It's raining in Bhutan. That's not a reason to postpone a bike race, but it's not helping Bill Lahey feel more comfortable. Nor is the time of the start of the race -- two o'clock in the morning. Nor, for that matter, is the race course: through 10,000-foot mountain passes in the Himalayas, around hairpin turns on roads with no guardrails, down inclines so steep Lahey will have no choice but to steer at 40 mph or more.
Nor are the obstacles sure to get in his way: large trucks and farm animals, neither of which will be steered away from the oncoming bikes.
Nor is this haunting fact: only a third of the cyclists who start this race will make it 167 miles to the finish line.
So why is Bill Lahey, a 55-year lawyer from Cambridge, Mass., risking his life in the shadow of Everest?
"These are steep, windy roads more narrow and dangerous than a U.S. highway safety board would approve," Lahey says, actually understating the peril of the path he's about to take.
Yes, Lahey is a recreational cyclist who logs 60 miles per week on his high-end Trek road bike. But that's no reason to dedicate six months to train for this kind of extended nightmare. His partner on the journey, a Bhutanese man used to the dangers of the Himalayas, would say again and again how scared the race made him.
Eleven years ago, Lahey was living in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, for six months while providing legal counsel on behalf of the U.S. government to the National Environmental Commission. In his spare time, Lahey was looking for a cycling buddy and was introduced to Ugyen Yoesar.
"He was a very resourceful and industrious 22-year-old," Lahey says, "and I put my family in his hands for a number of days while we were on a mountain trek. He was our guide."
Before Lahey returned to his family back in the States, he and his new friend rode bicycles across the entire nation of Bhutan. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, considering the country bordering Nepal is only the size of Switzerland, but Bhutan's elevation ranges from 3,937 feet in the river valley town of Punakha to its tallest peak of Gangkhar Puensum at 24,836 feet. That's a four-mile vertical range. And there is only one fully paved road.
Just a few hundred miles east of Mt. Everest, neither man nor bicycle has conquered Gangkhar Puensum, but in an effort to inspire athletic participation and develop youth sports, the Bhutan Olympic Committee is trying to elevate cycling. So, last year, the Bhutan Olympic Committee hosted its first-ever endurance race and called it "Tour of the Dragon." Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and according to the official "Tour of the Dragon" website, "as difficult is it to conquer a dragon, so is it difficult to complete the race!"
Among locals, the Tour of the Dragon would come to be known as the "Death Race."
Yoesar, who has biked at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet, knows something about technically challenging locales and says the Tour of the Dragon "is very risky given the condition of the roads and the weather." And, he says, if more international competitors participate in the future, competitors "would be putting their lives at risk."
There are other bike races around the world that are notorious for one perilous aspect or another, but none has the combination of challenges posed by this mountainous course. France's Paris Roubaix is among the oldest and most prestigious single-day bike races, but Tour of the Dragon is longer, has nearly six-times the elevation, and the conditions are less predictable. The Death Ride in California is another world-class, single-day endurance race. Yoesar says the Tour of the Dragon is "much more dangerous" than the Death Ride because "the distance is longer, altitude gain and loss greater, and the ruggedness of the terrain superior."
A year after they met, Lahey helped bring Yoesar to the U.S. to train as a bicycle mechanic. "Since grade school I have always been fascinated by two wheels," Yoesar says, "and since high school I dreamed of owning a bike shop." He spent most of 2001 living with the Lahey family in Lexington, Mass., while working full-time becoming a bike tech. Then Yoesar returned home.
But despite the fact that TV and the Web arrived in Bhutan in 1999, Lahey and Yoesar eventually lost touch. "I hadn't heard from him in years," Lahey says, "and then he asks me if I want to ride to Tibet." Lahey declined, but then last year, Yoesar won the inaugural Tour of the Dragon race, and Lahey was intrigued.
"I wanted to come back," he says. "It's a beautiful country with kind and lovely people. And this was a great opportunity to take on a physical challenge and reconnect."
But at that time, he had no idea just how challenging the race would be.
Since his college days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Lahey says he has participated in a "century" (100-mile bike ride) every year. But the only official bike race he'd ever previously entered was the annual Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb in nearby New Hampshire.
