn't his decision: The race committee, and especially those concerned with road safety, had pushed the ban. This was why rider representation was so important. Others tried, and in the end negotiated for extra, individualized, bag drops.
Both during this discussion and the subsequent nomination and selection of representatives, HRH, the race organizers and the participants exhibited the utmost respect and courtesy. As I watched this particular bout of Bhutanese diplomacy, I couldn't help but consider my own "model" nation's imminent midterm elections, and grimace at the campaign ads that, even now, must be flooding airwaves in swing states with accusations and incriminations, alarmist and alarming, true or otherwise.
After voting — Kinga won the other seat — HRH and his team ran us through the course one last time. Dress carefully: The first climb and drop would be cold. Pack dry socks for later in the day. The downhills would be fast this year; he expected a new record. Two honks would be a vehicle trying to pass. Three honks, it's me. After 200 kilometers would come the toughest bit of road. The climb to Dochula, he promised, would be the real icing on the cake.
11:47 A.M. — 6:18:59 P.M., TAKEY ZAM — CLOCKTOWER SQUARE
This is the real race. Eleven hours in, I pedal south down the river gorge, greet the breeze soaring up from the plains of India, and press restart. Fuel up: I hang a bag of sandwiches from the handlebars, jam the CamelBak nozzle into my mouth and only stop sipping electrolytes to chew. The road turns back west at the remains of Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, devastated by a 2012 fire, and switchbacks through hydropower dam construction traffic. I cross another river and climb into the market of Lobesa, a packed intersection that hosts maybe two-dozen vendors and their multi-colored stacks of vegetables and fruit.
It is high noon now, and hot. Whimsically-painted trucks from the hydro project and Thimphu jostle past each other, stirring up coarse red dust. The riders I pass on this stretch are suffering, vocally. There's a rest stop with a smiling, cheering crowd at the end of town, just before the road curves up. I'm 12 minutes ahead of my time goal, and 12 hours ago someone promised hot soup here. But I have seen the old time sheets on which tens of riders simply disappear after this checkpoint, and so push onward. The soup sirens will not tempt me.
Almost 2,000 vertical meters — that's 1.25 vertical miles — stretch 37 kilometers from the Messina petrol pump to the mound of sacred chortens at Dochula. In a car, the climb is grueling: half gravel and mud, landslide-scraped. Scenic vistas are limited to the beginning and the end of the route, which mostly lacks schools, shops, spectators or even consistent mileage markers to interrupt the thick, dark woods. Thinleygang village and Lamperi Botanical Park divide the slog into three roughly equal parts. Given my exhaustion, I calculate a good four hours in first gear.
Somehow, I'm even slower. When I finally arrive, Thinleygang disappoints. The aid station is sparsely stocked, and the tiny town slopes just as steeply as the rest of the route. Up ahead I see a figure slumped by the side of the road, head in hands and skin raked with dirt and sweat. Nearby, a discarded helmet, water bottle, cycle. As I draw close, it raises itself to meet my eyes, and my dormant brain twitches on to recognize Scott, the Canadian with whom I drove this way just a few days ago, knocking knees and exchanging strategy.
My chest collapses to release my heart. I stop.
I offer food and water, but Scott says he's done, and there's nothing to do but make a call to Jigme and carry on. An ambulance whizzes past some time after. Then later — how much? — HRH's car. Before that, an abandoned bike. Then, a cheery chilip contender eating raw kale from a rock climbing chalk bag strapped to his waist, who asks if I've got any sunblock, and do you think we're going to make it?
I am goddamn going to make it. I stop once for ibuprofen. I stop twice to dunk my steaming skull into roadside springs. I try to poop, I try to pee, I try to eat, and do, barely. Then I can't. My body is covered in salt and dust. My feet are numb, then aflame. Man, I regret neglecting the royal sock change.
