In just a few years, the Malteni Bootleggers has emerged as one of the premier gravel events in France. With a challenging distance of nearly 250km, uncertain weather conditions, technical gravel on spoil tips and some of the most infamous paved sections of the flemish spring classics, it’s no wonder it took little time for the race to assert itself as one of the go-to events in both the French and Belgian gravel calendar.
Born out of the passion of three locals for cobbles and gravel, it attracts riders from all over with a friendly atmosphere and the welcoming vibe the Northerners are famous for all over France. The race gets its name from its main sponsor, a local brewery, and the fact that it crosses the Belgian border, where more than half of the course is, before coming back to France. Luckily you don’t really have to carry beer bottles on your bike while riding the Koppenberg or the trouée d’Arenberg.
After two canceled editions due to the pandemic, it was time this year to get back in business. So with my 2020 subscription in hand, I showed up early (5.30am!!) at the start willing to test myself on a distance normal people consider very long while I, as an ultra specialist, find it really short.
To avoid having a big peloton on narrow paths, we started in waves. I was in one the last one. With good legs, I started by pushing a strong pace for the first 10km. The flats are not my strong suit and I was quickly caught by a powerful belgian rider. Unwilling to dig deep so early in the race, I chose to keep pacing in myself and save energy for the second third of the course which promised to be the hilliest.
Slowly but surely, I started catching riders that had left before me. A little bit before one of the three strategically located checkpoints, I caught decorated ultra cyclist Ben Steurbaut who had just finished fixing a flat tire. Following the code of competitive bikepackers, we chose to ride together side by side rather than drafting each other. We caught the leading group at CP1 and soon it was just three of us pushing the pace in the lead, climbing the steep hills of Flanders.
By the time we got to CP2 it was just Ben and me going to toe. I was testing him in the hills while he was making me sweat on the flats. It was a beautiful day to ride a bike. A sunny spring morning with a slight tailwind. Nice blue skies and no clouds to be seen on the horizon. I was thoroughly enjoying our battle and for 90% of the course, Ben and I were evenly matched. It was only in the last kilometers of the race, during the climb of the last spoil tip, that I managed to open up a tiny gap. I gave it my all to the finish, almost cramping up in the last 2km, and managed to hold on to my lead. Ben crossed the line a couple minutes later and she shook hands like two gentlemen.
I stayed in the venue that was hosting the event (a small hotel and restaurant) waiting for the other finishers. We all had dinner there after a small podium ceremony. Drinking Malteni beer of course and exchanging stories of the day.
The next day I stayed in the North to watch Paris Roubaix, enjoying my rest day in the sun while it was the pro peloton’s turn to suffer.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
When I wake up in Tamga four hours after falling asleep, it’s bright and sunny outside and yesterday’s storm is nothing but a bad memory. The babouchka who took care of me last night is already up. Looks like running a guesthouse in Kyrgyzstan involves as much sleep as ultracycling. She offers me some breakfast but I politely decline: I don’t have time to sit down and enjoy the tea, bread and jam that people usually start their day with here. I however do have time to fill up my bottle with instant coffee. And I still have a KitKat bar from my resupply in Kochkor. I’ll stop at the first shop I spot and buy enough food to last to Naryn where I hope I can sleep tonight.
I get on my bike and enjoy the stretch of tarmac that leads out of Tamga. It’s the first time since Kochkor I have cell service so I take advantage of this to post a few updates on social media. I’m singing 80’s hit Total eclipse of the heart by Bonnie Tyler when I see a small shop on my left hand side. It’s alright, I’ll stop at the next one. Or so I think. I keep riding on the paved road until the gravel turn off to Tosor pass. That shop I missed was the last shop before Naryn, a bit more than 200km further down the road.
I missed my resupply. I have three choices:
– going back to the shop
– keep going on the paved road until I find another one
– ride 18 hours relying solely on the three bags of peanuts I’m carrying
It’s day 4, so still rather early in the race and I’ve had plenty to eat every day since the start. The peanuts could be enough. I’ll try it. When you’re caught up in the race, going backwards or off-road usually appears like last resort measures. At least to me.
