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There’s nothing quite like building a bike for one, specific and grand project. So, when Didier Muller first heard of a group doing a bike trip across the Tibetan Himalayas, he went into his stable of bikes (he was then at seven) to see if anything quite fit the bill.
“I met these guys in the streets of Shanghai cycling, where I work part time,” says the New Jersey resident of how he found himself signing up for a cycling trip of a lifetime. “I ride with this local group, RNCC (which stands for Ridenow Cycling Club). They have a race team, about 1,000 members, and organize travel trips outside of Shanghai twice a year, plus the guys are really nice.” Their next adventure was a 12-day trek from Chengdu, in Eastern Tibet, to Everest Basecamp, putting the total journey at around 570 kilometres. The ride is designed for an intermediate athlete, and Didier says he put in a reasonable amount of training in preparation.
With plenty of time to prepare for his trip, Didier started to think about the ideal bike for the specific demands of the Himalayas: long daily rides (so custom geometry was a must), incredible climbs and, of course, breath-taking descents. Although the Himalayan region is extremely remote and at times sparsely populated, it’s also become a massive infrastructure project for the Chinese government. “ There would be some rough sections along the way, however, so Didier wanted to marry an aggressive geometry with the handling of a gravel bike.
Didier decided to build a bike specifically for this trip. “I didn’t want to deal with a carbon disaster,” he says of his choice to go with a titanium frame. “I have three friends who’ve had issues in China with the local airlines. A broken frame and your trip is done before it even begins.”
“Tibet has become a giant public works project. Building high speed trains, solar farms,” Didier says of the region. And although the roads are mostly super smooth and many of them just recently constructed, Didier wanted his custom ride to have a hint of gravel agility. “I wanted to run 36 mm tires, and have the crankshaft a little lower for good speeds and comfort,” he says of some of the specs he aimed for when building out his custom No. 22. “Sure, a ti frame is maybe a few hundred grams heavier than carbon, but I’m not going to notice that after a day or two in the mountains. For me, titanium is number one.”
The group broke a day’s worth of riding down into about 80-100K, with a few days front-loaded to acclimatize to the altitude. The region sits well above 12,000 ft, even at its lowest valleys. Didier had never ridden at altitude before, so he prepped put in the prerequisite work on the roads in order to get as fit as he could. “I’m an older cyclist, but pretty fit, so I raced a time trial and Fondo in preparation for the trip,” he says. The oxygen level at altitude is less than half of what you are breathing at sea level, so Didier also packed Diamox, which is used to combat altitude sickness. “You take it to make sure you don’t get migraines. I had zero issues,” he says. “The one thing to be careful with is to never push too hard too fast. Before pushing up a big climb, I would check my heart rate, and I would do all my climbs and keep my heart rate at zone three.”
Each day, Dider and a small group, including a Japanese couple on their honeymoon, would ride in mornings, including some serious efforts, “We did two hours of climbing, a lot of 6, 7 and 8 per cent,” Didier says, mitigating it by pointing out that it is nothing like the the Pyranese or Alps, which has 12-14 per cent climbs, but that the extreme altitude makes the aerobic effort punishing.
After each morning ride, the group would make a quick stop for lunch, and then try to get to a rest stop, or the group’s minibus, which ran support, would shuttle them to their accommodations for that evening. They also had a truck transporting bikes so that they didn’t need to disassemble them, and a translator. “It’s difficult to move around Tibet for foreigners,” Didier points out. “You need a guide and permitting to get through police checkpoints, but all of that was arranged for this trip. It was seamless.” The hotels varied, depending on how deep into the region they were—”everything from Hilton and the Shangrila, but closer to Everest the hotels of course are rougher.” Didier says.
Each day provided extraordinary vistas, but also some unexpected flora. “The trip varied wildly,” Didier says, “from a very lush environment in the east of Tibet, with wild peach trees, to a very harsh environment. Keep in mind that the geology in the area was once a sea floor that has been pushed up to 4,000m. The Indian Continent that started to move 65 million years ago.”
The food was a standout throughout the trip. “It’s a section that didn’t have rice until the Chinese showed up,” Didier indicates. “It’s a country of yak milk, and heavy Nepalese influence.” Another memorable constant was the kindness of the locals as they passed through each community. “There would often be little kids waving at you along the side of the road,” Didier says.
Another extraordinary moment came while they drove in order to get within range of riding to Everest Basecamp. “We stopped in the middle of the night en route to Everest,” he says. “We got out in order to look out into the night sky with zero light pollution. It’s incredible.”
The group targets early May and October in order to avoid dangerous conditions. “One day we had crappy weather,” Didier says. “But we actually had a bunch of fun. It was two degrees, and all these rollers in the mud and rain. I like that sort of thing.” He says his choice to go with a titanium bike was a wise one because of one near disaster. “The bike saved my butt. I misjudged a turn, and hit a bunch of ripples,” he says. “If I had a carbon frame, I would have been ejected at that speed. The ti absorbed it.”
On one of the final days of riding, Didier began a long descent into a valley, and just as he did so, the sky before him cleared. “It was exulting,” he says looking back at one of those perfect moments one encounters riding in a foreign land. I just went another mile and enjoyed the moment. It was a humbling experience.”
Didier’s ride in the Himalayas was also special because it’s no doubt the highest a No. 22 bike has ever been to. 5,250 m.
“This experience changed my focus on cycling,” he says of his ride in the mountains on his Tibet bike. “Now I’m going to do one big trip with this bike every year.”
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