Category Archives: Epic

SRMR Day 9, the goat path, Kegeti and the Chinese gold mine

This night I slept quite well. Stopping at 7 pm I probably managed to got fall asleep at 8 and the alarm sound at 3:30 am means that I got a solid 7 hours of sleep, good enough for one more day in the saddle but not enough to erase the lack of sleep from the previous 8 days. The full moon under which I fell asleep last night is gone and the sky is covered by a million stars. While it looks stunning I would have somehow preferred the the light of a full moon for the next section of trail which climbs to a 2700 meter pass in the middle of nowhere.

The trail could also be called a goat path in some points, and I try to keep a decent pace with all the switches from push-bike, to carry bike and to short stretches of actually riding the bike. The only witnesses of this effort are the cows grazing near the riverbed  and from time to time the reflection of the my headlight in their eyes reminds me that I’m not alone here. But I enjoy being up this early and even with all the push-bike I manage to get atop of the pass just after sunrise. From here comes a long 1000+ descent to a string of villages, followed but yet another long climb up Kegeti to 3800 meters. The squishy bikes makes short work of the descent and while I feel the brakes pump under my fingers I wonder if the metallic pads I have in will last me until the end of the race.

7 am, at a top of a 2500 meter pass, after pushing the bike for almost 3 hours on goat paths. Fortunately this is the start of a long descent towards Epkin.

Just before joining the the main road I see in the distance something which seems like an wild animal running extremely fast towards morning light. I hope to get closer in order to seem what is this rabbit like creature but even though I’m going at something like 30-40 kilometres per hour the creature is still moving away. I make a mental note to search what it could have been but at the same time I wonder if it could also be some kind of vision due to the lack of sleep. Regarding the lack of sleep this becomes obvious when I start descending on the long straight road directly towards the morning sun. I get an incredible feeling of sleepiness, and while It only lasts until I change direction and until the morning sun isn’t shining directly in my face, it’s a reminder that maybe this is a proper time to get back on the magic caffeine.

In the distance, the long climb towards Kegeti guarded by 4000+ high mountains.

I didn’t have any caffeine for the past month or so as I thought it would mess with my sleep patterns during the race (unfortunately this didn’t work) but as the finish line seems close I think it might make sense to get back on the drug again. I shake the thought out of my head and postpone the idea until after Kegeti. For now I just do a short resupply with stuff to last me until the afternoon and at the same time I check the map with the trackers, seeing that a couple of hours in from of me there’s a small battle going on between David, Lubos and Christoph, with Christoph seeming to have an amazing pace at this time in the race.

Kegeti when climbed from Djangi Talap is a daunting prospect, almost 2000 meters of climbing from which the last 300 meters are a serious push bike. The upside is that from the top you have 50 kilometre long descent on fairly good roads. The biggest issue for me during the climb is the heat, especially for my feet. This is the first hot day in a while and I’m reminded again the that the goretex boots, while they have been great for the past 6 days are horrible right now. I have to stop several times either to dip my feet in the river or just to stay for a couple of seconds with the boots in the cold mountain water to get the temperature down.

The goretex boots which proved to be way too hot for this day, forcing me to stop several times to dip my feet in cold water. Also the dust and grime on everything after 9 days in the saddle.

This works for 30 minutes or so, but then I have to find the next place to cool my feet. Not to self, for similar future experience choose a lighter / breathable pair of shoes and pair them with some neoprene gaiters. When I turn off the the main road towards Kegeti I start making good progress and the final pushbike goes also surprisingly fast. It seems that opposed to yesterday today I feel quite OK. The 50 kilometres of descending from Kegeti to the first village are a blessing, especially after the last 500 kilometres of racing which had a LOT of difficult terrain. With a squishy bike you can basically just bomb down the mountain and relax and hope that the brake pads won’t wear out and that the brakes won’t overheat. And the feeling o descending for over an hour, from 3800 meters to almost 800 meters is priceless.

The call of the open road and of the finish line which doesn’t seem that far away anymore.
Just before the turn towards Kegeti.
Weather wise we can relax today, one day later the riders would encounter one of the most epic snow-storms of the race.
The last section of push-bike towards the 3800 meter Kegeti pass, followed by a 50 kilometre long descent.

I make it to the first village with it’s small shop in the early afternoon, buy some real food (canned corn, bread, canned fish and sweats) and I hop back on the bike trying to see if I can catch up with Lubos / David which seem to be around 30 minutes to 1 hour in front of me. After 50 kilometres of descend we have ahead another 30 kilometres of tarmac until Orlovka, through small villages and on secondary roads guarded by apple trees. Due to the warmth of the afternoon the air smells of ripe apples and two locals wave at me to stop as thei offer their afternoon harvest. The afternoon light is soft and a slight tail-wind pushes me towards Orlovka while my only complaint for the moment remains the feeling of of the feet overheating and I have to take the same cooling approach as in the morning, cooling my shoes in cold mountain water.

In Orlovka I resupply again for the following day as I know that the shops in the next string of villages will be closed during the night. From here comes yet another climb to a 2200 meter pass. It’s the third pass of the day, after more than 150 kilometres and the legs and the mood start to go down a bit exactly as the night falls.

I’m a bit surprised when I see that the track seem to lead directly to through a high security complex and I’m even more surpised to see the chinese guards at the entry stopping me and showing a cardboard sign where it’s scribbled that we should pass directly through the complex and avoid stopping at all costs until we get out. I do exactly that, wondering what this complex could be, I would find out at the finish line that it was actually a gold mine. Amongst the stories about the gold mine, it seems that there was some kind of delegation coming just behind me who saw riders going through and got upset, a couple of riders actually got stopped for a couple of hours until Nelson handled the situation while the last half of the riders actually had a nice resupply / refreshment point laid out for them by the guards.

It’s almost midnight when I make it to the top of the pass and when I start the descent on the other side, the full moon is once again out illuminating the landscape and while I descent I search for a spot where I could nap for a couple of hours. The spot doesn’t appear in time and when I finally find one protected spot and stop I discover that sleep doesn’t come that easily.

If there’s a mystery I haven’t seemed to be able to solve during this race is how to handle properly handle the sleep periods. For some of the nights and stops it was ok, and I feel asleep right after putting my head down. For others it was a complete failure, with my mind racing wildly and with hours wasted before I actually fell asleep. But if it’s one thing which I’ve learned from the past days is that if sleep doesn’t come in the first 10-15 minutes maybe it’s better to pack everything and move on.

I do just that, I pack everything really quick and ride for an additional 2 hours, reaching the main asphalt road which leads up the Chon-Kemin valley. David and Lubos are 1 hour up the road and I wonder if I should ride through the night and try to catch up with them but when the batteries in my headlamp start to wear off and when sleep finally catches up with me I stop by the side of the river in groove protected from the road and the wind and I lay down on my mat, in my cycling clothes cover myself with the bivy blanket and instantly drift of to sleep with the alarm set to wake me up in two hours.

Some data for the day (204km / 3800m):

SRMR day 8, the descent to Baetov and the climb to Song Kul

The alarm rings again at 4:30 and I manage to pack everything and be back on the bike in less than half an hour. Generally I really like the early morning start and I like being on the bike when it’s still dark and today this seems to work out. Even the legs feel OK and when the muscles get warmed up I seem to make quite good progress. After less than half an hour of pedalling I pass by David and Arno who had camped a bit further ahead, David start pedalling behind me and we once share the road on the last climb before Baetov.

After two days of cloudy and murky skies today we finally have a clear morning. The red road on which we’re cycling looks spectacular against the backdrop of the snowy mountains which are visible in the distance and as we get to the top of the 3000 meter pass we share exclamations of enthusiasm.

This image will stick with me for a long, long time. The cold mountain air, a 30 kilometre descent and the feeling that what was hard is behind us.