Tosor pass is a hard climb but it’s a nice one. By Kyrgyz standards, the road is in fairly good shape. In other places I’d probably find it horrendous. But given the mess that was Arabel pass, I’m actually having a good time. Everything is relative. The gradients are no joke though. Usually between 8 and 10%. But the views are superb and it’s a gorgeous day where you’d be hard pressed to find something better to do than ride your bike.
It takes about three hours to get close to the top where the road deteriorates and gets steeper. The last 2km definitely involve some walking. On the other side, the road is in bad shape. It much more resembles the top of the pass than the bottom. And it doesn’t last nearly as long. It’s just a short steep bit then an overall downhill profile but broken up by some climbs. A headwind makes things even slower, keeping me longer in this pretty valley. There’s a fair bit of river crossings and again I do my best to keep my feet dry.
Around mid-day, I see a rider going in the opposite direction as I’m riding fast on a false flat. It’s not uncommon to see bike tourers on kyrgyz gravel roads but this one has a pretty serious bikepacking set-up. That’s intriguing. Ten minutes later, I see another rider, going towards Tamga as well. That’s when I understand I’m on one of the sections where the course overlaps! I stop to say hi and give him a quick tip: if he turns back and make a left at the junction, he’ll save an entire day and will go straight to second position. He laughs at my lame joke and then we’re on our (separate) ways.
I observe the surroundings in a failed attempt to recognize anything. A bit further away there is a huge yurt camp with tens of cars and lots of horses. I don’t know where these people come from but they sure as hell weren’t here yesterday. Why did they gather here in the middle of nowhere? I have no clue. I could ask my friends Steven Moatt and Theo Daniel as we meet on this busy stretch of road, but I guess they don’t know more about this than I do.
We’re chatting and snapping selfies when a media car shows up with race director Nelson Trees, photographer Chris McLean and filmmaker Brady Lawrence. It’s nice to see new faces. I mean, it’s people I know so it’s not really new faces, but it’s not “my” media car. My media car has Olya and Danil in it and they take their job of not interfering with the racers very seriously. I respect that, obviously, but, the thing is, I actually like interfering with the media crew. Well, in fact, it depends. When things are going well, I like it. When I’m having a hard time, I’d like it better if there were no media crew at all.
I exchange a few words with the guys and then I get going. It’s soon time to leave the overlap section and I’m pretty excited about it. Even though the place never seemed familiar, just knowing I had already been there makes me want to go somewhere else even more. I take a left at the junction and go over a bridge. I remember seeing this place yesterday and wondering what lied beyond this bridge. There’s not that many roads in Kyrgyzstan and not that many junctions either. So I’m always kind of curious. Obviously it’s gonna be more mountains, rivers and horses, I know it. But I can’t help wondering. Well this time I’m actually going to find out.
It’s as pretty as expected: the grass is golden, the light of the setting sun making it even more perfect. And of course, the wild horses are here, galloping much faster than I could ever hope to climb. I have to tackle a couple of serious climbs. And I’m treated to a big river crossing in between. It’s too wide and deep to cross with the bike while keeping my feet dry so I remove my shoes and just walk in the water. Night is about to fall and I don’t want to have wet shoes and socks now. The water is freezing and the rocks are slippery. I struggle to stay upright.
After the second climb and subsequent descent, I find myself off track. My GPS says I’m on it, but there’s obviously a small inaccuracy in the file as I’m walking in a field and struggling to not fall in one of the many trenches I find on my way. It takes me a while to find the actual track as it is now dark. But when I do it’s a relief. I finally end up on a legit road that has a few cars on it. It’s gravel and washboarded of course but it’s still faster than anything I’ve ridden today. I’m hungry obviously and I keep an eye out for a shop. Since there’s cars and an actual road it’s a possibility. But chances are slim, I know. I go through a tiny village. I keep an eye open for a shop, but in such a small place after dark, it’s just hopeless.
After a flat stretch on the same gravel roads, I am treated to a series of short climbs while following a river. I wonder if it’s pretty out there. There’s a good chance it is. But when you race, you have to accept the fact that you’re not gonna see everything. You can only hope that you’re not gonna miss the best parts.