When Kinga and the mobile aid van appear above me I am angry, because that is what is left. How ... far ... He says just 12 kilometers to the top. This sucks, but it is certain. Gratitude. Water. Onward. Friends pass in a car and cheer, and I sputter, "I'm dying!" and spin. At every turn I am convinced this. is. the. one. I am wrong again, but the air is cooler now, and within me grows the truth that I will reach the top before the time cutoff. It swells up and up until I cannot mind the back pain or the mileage marker that goes backward or the 3 kilometers of straight mud.
It is difficult to imagine what it feels like now to be the winner, who must be half my weight and has perhaps gone for a swim in the six-plus hours he has been waiting. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay presents winner Ajay Pandit Chhetri with the trophy. (Hilary Faxon)
I reach Dochula pass at 5:30 p.m., fumble with zippers, and hunker back down on the bike for the final stretch. This part is so familiar: the apple vendors lining the road in Hongsho, a terraced piece of farmland my former boss owns, the first glimpse of mammoth Simtokha Dzong. The descent is laced with memories of my other trips on this road. When I hit the massive prayer wheel marking the edge of Thimphu town, it still feels like a return home.
It is almost sunset as I slip into third and rip down tiny Thimphu expressway, not feeling the new speed bumps. I'm paranoid I'll take the wrong route into town, now that there is, for the first time, more than one, but a policeman waves me up the last steep slope. I surge toward the finish. There are friends and photographers and an interview onstage with the emcee, in which I participate monosyllabically.
HRH, clean in a black gho, congratulates me. I fixate on sitting and sock removal. Gatorade, Kit Kat bar, thank you. His Excellency the Prime Minister, who once completed this race despite dislocating his jaw en route, will conduct the award ceremony. The program starts in half an hour; I hobble inside toward a shower.
It is difficult to imagine what it feels like now to be the winner, Ajay Pandit Chhetri, who must be half my weight and has perhaps gone for a swim or short sightseeing expedition in the six-plus hours he has been waiting for slowpokes like me. When the emcee announces that "this tiny man" has set a new course record — 10:42:49 — it seems as unfathomable as the site of the Nepali hoisting a, well, Ajay-sized trophy toward the Thimphu sky. Second place goes to one of Ajay's teammates, and defending champion Sonam graciously accepts third.
Australian Tom is visibly disappointed with fourth, but to my delight one of the Bhutanese brothers I rode out with captures fifth. I'm even more impressed when he mentions, a day later, that he patched a rear flat just over Pele La. Hardcore. His brother had to drop out — bum knee — and joins a rehydrated Scott and 17 others who arrived in sweep vehicles. Two more complete the course, but after the time limit. Of the 43 who rode from Bumthang, there are just 22 official finishers, three of us women.
But the biggest surprise under the embroidered riders' tent is Piet, the ancient, eccentric Dutch lepidopterist. He smoked me and nearly broke the top 10 with a time of 14:37:06. I will see him the next day at a local pub, and ask how he's feeling. "Yeah, OK!" he'll say. "I could feel it a bit in my knees when I bent down to collect butterflies this morning."
The day after the race, I finally got to meet Bhutan's lady rider. She was petite and picturesque, sprawled out on the steps out front for Kinga's workshop in baggy pants and a long-sleeved top. I was intimidated. Yeshey was the first woman to complete the ToD. She registered for this past race, but you have to listen to your body, and this year hers didn't feel right.
She was quiet as I chatted with Kinga and Jigme. Together, we disassembled and washed my filthy bike. Tea appeared. The workshop was closed today, post-Tour, but the Thimphu Mountain Bikers' Coalition was gearing up for an afternoon ride. Some single track up in the mountains, they told me. Maybe on the paths above the Bhutan Broadcasting Service tower, where I once saw the Fourth King himself cycling, and blurted out, "Sweet ride!"
The light off the mountains was cool blue, and I wished I could join them, and didn't have to leave Thimphu. Instead, I said my goodbyes and headed down to the road to catch a ride with my boxed bike. Yeshey followed, offering help.
I asked her if there were any other female cyclists. Nope, she said, just her and the boys.
Then how did you get into riding? I just love bikes, she answered. Whatever is going on, I can get on and ride. Cycling is my therapy.
Exactly. I promised we'd ride together, next time.