I wake up in my comfy bed just 5 minutes before breakfast, get dressed and head straight to the buffet. Ample amounts of coffee, crepes, all sorts of pastries, bread and eggs: I down as much food as I can in the least amount of time possible. While doing it, I exchange a few messages on whatsapp with my friend Adrien who currently rides in second position and makes sure I stay on my toes by always being just a couple of hours behind.
Yesterday I passed the half-way point of the course and I have to say that, so far, even though it’s really hard, it’s not as grueling as I expected it to be. I barely had to walk which surprises me a bit. For me Silk Road Mountain Race was synonymous with never-ending hike-a-bikes. Considering the distance I’ve covered and the distance that remains, I’m starting to wonder if I could finish in just under 7 days. If I keep the same pace, it’s feasible. The question is: will the course allow me to keep the same pace?
Best way to find out is to get back on my bike and get going. So that’s exactly what I do. Looks like it’s a bit too early for Naryn shopkeepers because I can’t find a store open before leaving the city. Hopefully I’ll find a place to resupply a bit further and, worst case scenario, checkpoint 2 is roughly 150km away and will have food.
The climb out of Naryn is a familiar one. I was here less than two weeks ago. The road is paved, wide and in good shape. The sun is shining and I have a tail wind. All in all, a pretty good start to the day. It’s neither a long or hard climb. When I get to the top, I make a left on a narrower paved road that soon turns to gravel. Pushed by the wind I ride rather fast towards a small town where I’m happy to find a small shop. They stock sandwiches, the one thing I always look for but can never seem to find. I do a big resupply. It’s a warm day so I stock plenty of fluids.
It’s time for a long false flat again. I’m heading towards the Chinese border, following a gravel road parallel to the paved one I took two weeks ago from Naryn to Tash Rabat.
Tash Rabat is actually the place where I’m hoping to spend the night. Because CP2 is to close to stop for the night and then, from there, there’s nothing until Tash Rabat yurt camps. It’s a long way but I figure even if I get there at 2 or 3am, it’s okay. I don’t really feel like I have a choice anyway because if I fail to reach the yurt camp, I will have to bivy at an altitude comprised between 3600 and 3900m. And reaching that kind of elevation, there is a good chance it will be too cold for me to sleep comfortably.
From Tash Rabat, I know the route all the way to CP3 and I know it’s relatively easy going. Fast rolling double tracks, a fair bit of tarmac and three passes with two opportunities to resupply. It could easily be done in one day which would mean another night indoors in one of the yurts at Songkul. Another good reason to push all the way to Tash Rabat today.
That’s the kind of calculation I’m making as I’m riding on a not so bad (by Kyrgyz standards) gravel road, with the wind still at my back and China on my left, on the other side of the Tianshan mountains. It’s warm and I make sure to stay hydrated. As I keep slowly gaining altitude on this false flat, I enter a wooded area, which always feels special in a country where there’s so few trees. I like trees. Not to say I dislike deserts, plains and steppes; I do also enjoy wide open spaces. But when I don’t see trees for a long time I miss them.
As I’m about to transition from the false flat to an actual climb to reach an altitude of 3300m, the wind abruptly changes direction and starts blowing in my face. And it does not do so gently. This climb is gonna be a battle. Not only against gravity, but also against the elements. I don’t mind that much as climbing is slow anyway. But I worry. If the wind blows in the same direction after the pass and with the same strength, it could make me lose a lot of time. I push hard on the pedals to reach the top. I’m still far from it when a truck offers to give me a lift. Something that is not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan. Obviously I politely decline. It’s okay, it’s really not that hard to refuse: I would have said no even if I was just touring.
When I get to the top, the media car with Nelson is here to ensure even goes smoothly with the crossing of the regulated area. There’s a military zone there that you can’t cross without a permit. I hand my passport to the soldier in the booth and eat my sandwich while he makes sure I’m on the list. Nelson did his job right: I’m on the list and I can go through. Due to a sudden drop in temperature thanks to the headwind, I have to put on a jacket before getting going. After a few hundred meters, I notice than the wind is not as strong on this side of the pass. Good. I should be able to stay on track with my goal of reaching Tash Rabat.
