Tour of the Dragon – a unique challenge

By Mr. Tom Schofield, an avid cyclist from UK
1st runners up of the 10th Tour of the Dragon race shares his experience

The legs felt empty, the lower back ached and the bum burned. Grinding up the final climb to Dochula summit everything hurt. A glance back showed that the chap in second was sticking rigidly to my rear wheel but I knew that one last effort and ahead lay possible victory. The cheering crowds brought a smile spurring me on, a pleasant distraction from the pain. Wiping the burning sweat from my eyes I caught sight of the motto I’d taped to my bike frame; ‘Never Follow’, this was it, push on hard, leave everything you have on these stunning roads.  

My Bhutan story started five thousand miles away in Edinburgh, Scotland. Serving on board a vessel that had berthed in the city, I jumped ship, taking the opportunity to sneak away for a quick bike ride. After a few very cheery hours pedaling it was time to make my way home. However, progress back to the ship was dramatically and suddenly halted by a hard-hitting intermate meeting with the windshield of a local bus. Waking up to find myself in the local Intensive Care Unit, many parts of me in pieces, it soon became apparent that I was lucky to be alive; only thanks to my bike helmet.  

So began the struggle along the long road of recovery but the hard work made it all the more satisfying when I was able to once again climb aboard the bicycle and wobble off along the road.

Feeling my return to the bike racing world needed marking in some way, I jumped on the web in search of a fitting event. Surveying the map of the world’s top biking events, I spotted a lonely marker, isolated in the middle of the Himalayas. Interest aroused and eyebrow raised, I clicked the link in trepidation; Tour of the Dragon, Bhutan. A video followed of a misty muddy mountain road, out of which appeared a gritty rider aboard a mountain bike. Grinding the pedals, he looks close to breaking but just as all looks lost a crowd of happy smiling children appear running alongside, cheering him on…my entry was booked immediately. So started the intense training and preparations.

Living upon the pancake flats of Belgium my altitude training peaked atop motorway bridges, forcing focus on horizontal over vertical distance. Having never cycled the Himalayas it is difficult to ever know if you’re ready or not, but every climb has its summit and so determination will see you finish; easily said after ascending a mole hill in Belgium.  

Beaming with excitement and anticipation, I set off for Bhutan and new adventures. The journey was an eventful one that saw me bringing Kathmandu Airport to a standstill in a mission to avoid my bike from being sucked into the black hole of lost baggage (many thanks to all those at Druk Airlines for their dedicated support and service). This drama was immediately then offset by unbelievable aerial views of Mt Everest and the excitement of a landing through the mountains at Paro Airport.

Emerging through ‘Arrivals’ with the standard vague look of a lost tourist, a traditional scarf was suddenly thrown around my shoulders and a hearty warm welcome extended by my guide AJ and driver Kinga. These friendly chaps were not only to be my hosts while in country, but I was pleased when they also expressed excitement at taking up cycling team duties; AJ became our ‘Director Sportive’, keeping us all organised and Kinga, my Driver and Chief Mechanic.

Off we set across country for the start line and what turned out to be a lifechanging week of exploring and adventure on the way.

Arriving in Bumthang, the location for the start of the race my focus narrowed on the upcoming race. Thoughts and conversation ran endlessly through every detail, from bike setup to nutrition tactics. Speaking of nutrition, the ‘cycling diet’ which had been strictly adhered to pre-Bhutan was forced to be relaxed (very relaxed) when presented with the scrumptious Bhutanese cuisine. Each meal delivered food of wonderful variety and fabulous flavour. The only dietary requirement voiced to AJ was ‘local food only’ and this saw us eat like kings…not cyclists!

The day arrived and with my alarm signalling the early morning off, the kit was donned, porridge consumed and then it was down to the start line. Bumthang was alive with traditional music, dancing and crowds consuming Suja, delicious Bhutanese butter tea. With the race face applied and traditional nervous pre-race pee complete, the long and eventful journey from an intensive care unit to the start line had come to an end.

Five, four, three, two, one, go! The field set off and with true predictability, we all tried to win the race in the first mile with a fantastic sprint pace. This lasted right up until we all hit the first climb and as the road went up the speed went down.

Climbs are all part of exploring in Bhutan and I was first introduced to the Himalayas on day one in the country with a spectacular hike up to the mystic Tiger’s Nest. This spectacular Buddhist monastery was one of many beautiful and fascinating ancient sites I was lucky enough to explore in the week leading up to the race. Each of these forts, monasteries and palaces are enchanting and have rich histories, stories and myths that intrigue and delight. As a lover of history, their antiquity was captivating.

Cresting the first climb, Kiki La, the legs were feeling good and clearly had been well fuelled by the fine foods consumed over the week. Surprisingly, I found myself in the lead and was only accompanied by a few local riders. Despite being the middle of a chilly night, the roads were lined with cheering crowds, delivering rousing chants and energetic cheers that warmed the spirit. Night riding with only a narrow pathway illuminated by my pathetic miniature bike light seemed very strange, given the knowledge that beyond the beam lay stunning views over magnificent mountains ranges.  