From here it’s all downhill to Baetov, the first real resupply point after almost 300 kilometres of  incredibly tough and remote terrain. Switchback after switchback the bikes fly down the mountain towards the flat “plains” where Baetov lies. Almost 2000 meters of descending and 30 kilometres which feel like free kilometres. In Baetov we struggle a bit to find an open shop and when we do find one it’s unfortunately pretty empty. We grab what we can and leave the trash from the previous section, I stop at another shop with hopes of finding some “real” food. When I look at the map with the trackers I see that I’m in 5th place and I struggle a bit to understand when I passed Lubos and Christoph.

The next section of flat tarmac from Baetov to Jangi Talap turns into a slow torture on the mountain bike, the cold morning has been replaced by a relatively torid mid-day and I could really use a coffee to get back in the rythm. I stop several times to eat, hoping that it’s a fuelling issue but unfortunately this doesn’t help.

I know at this point that the long climb to Song Kul is going to be a struggle, but there’s not much I can do about it. There are days and moments like this and I can’t explain why I felt so good this morning and why I’m fighting for every switchback right now. The only valid explanation in my mind is the heat, but I know it’s not only that and inside I’m afraid that I’ll have to struggle in the same limbo until the end of the race. To make things worse when Christoph passes me it seems that he’s flying on the bike. Or maybe it’s just that I’m so slow. I place my hope of kick-starting the day in the Checkpoint from Song Kul and this works to a certain degree.

I stop for almost 30 minutes, chatting and joking with Christoph and with the volunteers from the checkpoint, having some really good dumplings and enjoying the sunshine and the atmosphere. If there would be a place where I would like to volunteer during the race Song Kul would clearly one of them.

The black mirror surface of the Song Kul lake.

Unfortunately when I get back on the bike the hopes of kickstarting the day are shattered. The weird thing is that mentally I feel quite fine and I really enjoy being where I am the only problem is that I struggle on each small climb and that the engine doesn’t seem to work this afternoon. The mirror like surface of the Song Kull lake and the surreal light of the evening makes up for this frustration, especially during the bits when I end up cycling close to the lake. I could stop and stare at this lake for hours under different circumstances but now I know that I have to take advantage of the daylight and ride at least the next descent before the night falls.

I catch the sunset just in the pass above Song Kull , and I bomb down the mountain trying to delay the moment when I have to put on the headlight. It kind of works and when I reach the river there’s still a hint of light in the sky. At the same time I’m so tired that when I see an abandoned stable I decide to call it a day.

I set up my bivy in the light of the full moon, in the distance I can see the headlights of Lubos and Arno also descending from the mountain pass but at this moment I couldn’t care less, and after a brief and cold dinner I drift off to a very, very deep sleep.

Track and data:

I like “alpine” starts, the legs felt quite good at this moment.
David, charging down the 30km descent to Baetov.
Rock on!
Switchbacks climbing from the bottom of the earth on the road to Song Kul.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
One of the checkpoints with the best views, Song Kul.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Half a day of suffering later, on the north western side of Song Kull, looking more worn out than ever.
One final pass for the day.
And the sunset of the day.

SRMR day 7, the Chinese border road and the old caravan route

It must have been past midnight when I finally managed to fall asleep, so when the phone rings at 4:30 in the morning I feel far from rested, but at the same time I know I need to get moving. It’s almost 12 hours since  I arrived at the checkpoint and as I pack up everything, notice that Christophe and his blue shoes are missing which means that probably he already left during the night while somebody else is sleeping in the bed which initially belonged to him.

I enter once again the tent where the “wedding” table is setup, have a quick breakfast and I unfortunately wake up the volunteers in the process. While chatting they tell me that it’s been a quiet night with no racers arriving in the night, at this point it seems that only 11 riders made it to this checkpoint.

When I cycle out of camp I notice the headlight up on the old soviet road which serves as a reminder that there will be a gruelling push-bike to get out of the Kel Suu basin. The morning light starts to illuminate the scenery, the sky is still grey and murky while a fine drizzle seems to be the prelude of a rainy day. On the plus side the hurricane against which we’ve fought yesterday has died down and the air seems to be still for the moment.

The old soviet road is quite enjoyable, with several wild canyons and with a single trail at the finish which made it all worthwhile. I take a small break when I rejoin the main border road, take down the rain pants and I settle down in the saddle and start grinding away at the kilometres. An there’s quite a few kilometres to grind, to be more precise almost 80  kilometres in straight line, in an almost lunar landscape, with plenty of river crossings. Fortunately most of them are small this year and I can ride them on the bike with almost no issues.

Grinding the kilometres under a grey sky on the chinese border road.

From time to time a I see yurts and scattered derelict buildings while the grey day adds to the gloom of the moment. On the left side of the road the barbed wire fence which marks the border with China is always visible while on the right, in the distance I can see a long chain of jagged peaks stretching to the horizon. Somewhere in the middle of them lies the 4000 meter pass which we have to climb (and descend) in order to get to Tash Rabat, the 14th century caravan Serai and the only surviving stone building in an area of 100 miles.

Even if I feel a bit better physically today the 80 kilometre straight road gets me mentally in the end and I have to plug in my earphones for the first time in the race and I have a near psychedelic experience while listening to the first part of Narcissus and Goldmund by Hesse. It does help with the boredom and with the kilometres and it keeps be awake until the track takes an abrupt right turn before the Chatyr Kol lake and starts traversing the plateau, without any kind of visible road towards the mountains on the other side.

This is where the adventure begins again and this where you don’t need any kind distraction. And in a way this is why I’m here. These moments are hard to describe to anyone who doesn’t take part in adventure races. And even if you manage to paint a vivid enough picture you’ll won’t manage to get everything across.

Because in a way you actually have to be here, a tiny speck on a huge plateau, trying to find your way towards a ancient caravan pass, without any road or footpath, tired and worn out, chased by storm clouds and negotiating river crossings where you end up knee deep in mud. You have to struggle for every breath of air and for every step as you push your bike towards the pass while the clouds break up. You have to be there, constantly searching for moving spots in the distance, hoping that they’re not random yaks but other souls and who knows, maybe other fellow racers.

It’s moments like these which stick with you after the years and it’s moments like these why you sign up for races like the Silk Road Mountain Race. Because in moments like these it’s not the race but the adventure which counts, it’s the complete immersion in the moment and in the challenge at hand, it’s about decision making and being truly out there. And this is a spirit which I think needs to be kept alive in a world in which the word “adventure” has become so overused.

On top of the 4000 meter pass, after a 300 meter pushbike on scree slopes.

The moving spots in the distance in this case did actually turn out to be fellow racers, Arno and David, and I manage to catch up with them half way through the descent to Tash Rabat taking advantage of my squishy Canyon. The descent is amazing in itself, a rideable single-track following the green valley towards the caravan-serai. I find it amazing that basically right now where on one of the branches of the ancient silk road. And I like to fancy that in a way the merchants of the past which faced the perils of the road centuries ago had a bit of the same spirit which we have in us today. Back then, like now, each travel and each race had it’s fair share of unknowns and of nights spent beneath the stars and at least from these points of view we are alike.

David and his monster-gravel bike, tackling the descent with a smille on his face.

After catching up with David and Aron we continue together towards the caravanserai, trying to find the path which meanders along the mountain river without getting wet. When we finally reach Tash Rabat it’s relatively late and we try to talk with one babuska near the monument for getting a yurt dinner as we don’t have too much left in the bags for night and tomorrow morning.

While we eat the plov, the cookies and an AMAZING watermelon we chat quite a bit with Nelson and the team finding out that organizing such a race is maybe more of an adventure in itself. On the way down from Tash Rabat to the main road I loose contact with David and Arno as I have to stop to inflate and then deflate the tyres. Night falls and as we start the first climb on the road to Baetov the storm clouds in the distance are periodically y illuminated by lightning while tail lights of David and Arno are still visible in the distance. Otherwise the night is calm and the full moon is out, the temperature is quite pleasant so I decide to continue a bit more for today hoping to find some shelter.

