Silk Road Mountain Race 2021 / Day 3

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. 

©Danil Usmanov

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.

©Danil Usmanov

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 

Silk Road Mountain Race 2021 / Days 1 and 2

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.

©Chris McLean

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.

©Chris McLean

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.

©Danil Usmanov

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.

©Danil Usmanov

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.

©Danil Usmanov

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.

©Danil Usmanov

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.

Kyrgyzstan, a journey

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.

Transpyrénées recap

June 27th, 8am, Llançà, Spain. 

After much anticipation, the 2021 edition of the Transpyrénées starts. It’s my 13th ultra-cycling race, however it is a very special one for me. 7 months ago I broke my knee in a traffic accident. After getting a titanium plate screwed to my tibia, I had to hop on crutches for two months and stay off the bike for three. And now here I am, deprived of any winter training and about to embark on a 1000km long journey with 24.000m of elevation gain. From the coast of the Mediterranean all the way to the Atlantic. The first big test for my knee. I don’t put too much pressure on myself. If the knee holds up, I’ll race the entire course in one go without sleep and will try to finish on the podium. If the knee hurts and starts swelling, I’ll just stop, get a good night sleep and then get going again, aiming only to finish. In any case, the big question is about to be answered: am I ready to race again? 

We set off at a fairly fast pace. After the first hill, there’s about a dozen of us ahead. Newcomer Justinas Leveika leads a pack where we found experienced racers like Ulrich Bartholmoes, Omar Di Felice, Joe Rass-Court and myself. We follow the coast line, cross into France then head to the Madeloc which towers above the picturesque village of Collioure. But there’s no time for tourism. The climbs are short but steep. The pace is exhausting. We welcome a flat stretch in the Argelès area and pedal somewhat easy to catch our breath. Then, unsurprisingly, comes more climbing. After the Col du Fourtou we are down to 5 racers. Justinas, Omar, Ulrich, Joe and me. It’s getting hot and whenever we spot a faucet we declare a truth to fill up our bottles. After 7 hours, we reach the bottom of the Col de la Llose. It’s nice to get back on small back roads after a long stretch on busy tarmac. I look at my GPS and can hardly believe the 28kph average speed we kept to get there.

It’s a mammoth climb and the guys keep setting a relentless pace. There’s about 300 vertical meters to climb when I have to let them go. I’m gutted but let’s face it: three months off the bike is a lot and comes a time when you have to pay the bill. 

I now have to race my own race, by myself with whatever energy I have left. I reach the top of the climb and then it’s only a short downhill to Font Romeu before I have to climb to Porté Puymorens. It’s the high Pyrénées now and many long climbs await. The frantic pace of the first 8 hours left me with not much in the tank and I’m moving painfully slow. I swallow a few pills of electrolytes to prevent cramps and I’m starting to suspect I actually overheated in the Col de la Llose. I should eat but the idea of putting any sort of food in my mouth makes me nauseous. So I keep going without food. I summit Puymorens at 1900m, on to a short descent then I have to climb Envalira which culminates at 2400m. I enter Andorra on a wide road. The landscape is wide open and a bit intimidating. My GPS marks 230km and more than 4000m of climbing. 

Tackling the highest pass so early in the race is a mental boost. I make way to the top and then it’s: okay, I’m done. Sure there’s another 19.000m of ascent, but that brutal stretch from seal level to 2400m is over. The downhill is exhilarating! The road is super wide and virtually empty. I often reach speeds above 70kph. Down the hill is the town of Canillo and, of course, right after it, is another climb. It’s short and easy (at least that’s how I remember it) and a few kilometers after the top, I get caught by Justinas who had stopped somewhere between Font Romeu and Canillo to lay 15 minutes in the grass, trying to recover from previous efforts. We get acquainted as we are riding toward the climb of Arcalis. This one is a bit of a mind game as it is a dead end. We have to climb for 17km and then go down the same road. I’m none too pleased with this but I have to do it nonetheless. At least it’s going to be an accurate way to determine where each rider stands at this point in the race. 

We are about 6km away from the top when we see Ulrich blazing down. According to my calculations, that’s a good 40 minutes that he has over us. 5 minutes later comes Omar and we’re about to reach the summit when we see Joe. There’s about 100m vertical meters to go when Justinas opens up a gap. I could try to keep up but honestly I don’t really see the point. I keep going at my own pace and then u-turn and back to where we came from. 

At the end of the descent and before tackling the next pass, I make a quick stop at a gas station. I buy drinks and some candy. I carry all sorts of food in my packs but the one thing I crave is candy. Actually it’s the only thing I feel I could eat. For some reason, the idea of carbs, fat and salt sickens me. So I down a powerade and eat my candy while making my way to Andorra la Vella as the sun sets. 

It’s always weird to ride across a big city on a warm summer night when you’re racing. You see people chatting, laughing, drinking, partying, while you’re in indescribable distress, with every fiber of your body hurting. Two opposites collide and the joyous crowds appears like epitome of indecency to your apathetic eye. 

As I leave the capital, I see fireworks exploding high in the sky and I think to myself: oh Andorra, could you be even more insensitive? 

After a hellish climb, I reach a 3km gravel section. I get a pinch flat on a rock I didn’t see and while I’m putting in a new tube, it starts raining. When emptying my saddle pack in search of a tube, I find a bag of dried fruits. It’s sugary content appeals to my palate and I manage to put a little bit of fuel in my tank. 

