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  • Sonya Looney, of Boulder, stops during the 2012 Yak Attack,...

    Jeff Kerkove/ courtesy photo

    Sonya Looney, of Boulder, stops during the 2012 Yak Attack, a 10-day mountain bike race in Nepal. Looney won the women's division.

  • Sonya Looney, of Boulder, pauses at the top of Nepal's...

    Sonya Looney, of Boulder, pauses at the top of Nepal's Thorong-La during stage nine of the Yak Attack mountain bike race. Shortly after this photo was taken, Looney realized her brakes had failed. She hiked the bike down the other side but still won the 10-day race. Courtesy photo.


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At the top of the highest pass in the Yak Attack stage race in Nepal, the brakes on Sonya Looney’s mountain bike failed. She had a sinus infection. Her friend and teammate Jeff Kerkove was so sick that a doctor loaded him onto a yak to return to civilization. She had three pairs of bike shorts to wear over the 10 days of the race and couldn’t wash them (“If you wash them, they’ll freeze,” she said). This was day nine. Ew.

Would she do it all again?

Yes, she said, if she could afford it. For this year’s Yak Attack, a burly and remote 10-day mountain bike race through the Himalaya, she scored half off the entry fee — organizers wanted more women in the race. (Sonya was one of three.) 

But even with that discount, she could only afford it because her employer and sponsor, bike ergonomics company Ergon, bought plane tickets for Sonya and her teammate, Jeff Kerkove. So she’s not sure she’ll return next year.

“I’m sad that it’s over,” Sonya told me last week. She was sipping coffee, visibly jetlagged from a few long plane rides back from Katmandu.  “But it was really hard, it was really uncomfortable. You don’t have the creature comforts you usually have at a stage race. You finish a race, and you don’t have a shower. If you do, it’s ice cold.”

Several days after her return to Boulder, though, she was still dreaming about the Yak Attack every night.

I started following Sonya’s mountain bike adventures a few years ago for this very reason — she takes on these sufferfests and revels in the misery. Her sense of humor always comes through on her blog (at

For example: When she told me about climbing to Thorong-La, the 17,000-foot pass where her brakes failed, I thought it sounded hauntingly beautiful, but miserable. Sonya was frank and funny when she talked about crossing the pass with that sinus infection.

“It was a lot of snot,” she said. “It really sucked on the day we had to go over the pass, because it was really cold, and it was freezing to my face,” and she gestured across her cheek with a laugh.

“I ate a Twix at the top — there’s a little tea shop up there,” she said. “I was a little hypothermic — my lips were blue in my pictures — and I was a little weepy, because I needed sugar.”

I’d be embarrassed to tell a reporter about the snot and the weepiness. I don’t know why — I have a critical crying point associated with blood sugar, too. But Sonya just owns it. 

All of it, her whole experience out there. 
I think that’s why when she realized both of her brakes were leaking fluid and had failed — on the highest point of the journey — she didn’t give up the race, or even give up her hopes of winning. She just started hiking the bike down the extremely long hill.

This wasn’t the toughest race she’s ever done, she said. The hardest was riding the week-long Claro-Brasil in pouring rain every day. Why do it? I asked.

“Because when you do things that push you outside your comfort level, you grow as a person,”  she said, “and inside, you know that you can do anything,”

“It makes you a better person in your life — if you know you can get through difficult things on your bike, it’s a microcosm. If something difficulty happens in my normal life, I think, well, you got through that on the bike, you can get through this.”

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