Yurt dinner, with fruits and an AMAZING melon, while chatting with Nelson about how it’s like to organize such an event.

This turns out to be, as a couple of nights back one dry drainage pipe under the road where I set up my bivy and where I fall instantly asleep (as opposed to the struggle I had in the last nights in the guesthouse and and the yurt at Kel Suu). The sleep is interrupted only once in the middle of the night by the hoof sounds of horses running on the road above me. I fall almost instantly back to sleep, with the earthen sounds disappearing in the distance.

The point where the track leaves the road, following an old caravan route heading to the mountains in the background. Distances can be quite misleading due to the scale of things in Kyrgystan, for example the mountain pass was 15 kilometres away from the main road, without any kind of visible road or path.
Up we go!
Arno and David, and the descent on the other side towards Tash Rabat.
Hundreds of years after caravans passed this way the footpath still exists.
In the background the pass from which we come is still visible.
Trying to get some food and negociating with the Babushka for some plov.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Probably in this pick Nelson looked more worn out that we did. Organising such a race is not easy by any means.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Putting back the shoes and getting ready to hop back on the road.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Tash rabat, one of the only surviving stone buildings from the time of the caravans, and me on the red bike at the bottom of the picture.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
David and Arno following closely behind.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

SRMR day 6, headwind, Kel Suu and the struggle to sleep

From all the elements the wind is the cyclists biggest enemy. If I can tolerate the cold, the heat, the snow, the rain and even the mud wind gets me mentally every time.. And it’s not that I don’t have the power, I’m but no means scrawny, it’s just the simple fact that you have spend mental effort with each pedal stroke, and the fact that if the wind is really strong you have the sensation slowly of going nowhere.

The sad truth about long endurance races is that wind will get you in the end and that most likely you’ll have to spend time fighting it. If normally you can wait it out during bikepacking trips during a race unfortunately this is not an option: you can’t afford to lose time and you can’t know whether the wind will actually die down in a couple of hours.

These are exact thoughts which pass through my mind when I’m fighting my way on the straight road which heads towards PC2, Kel Suu. I’ve already been fighting a strong headwind for the past 5 hours but at this exact moment the wind strength is ridiculous, basically I’m pedalling fairly strong and I can’t go faster than 8-9 kilometres an hour. Being on a mountain bike, not having aero-bars and not being very thin certainly doesn’t help help but there’s nothing to do about any of these at this point. So I clench my teeth, look in the distance for Lubos who just passed me and try to ride the through the hurricane. After one hour if riding straight into the wind the road takes a 90 degree turn and suddenly I can go faster than 10km/h but with the added challenge of having lean sideways into the wind in order to keep my balance.

Straight lines over 3000 meters, and a hurricane for a headwind.
Being on a mountain bike with your chest upright does not help at ALL.

Today felt as the toughest day by far for me. It started badly with a night when I struggled to fall asleep (how the hell can this happen when you’re sleep deprived and when you haven’t had any caffeine for days, I don’t know). It continued poorly with the realisation that my legs are shot on the tarmac climb out of Naryn, then I had to fight the first hurricane of the day after Ak-Muz, then struggled on the climb towards to second big pass of the day, encountered rain and hail on the descent, got so sleepy that I wanted to stop, caught up with Lubos, fought another hurricane, got  passed by Lubos. The fact that all these things took place at over 3000 meters of altitude also didn’t help.

At this point the only thing I can think of is the warmth of the yurt camp at Kel Suu. Some food, some sleep and an early stat in the night when (hopefully) the wind will die down should get me back on my feet, but at this point I’m mentally broken and I just want to put the entire race on pause. The only thing which saves the day is the way Kel-Suu looks, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere while the ragged peaks rising towards China look absolutely stunning.

The yurt camp at the end of the world, Kel Suu, Kyrgystan
(photo credits Chris Mclean)
It’s hard to imagine a Checkpoint more remote than this one.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

When I finally find the yurt and enter inside my jaw basically drops. Everything looks like an endurance-racers wet dream. It actually looks more like a wedding table than a resupply point and I joke with the other riders that only the bride and the groom is missing. Hot soup, plov, candies, some fried sweat dough which is some tradition desert, cookies, basically it’s everything we could wish for. We take our time, we talk and it seems that for a short while the race is put on hold.

I decide to try to stop early and go to sleep, Lucasz and Christoph are already sleeping, Lubos wants to push on. Arno who arrives 30 minutes after me also decides to stop. I find a place in one of the yurts, start to drift to sleep only to be awaken first by the sound of the wind turning the plastic covering of the yurt and then by a nearby dog. It’s last night all over again and I wonder again why is it that I can’t fall asleep. I try to move to another yurt and after waiting for sleep to come for almost 6 hours I finally fall asleep after midnight. Note to self, in future races always stop when you’re 100% sure that you’ll fall asleep in a matter of minutes.

Wind is a bitch.
The straight roads close to the border with China.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Bike lab and my Canyon after 6 gruelling days of racing.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)
Hot soup, you really can’t wish for anything more…
(photo credits Chris Mclean)
Probably the best soup I’ve ever had last year.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)

(photo credits Chris Mclean)
(photo credits Chris Mclean)
Arno being cheered by the volunteers at the arrival at Kel-Suu.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)

SRMR day 5 ~ Tosor pass and the road to Naryn

After 4 days of racing I start to wonder if there’s any way of knowing in advance what will make the day ahead of you a good day : is it sleep?, is it what you eat?, is it how you pace yourself? or is it a simple matter of perception? For example the way I crashed last evening after the descent from Arabel made no sense (in theory there should have been enough time to recover on the very long descent) and what would make sense is that after 4 days of racing I’ll also struggle today on the climb up to Tosor, the first steep 3800 meter pass which we have to climb on the way to Naryn.

The morning ritual is the same as the previous days, wake up after too little sleep, pack the bivy, have a quick breakfast while doing this and hop on the bike and wait for the muscles to warm up. The only difference from the previous days is that I managed to oversleep (the sun is already out when I start) and that there’s no snow today, not even on the Tosor pass which can be seen in the distance. The expectations of having dead legs after yesterday somehow don’t match the reality, the legs feel unexpectedly good this morning and from what I make from the tyre tracks in the dirt on the climb I’m in third position so I have an extra incentive to try to keep a good pace on the climb.

The sky is mostly clear and the stray white clouds promise a perfect day for cycling. The snow which fell in the high mountains over the previous days has all but melted and the puddles left behind are completely frozen. Temperature-wise the climate in Kyrgyzstan in the summer months is all over the place, you can go from -5 in the early morning to 30 degrees in just a couple of hours. Sometimes in the high mountains these changes happen with dizzying swiftness, one moment you can be climbing and sweating in your t-shirt only to have falling snowflakes from a random dark cloud the next minute.

Getting the clothes off and a mid morning snack on the way up to Tosor pass, 3800m.

If yesterday was full of action this morning it seems that I’m almost completely alone. No cars, no riders and no locals just the complete silence of the mountains. I stop at the top of the pass to put on extra clothes for the descent, to refuel and to snap a couple of photos. The top of Tosor pass looks quite menacing:  just rocks, huge boulders, glaciers and turquoise lakes are visible around. When I start the descent on the other side of the pass the road descents into a wide valley guarded by mountains and glaciers on each side. On the way down the river crossings are easier then expected and I make what seems to be like good progress.

Cristal blue skies, high mountains and glacial lakes. Not a place to linger for too long, not even in this weather.

I really like this feeling of moving fast through the vast landscape which you get during endurance races, the feeling that the road just rolls under the bikes wheel, the feeling that landmarks approach and pass with unusual speed. When you couple this with a rare day when you feel good on a bike and when the weather is perfect the feeling could be translated into something like the  “unbearable lightness of endurance racing”. (unfortunately these rare moments are offset by the combination of exactly opposite conditions: dead legs, exhaustion and shit weather, or the “agonising slow torture of endurance racing”).