A wet downhill with countless switchbacks takes me to who knows where. When it’s dark, places stop having names. Everything is just a blur of somber shapes. I’m riding in zombie mode, not looking at my power nor my speed. Forward progress is all that matters, even if it’s slow. The rain gets heavier as I leave a tiny village to climb yet another pass. It’s a hard and long one. The kind I feel will never end, especially at night. But everything ends at some point, even the rain. The bottom of the descent marks the end of the magic land of Andorra. I had no idea it was this big and this unforgiving. Some people call it the Las Vegas of the Pyrenees and for sure, it does seem a bit strange and fake. I’m happy to cross into Spain. Especially since my last few kilometers in Andorra almost ended in a crash when my front wheel slid on a manhole cover as I was cornering down a hill. 

There’s a fair bit of flat tarmac as I enter Spain and I welcome it with open arms. I’m starting to feel really tired and sleepy but I know I don’t have too long to hold on before dawn. Tucked in my aerobars, I pedal and struggle to stay awake. As the sun rises, the climbing starts again… 

As I slowly get out of zombie mode, Joe, fresh from the full hour of sleep he caught not far from here, catches me and proceeds to fly away. I try to hang on from a distance, but I just don’t have enough energy. 

The small climbs of this part of the route go through lovely little villages and under the clear skies, the storm from last night seems like a distant memory. Pretty soon I spot Joe who stopped on the side of the road to grab something in his saddle bag. I wave and keep going. After a little while I ride across a small town. It’s early and all the shops are still closed. I haven’t eaten anything all night and I’m in dire need of calories. But the food I carry, which consists of salty nuts, sweet protein bars and half a sandwich, still doesn’t tempt me. Luckily I spot a gas station before embarking on the next climb. I down a liter of chocolate milk, eat a donut and I’m on my way. The climbs are shorter now that I’m done with Andorra and that’s a good thing. The super long climbs of the first day really wore me down physically and mentally and I welcome the change. I summit Puerto de Bonansa at 1380m then it’s on to a straight wide road. The climbs are steep but the downhills are really fast and I see my average speed go up which is a huge boost to my morale. 

After a couple of hours, I take a turn off that big road onto a lovely small one. I stop to take a leak near a building and spot a trash can. That’s when I do something really stupid. I throw away all the food I was carrying from the beginning, convinced that I’m never ever going to want to eat it and that it’s just dead weight. I get going and finally, I’m enjoying myself. The scenery is beautiful and I take it in, forgetful of the race and all the pains that derive from it. I stop in a shop to drink more chocolate milk and eat another donut. I look for gummy bears but to no avail. The Canyon de Anisclo comes next and it’s spectacular! I have to say I hated day one but I’m really loving day 2. I let the views sink in and listen to the roar of the water down the gorge. I climb out of the canyon and up another pass. 

The rest of this day is a bit of a mess in my head. Sleep deprivation makes it hard to remember which parts came when. I remember climbing on a road that was so broken, it could be classified as gravel. I remember stopping in a gas station for two small sandwiches and telling myself “hunger is slowly coming back”. I remember trying to push hard on some climbs to see if I still had some power left. I remember fighting a head wind coming from the west and wondering if I would have to fight it all the way to the Atlantic. I remember entering somewhat of a big town but having to exit it before seeing any shops. A remember a climb that was short but had a steady 15% gradient. 

Around 8pm, after another day of cycling on a virtually empty stomach, I stop in a town called Hecho determined to find food. It’s now or never. I struggle to find the only bar that serves food. Turns out it only offers fancy hot sandwiches, which I guess take too long to make. I spot 4 croissants on the counter, buy them all and leave. I’m going to have to make due with this, most likely until tomorrow morning. 

I probably should ration but I’m too hungry to do so. I think of all the food I throw away and I feel stupid. For the second time in the race I have a look at the tracker. Ulrich is 50km ahead, on his way to a stunning victory. Omar and Joe are 20/25km behind. And since I don’t plan on stopping tonight, I don’t expect they will catch me. 

Around 10pm it starts raining. While looking for my rain jacket in my saddle bag, I stumble upon a protein bar I didn’t throw away. Jackpot. I eat it straight away. It might not be the smartest thing to do but it’s hard to be smart when you’ve been cycling for 40 hours straight. 

It’s not only humid, it’s bitterly cold tonight. I’m wearing all my clothes and my winter gloves and still not enough to keep me warm. When you’re there, you look forward to climbing and dread descents. 

What time is it when I spot a blinking light coming closer? Hard to tell. It must be past midnight because I’ve just spent half an hour fighting sleepiness. Knowing a rider is closing in on me is a very effective way to wake me up! I find some unsuspected energy and start pushing like crazy. It looks like it’s working because I see the blinking light getting further back. The GPS says there’s 150km left to the finish: it’s gonna be a long sprint. 

At some point I feel like I have opened up a gap and I stop in a small town to get a Coke at a machine. It lasts only a few seconds but sure enough on the next climb, I see the light got closer. 

When the sun rises, Omar still hasn’t caught up to me. I enter the Basque country with its steep gradients and grey skies. It’s a weird part of the course, much more populated than the rest, much greener and… I don’t know… just weird. Like it doesn’t really fit with the rest. 

There’s four climbs and about 50km left before the finish when I see Omar smiling next to me. It’s gonna be a battle. And I’m gonna have to fight it on an empty stomach. He attacks immediately to test my legs. I’m surprised to see they still pack a punch and I keep up. 50km is just too long to attack relentlessly, even for Omar, so we go back to a reasonable pace. With a gentleman’s agreement of not trying anything in the descents. He stops for water and I wait for him. We’re going to do this by the rules. A la pédale as we say in french. 