After an hour or so of riding a downhill false flat, it’s back to tailwind and warm weather and I have to lose the jacket. How long is it gonna stay in my frame bag? Not long. A bit more than an hour. That’s when a furious crosswind starts blowing. I look on my right-hand side and see a mass of menacing black clouds slowly approaching. I look at my GPS to see how long I’m supposed to ride in this direction. It doesn’t seem that long. Looks like I have to make a left soon and this crosswind will become a tailwind and maybe I’ll be able to escape the storm. I push as hard as I can but it’s not easy to be fast in these conditions. Quickly I feel the first drops of rain hitting my right side. I keep pushing, hoping to beat the storm. I hear a weird noise. It’s familiar but it takes me like 30 seconds to recognize what it’s associated with. I look at my rear wheel and see it’s slightly out of true. Like I suspected, I just broke a spoke. It happens, no need to worry. I make it to the turn-off. I ride faster, pushed by the wind, but not for long: there’s a climb ahead. The climb to Kel Suu lake where CP2 is located. I look at the clouds and it seems the storm is not moving towards me but parallel. I still get a bit of rain from its edges. It’s getting really cold and I’m wet. But I don’t want to stop to put on my rain gear. CP2 seems so close, I can’t stop now. I give it my all. Both to get there as soon as possible and to stay somewhat warm. When I finally make it to the checkpoint, I’m pretty much hypothermic. I’m shaking and I can’t feel my fingers. I get in the yurt where a fire is burning in the stove and hot soup await. Just what I need. I get my stamp and chat with the volunteers while eating as much hot food as I can. I hadn’t really planned on sitting down given how far I still am from Tash Rabat, but I actually got to Kel Suu a bit earlier than expected and also I’m just too damn cold to jump right back on my bike.
When I get out of the yurt, the rain has stopped and the skies are clear. I am now supposed to go back on the road I left when I was trying to escape the storm. No by the same route though. What awaits is called the old soviet road.
Now, I know what a road is. So when I head out of the yurt camp, I’m a bit confused. Because I can’t see any road except the one which I came from. I follow the track on my GPS and soon find out that the old soviet road is actually a hard to distinguish, thin line in the grass. It also has an average gradient of 25% which makes it impossible to ride. This morning I was wondering where the hike-a-bikes were: well here’s one that lasts for almost an hour. Unfortunately it is on a day where I’m really pressed for time.
One thing that is worth mentioning about the old soviet road is that it used to be protected by a barbed wire fence. The time of the soviets is long gone but remnants of the barbed wire are still here. Like the USSR, the tubeless setup on my front tire is a thing of the past, so when I inadvertently roll on a twisted metal string, I puncture. And when I puncture, I lose 30 minutes because I don’t have spare tubes so I need to patch.
Precious, precious time is flying away. I hurry as much as I can to patch my tube and get done with the downhill while it’s still day. At least I succeed in this. When night falls, I’m back on the road I left 4 or 5 hours ago. Looking at the profile it looks like I still have a chance to make it to Tash Rabat around 1am if the road doesn’t deteriorate.
As I’m riding I hear the same noise I heard earlier on this very road. I look at my wheel and see it’s a bit more out of true. A second spoke broke.
Now, one spoke breaking doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with the wheel. But two in matter of hours, is a matter of concern. I’m an optimistic individual so despite the possibility of having a major problem on my hands, I stay positive. I tell myself that a complete failure of the wheel would mean an end to my race and it seems such an unlikely finish to this adventure that I’m convinced it can’t happen. I have never dropped out of a race due to a mechanical and I don’t feel it’s supposed to happen anytime soon. Not here. Not when I’m leading. Not when there’s so much at stake.
But then again, there’s my mindset and there’s the actual physical world. And in this world, a third spoke breaks.