At a normal bike touring pace the distance would normally be half or even a third of what I cover now in a day, and the feeling of finishing the day 200 kilometres away from where you started after going over passes, valleys and towns can be quite exhilarating, and I don’t think there’s any other kind of setting where you can experience something similar.
And for the first part of today I feel in the “zone” and everything seems easy. I put more focus than yesterday on refuelling and the combination of ready made sandwiches, tomatoes, snickers and cookies seems to work quite well at keeping the energy high. When I re-join the road which heads into Arabel I start to meet other riders going in the opposite direction, we salute and go our own way.

The two small passes before joining the main road which goes to Naryn seem quite easy when compared to Tosor, just 200-300 meters of climbing sprinkled with a river crossing in the middle which was unrideable and for which I hat to take of my shoes in order to avoid getting completely wet. Crossing the river on bare feet though felt great, I take a lunch break on the other side and make a mental note that for warm / hot days the goretex boots are probably not the best idea.

Having a red bike really helps a lot with identifying yourself on photos.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)

When climbing the final 2800 meter pass I look behind and I see the silhouette of two riders approaching from behind, I accelerate a bit over the top make another mental note that I should avoid long breaks until Naryn. The first part of the descent is sprinkled with small climbs and the road which follows the deep river gorge is incredibly spectacular. But probably the most spectacular part of the day is the exit from the canyon when you can see the high and snowy mountains around Naryn in the distance. The afternoon light falls exactly from behind and the straight road seems to draw you in the lanscape and in the moment.

Can’t get much better than this.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)
Christophe Dijkmans , in 4th place chasing from behind.
(photo credits Chris Mclean)

If there’s an adventure racer’s high, I definitely experienced it during those kilometres. After reaching the tarmac and the first village in over 160 kilometres I decide to avoid stopping for a resupply and to try to make it to Naryn before the night fall. The road isn’t of the same opinion and I’m surprised to see the tarmac stop when I exit the village and I end up fighting the corrugations and the dust until the next village. It’s a pattern that repeats itself for the next 20 kilometres so in the end I have to stop for a resupply, turn on the night lights and ride the remaining 15 kilometres in the twilight.

Speaking of lights one of the goals is to stop a bit early in Naryn, find a guesthouse, charge the phone and the powerbank and most important get food for the next 3 days as the next full resupply is only in Baetov and the next 400 kilometres are some of the hardest in the race. As usual after a long and hard day I buy too much food and I find that my appetite isn’t where it should be, I find the guesthouse which is full but they allow be to sleep outside, I see with a shock that the tracker is shut down and I scramble to send a couple of message to Nelson and to Mihaela thus briefly reconnecting to the outside world.

The road to Naryn (photo credits Chris Mclean)

When I combine all this with the excited state which I have after the long day I find that my mind is more alert than usual when I try to go to sleep. Having some activity nearby in the inner courtyard where I’ve put my gear also doesn’t help so I end up waiting for sleep to come, a situation which I honestly didn’t expect 5 days into an adventure race. The hours pass slowly, sleep doesn’t come and I wonder if it wouldn’t be wiser just to pack up everything and leave. In the end I catch around 2 hours of sleep before morning, too little to mean anything for the recovery.

Strava for the day:

SRMR day 4 ~ a race to the Arabel pass

The phone alarm sounds at 4:30 but when I check the weather outside I see that overnight it started snowing and a low cloud cover doesn’t promise anything good for this morning. In the end I decide to go back to the sleeping bag, snatch one more hour of sleep, wait for the daylight and hope that the weather improves. At 5:30 I finally manage to get started, have a quick breakfast while packing everything and discover that I’m sleeping over a small puddle as some water infiltrated the drainage pipe which was my shelter for tonight. Fortunately it’s all under the survival blanket and everything is dry but I make a mental note that drainage pipes can turn into a bad shelter if there’s rain or snow overnight.

Just as I finish packing and I’m getting ready to leave I hear David on the road above, we change a couple of words about the shitty damp weather this morning and he rides away with me shortly catching up with him. The snow which fell overnight turned the mud on the road to glue so we try to choose the bits which are dry in order to avoid getting our drivetrains all clogged up. It works to a certain extent and I find myself riding a lot on the grass near the actual road where you only have sticking snow, without mud.

David and his monster gravel in another grey, cold and muddy morning in Kyrgystan.

The sky is grey and the landscape is covered in a thin layer of snow and with a bit of imagination it looks a bit like Scotland. When we leave the main road which goes to Naryn and we turn towards Arabel and Tosor we see that in the distance the mountains seem to be covered just like yesterday in snow. At least the sun starts breaking the cloud cover and we can see the peaks guarding the Arabel valley glimmering in the morning sun. From the looks of it it’s going to be a cold and muddy morning heading up the Arabel.

Before turning left towards Arabel David remains behind in order to raise his saddle and to do some maintenance (besides the actual riding quite a bit of time goes into kit maintenance, like drying things if they get wet or organizing it on the bike, or filtering water). One by one the tracks of Adrien and Stephane appear again on the snow so we can see where each of them has slept so that I estimate that they have the same 1-2 hour time advantage. In one of my previous posts I mentioned that there are moments when the SRMR didn’t feel like a race but more like an adventure and the entrance into Arabel was again one of them.

Clothing status before the real mud started. The Gore-Tex boots did somehow manage to stay dry though throughout the entire day.
Into Arabel!
And of course you cannot have snow without mud. A lot of it.

Arabel is a tough section of the route even without snow, a long 50 kilometre valley where the old Russian road is very broken and with multiple river crossings. With snow and with temperatures slightly above freezing it’s going to be even more interesting. The main challenge for this morning is how to negotiate your path in order to avoid falling and in order to avoid getting stuck in the snow or the mud. It works to a certain extent but it doesn’t take long until I slip sideways on a section with slippery mud taking a note that I have to be more careful.

Mud and water are flying all over the place as the road alternates between snowy bits and bits where the snow started melting softening the mud underneath. This kind of terrain is the nightmare for any bike and for any drivetrain so I can only hope that I’ll get through it without to much damage. When the morning sun becomes stronger I have to ditch the rain pants and the rain jacket and I continue at a slightly slower pace in order to avoid getting completely wet from all the slush. River crossing after river crossing, puddle after puddle and snowy stretch after snowy stretch it seems to be that I’m making very slow progress and that I have no chance of catching up with Stephane and Adrien and that by all calculations I should be lucky to make it to Tamga in daylight.

The clear and sunny days allows for incredible visibility and you can see kilometres ahead in all direction which makes it tempting to search in the distance for moving dots which could be other riders, only to discover that they’re horses or cattle. That’s until two moving dots in the distance actually turn out to be Adrien and Stephane, still wearing their rain kit, muddy from head to toe and as I discover after having a quick chat with morale pretty low. To paraphrase Stephane when I asked him how where the last two nights: “Yesterday was shit, cold, rain snow and this night when I woke up it was the same: snow, cold, mud. Fuck!”.

Adrien and Stephane, around mid-day in the upper section of the valley with the snow almost completely gone.
The scenery can’t get much better than this.

And as always during a race there’s no better morale booster than to see that also other racers don’t have it easy. And it’s also good to realize that even if you thought that you’re making shitty progress that you’re actually making better progress than others. We end up riding, chatting and complaining together for a while then I put a bit of distance before the last and the largest river crossing of the day thinking that I’ll have to get the shoes off to remain dry. Somehow through all the river crossings until now the goretex stayed dry on the inside and it would be a shame to ruin this at the last river crossing, especially because my feet, after being cold for the entire morning are finally warm.