I am now focused on reaching Naryn, a rather small town but still one of the biggest in the country. I visited Naryn a few days before the race so I know there’s a great place to stay there and I for sure intend to take advantage of it. Comfy bed, great shower and good breakfast: everything I need. The hilly ride along the river is time consuming but I finally get through with it. The end of the day is frustratingly slow thanks to more washboarded gravel roads where I expected pavement. As I near the outskirts of Naryn, I see a shop that is brightly lit despite the fact that it’s very late. Full of hope, I stop and try to open the door. Turns out it’s locked. The shop is closed and my stomach will have to stay empty until tomorrow morning. I get back on my bike and ride the final kilometers on a somewhat decent paved road. I finally make it to the Grand Khan Tengri hotel around 1.30AM. The pleasant surprise is that it’s right there on the track, no need to make any kind of detour. I check in and then it’s on to a good shower and a bit more sleep than usual as breakfast starts at 7AM.
It’s 4am and a light drizzle is falling when I leave Kochkor. I have a bit less than 40km to ride on the main road before returning to the gravel but it’s not exactly rush hour, so I enjoy a quiet stroll on gentle uphill gradients. As the sun rises, the light rain stops and I feel like the day can finally start.
It’s early morning when I reach Sary-Bulak. This truck stop that is bustling with people during the day is still asleep and I ride through without stopping, glad that I took the time to resupply in Kochkor.
The pavement soon disappears, making place for the seemingly mandatory washboards. I go from one side of the road to the other in search of the least corrugated surface. It sometimes works but to be honest, most of the time it’s fairly useless.
The race manual states that there’s no services between Sary-Bulak and Tamga, which means a 250km stretch without any opportunities to get food. It could be true or it could be a mistake. 30km after Sary-Bulak, going through a small community, I spot a small shop. It’s not open. Maybe it never is. Maybe it sometimes is. All I know is that it’s most likely gonna be a fairly lonely ride all the way to Tamga. But then again, if you’re looking for company, better pick a different race.
Again it’s one of these follow-the-river climb. Bad road, 1 or 2% gradient for a rather long time, then actual climbing. It’s a bit chilly, the sky is filled with white clouds and I don’t feel like I’m having much fun. The surroundings are rather pretty but they’re not breathtaking. I have a cold shawarma roll in my frame bag and I stop for 10 minutes to eat it. Then it’s time for the actual climbing. The muddy track seems to suck me in. I have to be very careful where I put my wheels. The rain from yesterday made the ground very soft. I can only imagine the kind of peanut-buttery mess this road is after a couple days of downpour. Thankfully the sun has started piercing the clouds and I can see some steam coming from the ground, indicating its drying fast.
After the summit there’s a fast short downhill then a bit of a flat stretch. I just spent countless hours climbing and my reward is not even thirty minutes long.
After the flat bit, there’s another short downhill and then a bit of climbing to reach another valley. It’s the start of the never-ending climb to Arabel and I’m welcomed by a hail storm. Things are looking grim. A tailwind is pushing me but it’s also pushing the storm in the same direction. Or so would logic have it. But it seems the weather here answers to no one and makes up its own rules. As the wind is pushing me, the storm is somehow going away. I don’t really understand what’s going on but I like it. It soon is sunny with clear skies and the valley reveals its true beauty to me.
The going is slow here and the further I go, the more the road seems to just be a collection of vague forgotten tracks. There’s dozens of rivers crossings. Too many to count, really. But I love it here. It’s so wild, remote and scenic. How far is the last village? By car it would probably take 5 or 6 hours to reach it. I feel like I’m in the heart of Kyrgyzstan, where it’s only rivers, mountains, the cold wind, horses and the occasional yurt with smoke coming from the chimney.
I stop to eat my second shawarma roll and air my feet a little. For the first time ever, I’m carrying 4 pairs of socks. I know the kind of time you can lose by taking care of feet that have spent too long in wet shoes. I’m not gonna let that happen.
I keep riding and thoroughly enjoying this day. It is my favorite so far. Maybe because it’s not scorching hot. Maybe because it’s not freezing cold. Or maybe because the setting is stunningly beautiful. But I found what I came here for.