Making good progress with my fellow breakaway riders I was mentally mapping out tactics for the next one hundred plus miles. My fortunes then nose-dived when it was pointed out to me that my rear tyre was looking a little ‘spongy’. Despite my attempts to tell myself that it was simply just slightly relaxed, after a few more minutes it was looking distinctly pancaked. Amazingly, at that key moment, His Royal Highness Prince Wangchuck, the race’s creator and patron, happened to pass in his car with bike mechanic and royal bike pump aboard. They kindly stopped and a rapid pitstop re-inflated the tyre in the hope that the tubeless sealant ‘goo’ would seal the leak. After setting off in chase of the leaders it quickly became clear that the ‘goo’ was failing in its duty to seal and my tyre was once more somewhat flaccid. Again, favouring blindly ignoring the issue, I rode on. Moments later, the royal car once more pulled alongside and the Prince was kind enough to politely inquire how I was getting on. My response was a race crazed yell, intermating the urgent need for an innertube. My delivery of the request failed every rule of etiquette in addressing a member of a royal family and the car promptly sped off. The fact that I’d just yelled at the Prince of Bhutan broke through the red mist and my faux pas became rather apparent.

My first introduction to the Prince had come when race competitors gathered pre-race for a series of special motivational and spiritual events hosted by Prince Wangchuck. Bowled over by the privilege to meet the prince, I was fully knocked for six when I then found myself riding alongside chatting with him. It was immediately clear to me why the Prince and royal household is so highly beloved and respected by their citizens.

With my rear tyre on its last legs, worries that I had offended His Royal Highness were soon dispelled when the summit of the next mountain emerged and I was greeted by an army of bike mechanics, directed by the Prince. They immediately attacked my bikes rear wheel in an enthusiastic effort to get me on the move again. These chaps did me proud and I was soon ready to go with a nice plump tyre. Mechanics thanked and apologies made to the Prince, I was off again to give it my all to chase down the now distant leaders.

The next few hours were spend charging down the dark mountain roads in a pair of DIY safety spectacles. These had been hastily purchased the day prior to the race after I had realised that sunglasses might not be the ticket for riding in the dark. Pouring rain, zero visibility and a quickly fading bike light kept both the focus and heart rate high. Despite the comedy eye wear doing a sterling job, my enduring dislike of descending deepened.

There is no feeling quite like the first beam of warm morning sun hitting your face after a chilly night. With every muscle pushing hard, climbing a muddy road, overlooking an astonishing mountain vista; one really feels truly alive. Cycling can be accused of being a solitary sport, however, it does deliver moments that are solely yours and no one else’s. The remote early morning ascent up to Pele La, was such a moment and will live with me for ever more.

On rounding a switchback and seeing the endless road snaking ever upwards into the misty mountain peak, once again sighting the leaders gave satisfying justification to the pain. The race was on.

Your mind, that has no hesitation in telling you to give up, ease off or just stop, can be distracted by vivid thoughts of tasty snacks to refuel. Such a pit stop awaited me at the top of Pele La and a pre-packed bag of favourite treats awaited, or so I thought. On arriving at the top of the never-ending climb, salivating over thoughts of the much needed calories, I was greeted by AJ with the unwelcome news that he didn’t have my bag but was instead clasping a carrier bag containing a Snickers bar and a couple of sesame seed crackers. Now, while it turns out that sesame seed crackers are quite tasty, the offerings didn’t quite deliver on the calorific banquet expected. The red mist became a few shades darker.

Peddling through seemingly infinite breath-taking countryside, crowds, cheers and chants that kept legs turning and spirits raised we arrived at the foot of the final climb, Dochula. Many conversations in the lead up to the race had concluded in the fact that this was the ultimate leg breaker, putting thick cycling chest hairs on even the smoothest shaved rider.

It’s grinding up this climb you re-join the point at which I started my narrative. When the wheel of the rider behind finally fell away, dangerous thoughts of a possible victory were allowed to creep in. I say dangerous because anything can happen… and did. After climbing for a further hour and with the end of the ceaseless mountain ascent only a handful of miles distant, the figure appeared. He was a young rider that had accompanied me on the initial breakaway and he now came past. Seemingly fresh compared to my weary legs, he was flying. Every fibre of my body was called upon to give chase but to no avail, just like my Pele La picnic bag, he was gone. In those last three miles I undoubtedly received a schooling in bicycle climbing from this talented young rider.

The summit was a mix between the joy of having conquered all the climbing for the day and the pain of having been beaten to it by minutes. This varied emotion prevailed throughout the closing miles of the race until the sheer joy of crossing the line to delightful cheering crowds won through.

The atmosphere at the finish line was alive with cheers, handshakes and hugs of congratulations. I suddenly had a family of hundreds as I was overwhelmed by their support and celebration. This magic atmosphere did not dwindle in the slightest and all the competitors enjoyed riding a wave of achievement.

While the racer in me will always hurt at finishing second, the experience is overwhelming a positive one of challenge and achievement in a location like no other. In life, we look for adventures and contests that not only test our physical abilities but also our determination. Searching for events that deliver such trials, one often finds rides with long distances and high climbs but few that capture a special and enchanting atmosphere. The Tour of the Dragon is a tough event brought to life by Bhutan’s unique culture, magnificent scenery and warm, happy and hospitable people. No other race I have entered or country I have travelled leaves you with such life enhancing experiences. As the airliner lifted off over the mountains, I departed Bhutan a better, more fulfilled and happier human being.  

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