But we’re lucky and the cold day and the snow which fell overnight made the river crossing much smaller than anyone expected and I manage to ride through, stopping afterwards to clean the squeaking chain before the last 300 meters of climbing to the top of the pass. We’re at 3400 meters and on the sides of the valley high mountains covered with glaciers tower above us and everything looks absolutely stunning. It really feels that you’re somewhere at the edge of the world, in the middle of nowhere, far away from any sign of civilization.

When starting the final climb one of the moving dots in the distance becomes another racers and soon I catch up with Heinrich, another rider from South Africa, on a mountain bike with a Lauf fork who unfortunately has some issues with his bottom bracket. From behind Stephane and Adrien are also fast approaching so the final climb turns into a small race. Both of them have a really good pace and Adrien passes me on the final turn, while Danil takes a couple of really spectacular photos.

An unlikely smile on the final steep section before the 3800 meter pass.
Adrien chasing from behind.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

I have to admit that the chances of 4 riders meeting on the final steep section of climb are really, really small and that “racing” and pushing the pedals a bit harder at  this point made no sense, but as Adrien put it when I joined him at the top it sure was more fun than anything in the past two days. And in a way I admit that I also like the racing part of this event, that I’m competitive by nature and will race almost everyone if I’m feeling well, from the granny on an e-bike on the local hill to lycra clad XC racers back home or to other riders 4 days into an adventure race.

I’m also sure that you can be competitive without any of the negative connotations of word, and that a true fair play spirit erases any possible negatives connotations. Like after racing to the top of the pass it makes perfect sense to stop, chat, fist bump, eat, talk with Danil and the media crew. Talking of eating my treat for the top of the 3800 meter pass is the yesterday’s fried fish which goes down quite well but I feel I didn’t eat enough calories during the past hours. “Racing” means that you kick up a bit the pace when you feel that you’re going to slow but it also means that maybe you don’t stop enough to do the normal maintenance chores, like getting food outside the saddle bags and fuelling properly.

High Peaks, clear blue skies and remote roads. It doesn’t get much better than that.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
I could already feel the glucose and energy levels dropping rapidly
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

After we finish eating we head up towards the mining road through an earie scenery: crystal clear lakes stretch on the high plateau while being surrounded by high peaks covered by glaciers. It’s late afternoon and the light has a sharpness in it which shrinks distances and it seems that it takes me forever to cycle the straight stretch before the descent to Tamga. Adrien and Stephane pass me on this bit as we have to fight a bit of headwind and for the first time during the race I find that that a pair of aerobars set up properly would have been worth their weight in snickers at this point.

I would have given almost anything for dropbars on this road. Headwind at 3800 meters is just as hard as it sounds.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

I finally reach the start of the descent an try to relax on the way down, saving some of the much needed energy. Halfway through the descent I discover that the tank is still empty so I have to stop for 10 minutes and eat some carbs. I fight through to cycle the last bit into Tamga which I reach completely destroyed but hoping that a good resupply will put be back on my feet.

When I enter the supermarket though I don’t find any things which would seem palatable at the moment so I end up buying just a kilogram of grapes and a Fanta hoping that this will bring my blood sugar up enough to be able to think properly. Adrien and Stephane also don’t look too good and they decide to stop a bit in order to dry their stuff.

I drink the Fanta, and put the grapes in the feedbag and try head out at a slow pace to the next village hoping that the blood sugar will rise and that I’ll be able to make better decisions there regarding what to pick of refuelling for the next section. The other hope is that I’ll finish the stretch on tarmac before the night falls. I succeed at the latter, but when I enter the shop at Tosor I discover that I’m just as shot as  15 kilometres back and I end up going round and round in the small shop not being able to decide what to pick up for the next 200 km stretch until Naryn.

The rest in front of the supermarket in Tamga. It’s funny how in these situations, when you are completely shot there’s always some curious local trying to find out a bit about what’s happening. Needles to say that it’s quite difficult to spare some energy to try and make conversation in foreign language at this point.

In the end I end up leaving with a mix of cookies, ready made sandwiches, snickers, mars and bounty, some canned fish and the usual fruits and tomatoes. The plan for this evening is to continue at a slow pace on the climb towards Tosor Pass (3800m) and sleep somewhere on a climb.

With the heavily loaded bike the pace is slow and I console myself with the fact that I need one night of sleep to recover from today’s effort and that the speed which I have now is in a way normal. When Adrien catches up with me again from behind and when I see that he’s moving quite a bit faster than me I start doubting my decision but in the end we both stop in the first place where the valley gets a bit wider, 400 meters away, he in his bivy and me once again in shed near one of the uninhabited buildings. Today was tough day and I have to take care a bit more with the nutrition in the following days as today something went terribly wrong after Arabel, and I could restore the energy stores in the last hours of the day. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll fare better, but counting the places I should be in 3rd place when I go to sleep.

Strava link:

Maintenance, stopping to filter water with the first moments of sunshine.
Leaving behind the road and the valley which head up to Tosor pass. We’ll have to descent that way tomorrow
Arabel looks stunning in any weather, at this point the snow is almost gone and there’s a slight hope that after all the mud and puddles you might be dry by nightfall.
Once again some maintenance at the top of the pass, preparing for the decent to Tamga.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
This bit was by quite a distance one of the most spectacular parts of the race
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Having a red bike, green jacket and a blue backpack helps a LOT to identify you in photos.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Descending 2000m on the mining road on some very, very spectacular switchbacks
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
The next set of switchbacks.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Adrien, also looking quite shot at the resupply point from Tamga.
(photo credits Danil Usmanov)

SRMR Day 3, cold, snow, sun and 270 kilometres in the saddle

When the alarm rings at 3:30 in the morning the first thing I do is to get out of the sleeping bag and check the conditions outside. The air is cold and crisp, the menacing rain clouds from last night have all but disappeared and a clear black sky full of stars stretches above. You can only see such a sky in places like this, in the middle of the mountains, at altitude , far away from any city, without any light pollution, without a moon and when it’s cold.

I quickly pack up my bivy, have a quick breakfast as usual when doing it and hurry to get back on my bike in order to make up some of the time I’ve lost with the early stop from last night. I don’t loose any time or battery to check the timings and the maps but I safely assume that quite a few other racers rode past me last evening. As usual, the first 30 minutes are hard, until the blood gets pumping through the  sore and cold muscle, and this isn’t particularly easy this morning as the temperature reads -5 degrees. So instead of 30 minutes it takes me almost an hour, and one extra small sugary breakfast to feel once again good on the bike, however after this I feel again really, really good, even if it’s the 3rd day of racing.

An alpine start today in a true alpine environment. If the cold doesn’t wake you up, the dawn certainly does. They don’t call it the Switzerland of Central Asia for nothing…

I also really like the early start and being on the bike when the dawn approaches and when the colours begin to change. It also has probably something to do with my chronotype as waking up early isn’t an issue for me, but it also has the main downside in a race that you have to stop earlier and by the time you catch up with other riders the next day you already have quite a few hours in the saddle while they are usually fresher.

It’s still dark when I pass the first racer who is packing his bivy, and shortly after sunrise I catch up again with Arno who slept relatively little last night and looks quite beat up. Time management and sleep management is a very important in endurances races and to a large extent it can make up for differences in age or fitness. Some guys with higher FPTs have to sleep and rest longer to keep up the same pace, some guys with lower FTPs can make up for this my simply going longer at a slower pace which also means less time needed for recovery. The guys who win the races can do both, and time management skills while on or off the bike are probably equally important as sleep management and the FTP.

Chatting with Arno about the past days and about the plan for today.

The climb towards Karakol pass is long, almost unbearably long. Almost 70 kilometres in a  straight line from the bivy spot to top of the 3400 meter high pass with slow and gradual climb. The snow covers the mountains above 2500 meters, and smoke is coming from the yurts as horseback shepherds are getting ready for the morning. The sun starts melting the snow and moving back the calendar clock from December to January. I catch up with Lukasz Ugarenko as he’s struggling with the altitude near the top of the pass, have a quick chat then hurry towards the pass itself.