The road, on the other hand, is not getting any better. It’s getting rockier, steeper with even more river crossings. Towards the beginning of the evening I leave the clear skies behind to enter what appears like a massive, greyish cloud. It’s fairly threatening but forward movement is the only option. The temperature drops and the visibility decreases. It’s very humid but it is not raining per se. As night comes, the real climbing begins and the real cold sets in. Arabel pass is a steep one and I have a long day behind me. I’m hoping I can make it to Tamga in time to check into a guesthouse and get some quality sleep indoors while drying my wet clothes.
The summit towers close to 3900m and on my Karoo I can see the temperature steadily dropping until it reaches -7°C. There’s patches of ice on the road, meaning I have to be super careful. The gradients are often around 10% which is hard but rideable. It sometimes gets steeper and I find myself pushing the bike. At some point, as I’m getting back on the bike, I slip, fall and land flush on my left knee, right where my titanium plate is. I have one or two seconds of panic but I don’t feel any pain when getting up. The metal is sturdy and so is the bone.
The end of the pass is pretty much all hiking. Then I ride on a plateau for a while before reaching the Kumtor mine road. It’s gravel but it’s wide and nicely surfaced. Kumtor is one of the biggest gold mine in the world so they can afford to have a decent, hard-packed gravel road. It gently goes up and down before the actual descent begins. The first part has a lot of switchbacks and is very wet, making it a bit slower than I’d like. The second part is less steep but actually faster as there’s no turns and the surface is dry. It’s a long way to Tamga but I’m riding fast. Tucked in my aerobars, I struggle to stay awake. My day started more than 20 hours ago.
I reach the small town located near the shore of Issykkul (one of Asia’s biggest lakes) around 1am. There’s no shortage of guesthouses there but the trick is to find one that is open. It’s not made easier by the big thunderstorm that strikes as soon as I enter the sleepy little town. I ride frantically and without method, looking for some kind of lodging while getting soaked. I need to calm down and act rationally. I stop and open Google maps. I spot a well rated guesthouse not too far away. I ride there and give them a call. Soon after, an old lady opens up the door.
She takes me to a small kitchen where I sit down on a stool. She brews tea and warms up some chicken stock as I remove my gloves and my helmet. I’m actually more eager to go to bed than to eat and drink, but she’s so sweet I can’t really say no. After all, I woke her up in the middle of the night; politely accepting a cup of tea is the least I can do. We don’t say much. I eat a few biscuits, finish my cup and then she shows me to my room. After a quick shower, I go to bed where I quickly fall asleep.
It’s been a massive day with 290km covered in 21 or so hours
It’s 9:30pm when about 100 riders extract themselves from the mini busses where they were all cramped up for about 6 hours. The Silk Road Mountain Race is supposed to start in thirty minutes, but all of us know there’s no chance this is gonna happen. The semis carrying our bikes are hundreds of kilometers behind us and at the very best, they will be here in 4 hours. As it turns out there’s a wedding tonight in Talas, a small town located in the wild kyrgyz west, far from any touristic attractions. We all take place around big tables inside a huge tent, and waiters proceed to bring us the remnants of the banquet. Most us laugh at this unexpected situation. A few are a bit too stressed out to enjoy the comic of this scene. A hundred cyclists, fully kitted out, sitting at a kyrgyz wedding with no bikes in sight. Pretty funny if you ask me. Well, we came here for an adventure and, as it happens, it started even before we got on our bikes. Being familiar with Central Asia, I just relax and eat as much food as I can. I know when things are supposed to take 5 hours, they can take 10, 12 or even 15. There’s no need growing impatient. Things will happen eventually. In the meantime, I might as well get some rest. A few of us find refuge in a small guesthouse nearby. I lie down for 3 hours, unable to sleep but still kind of resting and conserving energy for the challenge that lies ahead. At 3am, the trucks arrive, we unload the bikes and, at exactly 4:23, SRMR 2021 starts.
