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.



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2 responses to “Silk Road Mountain Race 2021, lead-up.”

  1. Marius Avatar

    Niste locuri uimitor de frumoase prin Asia Centrala – ma fac sa imi adun bagajele si sa o iau din loc iarasi!

    1. Diaconescu Radu Avatar

      Uimitor de frumoase si totusi uimitor de la indemana, tocmai ce a si renuntat Kyrgyzstan la viza de intrare pentru Romani mai nou….

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