Isadore Eastern Epic Adventure

In late July, we learned that our Chinese distributor was organizing a sister event to the iconic mountain bike race, the Cape Epic. The original race is held annually in South Africa, but variations of it have since been organized in Switzerland, Andorra, Croatia and a pilot edition in China. The race, co-organized by our partner, took place on the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of more than 3,500 meters above sea level.

Words by Tomas Rosival, photos by Szymon Kotowski

One thing led to another and we hurriedly put together three teams that will go to represent Isadore in the Far East. Martin and Peter Velits were joined by former professional rider Adam Hansen, the record holder in the number of Grand Tours, and his training partner Lukáš Štefek. As this was pairs competition, we also invited our ambassador Szymon Kotowski, known on Instagram as szymonbike, who — on top of his performance capabilities — we could also count on in terms of capturing the beautiful moments with his camera. I was his teammate.

Arrival in the land of the dragon

On the 11th of August the two of us boarded the plane in Budapest together with the Velits brothers, and without any major complications our entire team met in Chengdu after about twenty hours of travel. Looking back, it turned out to be the only smooth transfer we experienced during the trip. The next day we set out for our first ride with a group of about forty local riders. It took a while to emerge from the city of sixteen million, but eventually the skyscrapers gave way to farmhouses and cornfields, and the road was lined with locals just hanging out smoking their cigarettes by the side of the road. In the evening we had a tour of the metropolis and tasting of local spicy specialties.

In the morning a transfer to Aba, the venue of the race, was organized for us. The trip was supposed to take about 6 hours, but Mr. Qian, our minibus driver, said it would more likely take around 10 hours. A series of highway tunnels gradually carried us up into the mountains. When a packet of crisps exploded due to the pressure, we realized we were nearing our destination. The altitude displayed on the watch read 3,200 meters. Mr. Qian turned off the main road and we enjoyed a ride through the rural areas of Sichuan. The shabby dirt roads turned into a racetrack and our driver did not allow his rivals to have an inch of extra space. Cars were overtaking us from both right and left sides and we were scared to death. The night fell and the minibus stopped at a place resembling a restaurant. In a region visited by only about 150 tourists annually, we were definitely an attraction. What followed was a series of joint photoshoots with our shy landlady and her even more shy daughter. We were in a region where the locals had never seen Europeans before.

Our first day in Aba was spent acclimatizing and we went for a relaxing ride in the area. Endless green rolling mountains stretched in all directions. The monotonous scenery was adorned by yaks and Buddhist prayer flags. Thin air meant that after about ten kilometers we were out of breath and so we went back to recover. “Right in the very first two days we got a massive dose of Sichuan province. Chengdu is a huge, vibrant city that never seems to sleep. In contrast to the city, the feeling of peace in the mountains was just amazing,” recalls Peter Velits.


The prologue of the race was scheduled for the next day. The track was less than 10 kilometers long and, untypical for mountain bikes, it consisted entirely of asphalt. Szymon and I said to ourselves that we would give it all we had and then that we would just be taking pictures and soaking up the atmosphere for the next few days. The race was an ordeal, however. After the first corner my energy was gone and each change at the top meant a 5 km/h drop in average speed. Luckily Szymon pushed me to the top of the hill and we didn’t end up like the guy starting a minute before us, for whom the prologue meant 11 stitches on his face and two broken teeth.

Martin’s chain broke on the pump track, and our two hopes, Adam and Lukáš, finished fourth. “I was the only one from our team who didn’t try the pump track the day before the start of the prologue. I thought going through it at the end would just be a formality. I was already at my limits during the run. On top of that, I chose a wrong gear and my very limited technical skills were of no help either. It couldn’t have been anything but a fiasco and I finished half of the pump track by running alongside my bike,” says Martin, laughing. But we had yak meat for dinner, so all in all we had had a successful day.

First Stage

In the evening we were informed that the wake-up time was postponed by an hour from the originally scheduled 4:30 a.m. due to heavy rain. In the morning, still half asleep, we moved to the buses, not knowing where and how long the ride was going to be. After an hour and a half, the bus dropped us off in the middle of the hill. The stage was again to be only 10 kilometers long. Uphill and on asphalt. “Racing uphill on the asphalt at 4000 m.a.s.l. was great fun. But what I really enjoyed was the ensuing out-of-competition ride together around a mountain lake at 4200 m.a.s.l. I used an oxygen bottle for the first time, but it wasn’t of much help. Any accelerated movement was extremely difficult at this altitude,” adds my competition twin Szymon. I don’t remember much of the race. At the finish line, medics were running around, measuring the content of oxygen in our blood and offering us oxygen bottles, which I confidently refused.

Second Stage

The weather calmed down and the organizers kept the original route this time. The real race had begun! Peter and Martin returned back to Europe the day before, as they were supposed to participate in the L’Etape in Bratislava. A separate blog could easily be written about their journey back home. As I was climbing in a 15% gradient across the Tibetan Plateau, I envied them their odyssey through Chinese airports. For some unfathomable reason, I thought we were only supposed to climb 400 vertical meters that day. When my Wahoo was showing 300 at kilometer 10, I realized something was wrong. I started fading as I worked through the starting field. My misery stopped at kilometer 38 and a 1,000 vertical meters. I made a commitment to study the track more carefully in the future.

Third Stage

Not even the last day of the race went well and smoothly. The start was postponed due to heavy fog and drizzle on the hill. Szymon had caught an intestinal virus the day before, so I started without my mate. The track led through beautiful scenery. I most enjoyed the part stretching around the river and through the nomad camp. The second half was cycled on asphalt again, so the 60 kilometers passed very quickly and I found myself at the end of our adventure.

Damned Weather

We quickly loaded up our stuff and off we traveled to Hongyuan. This time, we decided to swap 12 hours on the bus for a 1 hour flight. But our plan was again thwarted by rain. The flight was cancelled and we had to look for an alternative connection. We managed to arrange a bus and after 8 p.m. we boarded another endless drive across Chinese roads. We were quite convinced that we would not survive this ride. Our driver drove solely in the middle of the road and regularly fell into a micro-sleep. Water leaked through and got inside the minibus, and the temperature was only either 15 or 35 degrees. I still don’t understand how we ended up at our hotel in Chengdu at 3 a.m. On my last day in China I was still planning some traditional tourist strolling and souvenir shopping. However, our postponed arrival meant having to change our plans and the end of our trip turned into a fight for survival. The rest of the group still stayed in Chengdu and went to visit the biggest local attraction, the research station, where visitors can see the endangered giant pandas in their natural habitat. I headed for the airport in the evening. The trip back to Europe was marred by further complications due to rain, but that’s the toll of traveling in the summer months.

We experienced intense 11 days, during which we managed to at least have a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture and to get to know completely new tastes. We saw beautiful scenery that begs to be explored in the saddle of a mountain bike or a road bike, and we met a lot of very friendly people. For us this adventure was truly Epic.