September 18, 2007 – It would be hard to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a race than the mountains of Pakistan. Based out of the village of Naran, the three-day Tour of the Himalayas featured some truly epic racing, against spectacular mountain backdrops.
There were eight teams composed of riders from Denmark, Holland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada as well as a Pakistani team. Four Canadians were in attendance, racing for the Lucky Cement-Canada composite team – La Ruta champion and endurance racer extraordinaire Marg Fedyna, U23 mountain bike standout Catherine Vipond, and Masi-Adobe team mates Jonathan Gormick and Chris Reid.
The Tour of the Himalayas is put on by the Kaghan Memorial Trust as a fundraiser and awareness building activity for a school that the Trust is building in the wake of the 2005 earthquake that devastated the mountain region near Balakot. It is a truly sobering thought to think that when it starts up the school will start no higher than the third grade – the tragic legacy of the earthquake happening on a school day.
Stage 1: The Babusar Challenge
Stage one started in the mountain village of Jalkhad at 2,900 meters and would see racers steadily gain elevation for nearly three hours before cresting the top of the Babusar Pass at 4,200m. The Babusar pass was part of the old Silk Route and in good weather one can see Nanga Parbat hanging nearly 7,000 meters above the Gilgit river, creating a vertical gorge nearly 3.5 times the drop of the Grand Canyon!
Racers were to see no such thing however, for while the race began in sunshine the weather soon turned foul and riders had to fight their way through a hail storm before beginning a frigid descent into the valley below. After the descent was an hour of fast single track on animal paths – at times offering riders several different choices as to which route to take as the only race instructions were to keep the mountain on your right and the river on your left!
Kiwi Olympian Robin Reid (Marco-Polo) set his stamp of authority on the men’s stage, cresting the top of the pass with a massive 18-minute lead. Reid cracked hard following the climb however and would give up more than 8 minutes of his advantage by the finish to Dutch speed skating hour record holder, Casper Helling.
Jonathan Gormick rode a strong race to finish 5th on the stage, while Chris Reid suffered from stomach problems (which affected a large percentage of the field on the stage) and misdirection, to finish well back.
Catherine Vipond rode an impressive climb and looked to be in contention for the win before tearing a sidewall and suffering four flats. Fedyna picked up where Vipond left off, steadily working her way up through the field to place a strong 3rd despite having fought stomach problems of her own earlier in the week.
At the end of the stage the Canadians were in third place on GC behind the New Zealand/England team and the strong Dutch Contingent.
Stage 2: The Lake Criterium
After an epic stage one, stage two was a circuit race around Lake Saif-ul-Maluk, set in a small mountain valley, that featured a long rock garden, several stream crossings, a short granny gear climb and flowing single-track. In addition there was a narrow, rickety, stone bridge that was decidedly “contra-indicated for safety” in the words of one American racer.
Fedyna improved on her performance the day before taking the lead in the opening start loop and never relinquishing it. Behind her Vipond was out to avenge the pervious day’s disappointment battling with the German Kerstin Brachtendorf and New Zealand national team member Brenda Clapp before escaping to finish second.
Jonathan Gormick added to the Canadian podium total with a third place on the stage behind Kiwi team-mates Chris Burr and Robin Reid. Gormick’s strong ride moved him up to 3rd on the GC going into the final day. Reid rebounded from the day before to finish 8th on the stage.
The strong Canadian showing gave the team the stage win ahead of New Zealand/Great Britain and moved the Canadians up to second ahead of Holland on the overall.
Stage 3: Kawai-Shogran-Pai Ascent
The final stage was only 20km long and started at the site of the Kaghan Memorial School. However 16 of that 20km was entirely uphill, paved for the first 9km and then off-road for the final seven. According to Fedyna’s Garmin the stage ranged between 10 and 21 percent the entire time. In fact the race averaged over 12 percent for the entire 20km. The road climb was steep enough that all riders were forced into their granny gear before the road even turned to dirt. Though the stage started in unrelenting heat, it quickly cooled off as riders gained elevation and in fact was quite cold at the summit, where riders were forced to huddle near the catered food tends and in jeeps until a storm cleared.
Gormick rode a strong climb to finish 5th on the stage, but unfortunately Dutch marathon specialist Rob van der Werf took no prisoners enroute to storming the stage and leapfrogged the Canadian for the last spot on the GC podium. Reid hung on to finish 11th on the stage, to finish 13th on GC.
German climber Britta Martin charged up the climb to win the women’s stage ahead of Fedyna who had gone out to an early lead before being hauled in by Martin on the metalled road. Fedyna took time out of Martin’s German teamate Brachtendorf but not quite enough to move up to second and Fedyna remained third on GC. Vipond rode to a solid 5th place finish to complete only her second multiple day event (stage one was not just her longest race ever – it was the longest ride she had ever done!).
While the Canadians only finished 4th on the stage it was enough to hang onto second overall winning the Runner-Up trophy in the team’s classification in the process. Fedyna was also awarded an attractive trophy dish for her fine third place finish.
While the racing was truly epic in every sense of the word, the race proved to be more than just a competition. The trip was an amazing opportunity to meet new people from around the world and travel to a place off of the beaten path. The organisers at the Kaghan Memorial Trust presented the riders with an opportunity to see parts of Pakistan that most would otherwise never had ventured into, from the spectacular mountains to the gorgeous lake where riders relaxed the day following the final stage.
A huge thank-you goes out to Khurram Khan and the other event organisers for inviting up to come and see their Pakistan, rather than the Pakistan so often portrayed in the western media. I would encourage anyone that might consider donating to their school project to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kmt.org.pk