It’s 5:20AM when I set off from Baetov where I slept for 4 hours and I’m 460km away from the finish. When racing I’m constantly making calculations to try and figure out where I’ll be at a certain time or how long I have before reaching the finish. When I started making these calculations at the beginning of my racing career, I would always be way off. But little by little, I learned how to make more accurate estimates. If I have a moving average speed of 15kph, it will take 30 hours of riding to reach Balykchy. Throw in 6 hours for sleep and various stops and add a 4 hours cushion, and I should be done with the race tomorrow around sunset. I know the road ahead of me is quite good, with a 40km paved stretch and then a rather smooth gravel road up to Song-Kul. Surrouned by dramatic peaks, this picturesque lake is one of the most visited places in the country. Up there, at 3000m of altitude, in a small yurt camp, is the third checkpoint. That’s what I’m focusing on. In terms of spending the night, I don’t have any clear objectives. It seems there’s not a lot of options.
I ride quietly in the dark streets of Baetov and on to the road that leads out of the town. The altitude here is 2000m so it’s not as cold as other places in the race, but it’s still a bit chilly. Even though I slept in a real bed, I’m still very tired and it’s hard to get anything going. I just pedal softly, waiting for my legs to wake up. At this stage of the race, forward movement is the only thing that matters anyway.
After about an hour and a half on tarmac, I reach the village of Jany-Talap. According to the race manual, it’s the only place on the course where one can find good coffee. Sadly the place that sells it isn’t open this early in the morning so I am not gonna have the chance to drink a nice brew. Jany-Talap is where the pavement ends and where the long climb to Song-Kul lake starts. It’s about 40km long, with 25km relatively easy to begin with before a steeper last 15km. My legs have finally woken up so I progress quite rapidly on the gravel. It’s amazingly beautiful out there, with more trees than you usually see in Kyrgyzstan. The weather is not that great today. Gray and cold, and it looks like rain could be a possibility at the top.
I keep pushing hard on the pedals, one switchback after the other, until I reach the top of Moldo-Ashu, the climb that leads to the lake. I stop to put on a few more layers as a light rain is falling and there’s a flat stretch coming up. As I’m getting in my rain jacket, a group of German motorbikers comes in the opposite direction. One of them stops and tells me it’s raining quite heavily at the lake, about 10km from here. You know what they say: “Don’t shoot the messenger”, well I kind of feel like doing it anyway. I resume my ride and get closer to the lake, expecting the rain to get heavier any minute. Fortunately it just keeps on drizzling and I barely get wet.
I make it to the checkpoint around 11:30, get in the warmth of the yurt and get my brevet card stamped. When asked if I have a comment, I say: Never trust German motorbikers. I stay in the yurt for half an hour. Eating bread, drinking soup and instant coffee. Trying to get some info about what to expect between here and the finish. But Nelson is not having it… what lies between here and Balykchy, I’ll have to find out by myself.
I get up to go out of the yurt and back on my bike when a volunteer (a young kyrgyz woman) asks me:
- What are you doing?
- Well, it’s time to go.
- But it’s raining. Stop and rest. You’re always first at the checkpoints.
- Sure, but if I stopped every time it rains, it’s unlikely I would be the first racer to reach the checkpoint every time.
Nelson and the crew laugh and I exit the yurt, ready to get drizzled on again. I now have to ride around the lake to get from the south shore to the north. It doesn’t look like much on the profile, but it’s actually a tiring series of short but steep up-and-downs. The upside is that it offers nice views on the lake. It’s a shame the sun is not out today. After an hour or so, it completely stops raining, which is a relief. After one last short climb, I leave Song-Kul behind and enjoy 10km of downhill.
It’s the middle of the afternoon. The going has been fairly slow so far and I hope I will be able to make good time during the second part of this day. Unfortunately the exact opposite happens. After the descent begins a painfully slow section. First a barely visible trail along a small stream that is about 50% rideable and then a steep hike to get out of this valley. I slowly push my bike up the hill while a shepherd on a horse and his flock climb easily. It takes me about 2 hours to cover less than 15km. I would hate it if I could. But the scenery is still so stunning that I can’t. I accept my fate and keep moving.
When I’m done, I proceed to fly down a steep hill onto an actual road. It’s a mix of gravel and pavement that you often find here. A road that was fully paved at some point and then the years went by, parts of the tarmac were just peeled off and now washboarded gravel remains. It’s not particularly pleasant to ride but it’s still faster than hiking up a goat trail. I’m happy to see my average speed improve. Happy also to have cell coverage which gives me an opportunity to check the tracker. Ahead of me are a few villages which will give me a chance to resupply. After this is nothing for quite a while, so a night in a real bed is not an option. I leave the main road for a secondary one, which surprisingly is in a much better shape. It is fully paved and the surface is unusually smooth. For the first time in a while, I make good progress. I’m debating if I should try and go all night and get it over with. Just keep on trucking to the finish. It’s tempting. I’ll see how it goes but I keep this idea in the back of my mind.
According to the tracker, it’s the second time in the race I find myself on this road. The first time was when I was on my way to Kochkor on day 2. It was dark then so I don’t recognize anything. I get to a small village a little after 7pm and stop for a big resupply. Finding salty food in these small shops is always a challenge. This time I opt for multiple small bags of chips. A single big bag would be better but sadly it is not something they carry. I pack my stuff and get back on the bike. I ride through a few more small villages as the sun begins to set.
A few minutes before dark, I leave the tarmac behind as I get on the gravel road that will lead me to Kegety pass, one of the hardest climbs of the race. Sometimes stopping for a resupply takes you out of the routine of riding for hours on end and gives you a boost; sometimes it just breaks your rhythm. This time it looks like it’s the latter that is happening. Obviously the fact that it’s now dark doesn’t help. Sluggishly, I find myself following the Karakol river, gently going up. I make a couple of not very serious navigation mistakes. I don’t often make them so it tends to show how tired I am. I’ve only been riding for an hour in the dark and I already want to stop. How am I gonna ride through the entire night?
I don’t feel sleepy but the idea of spending the night doing something similar to what I did today, only without the views and with much colder temperatures sounds terrible. I keep riding for like an hour until I once again get a flat. It’s the same ritual of laying the bike on its side, removing the wheel, taking out my repair kit and patching the tube. All of this in the light of my headlamp. Like often a car full of slightly drunk Kyrgyz stops to see what’s going on. And like always I don’t really have the patience to be friendly and speak the few words of Russian I know. I take my time and after 45 minutes, I’m ready to go back at it.
The exhaustion is real. Physically, I’m tired. Mentally I’m broken down. All the hard times of the past 7 days are catching up to me. Images of the two nights I spent riding instead of sleeping are coming back to me. I don’t want to go through this again. I don’t have the energy. I’m in first position with an 8 hour lead, I can’t find the motivation there. Sure, the faster I’m done with the race, the better. But if it means 8 hours of night riding; I just can’t do it right now.
Soon after resuming my riding, I spot a house 50m away from the road. I decide to check it out. It’s abandoned; no door, no windows, no furniture. I’ll set up camp here. I’ve had engouh for today. I inflate my mattress and get in my sleeping bag. It’s 11pm. I have ridden 206km and climbed 3400m.