We’ve just started the penultimate climb when Omar picks up the pace and starts going away. I’m not sure what’s happening. Is he really attacking? So far from the finish? I kinda took it for granted that Jaizkibel, the last pass of the course, would be the one where the fireworks would happen. But it looks like Omar had other plans. 

I lose precious seconds hesitating, not sure if he’s attacking or not. When I decide to pick up the pace, it’s a bit too late. I panic, shift recklessly and derail. Precious seconds lost again. I push hard but I’m reluctant to really push as hard as I can. There’s another climb after this one and I want to be ready for it. Also there’s a downhill and a flat bit afterwards where I hope I can make good time and maybe catch Omar. 

When I reach the top, I have no idea how far ahead he is. The descent is steep and wet and I have to navigate it cautiously. There’s no point taking risks. I keep hoping to see him but he’s gone. The flat stretch is fairly busy with traffic and I use my messenger skills to keep it from slowing me down. On my right I spot a bakery, and for a second, I think of stopping to get some much needed food. I feel like I’ve already lost the race for second place and since I haven’t had anything to eat in 12 hours, a nice breakfast is tempting. 

But I can’t. I owe it to myself to keep believing. I have to try to catch Omar or I’m going to regret it. Before the race, with all the doubts concerning my knee, I would have been more than happy with a 3rd place. But during these two days, my racing mentality came back. And it’s driving me to push as hard as I can. 

I get to the bottom of Jaizkibel and now no more holding back. I just give everything I have in hope of catching Omar before the top. It’s hard to describe: legs hurt, lungs burn, breath is heavy, heart reaches 175 bpm, mouth stays open and drool comes out. After ten minutes of this, the inconceivable happens: I see Omar. He looks back. He’s seen me as well. The chase is on. I keep pushing. Not harder, because I can’t. But as hard. At every corner I seem to be getting closer. I don’t know where the power comes from, but it’s there. I finally catch him. 

He tries a first attack, I keep up. He slows down and I take advantage of this truth to catch my breath. We ride at a gentle pace for a few minutes. Then the course leaves the main road onto a steep, narrow, strip of tarmac for the final kilometer. Omar chooses this moment for a very sharp attack. He opens up a small gap but I’m able to close it. We ride side by side for a minute or so, shake hands and wish each other good luck. 

There’s about 250 meters left. I waited long enough, it’s my turn to attack. I throw whichever energy I have left into one last effort. I don’t look back. I don’t try to see if Omar managed to keep up. I just give it my all. Full blast to the finish. I leave it all out on the road. 

I cross the line first. 

50 hours 31 minutes. Ulrich finished 3 hours earlier but I don’t care. This time and this second place: this is my victory. 7 months after breaking my knee, I could not have hoped for a better comeback. 

I step off my bike and give Omar a hug. We fought a good fight. We pushed each other further than we could have ever imagined. 

I can now finally do the thing I’ve been wanting to do for more than 12 hours: take my shoes off. 

The hardest race

People often ask me what’s the most difficult race I’ve taken part in. Well, not that often actually. But I think I’ve already been asked the question a few times. Anyway it’s one I’m keen to answer. And this being my blog, nobody is gonna stop me.

It’s not easy to answer though. Each race has its traps and hardships. For example you may think that the Trans Am bike race is pretty straightforward, given that it’s all paved, doesn’t have much elevation gain and no big gaps between resupplies. But the crosswinds I experienced in Kansas for two whole days turned out to be one of the biggest tests of my mental fortitude. After one day of riding between 15 and 18kmh on flat paved roads, I got in my sleeping bag and curled up in a ball for 8 hours, not willing to go back to the battlefield. The idea of fighting the wind for another day was one I could not bear. It was only my third ultra, so I was still a bit green. But really, this stretch of godforsaken land and the constant 40kmh winds blowing in my face destroyed me mentally. 

Montana on the TABR

I had come to the TABR following a third place on the Tour Divide the year before. The reason I had picked this race is because I felt I needed two years to forget how hard TD had been. I was not looking forward to putting myself through these hardships again. TD 2016 being my first bikepacking race, I made a lot of mistakes and ended up being miserable most of the time. I climbed on the podium because it’s a race of attrition and years of bike touring had given me plenty of resilience. I kind of held my pace towards the end when everyone was slowing down and this is how I got third, but it sure was a painful and sluggish finish. And I benefited from other racers feeling unwell or having mechanicals.

Wyoming on TD 2016

The Inca Divide in Peru is a good contestant in the debate of which was the hardest of all of my races. Peru is a beautiful place for sure, but the climbs are never-ending and they take you to altitudes where the human body can barely function, let alone perform. When I was at the top of Nevado Pastoruri, the highest point of the course, at a staggering 5000m, something as simple as taking off my gloves would be enough to get me out of breath. Still, this climb was not the worst. Starting at 3000m of elevation and towering at an intimidating 4300m, the climb to Abra Huachucocha took everything out of me. It’s 25km long and a gentle 6% incline, but the track is in such an awful shape that it took me more than 4h30 to clear it. Towards the end, I just gave up on cycling and got off my bike to walk. It was bitterly cold and windy at the top. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever faced a harder climb. 

Pretty much everyday of the Inca Divide was hard. Even the first one, which had no noticeable difficulty turned out to be a nightmare when I got bit by a dog in a gas station. I had to seek urgent care as rabies is a fatal disease in 100% of the cases. As the race went on, the nights got so cold it became impossible to ride and, a few hours after it got dark, all the riders pretty much had to find a hotel room to spend the night. Even the last day which was supposed to be easy, as it was mostly downhill, turned out to require a lot of work due to the headwind blowing in the Canyon del Pato. And let’s not talk about resupply which is very limited during the day and inexistant once the sun has set.

