It’s 9:30pm when about 100 riders extract themselves from the mini busses where they were all cramped up for about 6 hours. The Silk Road Mountain Race is supposed to start in thirty minutes, but all of us know there’s no chance this is gonna happen. The semis carrying our bikes are hundreds of kilometers behind us and at the very best, they will be here in 4 hours.
As it turns out there’s a wedding tonight in Talas, a small town located in the wild kyrgyz west, far from any touristic attractions. We all take place around big tables inside a huge tent, and waiters proceed to bring us the remnants of the banquet. Most us laugh at this unexpected situation. A few are a bit too stressed out to enjoy the comic of this scene. A hundred cyclists, fully kitted out, sitting at a kyrgyz wedding with no bikes in sight. Pretty funny if you ask me.
Well, we came here for an adventure and, as it happens, it started even before we got on our bikes.
Being familiar with Central Asia, I just relax and eat as much food as I can. I know when things are supposed to take 5 hours, they can take 10, 12 or even 15. There’s no need growing impatient. Things will happen eventually. In the meantime, I might as well get some rest. A few of us find refuge in a small guesthouse nearby. I lie down for 3 hours, unable to sleep but still kind of resting and conserving energy for the challenge that lies ahead.
At 3am, the trucks arrive, we unload the bikes and, at exactly 4:23, SRMR 2021 starts.
We roll gently out of Talas, a bit nervous obviously. A few fist bumps to my friends – good luck, enjoy the ride, see you in Balykchy – and then the actual racing starts. 50km of climbing, 2000m of ascent: there’s no easing up into the race. I go up front, not quite full out, but still at a serious pace. Everybody knows I’m here to win, there’s no point in acting like it isn’t the case. I immediately find myself alone in the front. It’s a gentle climb at first, but after a couple of hours it gets real steep and the road gets real rocky. It’s chilly out there as the sun rises to unveil a majestic scenery that is pretty much the norm in this part of the world. It takes me about 4 hours to summit this first pass. The view at the top is stunning but I don’t have much time to stop and marvel at the beauty of these mountains.
The first kilometers of the descent are no fun, on a very bad stretch of road. I carefully navigate between the big rocks, questioning my choice of brining a rigid fork. After a while it gets better and I can start enjoying the downhill. I soon hit the first river crossings and get my feet wet. It should be no big deal as the temperature is rising rapidly.
After the downhill, I get to a section of rolling hills on a rather good gravel double track. I can now feel the heat and I stop for water as soon as I spot a small shop. It’s pretty much gonna be the jist of today. Riding, spotting a shop, drinking lots, get going again. I also gobble a few electrolyte pills to make sure the minerals lost are replaced.
The riding is fairly entertaining, with short punchy climbs, fast rolling gravel roads and many turns to avoid the main highway. As far as landscapes go, it’s definitely not the best part of the race but that’s alright, I don’t mind resting my eyes once in a while.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the climbing resumes. It starts with three hills. I go up, then down for a short bit, then up again but higher, then down a bit and then up again, even higher. It’s not terribly hard but it’s fairly tiring. It’s only the beginning though. As the sun sets, it’s time for the rough stuff. First the road gets real bad, but the gradients are still kind of okay. As I’m going rather fast down a hill, a car passes me creating a cloud of dust. I can’t see anything anymore and before I can break I hit a big rock and get thrown off the bike into the ditch. My front tire is flat, a small cut in the sidewall opened up by the pinching action of the rock against the rim. I put a tube in and get going.
I get to a village, buy something to drink and proceed to ride deeper into the night, far away from any civilization, towards the second big pass of the course. The ordeal begins. In front of me, a broken up road where the gradients are no less than 10%, sometimes 12 and up to 15. For hours, I have to give everything I have. Often times I tell myself, if the rocks would be a tad bit bigger or the slope would be a just a tiny bit steeper, I’d have to walk. I manage to ride but it’s probably because it’s day one and I’m somewhat still fresh.
Around 4am, I feel like I’m giving up mentally. There’s not much that separates me from the top of the pass, but I find myself looking everywhere for shelter. I’m not sleepy. I’m not physically tired. I just want it to stop.
