Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kelowna couple set to tackle 850-kilometre Mongolian Bike Challenge

In her mountain bike racing career, pro rider Sonya Looney has faced down territorial moose on remote trails, ridden over rickety bridges straight out of the Temple of Doom — complete with hungry crocodiles circling below — and hiked up Himalayan mountain passes, waist-deep in snow, feet numb from the sub-zero temperatures, all while carrying her bike on her back.

Matt Ewonus hasn’t had to face any angry laces americanus nor brutal Nepalese alpine weather, but he’s dealt with his own challenges in his racing experiences.

“It’s been myself,” Ewonus said of his biggest challenge to date.

“There’s been a couple of times where I’ve just exploded. I’d been pushing too hard, too fast, and just detonated.

“You cramp up — it’s almost a full body incapacitation. I’ve crashed so hard, I’ve had to stop and lie on the side of the trail, and people are asking, ‘Should I call someone?’ as I’m rolling around in agony.

“It’s pretty phenomenal, actually.”

Pushing their limits is a pastime for the Kelowna duo of Ewonus and Looney, who are taking it to the next extreme — the desolate steppes of Mongolia. The couple are taking part in the Mongolian Bike Challenge, starting Sunday, with Looney competing in the pro ranks in elite women, and Ewonus in the open men’s division.

The seven-stage race covers 850 kilometres through the Mongolian wilderness, and covers nearly 14,000 metres of elevation.

“I like to go off the beaten path,” said Looney, a six-year pro racing vet who moved to Kelowna from Denver earlier this year.

“The cultural experience is a lot more rich — it’s not diluted with too much tourism. And the type of people you meet at these events are pretty amazing breeds of people. You never know who you’re going to meet.”

Looney’s career has taken her around the world, from being the first woman to complete the Yak Attack race in Nepal — she won it again this year, her second time around — the Epic Transylvania Stage race in Europe and races in Brazil and Costa Rica.

Ewonus has participated in the B.C. Bike Race multiple times, but this will be his first international stage race.

“I’m pretty excited. This is a great opportunity to travel, and get to another part of the world,” said Ewonus, an alum of SFU, where he played basketball for four years with the Clan.

“I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Europe and Central America, but this is way off the beaten path. And this will be, by far, the most physical challenge ever I’ve attempted. My goal is just to go as fast as I can without any major catastrophe.”

The race is broken up into seven consecutive stages, ranging from a 45-kilometre time trial to a 176-km marathon ride across the plains.

After the riders depart for each stage, the camp — including authentic Mongolian yurts that house everyone — will be packed up and moved to the next stage, a marvel of logistics for the remote outback.

The men’s contenders are led by Kona factory rider Cory Wallace, while 2012 B.C. Bike Race champs Jason Sager and Thomas Turner of Team Jamis are also in the mix.


Looney is one of the favourites on the women’s side, facing stiff competition from Aussie Jessica Douglas and Brit Catherine Williamson.

“My goal is to try and win, but you can’t always control that,” said Looney, who just celebrated her 30th birthday.

“My training hasn’t been what I liked to to be, because of work and travel, but when I show up at a race, my goal is to be the fastest woman.”

The couple have spent the past few days in the capital city of Ulan Bator — which has the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world — acclimatizing to the cold, soggy weather, the people, and, perhaps most importantly for racers, the food.

“It’ll be a real challenge,” said Ewonus, who follows a vegan diet.

“Eating meat in a foreign country can be a recipe for disaster, and there’s always going to be a question about ingredients. My whole diet is based on being able to get high-quality vegetable ingredients. I might have to bend the rules a bit. But I’ll avoid the yak butter, for sure.”

That last piece of advice came from his well-travelled girlfriend, who lists an experience with yak cheese pizza in Nepal as one of her least favourite culinary memories. (“It was pungent,” she grimaced.)

She’s also let Ewonus know what he’s in for out on the trails, where they’ll be hundreds of kilometres from any kind of village, town or help, and relying on the mandatory GPS to keep them from getting lost.

“The mornings are always hard, because you’re so tired,” said Looney. “And that compounds every day. You’re sore. You’re tired. Your legs are screaming at you.

“You just have to break the race, and each day, into smaller chunks. ‘I have this many kilometres to the next aid station.’ The days are long, so you have to take it one day at a time. Learning how to manage your fear makes you a much stronger person.

“No one is going to be same at end of this race.”Matt Ewonus will be uploading blog entries at provincesports.com/blogs any time he can get the camp satellite phone to connect to the Internet during the race, while Looney has written some pre-race thoughts on her website, sonyalooney.com, and will have a complete post-race wrap-up, including photos and video.For an idea of what the race is like, check out this video from pinkbike.com: http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2012-Mongolia-Bike-Challenge-Documentary.html

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