But the majestic scenery, the breathtaking landscape were always here to remind me why I was doing this. Inca Divide might be the single most beautiful race I’ve ever been in. And that kind of pleasure is unique. It makes things easier as it gives them meaning and justification. 

Another race that proved to be really challenging is the Atlas Mountain Race. Just like the Inca Divide, darkness and daylight would have roughly the same duration. Which means a lot of time spent riding in the dark. Even when you’re used to it like I am, it’s hard. Try riding 12h seeing only what your front light shows you and you’ll see how eager you are to see the sun rise. I don’t know if I can call myself unlucky since I won this race, but I was unfortunate enough to tackle the worst part by night. The infamous colonial road will forever stay in my memory as one of the worst bits of cycling I have experienced. It’s hard to describe and pictures don’t do it justice. But it lasted hours and hours and took everything out of me. The climb was horrendous and the descent was probably worse. The rather wide road was covered in rocks that had just the right size, shape and distribution to make it impossible to ride faster than 10kmh going up, and very uncomfortable to ride above 20kmh going down. Obviously such a road is horrendous no matter when you ride it, but it sure as hell is even more difficult when it’s your third sleepless night in a row.

The mountains of the Atlas

All things considered, I think my hardest race was the Italy Divide 2019. It started in Naples at the end of April and it was really hot. A group got out all guns blazing and I got dehydrated following the frantic pace on flat paved roads. Then night came and the hike-a-bikes started. Rocky, long, steep, full of thorn bushes… By morning I was in Rome and wondering what I was doing there. I had no drive, no motivation and was looking for excuses to give up. I couldn’t find any so I kept going, but I was not enjoying myself. I was disappointed by my start and by the course itself. The day lasted forever, hot in the morning, rainy in the afternoon. Then night came and I caught Jay-P who had just rested for a couple of hours in a hotel. He was fresh and he dropped me fairly quickly. I figured I couldn’t go to sleep now otherwise I would never see him again. So I rode through the night. The next day was the best with the nice strade bianche of Tuscany. I got all the way to Florence, resupplied, kept going a bit then proceeded to lie on the side of the road for some much needed sleep. That is when James Hayden showed up. I figured since he was riding, I couldn’t decently be sleeping or I would never see him again. So I went back on my bike and we rode through the night together. In the morning, I took a wrong turn, he disappeared and Jay-P caught me. We rode together in the Bologna area as it was pouring rain. Later in the afternoon, he had a mechanical and I was by myself. At some point during the day I had gotten ahead of James which meant that I was now in the lead. But he was only a few kilometers behind when night came. No matter how badly I wanted to sleep, I could not, otherwise he would catch me. So I kept going, only stopping short 8 minutes naps when I couldn’t take it anymore.

Eventually he caught me and got in the lead. The sun rose and it started raining, Pretty soon the rain turned into snow and my brain was barely functioning. As for my gps, it was not functioning at all. I was navigating using my phone, which is a bit tricky when it’s raining. At some point, I got lost in a field and actually gave up. Mentally I dropped out of the race. I decided I would stop in the next hotel and sleep my fill. But my brains were so fried, I didn’t even think of looking for a hotel online. I just got out of the field, somehow got back on the course and kept riding while looking for hotels. There were none that I could see so I just kept riding. Until I couldn’t ride any more because I was knee deep in snow. I hiked my bike in the snow for pretty much the whole day. A few kilometers before the finish, James, who had stopped in a hotel for a few hours, caught me and we agreed to finish together. I crossed the finish line absolutely exhausted, my legs covered in scratches and my feet destroyed to the point that I could not walk anymore.

James Hayden and I at the top of Italy Divide’s last climb

I don’t think Italy Divide is renowned as a particularly hard race, but the way it went, with terrible weather and fierce competition, made it my toughest test to date. Overcoming doubt early, being to hot, then wet then freezing, experiencing extreme sleep deprivation for the first time, going toe to toe with the toughest racers until the final hours, it made for an intense contest. You see, it’s not a matter of the course, its difficulty and its length. It’s a mix of how experienced you are, the course, the weather, the competition, how much you push yourself and how much you enjoy what you’re doing.

Greg Lemond said “It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster”. It certainly is true for road racing, but it doesn’t apply to bikepacking. The hardest races are the first ones, when you’re still learning. Then you find out that every hike-a-bike eventually ends, pain goes away, ferocious headwinds finally stop blowing, mud always dries. It may take five hours, but you always reach the top of the climb. You just have to be patient. You just have to endure. Bikepacking teaches you just that: how to endure. It makes you tough. And the tougher you are, the easier the races.


December 4th 2020, mid-day. I’m on my way to make the last delivery of my shift. I’m riding fast on a wide boulevard when suddenly a truck stops right in front of me. I brake but can’t avoid it. My knee hits the backdoor flush and I fall to the ground, screaming in pain like never before. I can’t get up… An ambulance picks me up and drops me off at the nearest hospital. A couple of hours later, a doctor comes to see me with the x-ray and some bad news: the upper part of my tibia is separated in two fragments. I’m not going to be able to ride a bike for 3 months. I feel like the world is crumbling around me. It seems unreal. It can’t happen. Not to me at least. Sure it happens every day, but not to me. That’s not possible. 

Denial…This is my first reaction.

