Tom Thompson set out to test his off-road riding skills as part of the U.S. team for the BMW Motorrad International GS Trophy challenge in Mongolia. He was tested and rewarded, as the Durangoan and the American team came home with a second-place finish.
Thompson, 56, teamed with David Vaughan of Florida and Matt Kelley of Ohio for the race that spanned about 1,500 miles over eight days of riding through different courses and terrain outside the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
“We covered a lot of ground,” Thompson said. “Part of it reminded me of South Park and Arizona. It was kind of weird. There were big grassy hills and huge valleys that took a good hour to ride through. Then you get to a little ridge and drop into another huge valley. Just valley after valley after valley. It was really cool.
“The thing that stood out to me the most was the roads. You can ride anywhere you want in Mongolia. There are paved highways, and there would be like six two-track roads to the side of it. Each one was older and older. They’ve probably been using these same routes for hundreds of years and each time one got too eroded they would just move over and make another one.”
The American team finished with 286 points for their first podium finish since the contest began in 2008. South Africa was crowned champions for the second year in a row with 338 points. France was third, two points back of the U.S.
Teams averaged about 200 miles of riding each day, with different courses set up during the long hauls that challenged their riding.
At the designated courses, riders were timed for how quickly they completed the course and were penalized each time they touched a foot to the ground. Thompson said the penalties for touching the ground far outweighed the speed aspect, and riders focused on getting through the course cleanly instead of quickly.
Challenges outside of riding also counted toward the team score. These challenges included timed competitions that tested bike maintenance and repairs, setting up camp, navigation and traditional Mongolian archery.
There were 18 teams from around the world competing, which gave Thompson and the Americans a look into motorcycling on a multicultural level.
There were teams from every continent but Antarctica, and several languages spoken. Thompson said riders communicated with each other in English, as there was typically one person on each team who served as a translator.
But in rural Mongolia outside of Ulaanbaatar, interactions with the locals didn’t come with a translator.
“We’d stop at a little village and a gas station, and there would be 100 bikes filling up, and all the little kids would come around and want to sit on the bikes,” Thompson said. “Some (locals) would come up on little one-cylinder bikes they use for herding. They would walk up to our bikes and point to our two-cylinder bikes; I don’t know that they’ve ever seen bikes like ours.
“It was interesting trying to talk to them. You couldn’t really talk to them, but point at different things on the bike, then go over to their bike and point at it to get the point across.”
Mongolia is one of the least densely populated nations in the world at about 4.5 people per square mile, and some of the population is nomadic. Thompson said he and other riders often saw yurts – called “gers” in Mongolia – loaded onto the back of a truck and moved to a new location as people herded goats, sheep, camels or horses.
“We would go into little villages, and it was kind of funny that out in the open you’d see a yurt and there were never any fences; you’d ride for four hours and never see a fence. And when you’d get into a village, everybody had a 6-foot wooden fence around their house,” Thompson said. “In the villages, everybody was territorial, but out in the open they weren’t at all.”
The experience of riding in Mongolia and the people he met won’t soon be forgotten by Thompson. It’s an experience he’d surely like to have again, but the event does not allow for riders to compete multiple times, which allows for different riders to get the experience each year.
The only way Thompson could return for the event would be as a marshal, which requires being a certified BMW riding instructor and a sponsorship by a local BMW dealership. The only way to become certified is through a course in Germany, which cost about $4,000.
“That’s something that’s in the back of my head,” Thompson said of getting certified. “It was the ride of a lifetime for sure. For amateur riders to get to do something like this is just incredible. Definitely the ride of a lifetime.”