We roll gently out of Talas, a bit nervous obviously. A few fist bumps to my friends – good luck, enjoy the ride, see you in Balykchy – and then the actual racing starts. 50km of climbing, 2000m of ascent: there’s no easing up into the race. I go up front, not quite full out, but still at a serious pace. Everybody knows I’m here to win, there’s no point in acting like it isn’t the case. I immediately find myself alone in the front. It’s a gentle climb at first, but after a couple of hours it gets real steep and the road gets real rocky. It’s chilly out there as the sun rises to unveil a majestic scenery that is pretty much the norm in this part of the world. It takes me about 4 hours to summit this first pass. The view at the top is stunning but I don’t have much time to stop and marvel at the beauty of these mountains. The first kilometers of the descent are no fun, on a very bad stretch of road. I carefully navigate between the big rocks, questioning my choice of brining a rigid fork. After a while it gets better and I can start enjoying the downhill. I soon hit the first river crossings and get my feet wet. It should be no big deal as the temperature is rising rapidly.
After the downhill, I get to a section of rolling hills on a rather good gravel double track. I can now feel the heat and I stop for water as soon as I spot a small shop. It’s pretty much gonna be the jist of today. Riding, spotting a shop, drinking lots, get going again. I also gobble a few electrolyte pills to make sure the minerals lost are replaced.
The riding is fairly entertaining, with short punchy climbs, fast rolling gravel roads and many turns to avoid the main highway. As far as landscapes go, it’s definitely not the best part of the race but that’s alright, I don’t mind resting my eyes once in a while.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the climbing resumes. It starts with three hills. I go up, then down for a short bit, then up again but higher, then down a bit and then up again, even higher. It’s not terribly hard but it’s fairly tiring. It’s only the beginning though. As the sun sets, it’s time for the rough stuff. First the road gets real bad, but the gradients are still kind of okay. As I’m going rather fast down a hill, a car passes me creating a cloud of dust. I can’t see anything anymore and before I can break I hit a big rock and get thrown off the bike into the ditch. My front tire is flat, a small cut in the sidewall opened up by the pinching action of the rock against the rim. I put a tube in and get going.
I get to a village, buy something to drink and proceed to ride deeper into the night, far away from any civilization, towards the second big pass of the course. The ordeal begins. In front of me, a broken up road where the gradients are no less than 10%, sometimes 12 and up to 15. For hours, I have to give everything I have. Often times I tell myself, if the rocks would be a tad bit bigger or the slope would be a just a tiny bit steeper, I’d have to walk. I manage to ride but it’s probably because it’s day one and I’m somewhat still fresh. Around 4am, I feel like I’m giving up mentally. There’s not much that separates me from the top of the pass, but I find myself looking everywhere for shelter. I’m not sleepy. I’m not physically tired. I just want it to stop.
The panamean Roberto Duran is said to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. During a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, he’s reported to have said “No mas” which translates to “no more”, as he allegedly felt like he couldn’t take any more punches to the face. The referee subsequently stopped the fight declaring Sugar Ray the winner. I feel that’s what’s happening to me. It’s not that I’m not willing to fight anymore, it’s just that I’m tired of getting repeatedly punched in the face by this trail. It is mentally exhausting because it is relentless. It is not just 24h of bike riding, it is 24h of off-road kyrgyz bike riding. That makes a world of difference. It’s too broken up, it’s too steep, it’s too cold, it’s too dark. I just want it to stop.
There’s no shelter up there at more than 3000m of altitude, so I elect to just lie down in my sleeping bag on the side of the road. I inflate my mattress only to find out it has been punctured during the transport of the bikes. The good thing is that I manage to locate the hole and seal it with some rubber cement. I lay there for a couple of hours, not really sleeping because my feet are too cold and I can’t get them warm. I feel guilty. In my book, the only good reason for stopping is sleeping. Anything else is just wasting time.
At dawn, I pack up and resume forward movement. It’s real cold and I’m wearing all my clothes. Baselayer, leg warmers, puffer jacket and gloves. I get to the top of the pass then it’s on for another slow, bumpy downhill. I expected nothing less. It’s rare that you have a shitty road going up and a smooth one going down. In all fairness, the last part of the descent is rather fast.
I soon ride through the village of Kyzil-Oi. I take advantage of the cell service to check the tracker and see that my friend Adrien is in second place, a couple of hours behind me. I fail to find a shop in Kyzil-Oi but it’s okay, I still have some food left. I didn’t eat much yesterday because of the heat. I ride along the Karakol river. The weather is very different from yesterday. It’s cloudy and cold, with temperatures ranging between 7 and 12°C. It’s only day 2 but I already know the pattern of these climbs: gently go up for hours following a river, then veer off and go up steep slopes to an altitude of 3800m or so. It could be business as usual, but the weather has other plans.