I have had more than my share of accidents and crashes. But nothing serious ever. I had come to think I was too skilled and too lucky to sustain any serious injury. I felt I knew how to avoid most accidents and the one I couldn’t, well I always knew how to come out of them virtually unscathed. You know how they say judo practitioners know how to fall? Well I have never been on a tatami, but I was convinced I had a natural ability to hit the ground in the least harmful way possible. Just like a judoka.

I was wrong.

I spent three days in a hospital bed trying to come to terms with the fact that it happened. Possibly the three grimest days of my life. This time, I crashed and couldn’t get up. This time, my bones broke. Three days seems enough to come to terms with reality. But what are three days compared to a lifetime of being healthy? An entire existence with countless crashes, some of them pretty spectacular, and never worse than a sprain?

It took more than a month hopping on crutches for it to start feeling normal. An entire month where I would have moments while lying on the table at physio, telling myself “What’s happening? This is not me, this is not my life. What am I doing here?”

Night time was the worst. For two weeks, the pain kept me from sleeping. I couldn’t find a comfortable position in the bed. It took me two to three hours to fall asleep and the pain woke me up every fifteen minutes or so. Painkillers and sleeping pills did nothing. Every day I was dreading the time I would have to go to bed. 

In the meantime, I was struggling with sadness and a form of anxiety. A lot of negative and dark thoughts, about death and decay. For example, I thought of the plate of titanium the surgeon screwed to my tibia and the fact that it would outlive the bone. I imagined the piece of metal intact in my coffin when my body would be long gone. Having something unalterable inside my body reminded me of my own mortality. This body that seemed capable of extraordinary feats now appeared so fragile.

There’s not much you can do with such thoughts. I had to deal with them and try not to get too depressed. But I was still rejecting the idea of the fracture as part of my life. I felt the necessity of separating my life in two parts: one before the break and one after. I see now it didn’t make sense. This injury is a part of my journey. I’m human and my bones can break. They did and I have to accept it. 

Normally my job is to ride bikes. But for three months, my job was to overcome these hard times. Manage the pain. Physically and mentally. If there’s one thing I learned racing ultra, it’s that nothing lasts forever. Sometimes it seems like it does, but eventually, every hardship ends. Be it a snowstorm, a 10km long hike-a-bike or 3000m of ascent in a single climb. What I have learned from bikepacking is to patiently endure whatever the trail throws at me. The key is to keep moving forward. Keep at it and you will reach the end. 

It’s the same with a serious injury. Only it’s much longer. My advice to anyone finding himself in this situation is the same as to someone facing a long hike-a-bike: take one step at a time. What I did was to focus on being dedicated and thorough with my physiotherapy. At first it was lifting my leg up, then slightly bending the knee, then a bit more. I monitored my progress every Saturday by measuring the angle. Counting the degrees kept me motivated and focused. It was very important for me to visualize progress. I knew why I was going to PT every day. I was surprised that some people thought it was a chore. On the contrary! I was looking forward to PT every day! That was the time of the day when my leg was feeling alive. The time of day when I was feeling like what I’m supposed to be: an athlete. 

I also worked out my upper body more than I usually do. Just because you have a broken knee, it doesn’t mean you can’t exercise. Keeping active helps you heal and is much more productive than cultivating self pity. Mind and body are tightly intertwined. If you’re in good physical shape, you have better chances of having the right mindset to face the challenge. This was not easy though as an injury like this takes a lasting toll on the body and leaves you very tired. The healing process takes up a lot of the energy you usually have.

An accident like this is a very traumatic experience. Much more than I could have anticipated. To this day, I feel uneasy talking about it. Even though I can now ride my bike pain-free most of the time, I don’t like thinking about the crash or my days in the hospital. I haven’t grown accustomed to having a foreign body in my leg. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure I agree. When that kind of stuff happens to you, then you have to learn how to live with the fear and the trauma. It’s a bit more baggage that you have to carry through life. Maybe it makes you more suited to deal with other traumatic experiences. But I feel, it’s pretty much the only strength it brings you.

Why I race

Why do I race? Ultra-cycling is hard. You’re miserable most of the time. There’s always a part of your body that’s bothering you; whether it’s your legs, your neck, your ass, your hands, your feet. You’re always tired, exhausted even, sleep deprived. It may very well be the hardest sport in the world and there’s no money in it. Guys get paid millions literally to push a ball around for an hour and half, and we get nothing for digging pretty much as deep as anyone ever dug. So why would anyone put themselves through such an ordeal? 

To be honest, there’s a few things I really dislike about competing. First of all, I hate getting ready for an event. I’m very disorganized and I tend to procrastinate a lot. The week or so before leaving for a race is spent knowing what I’m supposed to and not doing it. Until I run out of time and have to take care of everything in a day or two. Of course I end up forgetting some stuff; which is why I always get to the start of the race early or ride there, whenever it’s possible. 

Before the race, I’m always nervous, always fighting an anxiety that keeps growing the closer we get to the start. I always ask myself: why did I sign up for this? I could just ride my bike by myself, without any pressure, free of all worries. Instead here I am, battling the fear of failing and disappointing the people that believe in me. The closer I get to the start, the less I sleep.

Picture by Lian Van Leeuwen

And then there’s the actual racing. Granted I like to ride my bike a lot. But I also like having the possibility of looking at the surroundings when I’m on the bike. During the Atlas Mountain, I actually could enjoy half of the landscapes, because 50% of the time I was riding in the dark. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy night riding once in a while. But 48 hours of night riding out of 95 hours on the course, that’s just too much.

