One of the things I struggle with the most in ultra-cycling races is getting out of my sleeping bag after grabbing a few hours of sleep outside. Paradoxically I have absolutely no problem with the discipline required to get out of bed after 4 hours of sleep in a hotel. I never press snooze. Alarm rings, I get up, get dressed and rush out. But when I’m bivying somewhere, I’m unable to get good sleep and when the alarm goes off, I feel so robbed of well deserved and much needed rest, that I usually allow myself anywhere from 30 minutes to a whole hour of extra sleep, and then some more… and then again a little bit more. Which means breaks that were supposed to last 3 hours end up lasting twice as long.
This night in an abandoned house on the bank of the Karakol river turns out to be no exception. I only find the energy to get up when it’s light outside. 6 hours of not so good sleep regularly interrupted by the necessity of reinflating my mattress, which was damaged during the transfer of the bikes before the race, and that I managed to fix a little bit, but not perfectly, with rubber cement.
It’s 6:30 and I’m ready to ride. I’m 260km from the finish so, this time, I’m sure of it, there’s no stopping before I reach it. There’s a huge amount of climbing so it’s gonna take some time, but late tonight, I should be in Balykchy celebrating with a cold beer.
But first Kegety Pass. I’m 18km and 1200m away from the top. However the first 8km along the river only bring me 200m closer to the summit. That’s easy math from here: 10km to ride + 1000m to climb = 10% average gradient. It’s a cold morning but the sky is blue and my energy levels are okay. Being so close to the finish sure does help. In the race manual, Kegety is advertised as one of the toughest climbs of the race. So I definitely expect hiking my bike.
It’s slow going at first, but it’s still cycling. About half-way to the top, I come across a green tent, set up right there on the road. Two guys are cooking instant noodles, which is not my idea of a good breakfast. I say hi and we briefly chat. They’re from Spain and bike-touring around Kyrgyzstan. They heard about the race and they’re stoked to meet the rider who has a good chance of winning it. We take a selfie and then I’m on my way.
The climb soon gets harder. Rockfalls have damaged the road and I have to walk over the rubble. One thing that strikes me is how black the stone that makes up the mountain is. I don’t think I’ve seen such dark rocks before and it makes this pass even more intimidating. As I go along, I have to get off the bike more and more often. Landslides have made this road completely impassable by car and fairly hard to navigate by bike. In this black stony mess, I sometimes don’t know where I’m supposed to go. As I’m nearing the top, I take a quick break to sit down and eat a snickers. I just need to regroup a little bit. The last kilometer is the hardest. It’s basically just pushing and carrying the bike all the way to the top. No riding. A bit less than 3 hours after leaving my sleep spot, I make it to the summit.
I now have more than 40km of downhill all the way to the village of Kegety. After 30 minutes of getting battered by the rocky trail, I get my mandatory pinch flat. I fix it and get going, not particularly happy about the additional battering. The second part of the descent is a bit weird because it has people. Kegety is not far from Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, and people just drive here to get some fresh mountain air. Weekenders are not something you commonly see during the SRMR, so it sure gives the place a different atmosphere.
As I near the village, I’m happy to find tarmac. After this long rocky downhill on a fully rigid bike, this is just what I need. I ride to the nearest shop and stop for a big resupply. It’s not very well stocked but I manage to find bread and cheese. That will make for a decent lunch. I also get plenty of drinks. I went from an altitude of 3700m to one of 1200m and it’s really hot here in the valley. As I’m eating my sandwich, I proceed to removing the bulk of my layers. When I’m fed and dressed according to the temperature, I get back on the bike hoping I can improve a rather disappointing average speed. Thankfully what comes next is a section that is mostly flat and paved through a series of small villages. I regularly stop to buy water and various drinks; I haven’t been this hot since the first day of the race, a whole week ago. It’s hard but I’m making good progress and I’m on track to finish anywhere between midnight and 2am. In a village that seems bigger than the others, I spot a samsa vendor on the side of the road. Samsas are savory pastries filled with meat and vegetables. Exactly what I crave right now. I buy three and eat one on the spot. I also get some more water. My thirst seems unquenchable.
After a couple hours of making good speed on flat paved, it’s time for the second climb of the day. It doesn’t compare to Kegety but it’s still a solid 900m of elevation gain. It’s a dusty concrete road where big slow trucks pass me from time to time. Nothing to steep, which is good given the high temperatures. After some time, I come to a gate with a couple of guards in uniforms. This was not mentioned in the race manual, nor during the briefing. One of the guards asks me where I’m going. “Straight ahead, on the road”. He asks for my passport and tells me to wait here while he calls someone. I take advantage of this time to eat my second samsa and brush my teeth. After about ten minutes of waiting, the guard comes out of his booth and tells me I can go ahead but I’m not allowed to stop or take pictures. That’s fine by me; it’s not a particularly scenic part of Kyrgyzstan anyway.