First it’s a hail storm. I take shelter under a tree with a couple of cows. I can hardly believe my luck as trees are not easily found in this part of the world. You can ride 100km without seeing a single one. I weather the storm and get going. Then it’s time for hail storm number 2. But this time there’s no shelter. Hail soon turns into a drizzle which later turns into melted snow. And sure enough, after half an hour of this, actual snow starts falling from the sky. The landscape quickly turns to white, which would be pretty if I weren’t worried about the rest of my day. I’m nowhere near the summit and things could be far worse up there. I start looking around, trying to see what kind of shelter, natural or man made, would be available in case things turn real bad. I don’t see much and I soldier on. It’s not like I have a choice anyway. On top of these severe conditions, I have to deal with several river crossing. Obviously getting my feet wet now would be catastrophic. I need to be extremely cautious going across these streams.
As I keep getting higher, contrary to my expectations, the snow stops falling. I secretly hope that on the other side of the pass, the sun is shining and I will soon get warm. I climb steadily as the road goes away from the River, up into the high mountains. It’s not an easy climb but it certainly is much easier than what I had to do last night! When I get to the other side, my wish is almost granted. Okay it’s not really sunny, but it’s definitely not as cold and grey as the Karakol Valley. For once I can enjoy a good descent. The road is not too rocky and allows for higher speed. Sadly, as I’m riding fast, I fail to see a rock, hit it flush and get a pinch flat. That’s why I do not like to ride with tubes.
The rest of the day is fairly uneventful. It’s mostly downhill and flat all the way to the first checkpoint in Kochkor. After the obligatory kyrgyz washboards, I even get to enjoy a paved stretch. As far as I’m concerned, that’s free kilometers. And there’s not a lot of those on the silk road mountain race. I get to the checkpoint in first position. After buying some food for the really long stretch without resupply I have to face tomorrow, I get dinner. Lagman and pelmenie, a hot meal for a cold rider. There’s a big group of volunteers in the restaurant but I’d rather sit by myself. I’m a bit too tired to socialize. A quick shower, a dollop of cream on my butt and then it’s time to grab 4 hours of sleep.
It’s not even been 48 hours but the race has already delivered almost its full scope of tricks: extreme weather, endless climbs, high altitude, rough roads huge distances without any service. The only thing missing for now are hike-a-bikes. But they’ll come. I know they’ll come.
As I’m traveling in Kyrgyzstan waiting for the Silk road mountain race to start, I thought I’d take the time to gather a few thoughts and shed some light on what I’ve been going through these last few days. I don’t know if there will be anything to take away from it, but it might be interesting for a few of my readers.
I used to be extremely nervous before races. To the point that I literally couldn’t sleep the night before a grand depart. Needless to say it’s far from the ideal way to get ready for an event that involves very little sleep. But now, as I’m getting closer and closer to the start of SRMR, I can’t help but noticing I don’t really feel nervous. There’s no trace of any forms of anxiety. Even before flying to Kyrgyzstan, in the few days I spent getting ready, I was feeling at peace.
I’ve been doing this for a long time now. And I’ve been doing it a lot. Of course I don’t want to fail, but I don’t fear failure as much as I used to. I know the drill. I’ve finished all but one of my races. I know what can go wrong. It’s things that are out of my control. Mechanicals, crazy weather, illness, accident. When they happen, you’re rarely to blame. The risk of not finishing is always here, but I feel you can reduce it with a little bit of experience.
Mechanicals? I am my own mechanic. I do everything by myself. So I know it’s done right and if there’s a problem that is fixable, I should have the knowledge and the skills to fix it. But more importantly, I ride conservatively. I feel a lot of mechanicals can be avoided just by not doing crazy stuff. I also rarely start a race with a build I haven’t ridden before. If I messed up somewhere when building the bike, I’ll notice it after a day or two of riding.