We usually invest a lot of time and a lot of money to take part in these events. And sometimes, something as basic and cruel as a mechanical, something you have no control over, can throw everything down the drain. There’s so many things that can go wrong in these events that it’s terribly stressful. Early in my ultra-racing career, after a couple of failed events back to back, I really came close to giving up competing. It just seemed like it was not worth it.

So why do I do it? Well, when everything goes smoothly, when I manage to do what I came to do, and I end up being out there leading a race, a whole peloton chasing me, there’s really nothing that comes close to this feeling. Even the feeling I get when winning a race doesn’t compare. It feels good to win, for sure. But it does’t feel as good, because winning means the ride is over. No, the best part is what comes before. When I’m still riding and I feel every pedal stroke is bringing me closer to victory. It’s exhilarating. It’s the joy of being out there, riding my bike, doing what I love, and then, on top of that, the certainty that I’m doing what I’m meant to do, and the knowledge that everyone that believes in me is sharing this joy. 

Picture by Nils Laengner

Why do I sing? Because I’m over the moon! I came thinking I could be the fastest out of +200 racers, and I’m finding out I actually am. Obviously the fact that I enjoy prevailing, that I get my kicks out of proving that I’m faster or stronger than others, isn’t very positive. And I wonder if it truly is in adequation with the values of bikepacking. But that’s the way I am. It’s deeply ingrained in me (thanks mom and dad). Very much like other competitors, deep down, I’m just a kid trying to make his parents proud. 

Granted there’s nothing really positive at the root of this feeling I’m chasing, but there’s another way you can look at it. When you’re really good at something, isn’t it kind of your duty to do it and, furthermore, to do it to the best of your abilities? Maybe. I don’t know. I honestly don’t have an answer. But I chose to do what I’m good at.
I have always openly talked about my will to win. The fact that I can only be proud of a first place and that for me races are contests, not journeys. I have received criticism for this stance. I am willing to accept it. I don’t think there’s anything sane in such a strong desire to prevail. And I’m aware most people look for something else when they line up for a bikepacking race. There’s a certain ethos to this sport. It’s about more than who is the fastest. It’s about exploration, discovery and pushing your own boundaries first and foremost. But these are things I already do in the context of my extreme bike touring trips. This is why, when it’s time to race, I only care about winning. 

Someone on social media once said he didn’t think I was a good example for his kids. And I get that. I understand that as a parent, you want your children to be happy whether they win or lose. You want them to be happy because they experienced something, not because they’re better than their friends. But I’m not this way and there’s not much I can do about it. Maybe I could see a therapist, but keeping on racing and winning sounds less expensive.

How it all started

I’ve always dreamed of travelling far away. Preferably in a land with a culture as different as possible from my own. When I was around 18, I started fixating on Asia. It seemed to me I would find something there, the adventure I was looking for. The feeling of being lost in the most foreign land possible. It took me ten years to get ready for this trip. It may sound like a long time, but life got in the way. And I was in no rush. I knew it would happen some day. I was convinced, it would happen in due time. I went to college, studied literature, got my first job, got involved in a couple of serious relationships (not at the same time). But no matter what happened, the idea was always the same: at some point in my life, I would strap on a pack to my back and travel in southeast Asia. I was just waiting for the right time. 

The right time finally came. Well sort of. Anyway I got tired of waiting, and in december 2010, I borrowed a big backpack and flew to Bangkok. I was so green at first. I remember my first day walking the streets of Bangkok, hungry but not knowing where to eat, how to order; hesitating before every little restaurant. It was my first time traveling alone. This could have very well turned into the story of a disillusion; instead this became the story of an epiphany. 

Bikepacking before it was cool

For about ten days, I chased the feeling of adventure, riding trains, hopping on buses and shared taxis. Leaving my fate in the hands of a Lonely Planet guidebook. I went from Bangkok to the Lao border, crossed it and then made it all the way to Luang NamTha, a small town in Northern Laos, close to the chinese border. 

The book said the trip from Vientiane, the capital, to this small town a mere 700km away, would last 12 to 14 hours. It lasted 24 hours. We left about an hour late. The bus broke down after one hour. It took about 2 hours to change the flat tire. Which means that 4 hours after the scheduled hour of departure, we were barely out of Vientiane. Then night came and people started immediately falling asleep. I did not. The loud lao pop music prevented me to. As did the old woman who was sleeping on my shoulder. The further north we got, the hillier the terrain. Which meant the driver had to stop more often to cool down the engine by pouring buckets of water on it. These old chinese motors don’t really like steep grades. 

Yay! A flat tire!

When we finally got to Luang NamTha, I could barely believe it. The nightmare had ended. I found a hotel, got a shower and went to sleep in a proper bed. 

The next day, I knew I had to make a change. There was no way I would endure another trip like this one. To this day, it is nothing but a horrible memory. Buses suck and I had to get rid of them. Walking around town, I found a bike rental shop with old, beaten up mountain bikes. I had a little experience as a bike tourer. Most notably, I had ridden from Avignon to Lyon one summer, covering about 250km in two days. So if I could hardly be called an experienced bike tourer, I definitely was not a complete beginner. I rented a bike and the next day rode to a village called Muang Sing, some 60km away. I stayed there one day, explored the surroundings, got lost in the jungle, found my way back to my cabin, had a good night sleep and rode back to Luang NamTha. I went back to the shop and told the owner I was willing to buy the bike. I asked for 100$, to which I replied 75. He said “No, 100$”. I offered 80, but he insisted on 100. I tried 90 before we finally agreed on 100. I thought he’d waived the cost of the rental for the 3 previous days but he insisted I had to pay for that too. He was the only guy selling bikes in town, so I had no leverage and gave him the cash.

