Mountain Bike Thursday - Colorado Cyclists Take on the Yak Attack

By Robert Burnett

This ain't Colorado anymore

Here in Colorado we pride ourselves on our ability to ride at altitude. Denver is the “Mile High City,” and Colorado is home to two of the highest roads in the US, climbing up Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans. We test our strength on these roads, racing up them as fast as we can. And when we travel to lower altitudes, we can’t help but badger our out-of-state friends a bit about how easy it is to breathe.

Four Colorado racers will put their high-altitude experience to the test this coming March 1 -15 at a unique race in Nepal – a country with the highest peaks in the world. Robert Burnett, Sonya Looney, Thor Loechell and Tyler McMahon will tackle the Yak Attack, a 10-day mountain bike stage race through the Himalayas in Nepal. The race covers 400 kilometers (~250 miles) with 40,000 feet of climbing. The race’s Queen Stage, over Thorong-La Pass, tops out at just over 17,750 feet. That’s more than 3,000 feet higher than the summit of either Mt. Evans or Pikes Peak. At that elevation, there is only half of the amount of oxygen available than at sea level.

The race is made even tougher by the fact that after Stage 5, there is no vehicle support… because there are no roads. All of the racers are limited to 22 pounds of gear, which is carried by porters who walk the race course each day. Racers sleep in teahouses and trekking lodges every night, and sustain themselves on the local staple dal bhat, that’s rice and lentils for those of you who don’t speak Nepali. Racers stay hydrated and warm at the high altitudes by drinking delicious black and chai tea.

Two Coloradans are riding for a newly-formed mountain biking team created specifically for the Yak Attack. The new team, titled Northcentral University p/b Nepali Tea Traders Cycling Team, includes Rob Burnett and Thor Loechell, as well as two Nepali riders, Aayman Tamang and Rajan Bhandari. Rob Burnett, a local road racer, rides for the Primal Wear p/b McDonald Audi team when racing on the road.

Off the bike, Rob works for a new tea company based in Colorado called Nepali Tea Traders. The company, which donates all profits to help the children of Nepal, is the first in the U.S. to exclusively import teas from Nepal. His job takes him to Nepal regularly, making this race the perfect mix of business and pleasure for him. “Nepal has been a huge part of my life for the last seven years, as has cycling. I can’t wait to combine those two passions and see how far I can push myself in the Yak Attack!”

Thor, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered pilot by day and a monster on the mountain bike evenings and weekends. He has been an avid amateur cyclist for the last thirteen years, with experience on both the road and dirt. “I love endurance racing and I can’t wait to see Nepal and try such a challenging race. I just wish there were less climbing!” Thor might not be the quickest rider when it comes to pure speed, but his endurance and technical skill make him a dangerous competitor. As the stages get longer, Thor will get stronger.

The most experienced member of the team, Thor will keep the younger members of the team grounded and focused on getting the best results possible. Both Rob and Thor will be taking on the Yak Attack for the first time.

Two other Colorado racers are Yak Attack veterans. Both successfully completed the race last year. In fact, Sonya Looney is the first woman ever to finish the full race.
Sonya is the first to admit she has a problem. She is addicted to adventure endurance mountain biking. Last year, she was the first woman to ever complete the Yak Attack and now is going back for more.This year, the adventure endurance racer hopes to set a new record – and steep herself in the amazing Nepalese landscape and culture.

Sonya will also be going to Haiti in early February for the MTB Ayiti Ascent Stage Race, which features two days of racing and two days of community service, all with the intent of growing adventure tourism there and breaking the stigma that Haiti is a bad place to visit. For the past three years, she has been a steady and friendly presence in the 100-mile endurance races and stage races in the U.S.

“I love stage racing because it’s so much more than pedaling a bike. It’s a life and cultural experience where you make friends you’ll never forget and endure great challenges.” Even after racing in Brazil, Germany, Austria, and Canada, the Yak Attack remains the coolest thing she has ever done on a bike and she can’t wait to snap more photos and take in the full experience for a second time.

Tyler McMahon, another Yak Attack participant, grew up in Fairplay, Colorado, at 10,000 feet, and has lived in Nepal for the past five years. He is no stranger to high altitude. He started mountain biking nine years ago while attending Colorado College. He was looking for a more adventurous alternative to distance running and hasn’t looked back. “After heading to Nepal on a Fulbright Scholarship, I befriended the local riders and fell in love with the country and its mountain biking potential.”

Tyler now operates an environmental technology business in Nepal while also working for an international research organization. He rides 4-6 mornings a week with the locals. Tyler is a strong climber who gets stronger as the altitude increases. He participated in Yak Attack last year and finished in a respectable 33 hours (12th place). This year familiar with the course, and on a new Rocky Mountain Vertex 950 RSL 29er from Golden Bike Shop, he is looking to improve his time significantly and hopefully break the coveted 30-hour mark.

All four riders hope to represent Colorado well as they take on this epic race. You can follow Rob and Thor on their blog:

And you can follow Sonya on her blog:

And check back on for more updates!

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