I ride through what looks to be a fairly big mining operation run by a Chinese company. Nobody seems to pay attention to me as I keep climbing on the concrete road. I finally exit the mine, which doesn’t mark the top of the pass but sadly means the end of pavement. Coincidentally, the road gets much steeper and the last 3km to the top are really sluggish. I get there both very thirsty and without a single drop of water in my bottles. I anxiously look at my notes to see how far the next resupply is. There might be something at the bottom of the descent but it’s not sure. Let’s go check it out.
Compared to what I usually have to deal with on this course, it’s a rather smooth and fast rolling downhill. At the bottom is probably the busiest road in the country, that runs in and out of Bishkek, along the Kazakhstan border, all the way to Issyk-Kul lake. Right there at the intersection is a rest stop. The media car waits for me here with Nelson and the whole crew. I take this opportunity to tell him about the guard and the gate so that he can warn the other racers. Then I buy orange juice and water and sit down to rest and drink. It’s 5:30pm and I still have 120km to go. My initial estimate of finishing late tonight still holds. Obviously I don’t feel in top shape, but there should be a stretch of tarmac out of this rest stop and with the fluids I have absorbed, it shouldn’t be too long before I feel a bit better. Not to mention the temperature is lowering and will soon be bearable.
I chat a bit with the crew then it’s time to get going again. I’m only on the busy road for 4km then I leave it for a smaller, quieter one. Despite drinking lots at the rest stop, I don’t feel well. I’m starting to have a headache and my body temperature seems abnormally high. It’s now 6pm so it’s definitely not as hot as a few hours earlier but I can’t seem to cool down. I’m riding along the roaring Chong-Kemin river and the only thing I can think of is this freezing cold water on my body. As soon as I spot a place where I can access the water, I stop. There’s no way I can swim here as the river flows too rapidly but, after removing them, I soak my baselayer and cap in the ice-cold water and then put them back on again. It helps with the discomfort of feeling hot but generally speaking, as I keep following the road along the river, I feel weak and tired.
Right now the altitude is 1400m. Ahead of me is a monster climb leading to 3300m. It’s divided in three smaller climbs, the first one being 10km long, the second 3 and the last one 5. With just short descending sections between them. By riding along the Chong-Kemin river, I’m approaching the first one, so far gently going up. The gradient is a steady 1% throughout the whole tarmac stretch and stays pretty much the same when I make a right and leave it for a dirt road. I feel like I need to take a nap. I’m not sleepy per se, but I do feel like I have no energy at all and my progress is very slow. I look everywhere to find a suitable spot to lie down a bit, but can’t find anything. The headache is still here and I can feel my stomach is upset too. I’m starting to suspect the heat is not the sole culprit. The samsas I ate earlier didn’t do me any good it seems.
I keep slowly moving forward. The road surface deteriorates as it goes from an empty to an inhabited area. My progress becomes alarmingly slow, which is frustrating given how close I am to the finish. I sometimes get a break in the form of a small paved stretch going from a small settlement to another. I keep looking for a shop, but strangely I can’t find any. I’m pretty much out of food except for a few candy bars and a couple of bags of crackers. Obviously I got rid of my last samsa. I don’t want to run the risk of getting sicker than I am right now. I know if I go off course, on the other side of the river, there will be hotels and shops, but it seems stupid to loose time now by making a detour.
Sun is about to set. I probably have 30 minutes of daylight and I decide that if I spot a guesthouse somewhere on the side of the road, I’ll stop to grab a couple hours of sleep. I’m just too weak and exhausted. But if I can’t find lodging, I’ll take my chances with the final mammoth climb at night. I know from experience that small guesthouses are hard to find in Kyrgyz towns. Oftentimes I trusted google maps to lead me to one only to discover there was nothing where there should have been a place. I don’t feel like losing this kind of time now.
I keep riding, not sure if I want to find lodging or not. Fate will decide. When night falls, I’m in Kaindy, the last populated place before the finish. I haven’t seen any guesthouses nor shops and I’m still unwilling to make any sort of detour. So I guess I’m just gonna keep riding to the finish. But as I head out of the village, a bit on the outskirts, I find a house in construction. There’s walls and a roof, but no doors or windows. It could be a good spot to lie down for a couple of hours before and recover a little bit. It doesn’t seem like such a bad idea given how weak I feel and how big the climb ahead of me is. I have 90km to go, with probably around 2000m of climbing. If I was fresh and it was day, it would take me at least 6 hours; so, realistically, I can’t expect to reach Balykchy in less than 7 hours. That means a 4am arrival. Not exactly in the midnight to 2am window I had predicted. Getting there at 4 or at 6, doesn’t make much difference so I decide to rest for a couple of hours.
After an hour or so, an old man on a horse shows up and, I guess, asks me what I’m doing here. I tell him I’m sleeping. He seems happy with the answer and goes away. Hours go by and every time my alarm goes off, I can’t muster the energy necessary to get out of my sleeping bag and on my bike. It’s only around 3am that I find enough determination to fight the desire to stay in the warmth of my cocoon of feathers. I pack my stuff and get dressed. It’s time to get going.
It’s time to get this over with.