Silk Road Mountain Race 2021 / Day 3

It’s 4am and a light drizzle is falling when I leave Kochkor. I have a bit less than 40km to ride on the main road before returning to the gravel but it’s not exactly rush hour, so I enjoy a quiet stroll on gentle uphill gradients. As the sun rises, the light rain stops and I feel like the day can finally start. 

It’s early morning when I reach Sary-Bulak. This truck stop that is bustling with people during the day is still asleep and I ride through without stopping, glad that I took the time to resupply in Kochkor. 

The pavement soon disappears, making place for the seemingly mandatory washboards. I go from one side of the road to the other in search of the least corrugated surface. It sometimes works but to be honest, most of the time it’s fairly useless. 

The race manual states that there’s no services between Sary-Bulak and Tamga, which means a 250km stretch without any opportunities to get food. It could be true or it could be a mistake. 30km after Sary-Bulak, going through a small community, I spot a small shop. It’s not open. Maybe it never is. Maybe it sometimes is. All I know is that it’s most likely gonna be a fairly lonely ride all the way to Tamga. But then again, if you’re looking for company, better pick a different race. 

Again it’s one of these follow-the-river climb. Bad road, 1 or 2% gradient for a rather long time, then actual climbing. It’s a bit chilly, the sky is filled with white clouds and I don’t feel like I’m having much fun. The surroundings are rather pretty but they’re not breathtaking. I have a cold shawarma roll in my frame bag and I stop for 10 minutes to eat it. Then it’s time for the actual climbing. The muddy track seems to suck me in. I have to be very careful where I put my wheels. The rain from yesterday made the ground very soft. I can only imagine the kind of peanut-buttery mess this road is after a couple days of downpour. Thankfully the sun has started piercing the clouds and I can see some steam coming from the ground, indicating its drying fast. 

After the summit there’s a fast short downhill then a bit of a flat stretch. I just spent countless hours climbing and my reward is not even thirty minutes long. 

After the flat bit, there’s another short downhill and then a bit of climbing to reach another valley. It’s the start of the never-ending climb to Arabel and I’m welcomed by a hail storm. Things are looking grim. A tailwind is pushing me but it’s also pushing the storm in the same direction. Or so would logic have it. But it seems the weather here answers to no one and makes up its own rules. As the wind is pushing me, the storm is somehow going away. I don’t really understand what’s going on but I like it. It soon is sunny with clear skies and the valley reveals its true beauty to me. 

The going is slow here and the further I go, the more the road seems to just be a collection of vague forgotten tracks. There’s dozens of rivers crossings. Too many to count, really. But I love it here. It’s so wild, remote and scenic. How far is the last village? By car it would probably take 5 or 6 hours to reach it. I feel like I’m in the heart of Kyrgyzstan, where it’s only rivers, mountains, the cold wind, horses and the occasional yurt with smoke coming from the chimney. 

I stop to eat my second shawarma roll and air my feet a little. For the first time ever, I’m carrying 4 pairs of socks. I know the kind of time you can lose by taking care of feet that have spent too long in wet shoes. I’m not gonna let that happen. 

I keep riding and thoroughly enjoying this day. It is my favorite so far. Maybe because it’s not scorching hot. Maybe because it’s not freezing cold. Or maybe because the setting is stunningly beautiful. But I found what I came here for. 

The road, on the other hand, is not getting any better. It’s getting rockier, steeper with even more river crossings. Towards the beginning of the evening I leave the clear skies behind to enter what appears like a massive, greyish cloud. It’s fairly threatening but forward movement is the only option. The temperature drops and the visibility decreases. It’s very humid but it is not raining per se. As night comes, the real climbing begins and the real cold sets in. Arabel pass is a steep one and I have a long day behind me. I’m hoping I can make it to Tamga in time to check into a guesthouse and get some quality sleep indoors while drying my wet clothes. 

The summit towers close to 3900m and on my Karoo I can see the temperature steadily dropping until it reaches -7°C. There’s patches of ice on the road, meaning I have to be super careful. The gradients are often around 10% which is hard but rideable. It sometimes gets steeper and I find myself pushing the bike. At some point, as I’m getting back on the bike, I slip, fall and land flush on my left knee, right where my titanium plate is. I have one or two seconds of panic but I don’t feel any pain when getting up. The metal is sturdy and so is the bone. 

The end of the pass is pretty much all hiking. Then I ride on a plateau for a while before reaching the Kumtor mine road. It’s gravel but it’s wide and nicely surfaced. Kumtor is one of the biggest gold mine in the world so they can afford to have a decent, hard-packed gravel road. It gently goes up and down before the actual descent begins. The first part has a lot of switchbacks and is very wet, making it a bit slower than I’d like. The second part is less steep but actually faster as there’s no turns and the surface is dry. It’s a long way to Tamga but I’m riding fast. Tucked in my aerobars, I struggle to stay awake. My day started more than 20 hours ago. 

©Danil Usmanov

I reach the small town located near the shore of Issykkul (one of Asia’s biggest lakes) around 1am. There’s no shortage of guesthouses there but the trick is to find one that is open. It’s not made easier by the big thunderstorm that strikes as soon as I enter the sleepy little town. I ride frantically and without method, looking for some kind of lodging while getting soaked. I need to calm down and act rationally. I stop and open Google maps. I spot a well rated guesthouse not too far away. I ride there and give them a call. Soon after, an old lady opens up the door.

©Danil Usmanov

She takes me to a small kitchen where I sit down on a stool. She brews tea and warms up some chicken stock as I remove my gloves and my helmet. I’m actually more eager to go to bed than to eat and drink, but she’s so sweet I can’t really say no. After all, I woke her up in the middle of the night; politely accepting a cup of tea is the least I can do. We don’t say much. I eat a few biscuits, finish my cup and then she shows me to my room. After a quick shower, I go to bed where I quickly fall asleep. 

It’s been a massive day with 290km covered in 21 or so hours 

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