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)



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