As my final effort in this race begins, I can’t say I have a lot of energy. My last resupply was roughly 18 hours ago and I have very little food left. Thankfully I don’t have far to go. 90km is all there is left. However, it looks like there’s around 2000m to climb and the race manual insists there’s gonna be hiking. Still, it shouldn’t be more than 8 hours.
It’s 3.40AM, I leave the outskirts of Kaindy on my bike, progressing slowly despite the easy gradient. I pass a couple of quiet farms riding on a dirt track. I’m too weak to make any kind of speed but forward movement is all that matters now anyway. My legs will wake up at some point. I just need to give them time.
After an hour or so, I’ve covered 12km. It’s not a lot but I will soon find out this is much faster than what awaits.
I soon find myself hiking up a dry river bed. That’s where dawn finds me. I’m very surprised to meet an old man riding a horse going in the opposite direction. I wonder where he’s coming from and where he’s going so early in the day. He says something in Russian, I mumble a few words in English and then he’s on his way. I intermittently leave the dry river to follow a narrow path through the forest, crossing another river, one that has not dried up. I take good care not to get my feet wet, which is sometimes simplified by the presence of a couple of logs acting as a bridge.
It’s a long and slow hike. I have 8km to cover and 900m to climb to get to the first of three summits. After which a 200m and a 800m climb await.
When I look at the numbers as I’m writing this, I have a hard time believing them. It took me 6 hours to hike to the top of the first climb. I remember the first part through the forest, then above the tree line, in the wide open spaces. They were gold with few touches of dark green from lonelmy trees, or green dotted with orange spots of wild flowers. Everything covered in the bright light of this warm sunny day. I remember being confused a lot of times about where I was supposed to go. I don’t remember most of the breaks I took, just to sit down and regroup. But there’s one that sticks out.
After summiting the first climb, I enjoyed riding my bike for 20 or 30 minutes on a nice singletrack all the way to a fairly scenic lake. I remember stopping there for quite a bit of time. Sitting down next to a stream which was flowing towards the lake. Filling up on water. Enjoying the calm of the surroundings. The solitude. I was in no hurry to resume my hike. I knew I had a good lead and no one was going to catch me.
These were my final moments on the Silk Road. I’m not sure if I was fully aware of it. Finishing a race is a strange experience. During pretty much the whole time I’m racing, I’m really looking forward to it being over. Because that’s the whole point of the event: you go as fast as you can and you finish it. Crossing the line (and for me, getting there first), that’s the success. And I’m in a hurry to secure it. I’m racing so I want to take as few breaks as possible. But then, when I approach the finish line, there’s a bit of sadness. I thought I wanted it to be over, so that I could enjoy the achievement and get some much needed rest. But nothing makes me happier than riding my bike with a purpose. Nothing makes me happier than being out there and soon it’s gonna be over. That’s where the sadness comes from. During the whole race, no matter how much I suffer, I’m happy. Because this pain has justification. Because I chose this pain, and I endure it so that I can achieve great things. I embrace it as part of the process. If I wanted none of it, I would just not race.
This final stretch, from my bivy spot all the way to the top of the very last climb, it took me 11 hours to get it over with. It’s only 32km long. Pretty much 11 hours of pushing my bike for a few minutes, then sitting down, looking at the landscape, then pushing the bike some more, then resting again. In this place where I can’t imagine many people come. Most likely the remotest area of the whole course. And that’s saying a lot when you know Kyrgyzstan.
I’m writing this more than 6 months later and I have very vivid memories of this final day. It was the hardest but I don’t think I hated it. I’d go back to this lake in a heartbeat. Just a serene and scenic place.
And I think it sums up pretty much the whole race. Is it the hardest bikepacking race in the world? I have a lot of experience and I will say: yes, it is. But never once, not a single time, have I wanted to drop out. In other races, there’s always a moment of weakness where I think of scratching. Of course I don’t do it. But that’s a mental valve that helps me relieve some of the pressure when things get too challenging. Just considering the fact that if I want it, this whole thing can be over in a second.
On the SRMR, I always knew why I was there. Not only was I on a mission to win this race, but also, anytime I doubted, I just had to look around me and then the stunning mountains would be the only thing needed to justify my presence here.
There’s several ways that a race can be hard. Sometimes you can be on a smooth flat paved road riding at 30km/h and find it hard. Because you’re bored out of your mind, because the traffic is annoying you, because you just don’t want to be there. But the Silk road is never hard in this way. For me it was never boring and obviously I was never annoyed by cars. Well actually, on the last 25km of the course, leading to the town of Balykchy, I did encounter more traffic than I care for. It was a Sunday evening on a road that goes to Bishkek, so that was pretty much a case of wrong place wrong time. But what’s a busy hour compared to more than 8 days of supreme calm?
So, on Sunday August 22nd, I crossed the finish line of the third ever Silk Road Mountain Race. I was the first to get there and the crew awaited me with a cold beer. That was it. I got the final stamp on my brevet card. That’s an anticlimactic way of ending this report but it’s one that fits. Because I find there’s no big emotion there. It’s an achievement for sure. But that achievement is not defined by that second where you cross the line. It’s defined by the whole journey. I don’t just race to raise my arms at the end. I do it because I want to be out there, I want to ride my bike and see these places.
I saw Kyrgyzstan and there’s no way I’ll ever forget it.