"Right after I got back from my time in Bhutan," Lahey says, "I felt I was in really good bicycling shape, so I entered the Mt. Washington race which is considered the steepest race in the world."
It would not compare to the Tour of the Dragon.
To prepare for the Bhutan race, Lahey employed the services of Harvard's club cycling team coach, Ed Sassler. "I went to Ed four months ago, and said, 'Do you think I can handle a ride this long?'"
By the end of the summer, Lahey thought he was ready, but then the day before he was to leave for Bhutan, he got a call from Yoesar, saying road and hybrid bicycles had been banned from the race. "That's when I began to worry," Lahey says. He ran out and purchased his first mountain bike and headed for the airport.
Lahey flew out of Boston and arrived in Bhutan on September 6, to begin riding with Yoesar in the higher elevations to get acclimated to the altitude. By last Friday, he was in the village of Jakar, in the Bumthang District, some nine hours east of Thimphu.
And then he panicked.
"The first few days riding with Ugyen, I was really intimidated," Lahey says. "I had been to Colorado to train and rode Mt. Evans, the highest paved road in North America. Yet when I rode with him, I fell immediately behind. So I got nervous about whether or not I could do this, or embarrass Ugyen and his team." The race would cover 167 miles from Jakar to Thimphu in one day, and it would include four mountain passes at 10,000 feet or higher.
After spending 10 days getting familiar with a mountain bike twice the weight of his road bike at home, Lahey and Yoesar tried getting some sleep in Jakar before the 2 a.m. start time.
"The thing I was most concerned about the night before before was the first four hours of cycling in the dark," Lahey says, "which includes one 28 kilometer decent. Not knowing what is 15 feet in front of you is scary, especially when you are trying to go fast."
A few hours later, race organizers, local police, members of Bhutan's armed forces, and hundreds of onlookers gathered in the town center. Lahey was among 45 racers completing last-minute preps in total darkness; he was the only non-Bhutanese competitor. With overcast skies, not even the moon was kind enough to make an appearance to help the riders see their way. An ambulance eerily provided the only light -- flashing red -- while heading out in advance of the riders.
On cue, two hours after midnight Saturday, a starter's pistol was fired.
Yoesar was among the veteran Bhutanese riders surprised by how much more difficult the course was this year versus last year. The first real challenge was navigating a descent from 10,858 feet.
"I was very scared coming down the first downhill," Yoesar says, "because of the darkness, fog and the
condition of the road with the rain."
For nearly four hours, Lahey and the others blindly climbed up and down the first harrowing mountain passes with only headlamps on their helmets and handlebars. It wasn't long before a sizeable pothole claimed its first racer, putting a hole in the kneecap of a competitor who was taken by medevac to an area hospital.
By midday, racers were dropping like flies. And for those who weren't crashing or quitting, the 48-degree temperature and pounding rain was making every bump feel like a landmine.
Despite thousands of school children and others cheering along the route, Yoesar was losing momentum. "It was very slippery," he says, "and I couldn't use my goggles [because of the rain]."
Mudslides and washouts were becoming a real threat and Lahey's new bike was breaking down. "My front shock stopped working at some point," he says, "and when I got to the downhill in Nobding, well that shouldn't be called a road. You were better off being on a trail because it would have been more predictable. I was grabbing my handlebars so intensely."
If the altitude, weather and road conditions weren't making the race dangerous enough, the roads were still open to traffic. This was the nation's only major thoroughfare, after all, and cars and trucks needed to use it. Riders also had to dodge dogs and cattle that wandered onto the roads throughout the country.
"There were several times I feared a serious crash," Lahey says. "And several times I nearly had a head-on collision with a car or truck. My brakes weren't working well because of all the water and grit."
After nearly 12 hours of treacherous conditions, the first rider made his way down from Duchala Pass and into Thimphu under a police escort. He crossed the finish line in front of nearly 1,000 spectators.
Yousar was only 20 minutes behind the leader and finished third. Lahey, the oldest rider in the race, finished a very respectable eighth. Along with Yoesar's brother, Rinzen, their team, Yangphel Adventure Sports, won the team competition. Lahey didn't let his friend down after all.
But whether he rides next year is another question altogether.