Trafic jam.

For the last couple of kilometres the road is covered with snow which sticks to tyres so I end up pushing up for 20 minutes, getting my boots wet and starting to worry a bit about the cold. The mountains are completely covered in snow, stretch in all directions in the distance, and look completely stunning so I exit for a couple of minutes from the race mood and I try to take a couple of shots. During such a race I think there are moments in which the experience doesn’t feel like a race but more like an adventure, and this was certainly one of them.

At the top of Karakol pass after pushing the bike on the last bit. You wouldn’t have said that it’s the middle of August.

The moment didn’t last long as I hop again on the bike and I start the very long descent towards Kochkor, the first of the 3 checkpoints of the race. Long in the scale of Kyrgystan means 100 kilometers from the 3450 meters of Karakol to the 1800 meters of Kochkor. As I start descending the snow disappears and the air turns warmer and I have to stop to ditch all the extra clothes I’m wearing. It’s close to the middle of the day when I reach the first village of the day, Djongo-Ash and I stop for short lunch, once again with canned fish, bread and fruits. The remaining 50 kilometers into Kochkor I cycle just in shorts and a t-shirt and I find it hard to believe that less than 2 hours ago I was surrounded by snow and that I was wearing all my winter clothes.

The energy is low as I get closed to Kochkor and I have to fight a headwind for the last 15 kilometres, and in my mind I only have the thought of a small break and a resupply in Kochkor. Before the reaching the checkpoint I stop in the bazar and load up on fruits, the main thing which I missed during the past days, the head to the slightly hidden checkpoint to find Toms and Janis getting their things out to dry. Inside I meet Marie who takes a short portrait, take a break while eating half of the fruits I picked up in the bazar (a mix of melon, plums, bananas and grapes, and once again the stomach had no issues with the mix).

I also find that even though I stopped very early last night my 6th place only turned into a 7th place and that Stephane and Adrien (9th if I count Toms and Janins in the pairs), which rode through the night are less than two hours in front. In a way I like the tactical decisions during such a race and the there are questions which you are constantly asking yourself. Last night the question was whether to stop early, sleep in your bivy setup or push through the night in hope of reaching Kochkor and getting some sleep there without having to get things wet. Adrien and Stephane had reached Kochkor at 4 / 5 in the morning, took some extra punishment during the night, rested for 6-7 hours and they were not far off in front. While I can’t say I’m fresh after almost 12 hours already in the saddle but I feel relatively good and I have the advantage of a good tailwind and of riding most of the distance in daylight so my race mood is once again back at 100%, I get food for the next 200 kilometers and I start chasing down Stephane, Adrien, David and Heinrich.

Despite the tailwind which pushes me on the smooth tarmac between Kochkor and the Intersection Cafe the legs feel drained, Toms and Janis overtake me and I try to keep their pace for the last bit. At the intersection cafe I stop to get a bottle of Fanta and some fried fish, both for  now and for the evening / tomorrow (once again the stomach handled this without any issues), I chat a bit with Toms and Janis who are having icecream and I hop again on the bike trying to get some more kilometres before sunset.

In the next village I encounter a group of kids handing out candy to the riders, I stop for another resupply and meanwhile get overtaken again by Christoph, Toms and Janis. A bit further down the road I get stopped by a car and the daughter of the family gets out and takes a selfie with me. I’m amazed how many people in Kyrgystan know about the race and I’m also suprised how much this feels like a race as I’m constantly looking either in the distance for riders or I look behind to see if someone is approaching.

For a 1800 kilometre race with not so many riders this something which I definitely didn’t expect, I somehow expected this to be an almost solo effort after the first day of racing. When the sun is setting I already have more than 250 kilometres behind me today and the energy levels are really low but as the conditions are really pleasant I decide to push on through the dusk into the night towards another 2800 meter pass. The sun is setting, the atmosphere is completely silent and in the distance the snow capped peaks have a pink violet hue and the road stretches far away in the distance. The only thing which can be heard is the sound of the tyres on the gravel.

The day’s sunset, completely still, heading towards the Arabel valley.

Halfway through the climb I bypass Christoph, Toms and Janis who have stopped for the night, I also think briefly of stopping in the same place but I decide to push on and take advantage of the calm weather and the warm night. After half an hour I can see David’s taillight far away in the distance and it takes me another half an hour to catch up with him as both of us are ascending at a snale’s pace. We once again talk a bit about the past day, about where each of us has slept or plans to sleep and we start descending from the pass.

It doesn’t take long for the cold of the night to bite through the clothes so I stop to put on the winter clothing and while descending I scan for appropriate places to bivy. David choses a flat area by the side of the road but this looks rather damp for me so I push on, hoping either for a drier bit or for some shelter. In the end I find an unexpected drainage pipe under the road which is both dry and offers some wind protection. I setup my bivy inside, have a quick dinner though and hit the sleeping bag a bit before midnight, guessing that I’ll not leave to early tomorrow morning.

Strava activity:

In the morning, waiting for the sunshine. Bringing thick winter gloves is a necessity during such races.

The first sunrays,
Life goes on as usual usual for the shepherds living in the yurts at high altitude.
The moment when you’re warm enough to start peeling of some clothes.
Heading towards Karakol pass.
Summer on the other side and a very, very long descent towards Kochkor.
The fried fish from the intersection cafe.

SRMR Day 2, tough climbs, headwind, rain and kymyz

When the phone rings at 4 am it’s hard to say if I had a good nights sleep or not, what I’m sure of is that it didn’t compensate all the sleep deficit from the last two nights. During such a race the question is not whether you can fully recover from one day to the other but rather how you manage the continuous build-up of  fatigue. Having some issues sleeping caused by stress in the past year my strategy for this race is to avoid caffeine until the last few days / last day, hoping that this will help with the sleep quality. The downside of this strategy is that usually getting the legs working in the morning takes a bit more time, and that’s also what happens this morning.

The brisk morning air wakes me up quickly though and I try to have a quick breakfast while I pack-up everything, Max, who got up a bit earlier heads out into the night. I try to get everything together for the first couple of hours and start shortly after him, Christophe is also up when I start pedalling. Half an hour after starting I feel surprisingly well on the bike with legs which seem to have forgotten about the punishment from yesterday.

I catch up with Max, we share a biscuit and I bypass him on  the undulated section before the first village of the day, Toluk. When I reach it it’s early morning and the village is just waking up and I manage to find a villager which guides me to his courtyard in order to refill my bidons. I’m fascinated with these small villages in Kyrgystan with places where life goes on just as it did 50 years ago. In many ways it resembles many of the villages in Europe with the single and important exception that people are not fleeing these places at the same pace as it’s happening in Europe. They still seem to be villages very much alive and not just dying places where only the old people live.

I also really like the silent and calm sunny morning on the streets of this village, and I briefly stop to change clothes and for a small breakfast before the first steep climb of the day. From a physical point of view today is very, very tough, with two very steep climbs and with an undulating terrain which doesn’t allow to much space for relaxation. I catch up with Arno, a veteran of such races and we change a couple of words on the climb. A bit further up the road I once again catch up with Adrien who had jus stopped for a quick breakfast, then again with Axel just before the second steep climb of the day.

Peaceful morning around the village of Toluk, before the two monster climbs.

This second climb wasn’t just steep, it is very steep, with gradients on which you could barely climb on the bike. Actually in several moments during the race I really wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to walk up and conserve energy, even if you I feel good for now. The morning sun is still out and the weather is quite calm, but storm clouds area already visible in the distance, turning darker and greyer as time goes by.

