As the sun slowly rises, I’m still slowly making my way towards Tash Rabat pass. The skies are clear and the temperature rises steadily. In my misfortune, I’ve been lucky enough that it didn’t drop too much during the night. At this altitude, it can easily go down to -10°C. I made it through the night but the ordeal is far from over. With whichever energy I have left, I alternate between riding my bike and pushing it. Now that it’s day, I can clearly see that there’s no trail. The line I’m following on my GPS doesn’t translate to anything in the real world. Sometimes it just goes through grass and other times through rocky terrain. Struggling in the dark was inevitable. I have stopped trying to find an actual trail and just stick to what my GPS tells me. As I’m riding on a mix of grass and rocks, I feel the air going out of my rear tire all at once. I take a quick look and notice a 2mm cut on the sidewall. This is the kind of thing that would usually have me really frustrated. But honestly, I’ve reached such a level of despair, that I can’t feel anything else. I don’t have the energy to get mad. I just sit down on a rock and stoically proceed to patching the remaining tube I have and putting it in my tire. I inflate it and get going.
Not too long after, I reach the bottom of Tash Rabat pass. Cows are grazing on both sides of a stream, looking at me with their wide eyes, and there is still no track or footpath to be found. I try to make sense of where the GPS tells me to go. Up an extremely steep slope made of loose rocks. I don’t really see how I could climb up there so I keep following the stream, hoping to find a path. To no avail. It seems the track is really up there and I’m just walking parallel to it. So I start pushing my bike up this steep slope, trying not to slip on the loose rocks. It’s a long and tiring process but eventually I manage to get back on the line shown on my GPS. It appears there’s a barely visible hiking trail, one you really need to be close to to see. No wonder I couldn’t see it from the bottom. I keep pushing my bike. It’ s not as steep now but it’s still unrideable.
As I get close to the top, it gets windier, which means obviously colder as well. I finally reach the top to find out that the downhill is as steep as the uphill, and the terrain as loose. Well, I’m going to hike some more. I cautiously go down, following a zigzagging trail until I reach less dangerous terrain. I’m not far from the Tash Rabat yurt camps now and it’s all downhill. However it starts with a fairly technical single-track that is not particularly fast rolling. I expect after this section, progress is going to be faster. Sadly, what comes next involves more walking than riding. The track now goes from one side of a stream to the other. It is very rocky and whenever I manage to actually pedal, it never lasts. I have to dismount and push. I also have to be careful not to get my feet wet when crossing the stream. It’s doable as there’s not much water, but it still is a time consuming process. I finally reach Sabyr-Bek camp, one of the few yurt settlements in the area, around 11am. It took me about 5 hours to cover 20km.
Sabyr-Bek’s is a place where I’ve stayed before the race so I know one of the women there speaks English fairly well. I first ask for breakfast, before telling her I need a taxi to the closest town to fix a problem on my bike. She says she can arrange it and it shouldn’t be more than 30 minutes before it’s here. Now that is wildly optimistic, some would even say completely unrealistic. I keep eating my breakfast, expecting it’s going to be at least an hour before we’re ready to leave. When I’m done, I lie down to get a bit of sleep. Around noon I wake up and ask if the taxi is going to be much longer. The woman says no and, in fact, 20 minutes later, we’re ready to roll. We take the road to At-bashy. Now rather than going straight to town to the hardware store, we stop in a small village to deliver a cardboard box full of meat. I could do without the extra stop but it’s not really my call.
As we get back to civilization, I finally have signal (for the first time in more than 24 hours). I take advantage of this to check the tracker, expecting to see Adrien getting close to Tash Rabat. Both surprised and relieved, I realize he’s just past checkpoint 2. Which means, at best, he’ll reach Tash Rabat this evening. If I can fix my wheel, I’ll still be ahead at the end of the day.