The panamean Roberto Duran is said to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. During a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, he’s reported to have said “No mas” which translates to “no more”, as he allegedly felt like he couldn’t take any more punches to the face. The referee subsequently stopped the fight declaring Sugar Ray the winner. I feel that’s what’s happening to me. It’s not that I’m not willing to fight anymore, it’s just that I’m tired of getting repeatedly punched in the face by this trail. It is mentally exhausting because it is relentless. It is not just 24h of bike riding, it is 24h of off-road kyrgyz bike riding. That makes a world of difference. It’s too broken up, it’s too steep, it’s too cold, it’s too dark. I just want it to stop.
There’s no shelter up there at more than 3000m of altitude, so I elect to just lie down in my sleeping bag on the side of the road. I inflate my mattress only to find out it has been punctured during the transport of the bikes. The good thing is that I manage to locate the hole and seal it with some rubber cement. I lay there for a couple of hours, not really sleeping because my feet are too cold and I can’t get them warm. I feel guilty. In my book, the only good reason for stopping is sleeping. Anything else is just wasting time.
At dawn, I pack up and resume forward movement. It’s real cold and I’m wearing all my clothes. Baselayer, leg warmers, puffer jacket and gloves.
I get to the top of the pass then it’s on for another slow, bumpy downhill. I expected nothing less. It’s rare that you have a shitty road going up and a smooth one going down. In all fairness, the last part of the descent is rather fast.
I soon ride through the village of Kyzil-Oi. I take advantage of the cell service to check the tracker and see that my friend Adrien is in second place, a couple of hours behind me. I fail to find a shop in Kyzil-Oi but it’s okay, I still have some food left. I didn’t eat much yesterday because of the heat.
I ride along the Karakol river. The weather is very different from yesterday. It’s cloudy and cold, with temperatures ranging between 7 and 12°C. It’s only day 2 but I already know the pattern of these climbs: gently go up for hours following a river, then veer off and go up steep slopes to an altitude of 3800m or so. It could be business as usual, but the weather has other plans.
First it’s a hail storm. I take shelter under a tree with a couple of cows. I can hardly believe my luck as trees are not easily found in this part of the world. You can ride 100km without seeing a single one. I weather the storm and get going. Then it’s time for hail storm number 2. But this time there’s no shelter. Hail soon turns into a drizzle which later turns into melted snow. And sure enough, after half an hour of this, actual snow starts falling from the sky. The landscape quickly turns to white, which would be pretty if I weren’t worried about the rest of my day. I’m nowhere near the summit and things could be far worse up there. I start looking around, trying to see what kind of shelter, natural or man made, would be available in case things turn real bad. I don’t see much and I soldier on. It’s not like I have a choice anyway. On top of these severe conditions, I have to deal with several river crossing. Obviously getting my feet wet now would be catastrophic. I need to be extremely cautious going across these streams.
As I keep getting higher, contrary to my expectations, the snow stops falling. I secretly hope that on the other side of the pass, the sun is shining and I will soon get warm. I climb steadily as the road goes away from the River, up into the high mountains. It’s not an easy climb but it certainly is much easier than what I had to do last night!
When I get to the other side, my wish is almost granted. Okay it’s not really sunny, but it’s definitely not as cold and grey as the Karakol Valley.
For once I can enjoy a good descent. The road is not too rocky and allows for higher speed. Sadly, as I’m riding fast, I fail to see a rock, hit it flush and get a pinch flat. That’s why I do not like to ride with tubes.
The rest of the day is fairly uneventful. It’s mostly downhill and flat all the way to the first checkpoint in Kochkor. After the obligatory kyrgyz washboards, I even get to enjoy a paved stretch. As far as I’m concerned, that’s free kilometers. And there’s not a lot of those on the silk road mountain race.
I get to the checkpoint in first position. After buying some food for the really long stretch without resupply I have to face tomorrow, I get dinner. Lagman and pelmenie, a hot meal for a cold rider. There’s a big group of volunteers in the restaurant but I’d rather sit by myself. I’m a bit too tired to socialize. A quick shower, a dollop of cream on my butt and then it’s time to grab 4 hours of sleep.
It’s not even been 48 hours but the race has already delivered almost its full scope of tricks: extreme weather, endless climbs, high altitude, rough roads huge distances without any service. The only thing missing for now are hike-a-bikes. But they’ll come. I know they’ll come.