I showed him on a map where I intend to go with it. He said it was a bad idea and I probably shouldn’t do it. I discarded this warning and the next day, with my backpack strapped to a steel rack, I left in direction of Phongsaly. From what I had seen, the roads in Laos were good and the bike was capable. 

I do realize now this frame was way too small

Of course, I was naive and nothing went as planned. After a few kilometers on a paved road, I took a turn and the tarmac vanished. I spent all day on a mountainous gravel road progressing slowly at first, and then barely progressing at all since I broke my derailleur going downhill. I ended up walking all of the climbs since I couldn’t shift gears. I crossed villages too small to have shops and didn’t eat anything all day. I only found a small stall right before sunset and stocked up on cookies and chips. I also bought a headlamp as I had given up all hope of making it to a hotel before dark. I rode (and walked) in the dark for 4 or 5 hours; having no idea where I was or how far I had to go to find a hotel. Everytime I met someone, using the phrase book in my Lonely Planet, I asked how far was the next big town. No one knew but rather than admitting it, they would all take guesses. The wildest guess came from a couple of drunk kids on a motorbike. They seemed to find my situation funny. Looking back, I kind of understand the comedy of the situation. But at the time, I have to admit I hated them for laughing at me. 

Somewhere around midnight, I made it to a town that was big enough to have a hotel. I have no idea how far I traveled that day as I didn’t have a bike computer, let alone a GPS. It was the first day of a 7000km long bike journey across 5 countries. It was hard, long and I felt miserable most of the time. But I was hooked. I fell deep into bike touring and never got out. You’d think that a day like this could inspire nothing but hate for bike riding. But the truth is that I had found the adventure I was looking for. The uncertainty. The remoteness. The solitude. The feeling of being lost and in somewhat of a danger. That’s what I had been looking for all along and could not find with conventional backpacking. 

Doubt, desert & dust // Part II

Finally it’s the heat that gets me out of my sleeping bag. I don’t wanna do it; I don’t want to deal with the broken pavement that lies 50m away. But I have to. I’m packing up and eating the last cookies I had left over from yesterday, when I see what looks to be a motorbike going towards the border. I freeze instantly and focus on the oncoming vehicle. As it gets closer, there can be no doubt: it’s a touring motorbike carrying two people. I start running towards the road, the driver sees me and stops. It’s a couple from Spain riding back to Europe. 

  • Hi there! Do you have any uzbek money? I badly need to change 20$.
  • I’m sorry we’re out. This is all we have left; says the man while handing me a 20.000 som bill. The equivalent of 2$. 
  • Thanks a lot. It’s better than nothing. Would you happen to have any water?
  • Just a little bit. We can maybe fill up half of one of your bottles.
  • I’ll take it. Thanks again. What can you tell me about the road? Does it get better?
  • Yeah the road is gonna get better for you in about 20km. How is it going to Beyneu?
  • You’re not gonna like it. But after Beyneu, it’s great. 

We chat a bit more, I thank them again, we shake hands and go our separate ways. Well, this is just what I needed: a little water, a little money, and a big boost to the morale. I set out with renewed confidence. It’s 9.30 and it’s already pretty hot. There’s not much to see in the desert. The road is just a long, flat, straight line where you maybe spot a car every hour or so. There’s also the occasional wild camel. But that’s pretty much it. No turns, no trees, absolutely no changes in the landscape whatsoever.

And it’s hot. It’s too hot to hope riding 100km with half a bottle of water. I want to drink it all, but I only allow myself a sip every fifteen minutes or so. My mouth feels like paper. My mouth feels as dry as the desert. I watched every bottle lying on the side of the road, hoping to find a full one. Now more than ever, I regret the hours spent in my sleeping bag last night. Dumb mistakes are dumb. But mistakes you make knowing they’re nothing but dumb mistakes are even dumber. And very hard to justify. I soon realize it’s not gonna happen; I’m not gonna be able to reach the next shop with what I have left in my bottle. Something needs to happen. And it needs to happen fast.

That’s when I notice what seems to be a cargo truck straight ahead. As I get closer, I get confirmation it’s a big truck stopped on the road. I start sprinting frantically! I have to get to it before it leaves. It’s one of the longest minutes of my life. It’s my chance. If it goes away before I catch it, I may not get another. 

Completely out of breath, I reach the truck and greet the drivers. Russian is the lingua franca in this part of the world and I quickly ask for voda, which, you guessed it, means water. One of the guys goes to a tank that is located underneath the truck somewhere and proceeds to fill up my bottles with lukewarm water. Meanwhile the other guy asks me “Otkuda?” (where are you from?) After answering “Francia”, I’m virtually out of russian vocabulary and the conversation comes to an end. I show them as much gratitude as I can (Spasiba bolchoï) and get back on my bike where I drink some of the water they just gave me. Drinking lukewarm water never feels good, no matter how badly dehydrated you are. But at least, I’m now in a decent enough shape to reach Jasliq. 