We finally get to At-bashy and head to the local hardware store. It’s full of cheap Chinese tools and supplies, even a few bike parts. I ask the owner for spoke nipples. He doesn’t think he carries any but he’ll check. He looks in various drawers and comes back with a small bag of brass nipples. Bad luck, it’s not the right size. He goes back to his drawers and comes back with another bag. Jackpot! The nipples fit my spokes! They’re of dubious quality but they’ll do the trick. It’s now time to rebuild the wheel. I could just replace the broken nipples, but then I would run the risk of having the others break and have to do a roadside repair. I’d rather do them all at once, be done with it, and have some peace of mind. I remove the rim tape and start by replacing the already broken nipples. When I’m done, one by one, I unscrew the alloy nipples and replace them with the brass ones. It’s a tedious and time consuming process but it’s worth doing. The daughter of the owner of the store assists me by giving me a new nipple every time she sees I need one. Once this is done, I try to true the wheel as best I can. I don’t have a truing stand nor a spoke tension meter obviously, so it’s hard to do the job well. I’m also reluctant to put too much tension on the spokes. I’d rather my wheel makes it to the finish out of true, then leaving here with a perfectly trued wheel only to have spokes breaking in 200km.
It’s time to get back to Tash Rabat. We switch cars in a nearby village for an unknown reason, losing yet again time unnecessarily. But I’ve already lost 7 hours; so 10 minutes more is not that big a deal. I fall asleep in the new car only to wake up when boiling water starts leaking near my feet. The driver stops and checks the engine. Will I have to ride back to Tash Rabat? I’ll give him 5 min before considering this option. The cars here are usually pretty old and spend a lot of time being beaten up by rough roads. There are countless auto repair shops in the country.
After five minutes, we’re ready to roll. It’s not far to the yurt camp and I’m soon putting my bike back together. It’s 5:30pm and the ride to the town of Baetov takes about 5 hours. The plan is to get there, resupply and stay at the local hotel: Gostinitsa Konorchok. I’ve ridden this stretch before and I know it’s relatively easy and smooth. I thank my driver, say goodbye and get on my bike.
I’m rolling. I’m back in the race. I’m still in the lead. I feel amazing. Relieved, happy, ready to ride hard. I take the familiar road from the camp to the highway. It’s really scenic, with rather smooth gravel and not too many washboards. Then there’s a tiny bit of riding on tarmac before making a right to one of the worst climbs of the route. It’s not stupidly steep, nor painfully rough, but it’s a seemingly never-ending straight line with a steady 5% gradient. It’s about 10km long, with no turns and not much to look at. That’s basically an hour of looking at the top without touching it. Once I’m past the summit though, fun times are ahead. A fast rolling descent on a well surfaced gravel road with breathtaking scenery. Man it feels good to be riding again!
For some reason, I’m not listening to music, which is something that hardly ever happens. I hit a bump and hear the sound of something hitting the ground. I stop and see my multitool in the dirt. I always carry it in the mesh that is around my food pouch. Said pouch is usually full of food, but not this time. So the mesh is a bit loose and the tool escaped. For thirty seconds I contemplate what would have happened had I found myself without this critical piece of equipment. Without it I can’t remove my wheels which would make a simple puncture a race ending mechanical. I put the multitool inside the food pouch and get rolling again.
After the downhill, it’s time for a flat bit before climbing again. I reach the top of this fairly steep climb just after dark. It’s a good thing I’ve been here before because it’s one of the nicest viewpoints of the race and it’s a shame to miss it. Now it’s all downhill to Baetov. The road is a bit rougher so I try and be careful not to hit rocks as I’m descending at more than 40kph. But it’s not easy to do in the dark even with my super bright supernova E3. Eventually I hit a bigger rock and pinch flat. It’s very frustrating as I’m fairly close to town. I take out my repair kit and patch my tube at the light of my headlamp. A car stops, full of very curious and slightly drunk kyrgyz. I’m not really in the mood for chatting, and even if I were I can’t exactly have a meaningful conversation in Russian. I focus on the task at hand until they decide to go away. I pump up the tire really hard to avoid another pinch flat and get going. With the general fatigue and the fact that I have to work in the dark and cold, it took me almost an hour to fix this flat. I reach Baetov around midnight.
Food first, then I’ll check the hotel. The town is not exactly big, but by kyrgyz standards it’s practically a city. So shops are open late, which is perfect for me. I do a big resupply then head to Gostinitsa Konorchok. Reception is closed so I call the number posted on the door. About ten minutes later, a guy shows up and I get a room for a meager 4€. Sure there’s no hot water, but there’s 4 walls, a ceiling and a bed (actually there’s two but I only need the one). I check my lead on the tracker: Adrien is not even in Tash Rabat, he must have had a really bad day. I wash the parts of my body that need it the most, eat a bit, drink a bit and then it’s sleepy time.
I’ve not even ridden 100km today, but I’m happy.