When I wake up in Tamga four hours after falling asleep, it’s bright and sunny outside and yesterday’s storm is nothing but a bad memory. The babouchka who took care of me last night is already up. Looks like running a guesthouse in Kyrgyzstan involves as much sleep as ultracycling. She offers me some breakfast but I politely decline: I don’t have time to sit down and enjoy the tea, bread and jam that people usually start their day with here. I however do have time to fill up my bottle with instant coffee. And I still have a KitKat bar from my resupply in Kochkor. I’ll stop at the first shop I spot and buy enough food to last to Naryn where I hope I can sleep tonight.
I get on my bike and enjoy the stretch of tarmac that leads out of Tamga. It’s the first time since Kochkor I have cell service so I take advantage of this to post a few updates on social media. I’m singing 80’s hit Total eclipse of the heart by Bonnie Tyler when I see a small shop on my left hand side. It’s alright, I’ll stop at the next one. Or so I think. I keep riding on the paved road until the gravel turn off to Tosor pass. That shop I missed was the last shop before Naryn, a bit more than 200km further down the road.
I missed my resupply. I have three choices:
– going back to the shop
– keep going on the paved road until I find another one
– ride 18 hours relying solely on the three bags of peanuts I’m carrying
It’s day 4, so still rather early in the race and I’ve had plenty to eat every day since the start. The peanuts could be enough. I’ll try it. When you’re caught up in the race, going backwards or off-road usually appears like last resort measures. At least to me.
Tosor pass is a hard climb but it’s a nice one. By Kyrgyz standards, the road is in fairly good shape. In other places I’d probably find it horrendous. But given the mess that was Arabel pass, I’m actually having a good time. Everything is relative. The gradients are no joke though. Usually between 8 and 10%. But the views are superb and it’s a gorgeous day where you’d be hard pressed to find something better to do than ride your bike.
It takes about three hours to get close to the top where the road deteriorates and gets steeper. The last 2km definitely involve some walking. On the other side, the road is in bad shape. It much more resembles the top of the pass than the bottom. And it doesn’t last nearly as long. It’s just a short steep bit then an overall downhill profile but broken up by some climbs. A headwind makes things even slower, keeping me longer in this pretty valley. There’s a fair bit of river crossings and again I do my best to keep my feet dry.
Around mid-day, I see a rider going in the opposite direction as I’m riding fast on a false flat. It’s not uncommon to see bike tourers on kyrgyz gravel roads but this one has a pretty serious bikepacking set-up. That’s intriguing. Ten minutes later, I see another rider, going towards Tamga as well. That’s when I understand I’m on one of the sections where the course overlaps! I stop to say hi and give him a quick tip: if he turns back and make a left at the junction, he’ll save an entire day and will go straight to second position. He laughs at my lame joke and then we’re on our (separate) ways.
I observe the surroundings in a failed attempt to recognize anything. A bit further away there is a huge yurt camp with tens of cars and lots of horses. I don’t know where these people come from but they sure as hell weren’t here yesterday. Why did they gather here in the middle of nowhere? I have no clue. I could ask my friends Steven Moatt and Theo Daniel as we meet on this busy stretch of road, but I guess they don’t know more about this than I do.
We’re chatting and snapping selfies when a media car shows up with race director Nelson Trees, photographer Chris McLean and filmmaker Brady Lawrence. It’s nice to see new faces. I mean, it’s people I know so it’s not really new faces, but it’s not “my” media car. My media car has Olya and Danil in it and they take their job of not interfering with the racers very seriously. I respect that, obviously, but, the thing is, I actually like interfering with the media crew. Well, in fact, it depends. When things are going well, I like it. When I’m having a hard time, I’d like it better if there were no media crew at all.
I exchange a few words with the guys and then I get going. It’s soon time to leave the overlap section and I’m pretty excited about it. Even though the place never seemed familiar, just knowing I had already been there makes me want to go somewhere else even more. I take a left at the junction and go over a bridge. I remember seeing this place yesterday and wondering what lied beyond this bridge. There’s not that many roads in Kyrgyzstan and not that many junctions either. So I’m always kind of curious. Obviously it’s gonna be more mountains, rivers and horses, I know it. But I can’t help wondering. Well this time I’m actually going to find out.
It’s as pretty as expected: the grass is golden, the light of the setting sun making it even more perfect. And of course, the wild horses are here, galloping much faster than I could ever hope to climb. I have to tackle a couple of serious climbs. And I’m treated to a big river crossing in between. It’s too wide and deep to cross with the bike while keeping my feet dry so I remove my shoes and just walk in the water. Night is about to fall and I don’t want to have wet shoes and socks now. The water is freezing and the rocks are slippery. I struggle to stay upright.
After the second climb and subsequent descent, I find myself off track. My GPS says I’m on it, but there’s obviously a small inaccuracy in the file as I’m walking in a field and struggling to not fall in one of the many trenches I find on my way. It takes me a while to find the actual track as it is now dark. But when I do it’s a relief. I finally end up on a legit road that has a few cars on it. It’s gravel and washboarded of course but it’s still faster than anything I’ve ridden today. I’m hungry obviously and I keep an eye out for a shop. Since there’s cars and an actual road it’s a possibility. But chances are slim, I know. I go through a tiny village. I keep an eye open for a shop, but in such a small place after dark, it’s just hopeless.
After a flat stretch on the same gravel roads, I am treated to a series of short climbs while following a river. I wonder if it’s pretty out there. There’s a good chance it is. But when you race, you have to accept the fact that you’re not gonna see everything. You can only hope that you’re not gonna miss the best parts.
I am now focused on reaching Naryn, a rather small town but still one of the biggest in the country. I visited Naryn a few days before the race so I know there’s a great place to stay there and I for sure intend to take advantage of it. Comfy bed, great shower and good breakfast: everything I need. The hilly ride along the river is time consuming but I finally get through with it. The end of the day is frustratingly slow thanks to more washboarded gravel roads where I expected pavement. As I near the outskirts of Naryn, I see a shop that is brightly lit despite the fact that it’s very late. Full of hope, I stop and try to open the door. Turns out it’s locked. The shop is closed and my stomach will have to stay empty until tomorrow morning. I get back on my bike and ride the final kilometers on a somewhat decent paved road. I finally make it to the Grand Khan Tengri hotel around 1.30AM. The pleasant surprise is that it’s right there on the track, no need to make any kind of detour. I check in and then it’s on to a good shower and a bit more sleep than usual as breakfast starts at 7AM.
I’ve ridden 216km and climbed 3800m.