Adrien passes me again on the way up, I catch up with Toms and Janis, overtake them only to stop for a strange encounter with two young children by the side of the road, offering Kymyz from a plastic bottle. Somehow, I don’t know how, the locals had found out probably that there’s a race going on and the kids were offering the fermented horse milk to the riders coming by. I really like kymyz (if it’s fresh and from the mountains) and after eating almost only sweets for the entire morning I take a deep sip of the fermented concoction, only to think afterwards that doing this during a race requires some trust that your stomach will be able to handle this without issues. The second thought which comes into my mind when I get back on my bike is that several riders drinking fermented milk from the same dirty plastic bottle is a recipe for disaster. I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best and hopped back on my bike chasing Adrien and Stephane which were once again visible in the distance.

The making of: Kymyz (photo credits Chris McClean )
And the two Kyrgyz kids with and the plastic bottle with the concoction on the way up the second monster climb for the day.

I find it interesting that even a mountain bike which wasn’t particularly light, and myself not being particularly light I handle steep climbs quite well compared to others. Descents are also quite ok, though I surprised at how well Adrien descents with his 26 inch gravel bike. Where my setup sucks though is on flat areas, especially with head wind as I can’t really make myself small on a mountain bike.

The unpredictable Kyrgystan strikes near the top of the pass and we go from sunny, warm and calm weather to a small snowstorm in less than one hour, only to find a small hurricane when we reach the end of the descent. From here the route follows a river uphill and northwards for 30 kilometres before turning once again west. The only slight problem is that the wind is blowing with a hurricane force exactly from this direction, which makes for a speed of 10 kilometres an hour if you work really hard, and all this after having spent already almost 12 hours in the saddle.

I stop for a resupply in Kyzyl-Oi, taking shelter from the wind behind one of the walls of the shop and I’m shortly joined by Adrien, by Stephane and after a while by Toms and Janis. The lunch for today consists of canned fish, canned corn, tomatoes, salted biscuits and sweets and we take our time with the break while the wind howls around the small shop.

Gourmet canned meal, while taking shelter from the gale. Spirits where not that high this time.

One by one we reluctantly get back on our bikes heading into the same headwind which is soon accompanied by a drizzle with stormy clouds which announce nothing good in the distance. I stop to put on the rain jacket and hope that the drizzle doesn’t turn into a torrential downpour, Stephane and Adrien overtake me and disappear in the distance and I have to admit that I’m quite spent, both physically and mentally for today. You can go so fast from feeling high, like I did on the previous climb to feeling like every pedal stroke is torture. I really hate headwind, and I hate that I don’t have drop bars or aerobars at hand so cursing in my mind I grind the kilometres until Kojomkul with Stephane in front of me in the distance. Here I stop again for a long resupply while I check the weather forecast for tonight. It says 20 milimiters of rain, I can see the dark blue clouds in the distance and I think to myself that if the forecast turns out to be true and if I don’t find a good enough shelter for the night this can quickly turn into a bad situation, especially considering how spent I feel.

After the two monster climbs this section was probably the toughest of the day. It took around 2 hours to cycle the 20km on a very flat and good road to Kojomkul. Also the rain clouds in the distance didn’t look at all promising. (photo credits Danil Usmanov)
Taking the decision to stop is not early, especially when you still have some daylight left and when the drizzle turns into clear sky in one hour.

The mental calculus which I make says that I’m in 6th place at the moment, behind Sofiane, Adrien Liecthi, David, Adrien Gullmin and Stephane, but at this moment considering how I feel the race mood has almost completely disappeared. The only good news is that the wind died down, the bad news is that unpredictable rain clouds move on all the mountain ridges. I’m again dry after the last drizzle, I can see the rain in the distance towards Karakol pass so the moment I see an abandoned stable I call it again a day, hoping for better spirits and better weather for tomorrow morning. I feel it’s a bit of a shame because the rain actually stops after I setup my bivy inside the stable and I lose around more than 1 hour of daylight. On the other hand I fall almost instantly asleep, not before setting my alarm for 3:30 am for the next morning.

Day 2: 170km / 5000m / 15 hours.

SRMR Day 1 ~ fresh legs and tyre destroying descents

The police Lada which escorted us out of Talas stops, waves that we should go past and the race actually begins. It’s still dark, but the first signs of the new day are already visible in the eastern sky, the air is brisk and cold and a long string of cyclists stretches out in the horizon towards what will be the first big pass of the race, the 3400 meter Terek Pass.

After two nights with too little sleep I feel surprisingly fresh and in the first hours I find it a challenge to temper my enthusiasm and settle in the pace which I feel would be the best pace for such a long race. My aim is to spend much of the time in Zone 2 but I have no idea how this will feel after a few long days in the saddle. For now though it feels quite good and I start to catch up with riders having short chats about the race, about the gear and about the plan for today.

The first moments of the race, with an old police Lada escorting us out of town. (photo credit Chris McClean)

The sun comes out and starts illuminating the huge limestone walls rising up from the valley on which we slowly gain altitude and near the pass I start catching up or bypassing faces which I would end up seeing again and again during the following days: Christophe with his impeccably blue cycling shoes, David with his monster gravel, Stephane with his full-suspension bike, Toms and Janis with their identical kit and nearly identical rigid mountain bikes, Arno with his titanium front suspension mountain bike and Adrien with his 26 inch gravel, Axel with his steel rigid mountain bike or Lukasz with his gravel bike with narrow tires.

I think that if you look at the rigs which riders rode during the race it’s impossible to pick a definitive trend, and if you look at the top 3 or the top 10 it’s really interesting to see so much diversity. It proves that during such races it’s not all about the bike and many other factors weight in much more than you would expect.

Catching up with Bagoly Levente on the climb towards Terek Pass.
Chatting with Philip about how Markus had “prepared” for the race by climbing a 4500 meter peek the day before (altitude sickness included).
I have to admit that the first climb of the race is really, really beautifull.
Leaving the valley floor (photo credits Chris McClean)

At the top of the pass I take a short break, eating a sandwich and some cucumbers, chatting with Nelson and looking down at how Janis and Toms struggle with their bikes on the steep and rocky descent to the other side. I have to admit that even on full suspension bike the descent is more technical than I expected and quite fun and with all the sharp and rocky boulders around it’s easy to understand how so many people destroyed their tires here. My Canyon makes short work of the descent though and I bypass again Toms and Janis, Adrien, Axel and I catch up with Max. All goes well until the first more serious river crossing, which I cross almost at the same time with Axel and where I manage to slip on a boulder and land on my ass in the river, getting seriously wet and also soaking 2 of the 3 sandwiches which I had in my back pockets.

The descent on the other side, while it still looked ok. Further down it more rocky, more technical and we even had some really nice single trail. Photo credits: Chris McClean.

For a short time I’m a bit angry as I know that my gore-tex boots will not get dry too fast, then I realize that for today this shouldn’t be an issue as the route goes down to 900 meters. If anything, for the next bit the heat will be more of an issue than being wet and cold. When I finally reach the villages I’m already out of water for the next couple of hours hydration is my main concern. I’m not a big fan of riding in the hot and after the cool air of the mountains the track around the Toktogul reservoir feels like riding through a desert.

In Toktogul I make the first time-management mistake of the day, heading together with Cristoph towards the bazar in order to find a shop and wasting a good 20 minutes in the meantime. The worst part was that the shop we found was no better than the dingy shop which was on the route, and when we finally get back and we meet again with Max we realised that we could have stopped just as well at the first stop. In the meantime Axel and Adrien bypassed us and I catch up (again) with them while they’re taking a break near a river with their feet in the cold water.

Half an hour later the route takes me through the backyard of a cottage where an old man lives, and the trail seems to die somewhere between the chickens and the improvised stable. After a couple of sentences in bad Russian in which I try to explain what I’m doing here and where I want to go the old man directs me towards the trail towards Torkent but I cannot help but wonder if he would have to do the same for all racers today.