It’s time to get off the bike and assess the situation. I get a closer look at the wheel and notice that it’s the nipples that broke. All of them on the drive side. I start by loosening the other nipples a bit to relieve some of the extra tension they have now that three of them failed. To be honest, I should have done this when the second one broke. That mistake is on me. Another mistake is that I didn’t pack spare spokes and nipples. This is truly silly as Hunt who provided me the wheels made sure I was aware that they were prototypes. They are not production wheels coming out of their factory. They have been built in-house and even though they’ve been tested thoroughly, they don’t come with the same guarantee as wheels that are available for purchase. Actually me riding them here is a part of the whole testing process they have to undergo before they start building them in the factory and selling them.
Obviously something went wrong when mine were built. It’s unfortunate but maybe now that I relieved a bit of the tension, it will be okay.
I keep riding on a road that goes from bad to worse. If I could find any kind of rhythm, the numerous river crossings would make sure I’d lose it. It’s just a painfully slow progress despite the fact that I’m gaining very little elevation. I take a lot of precautions when crossing the rivers. They’re usually shallow and easy to cross but it only takes one mistake to ruin all my efforts. And of course, at some point, despite being very careful, I make this mistake and step in the water. It is freezing cold and I have wet feet. On top of that, I’m moving at an alarmingly slow pace and my hopes of reaching Tash Rabat in time to grab some sleep in the comfort of a yurt are slowly but surely getting crushed.
Things soon get worse. I hear the dreaded sound of another spoke breaking. My wheel now is dangerously out of true. One more broken spoke and it will stop turning.
After a while, I reach a point where I’m supposed to make a right and leave the road. There seems to be a small discrepancy in the GPS file we were given as I can’t see any road, track or path. I explore the surroundings, being only able to see what my front light shows. It’s just a wide, flattish, open space covered by what seems to be sage brush. I try to stay on the line showed by my GPS but it obviously doesn’t relate to any form of road. I sometimes see a double track left by car tires but when I start to follow it, I just get away from where I’m supposed to go. So I just ride in this wasteland avoiding the sage brush. My progress is very slow, maybe 10 to 12kmh. I have stopped trying to figure when I’m going to reach Tash Rabat. I’m just going through the motions waiting for a fifth spoke to break. When it finally happens, I get off my bike, sit down and just look at my wheel for a few minutes.
On the Silk Road mountain race, when you can’t continue due to a mechanical or an injury, you have the option to press a button on your tracker which will notify the race organizers that you need a taxi. Then you just sit there and wait and someone comes and picks you up. The whole course is covered by this service, except for two sections. And right I’m in one of them.
I pick my self up and start inspecting the wheel. Five broken spoke nipples on the drive side. My wheel is now a taco. My only option now, is to remove a few spokes on the non drive side, to free up nipples for a couple spokes from the drive side. It will true the wheel a bit and allow it to spin. Because right now the tire is rubbing so much on the chainstays that I can’t even ride. It’s not an easy task when you’re freezing but it’s not like I have a choice. I do my best and it seems to work. When I’m done the wheel is still badly out of true, but it’s not rubbing on the stays anymore.
I start riding again. But what’s the purpose? My spokes are not going to stop breaking. Even if I reach Tash Rabat tomorrow, there’s nothing there. The real bike shops are all in Bishkek, 400km further. It basically means a full day to get there, a couple hours to fix the wheel if I’m extremely lucky and a full day to get back. So we’re talking at least 36 hours. No way I can win the race after this. I don’t even know if I’ll have the energy to get back on the course. My morale is at an all time low. I just keep moving forward like a zombie, because there’s nothing else I can do. But I can feel my dream of winning this race crumbling around me. I don’t even care that I’m cold. I don’t even care that my feet are soaked. I often get off the bike to walk instead of riding. What difference does it make since I’m not gonna finish the race anyway? I’d love to stop and get some sleep, but I know I’d be too cold out there in the open. And I haven’t seen sort of shelter since leaving CP2. I can’t do anything but slowly move towards Tash Rabat pass trying not to think about the fact that my race is most likely over.