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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.