I reach Torkent around 4 pm and I take a longer stop here, resupplying with food for one day and even buying a melon which I devour on the side of the road, waiting to be bypassed by other riders, which of course happens. As I feel that this took too long and that it wasn’t worth it this would be last time during the race when I would take a melon break. Time management is a skill which doesn’t come easily to me and I really need a LOT of discipline to avoid leaking time in useless places. Lesson learned for today: a LOT of the eating should happen either on the bike or during short stretching / maintenance breaks.

Long story short, while I’m eating the watermelon I get bypassed by Max, Axel, Adrien and Christoph, and with 2kg of melon in my stomach and with empty legs I really struggle on the first kilometres after Torkent. I manage to catch up with Max and Christoph in the next village, which has also has shop and I wonder why did I carry all this food with me up from Torkent (note to self, next time research the villages more carefully). I take another break to refill the water and to eat some tomatoes while David catches up with me and we head up the road together talking about the Italy Divide and soon catching up with Max and Christoph.

5 pm in day one, already dirty and sticky, with a 3kg melon in front of me, looking how other racers ride by…

The sun has almost set when we reach the top of the first 2000 meter pass after Torkent and mountains to the north are engulfed by rainclouds illuminated by lightning from time to time. Today was a long day, we started at 4 in the morning, we have already 220km under the pedals with more than 5000 meters of climbing and we really feel it.

Arno, his titanium hard-tail and the evening rain clouds in the distance. (
photo credit Chris McClean)

Even if it’s early my first instinct is to stop at the first suitable spot, which for me is the river on the valley between two 2000 meter passes. Christoph also decides to stop, as does Max so we have a bit of chat before going to sleep. I decide to sleep directly under the open sky, keeping the emergency bivy bag nearby just in case. Just when we’re ready to go to sleep another french guy joins us so I can’t say I drift quite smoothly to sleep. Sleep is a necessity in such a long race and my plan would be to sleep around 6 hours per night, which means in this case setting the alarm for 3:30 in the morning.

Technical details:
220km, 5000m of climbing, 15 hours.

Race Photos by Chris McClean and Danil Usmanov

Silk Road Mountain Race 2021, lead-up.

The lead-up to the race started for me on a bleak February day, bombarded with grim COVID news, under a nation-wide night quarantine and suffering from job burnout. It started by sending a mail to see if there are any free spots in the race. When Nelson responded that there still are some spots left it all clicked into place. This summer I’ll go again to Kyrgyzstan (in 2014 I had cycled from Romania to Kyrgyzstan and then climbed Khan Tengri, a 7000 meter peak in Kyrgyzstan, in an adventure which kick-started my current love affair with cycling).

I don’t know about how others function but for me it’s relatively important to be able to dream about future adventure projects and in the past 2 years this has been increasingly more difficult to do. It was a long shot, it might just work out and I had something to look forward to (the SRMR, a 1800 kilometre endurance race through the toughest mountains on the planet was certainly something to look forward to) .

Tien Shan cycling
2014, first time in Kyrgystan, heading towards the Tien Shan mountains, with a completely different bike and after 5000 km through central Asia.

Fast forward 5 months and I’m on a plane towards Kyrgyzstan with a feeling of adventure I’ve not felt in quite a while, with a job left behind and as I liked for Kyrgystan, for the Silk Road Mountain Race and for Central Asia if COVID will allow travel between the Stans.

Fast forward 10 more days and I’m at the top of Kegety pass, after 800 kilometres spent bikepacking on some parts of the route, focusing not on the distance but on photography, on interactions with the locals, on enjoying the beautiful mountains and on making time expand.  Without internet, with no fixed plan, cycling as much as you feel, with a good book as a companion and with a tent pitched in the most scenic places it was a near Thoreauvian experience, and I have to admit I completely loved it. As more and more time passes since my long distance bike trip, it becomes clear to me that this style of travelling, and by extension this style of living is not just a temporary thing. I find no better means of exploring the world than the bike.

Kyrgystan people
If it’s one thing which I love about normal bikepacking and I’m sure it’s almost always missed in endurance races is having a lot of time to interact with the locals. And every trip and every encounter with good people restores in a way your faith in humanity.
Arabell pass
At the top of Arabell pass, after a snowy night at altitude.
It’s incredible how much the bike setup and the gear has changed from 2014, I choose to ride the race with a full sus bike, with the idea that comfort is more valuable in such races than a light bike. Also it was the only suitable bike I had, so the choice was simple.
Kegeti pass
If it’s something I really like about competitions is being able to meet a lot of like-minded people. Here during a relatively random encounter at the top of Kegeti pass, at 3800 meters. We stayed exactly at the top for a couple of hours enjoying an unusually calm and warm weather spell, talking about the race, about the bikes and about past and future experiences.

Fast forward 2 more days and the start date of the race is fast approaching with it all the doubts and worries. Worries which subconsciously keep me up the night before the race, realizing that packing everything the morning before the registration might not have been the best idea. Questions like: Am I packing too much? Do I have everything I need? Have I forgotten “insert random piece of equipment”? How will you plan the first day or the first couple of days? All going round and round in your head like in a broken washing machine.  Maybe it’s because I chose directly the hardest endurance event of them all as a first event. But heck, if you’re going to do something like this you might as well go all in, even if makes you nervous as hell.

When morning comes, I start packing everything and putting it on the bike, I ditch the tent, I pick just a bivy bag and a survival blanket, I ditch the stove and the pot but I choose to take two sets of cycling clothes (I would end up carrying one unused). I have to admit also that in a way I like the feeling of being a bit exposed, of having to manage with less and to improvise if needed and I think to a certain degree this is where the Adventure lies in endurance races. You expose yourself voluntarily with the dubious benefit of being able to move slightly faster across the terrain and there’s a fine line between going fast and light and ending up in dangerous situation.
Fast forward 12 more hours and and we’re sitting in mini-vans on the way to Talas, trying to steal some sleep on the winding mountain roads. Of course it doesn’t work, neither for me nor for others. You can try to close the eyes, you might drift off for brief periods of time but deep and valuable sleep doesn’t come that easily. The race should have started at 10 but with 50km to go we find out that the trucks with the bikes are still a couple of hours back, so this means a postponed start.

At the registration, ready to race and to load the bikes.

Nelson fortunately pulls out a magic wand and manages to find a warm place for 100 or so scantily clad cyclists in some sort of large weeding tents, complete with an evening meal. Everyone is part nervous, part tired and part annoyed by this delayed start and after the meal cyclists scramble to find a warm place to lay down for a couple of hours until the bikes arrive. Adapt and improvise, both on the organizers side and on the competitors side.

When the bikes finally arrive it takes quite a bit of time to unload them all and to get ready for the start and the entire scene looks slightly absurd: on a random side street in Talas sleepy riders trying to find their bikes in general atmosphere of confusion and sleepiness. Once in a while you hear a worried voice from someone who can’t find his bike and generally it looks very, very chaotic. But somehow in the end in less than one hour everyone seems sort of ready to start and a police Lada appears out of nowhere to lead us centre of Talas. Here we witness one scene which seems to be from a movie by Kusturica, with the vice-mayor giving a rather short speech in Russian, in the centre of Talas to a gathering of cyclists, with the same Police Lada in the background.

If it’s one thing which stuck in my mind after the race briefing is that during such a race you should always have a some backup resources available. Otherwise things can get quite sketchy…
How many racers can fit in yurt? Somewhere in this yurt I think I was also trying to steal a couple of hours of sleep, trying to keep warm under a rug.
Somehow in the general chaos of unloading the bikes from the trucks everyone somehow managed to be ready in time.

A brief countdown and we’re off: 1800 kilometres of rough terrain and some of the worlds wildest mountains await us and the spirits are high. It’s 5 in the morning, the sleepiness has all but dissipated and I feel a sense of relief when we finally start. From here on mentally it should be easy. You have to manage with what you have and get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Now lets see how it goes, day by day.

Lock, stock and ready to roll.

Race photos by Danil Usmanov.