There are ex-pats from all around the world enjoying the South Korean mountain biking scene at the moment. With ginseng a staple on the menu – it’s perhaps no wonder that their performances are super-charged as they tackle challenging routes, rides and races
To my right was the 35-degree gradient of the start to the Yangsan race, a 30km XC trail designed to test the rider against the steep South Korean hills, notorious for their gradients and relentless rocky sections. I’d ridden it many times before, but this time it felt different. My Korean competitors were hot on my tail and the temperature was even hotter.
This was the Grand Masters’ Race. Held every year in the summer heat, 200 riders had turned up to test themselves against tough sinuous, switch-backs and tricky downhill sections. Two particular sections test the riders, the aptly named “Sidewinder”, a steep, loose 50m test of stability, effective braking and the requirement to keep the front and rear wheels out of the centre rut which the heavy rains have forged.
Further along the trail we then encounter “Fat Man’s Squeeze”, so named because two rocks come together to form a narrow gully culminating in a 2 foot drop which must be taken while twisting the bike to the left to avoid the tree waiting to take the unobservant out.
Local trails on Geoje Island have some great named challenges – so we also have “Boneshaker” (very aptly named as a few have had offs requiring hospital treatment), The “High school” (a great MTB education), “Body snatchers” (where two empty graves exist), “Itchy ’n’ scratchy” (named for its penchant to sting the unwary rider with head-height bushes of Poison Ivy, whilst lower thorns rip into unprotected skin) and “Grandma’s backyard” (which aptly finishes in an elderly lady’s yard, where her washing on the line can surprise first time riders).
The Geoje MTB group has been riding in Korea for the last four years and we regularly tackle these challenges and more. There are about 200 of us ex-pats, who regularly meet up and ride around the trails of Geoje Island and the surrounding mainland near Busan. Most of us work in the Oil and Gas Industry, and come from all corners of the world, such as the UK, USA, Norway and Australia.
Regular ride outs are organised throughout the week, such as the beginner’s ride on Saturday afternoon, and on Sundays – which is for elite riders, and those aspiring to be so. The Sunday ride takes about 2-4 hours with its single trails of varying difficulty and skill levels.
For a spot of Wednesday evening fun, we head out on the infamous “torches” ride, where we ride into the trails with our headlights. Encountering large sticky spider’s webs built right across the trails is great fun for the lead rider! We also train by way of our commute. We’ll do daily back and forth rides of differing routes to the two main yards of Samsung and DSME here on the Island and it’s best to keep off the roads as the driving standards are somewhat hazy. Many members use indoor turbo trainers, rollers or good old gym work. Some members also crossover to the road riding group for training, as the tortuous hills offer great leg workouts.
The trails around here do require a good fitness level in order to enjoy them. We have a good number of Korean members in the group too, they’re very fit and they compete with us across respective age groups – ranging from early teens right through to the grand master group of the up to 60-year-old riders.
Competition is always fierce amongst the race entrants and the racing is extremely well organised by the Korean Mountain Bike Federation, with entry fees ranging around the £15 mark for each race. And they incorporate a meal at the end of the race and a gift such as a cycling top, rucksack or backpack.
Those that get to the podium can expect to receive £150 for first place, £100 for second and £75 for third. The strangest gift I have received has been a high quality Ginseng plant which found its way into my lunch salad. Perhaps that’ll give me a boost onto the podium in future! Race schedules start around March and April and tail-off around August when the ambient temperature can reach 40 degrees centigrade, pushing the competitors water demand to their limits.
What tracks to expect
Race courses vary in length, from those in Ulsan of approximately 10km, to the Hamyang course at 45km with an elevation gain of 1900m in a single climb. The Muju MTB race festival takes place in May on the now dry winter ski slopes. It’s here that the 3km downhill course tests both the untrained and elite competitors. Taking your downhill bike on the ski lift to the top of the peak allows spectacular views of the area and creates butterflies in the stomach as you look downward toward the finish line.
The course truly tests every rider with steep switchbacks, large rocky drop-offs and a 10-foot jump right near the finish line to entertain those watching. Cross-country takes place over two laps of the near 30-40 degree slopes pushing your aerobic demands beyond what you thought you were capable of. A team relay brings the festival to a climax, with each rider completing a 2km leg and a prize of £500 is shared amongst the winning team’s riders.
Safety equipment and suitable clothing is a must in South Korea due to the severity of some of the trails, however local dealers offer a great selection of gear to the rider. Many members also buy on-line from proprietary retailers, either shipping the items directly out here to us or having friends bring their purchases out with them when they visit. All bike marques are catered for in South Korea too and there’s a sterling back up and repair service offered by dealers on the island.
Most riders opt for bikes with dual suspension due to the technical sections encountered on many trails, however hardtails do make up a percentage of bikes used by the group, usually of the carbon fibre nature.
On the menu
Dietary requirements are catered for by local Korean cuisine, which ranges from the spicy and pungent Kimchi, a pickled and fermented cabbage which accompanies most meals, to Samgutang, otherwise known as chicken and ginseng soup.
Good quality beef forms the staple diet for most Koreans cooked on a Korean BBQ, a circular grid heated from below by barbeque charcoals, however those of a non-adventurous nature can find western food in specialised restaurants. On rides, we carry energy bars, gels and other quick snacks bought on-line from proprietary sites. These are washed down by water or energy drinks carried in Camelbaks that are a must for riders during the summer periods of extreme heat.
We’ve seen temperatures hit the 40-degree mark, with water consumption hitting 3 litres on a regular basis during a ride. During the summer months 30-degree temperatures are commonplace. For those ex-pats based out here for between three months to four years, Korea offers outstanding scope for the foreign MTBer with stunning scenery and challenging trails. So, come and join us…
Words: Robin Williamson