Yak Attack: Surviving 'The Highest Mountain Bike Race on Earth'



Richard Parks, once known as a Welsh international rugby player, has, over recent years, proved that just like the old sporting adage life can also be a game of two halves.

A thirteen year professional rugby career, of which representing Wales on four occasions was the pinnacle, was ended prematurely due to a shoulder injury. Rather than fade into what many would deem a 'normal life' Richard set about creating a new life for himself, a life of great adventure.

Amongst his many great achievements, including his epic 737 Challenge, Richard recently took on the Yak Attack, which is regarded as 'the highest mountain bike race on earth'. Here he talks to The Essential Cyclist about his experiences at the race.

Why choose the Yak Attack as part of your preparation for your Antarctica Speed Record Expedition?

We had highlighted that cycling would play a significant part in my cardiovascular conditioning for the Antarctica expedition because of the similar muscle groups used in cycling and the prone position of pulling a pulk (sled). I like cycling and I love Nepal, where I had been climbing before, so when the opportunity arose to use the Yak Attack mountain bike race as the first training endurance race, it was a no brainer.

What proved to be the hardest challenge was the recovery period from the solo R&D expedition in Antarctica I had only just finished.

Did you actually believe that you would be able to complete it given the state you got back in from Antarctica just three weeks before?

No I didn’t is the honest answer. All the training events that I did in 2013 had quite a specific objective and the Yak Attack’s was to test (in pretty extreme environments) the recovery strategies that I was going to implement throughout the year and take with me to Antarctica. I can’t imagine any recovery strategy being tested more thoroughly than arriving back having lost 16 kilos of bodyweight, totally frazzled, with just a two-week turnaround before I left the UK for Nepal.

All the signs on leaving the UK was that it was going to be a huge effort just to finish it, I was going to be competing against seasoned, and in some cases, professional mountain bikers. Even my physio Nic, although she didn’t say so at the time, had pretty serious concerns about what I was putting my body through.

What do you think was the most valuable thing you took from that experience?

There is no shortcut to develop resilience and robustness. I worked very closely with Nic who came with me, that was a decision taken in light of the condition I was in off the back off my Antarctica R&D expedition. It proved to be the right decision because physiologically I got stronger every day. I put weight on every day when all the other racers were losing weight and fatiguing as the event progressed. I was actually going in the opposite direction, which also had a psychological implication - I knew my body was able to recover, even in the most extreme of environments and situations.

The recovery strategies that I was beginning to work on in the Yak Attack worked really well but also highlighted some weaknesses and threats to that year and to the Antarctica Speed Record Expedition. The first one was managing the demands of the TV documentary. It was a huge privilege and a lot of fun to have a film crew following me throughout the year, but with that comes responsibilities and challenges that were really highlighted in this first event. Just things like being able to deliver to camera after 6 hours on a mountain bike at altitude, being able to do the video diary in the night, managing the camera systems on my bike, all that was really difficult actually as I felt quite vulnerable in that first race. I was nowhere near the level and standard I would normally be when entering an event and all this was being filmed in high definition!

There was no escape from it and that was a huge lesson that I needed to develop psychological coping strategies, as well as an actual skill set, to be able to deliver to camera, switch off, not dwell on the negatives, yet portray all the ups and downs of the event. Also, although physiologically I was as able to maintain a pace at a low threshold for a long period of time, what I didn’t have was the ability to dip into my anaerobic zone comfortably. I had a really good aerobic base and could maintain aerobic exertion for long periods of time, but I didn’t have the strength to be able to change down a gear when I needed to, so the Yak Attack highlighted some really key areas to work on looking forward to Antarctica.

The best stage/day?

The last day! I don’t mean that because it was the end but because it was the only day when I genuinely felt like I was on par with some of the other athletes. I was getting stronger each day and recovering from Antarctica whilst the other riders were on a different performance trajectory. The last day was marred by an accident to Aussie Pete, it was a real shame to end the race on that note but before that happened it was the only day when I felt like I was able to compete.

The worst day?

The worst day by far was the first day. It literally was like being hit by a bus. The heat, even the 13km warm up climb to the start line was absolutely brutal and the day just got worse and worse. I was just being thrown out the back of every group I was riding with, I wasn’t last but I ended up coming in at the back of the field.

Was that first day one of the hardest physical days you’ve ever had?

I wouldn’t say it was the hardest day of physical activity but it was certainly one of the hardest and toughest experiences I have had. Just the pride, the psychology of it, it was really rough to handle. I had arrived at this race with a seven strong camera crew, it was the first episode of my first network TV documentary series and I knew I was weak and wasn’t anywhere near the shape I should have been in. You don’t dwell on that, you still think positively, but the actual reality of where I was and where the other riders were was really tough, it was an eye-opening day. I finished that stage and I really wanted to pack my bags, get on a plane and go home there and then.

Would you do the Yak Attack again?

I would like to do it again, I love cycling and I love Nepal. However, the experience of the Yak Attack was genuinely a brutal one and it wasn’t what it should have been on paper. I put that down to my physical and psychological condition after the Antarctica R&D, so I would love to have a crack at it again. One thing that is also great about the race is that for every non-Nepalese entrant The Yak Attack subsidises a Nepalese rider. It has a wonderful spirit, and the Nepalese riders were some of the best natural athletes I have ever had the privilege to compete with. For athletes and a sport that is relatively unfunded and unsupported, the riders were absolutely incredible. Some of the Nepalese riders that have won the Yak Attack (bear in mind it has never been won by a non-Nepalese rider) go on to ride professionally.

How would you describe your cycling level in general and what part does it play in your life overall and the preparation for all your expeditions?

I would say I am a moderate, sometimes strong, cyclist! Ha! Cycling plays a significant part of my lifestyle. My girlfriend and I have been on cycling touring holidays and depending on what stage my training is at or what expedition I am preparing for, I can do anything from one or two rides a week to riding every day, up to 300km a week in the height of training.

What’s your ride?

I used a Specialized Epic for the Yak Attack. Back home I ride a Specialized Tarmac and a Specialized AWOL for my adventures and my training. Most of the cycling I do is predominately on the road, I consider myself a roadie, although I grew up racing motorbikes and I do enjoy venturing off the beaten track.

Favourite cycling moment of all time?

Personally, I spent two weeks following and riding the Tour de France route which was an awesome holiday. The first time that I climbed the 21 hairpins in Alpe d’Huez was pretty cool too. I was proud to be an ambassador for the National Road Champs in Monmouthshire last year, having ridden the TT course, it was incredible to see the pros rip it up! Being in Scott Davies’ support car for last year’s Commonwealth Games TT when I was Team Attaché for Team Wales was super exciting. It was also great to watch the Tour de France in Yorkshire last year. We watched it from Holme Moss which was brilliant.

Favourite cyclist?

Probably the cyclist that I admire most at the moment is Geraint Thomas – not just because he’s a fellow Welshie, but his performance in the Paris-Roubaix last year was pretty exceptional, and he was the only Brit to finish the Tour de France last year. And to be part of Team Wales when he won the road race at the Commonwealth Games last year was absolutely incredible, that was an amazing performance he put in.

Favourite bit of cycling gear?

My Specialized S-Works shoes because they are really stiff, I like them - or maybe my speedplay pedals and my S-Works shoes because that set up is really cool, I really like that.

Place on earth that you want to cycle which you haven’t yet?

The Great Tour Divide Route

Fastest you have ever ridden on a bike?

70 something I think. I don’t look down at that speed!

For those who missed the first in Richard's new TV series you can catch up by clicking here. And for those interested in his book, Beyond the Horizon, click here

Photos courtesy of Nepal Sutra

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