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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
220km, 5000m of climbing, 15 hours.