Riding the Dragon – Bhutan’s Toughest Race
A lone westerner tackles toughest race you've never heard of.
By Kevin Rouse
It’s no secret that Bhutan doesn’t exactly court visitors with open arms. Only opened to tourism in 1974, the country saw just 28,000 international visitors last year.
So, that means you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of the Tour of the Dragon, orlet alone able to locate Bhutan on a map (clue: India borders three sides of the country). Run on a mix of pseudo-paved roads (think cobblestones on steroids), the race runs from the tiny country’s southeastern city of Jakar to the capital city of Thimphu.
How, then, do you become the only Westerner to compete in the race?
It’s simple enough, really.
O.K., maybe it’s not, but that makes the story of Boston-based lawyer Bill Lahey’s all the more interesting.
Bill Lahey has been practicing law for over 30 years. Eleven years ago he took a sabbatical to travel to Bhutan. While he certainly played the tourist a bit, while there, Lahey largely worked for the Bhutanese national government. Lahey served as an advisor, helping the country to draft legislation that would eventually lead the Kingdom of Bhutan down the road of liberalization, eventually becoming a constitutional monarchy in 2007. He also happened to bring along two bikes with him.
“It was a real novelty to have modern bikes there,” says Lahey.
Lahey’s pale-skin was also a bit of a novelty.
“I was often a spectacle” he recounts.
While in Bhutan, Lahey crossed paths with local tour operator Ugyen Yoezer. In Ugyen, Lahey found a regular riding partner. Over the course of Lahey’s trip the two rode all around the country together. Eventually, Ugyen would travel back to the US with Lahey, where he apprenticed in a local Boston bike shop. After six months in the States Ugyen returned to Bhutan to open a bike shop of his own.
Fast forward a decade and Ugyen has just won the first edition of the Tour of the Dragon, beating, among others, the country’s crown prince and creator of the race who finished third. For the second edition of the race, held this past September, Ugyen invited Lahey to come to Bhutan and compete on his team.
The race’s format is unique in that involves teams of three racers. Scoring is done cross-country style, where riders accrue points equal to their finishing place and the team with the lowest score wins.
The race itself is rather unique as well. Taking advantage of Bhutan’s mountainous terrain, the race goes over a series of four mountain passes, three of which are situated at over 10,000 feet. At 268 km in length, it’s surely no sprint either. Aside from an enourmous amount of climbing, the race offers stunning views of medieval fortresses and centuries-old temples.
This year, Lahey, in his first running of the Tour of the Dragon, took top honors along with his teammates Ugyen Yoezer and Rinzin Norbu.
Lahey was the only non-Bhutanese racer, and also the oldest participant in the race.
Crossing the finish and arriving in Thimphu was a very special expereice.
“I was surprised at how I received a warm heroes’ welcome,” says Lahey
A guest of honor at the post-race gala Lahey was treated to an audience with the former prime minister.
For next year, more foreign competition is expected, though the local advantage isn’t to be taken lightly in a race like the Tour of the Dragon.
A Bit About Bhutan
Bhutan is one of 39 remaining constitutional monarchies in the world and is the only country to measure its gross national happiness. It’s no coincidence then that the country ranks as the eighth-happiest country in the world. Bhutan enjoys a surprising amount of different terrain for such a small country. Ranging from subtropical in the southern portion of the country, the northern reaches are home to numerous mountains over 23,000 feet, including, Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world, at 24,840 feet.