Crazy weather? It stopped me once. I learned my lesson and I come prepared for the worst conditions. I still take risks, but these are calculated.
Illness? I’ve traveled all over the world, eating all sorts of food and drinking more than my share of shady water. I’m not saying I can survive any meal, but it takes a lot to really upset my stomach. In ten years, only twice have I found myself spending the night vomiting instead of sleeping. And the next day, I was still able to ride, albeit not as far or fast.
Accidents? I ride cautiously and the only times I got hurt to the point that I couldn’t keep going, cars were involved.
So generally, I’m not too worried about not finishing. I know it’s a possibility but I don’t really see it happening. I know, if make my due diligence and prepare them seriously, I have what it takes to finish the most brutal races.
I also feel I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I’ve shown times and times again that I can perform. If, for whatever reason, I’m unable to showcase my skills, it won’t take away everything I’ve accomplished. I’ll still have my wins and my podium finishes. I have come to terms with the fact that you can’t win them all. And if one race goes down the drain, well that sucks but there will be other races to bounce back.
Maybe there’s also the fact that I sustained a serious injury that could have very well ended my racing career. So it’s a bit like anything that comes afterwards is just bonus. I might feel differently in a year or two, but just being able to stay close to the best riders in the sport and contend for a spot on the podium, feels like a tremendous achievement. I spent so many nights lying in my bed wondering if I had spoiled it all with that stupid accident. I’m so happy I didn’t.
So yeah, I’m not really nervous before a race anymore. There’s still a few moments here and there where I feel uneasy, but they never last. When the eve of the race comes, I go to bed knowing there’s a very good chance I’ll finish. I know I’ll do my best to. If I don’t win, it’s not the end of the world. It’s still going to be an absolutely amazing experience that will make me grow both as an athlete and a man. And as it happens, people will not like me less if come second or third. It took me a while to understand that, but I finally did.
As I travel here, in this stunningly beautiful country, memories from the last time I was there resurface. It was 2017, I had started my journey in Paris and was making my way to the shore of the South China sea. As happy as I am to be here today, I can’t help but to reminisce the joy of this adventure with nostalgia. It is one thing to explore a country and go from a highlight to another while immersing into its culture ; and it is another to ride across it as fast as possible to reach a destination thousand of kilometers away.
I take most people would rather spend time in a place, get to know it and leave only when they’re sure they’ve seen all that needs to be seen. And I get that. Really, I do. But there’s something so exciting in seeing the landscape change every few days, crossing borders, noticing the differences between two cultures. As much as I’m enjoying a country, I’m always in a hurry to see what the next one looks like. In a matter of days you can go from a flat desert to lush green mountains. The way people speak and dress changes. The food, the currency, the architecture. You think of where you were two weeks ago, how different it was. And all this changes, they’re due to your legs and your legs only! No matter how magnificent a place is, you’re never sad to leave. Because the unknown lies ahead and your greatest desire is to see it. I miss this.
But I also realize, 4 years ago, when I crossed the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border, I had no idea how stunning Kyrgyzstan was. I had missed most of it. Sure I had climbed a few high passes and seen Issykkul. But as much as I had enjoyed my time there, the clear highlight of my trip was Tajikistan. Now after riding the Tash Rabat to Song Kul stretch, I know the beauty of Kyrgyzstan can rival that of Tajikistan and its famed Pamir highway. I’m really glad I came back here to explore more.
I also noticed something as I was making my way to Naryn on a road I had ridden in the opposite direction in 2017. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape which I had no memory of. I tried to remember what I felt that day and it seems this stage was just business as usual. The routine of riding in a nice scenery. I had grown accustomed to seeing gorgeous mountains everyday and it appears it had very little effect on me. I had come to a point where only the most amazing views could make an impression on me. Whereas now, having been transported from Paris in a matter of hours, I see everything with fresh eyes. I can let the beauty sink in. I’m ten thousand kilometers away from home, everything looks unbelievable and I love it.
The race hasn’t even started yet and I already feel like I’ve won. Just being here is a win. I can’t imagine making it to the finish and being disappointed. Sure the ranking matters. But the adventure matters more. I know it’s gonna be amazing, win or lose. I’ve only seen a small part of it and I’m already in love with this place.