I spent a week running along the North Korean border

An early morning read of the latest race results from last week revealed an interesting race name: Tour de DMZ. This DMZ? Yes, this DMZ. It is a junior race run along the border between North Korea and South Korea, passing through the demilitarized zone from east to west. The race runs along the edges of the DMZ and even goes into some restricted areas. It’s hard to imagine a more unique setting for a junior road race.

So we scanned the results list and spotted the young American Jack Makohon 3rd in the GC, an excellent result in a Nations Cup event. We reached out, asked the obvious question. How was it? What did you see? He kindly wrote this account of his week.

My name is Jack Makohon. I’m 17 years old from Dallas in the United States and I fell in love with racing since I was nine years old, the age at which they will give you a license.

I have raced crits, road racing and cyclocross, just about everything except mountain biking and BMX. Last year I won our National Championships road race 15-16 which gave me the opportunity to race for LUX Cycling, an elite U19 development team. I would eventually like to race professionally in Europe, so I wanted to start racing in Europe as much as possible.

I was very excited when I found out I was going to Korea. I was hit by a rider in March during training and sidelined for five months, so any racing opportunities were much appreciated at the end of the year. Rusty Miller with Onto Cycling, our Race Director, was very generous in offering me a guest rider spot on his team. After being out most of the year and with COVID for the past few years, I only raced a month in Europe and the rest in the US. It was also nice to have a high quality broadcast of the race, which meant my family and friends could watch the race at home.

Racing in Korea was a great experience and very different from racing in Europe. This race was definitely the most organized I have done and it was very cool to discover a new culture. From the moment we got off the plane until we got back, the race staff helped us navigate the country and adapt to the culture. The race provided each team with a bus and an interpreter, which helped with logistics. The race hotels for each day were all very nice and there was also an excellent selection of food. Everyone seemed extremely friendly and happy to have us there.

The whole idea of ​​the race is to travel along the DMZ [Ed: the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, is a strip of land between North Korea and South Korea] from east to west of the Korean peninsula. During the race, we went to specially protected areas very close to the border which were heavily guarded by the military. We were going through some sort of portal and you knew then it was a restricted area. Team cars should cover their cameras in these areas. On many roads near the border, we saw concrete blocks stacked on platforms above the road. Our translator told us that these could explode and block roads during an invasion. So we certainly knew that we weren’t racing in a typical environment. There were also many travel points on the team bus where we looked at the map on our phone and realized that the mountain in front of us was North Korea. It created excitement within our team about where we would be racing, because it wasn’t just another pitch in Flanders.

We talked a lot with the Korean riders and the various Asian teams who don’t normally have the opportunity to race in Europe. They were all very nice and friendly, and although the language was a barrier, it didn’t stop us from exchanging Instagrams or laughing. Lots of guys swapped kits with riders from Korean teams. After the races, we walked around the small towns where the hotels were. The race did not provide lunch after each stage, so we asked our translator to find places to eat where no other foreigners would be and so we ate at authentic Korean restaurants. Several asked us to take off our shoes at the door and it felt like we were eating at someone’s house, not in a restaurant. It was great to learn about their way of life, which we thought was cool and very different from our culture. Shopping with the Australian team at a Korean mall was also a fun time. Trying to figure out the size of the clothes wasn’t the easiest, but the prices were great.

Cyclists (not participating in the Tour de DMZ) pass along the dividing line

The main difference in the race was that it was held on wider and less technically difficult roads than in Europe. We also had smaller fields than you typically find in European races. It was very easy to move around in the bag, which meant it all came down to your legs. This made the dynamics of the race very different and somewhat similar to racing in the United States. Dutch team Willebrord Wil Vooruit brought a very strong roster and were the clear favourites. I knew max [van der Meulen] and Mennon [Huising] were the guys to score and I tried to break with them early on. I missed the big break in stage 1 where they actually did the TTT of the race, but I knew the fourth stage with some climbing suited me best and I had to stay patient. During this stage, I was the only one to take the last climb with them and I was able to take second place on the stage. This catapulted me all the way to third place on GC. I knew that in Stage 5 they would try to move their teammates in GC from fourth or fifth to my third place, so my teammates and I had to be extra vigilant and watch their tactics. In the end, we were able to close the necessary gaps and I kept my place.

I consider myself a climber or a GC type so European stage races with hills are very appealing and make races like the Tour de DMZ really important to me where I could race to my strength on long uphill stages . We have a great group of guys on LUX and I was really looking forward to this year. Sadly my crash derailed many of those plans, but I got a few races in and I have Rusty to thank with Onto for the extra race opportunity. The season is almost over for me now, but I will have teammates at Worlds in Australia, so we will encourage them. The Tour de DMZ was definitely one of my favorite races I’ve done so far. Achieving great results always helps make it a memorable race. I hope to be able to participate in the event again next year.

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