Run little camel, run…

On the map, the dot looks bigger than Karakalpakya. But when I get there, the village turns out to be pretty much the same size. It’s not big enough to have a bank or a hotel. It’s just big enough to have a shop with a fridge. That will do for now. Thanks to my spanish friends, I have enough money to buy either a little food and some water, or a bottle of Pepsi and some water. Thirst is far worse than hunger. Being hungry, I can deal with it. I can forget. Thirst is with you every second and never lets you the opportunity to think of something else. After so many hours spent dreaming of a cold drink, I know downing a bottle of cola is gonna feel much better than eating whatever. So I buy the pepsi. It’s almost frozen, which is perfect. I sit in front of the store slowly sipping the nectar. Kids look at me with their big eyes, wanting to talk to me but not knowing if it’s okay. I don’t mind being left alone. I stare at my phone wondering where I’m finally gonna be able to change money and get some food. The next dot on the map is pretty far and as far as I know it could be another small village deprived of any bank. There’s no way to know. Well, actually, there’s one. And it’s by getting there. So I get back on my bike and get going. 

The rest of the day is just more of the same. This straight, lonely road across the desert, as far as the eye can see. There’s a good chance I did not enjoy myself. I honestly don’t remember. But I often think of this day in the desert. This particular day. And how quiet, big and peaceful this place was. I’m not sure I liked it when I was there. But in retrospect, I’m absolutely fascinated by how empty and remote this land is and I cherish the memory of how pure was the solitude I experienced. 

I keep riding on the road whose surface has greatly improved. Sometimes the pavement completely disappears and I have to ride long stretches on gravel. But that’s okay, it’s still much better than the broken down concrete leading out of Beneyu. Around 20:30 I reach the next dot on the map. My odometer marks 238km, it’s dark and there’s nothing there. 

There’s another dot what looks like 20km away. It’s a long shot since it looks as lonely and small as all the others I’ve seen before. If there’s nothing there, I’ll have no choice but to keep going all the way to Kungrad, approximately 70km away. I don’t know much russian, but I do know “grad” means city. A real one, with banks and hotels and maybe ATM’s. Of course, after 238km on an empty stomach, I’d rather ride 20 than 70km. But that’s not up to me. I keep pedalling while trying not to get my hopes up, as to avoid being disappointed. 

After a bit less than an hour, I reach the dot which was marked Dinur, and I see about two dozens of cargo trucks parked near what looks like a big restaurant. I can hardly believe it. I really expected another tiny village. Not a busy truck stop. I feel like I’ve really hit the jackpot! 

But have I? Sure, they have food and lodging, but do they accept payment in US dollars? They cater to truckers most likely from any of the countries that are located between Turkey and China. So it would make sense to make business in dollars as well as uzbek som. The best way to know is to ask and I do just that. The waiter goes to her boss, she looks at me and nods her head: my money is good. It’s to describe how relieved and elated I am. Before making any other arrangements about spending the night, I sit down and order a plethora of food and drinks. After eating half of it, I’m stuffed. After spending so much time dreaming about this meal, it sure is disappointing. But you can’t let your stomach shrink with 36 hours of fasting and then fill it up like nothing happened. 

Dinur truck stop

I pay my bill with a crisp 20$ bill for both the food and the room, and then it’s on to a well deserved shower and a good night sleep on a cosy bed. 258km, 10 and a half hours of cycling, no food. It sounds a bit crazy, but when you don’t have any other choice, you just do it. This is the kind of stuff that can happen when you’re a bit too optimistic and you have an aversion to researching the places where you’re going. The funny thing is you’d think I have learned from such an experience. But the truth is, I haven’t and I made the same mistake again several times later in this trip. But it’s okay. Surprises should be part of any long bike tour. Who wants to know everything that’s gonna happen?

Doubt, desert & dust // Part I

One of the reason I have so many stories to tell is because I hate planning. I love the actual riding but I don’t care for everything that takes place before. Even when on a long trip, I usually plot my route in the morning. And if I have a general idea of where I’m going, I don’t mind changing my plans last minute or even mid-ride. Not only I don’t like researching the places I go, I actually enjoy discovering them with a fresh eye. Most of the time, everything works out fine. But sometimes things prove to be more difficult than I expected. Like that one time in Uzbekistan…

The story I’m about to tell takes place in 2017 as I was riding from my home to China on the famed Silk Road. After a mammoth stage the day before, I wake up late in a cheap run down hotel in a small Kazakh town called Beyneu. I live for travel and adventure, but I have to admit, some of the places I see… well let’s just say I’m really happy I don’t live there. 

After wasting too much time not doing anything in my room, I finally check out and go grab some food. It’s hard to get motivated some days and when I get going it’s way past noon. I have a small plastic bag with a few cookies and caramel nuts nougat bars in there. Enough snacks to carry me out of Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan, some 80km away. Looking at Google maps, I see I have two options to spend the night: Karapalpakya, not far from the border, or Jasliq, some 100km after the crossing. I’m almost out of Kazakh currency, which is exactly what I had planned. I have enough to buy a couple bottles of soda whenever I find a shop, which is important as the temperatures are pretty high in september in the deserts of Central Asia. 

The day before, the ride to Beyneu from Aktau, the main Kazakh port on the Caspian sea, had been fairly straightforward, if kind of boring. A long, wide, freshly paved, flat road across the desert with very few and very little towns. I expect it will be the same all the way to the border. 

It takes me ten minutes to realize I’m wrong. I’m barely out of Beyneu when the nice asphalt turns to an old broken road covered in desert sand. My 35mm wide tires are clearly out of their comfort zone. Now if you’ve never ridden a road that used to be paved and then disappeared, you must understand it’s one of the worst surfaces to ride. On this particular stretch, the superficial asphalt layer is completely gone, and what remains is just a base layer made of some sort of concrete with numerous, long and wide cracks. Cracks that you can’t see due to the sand. For the whole afternoon, it’s just me and a few lorry drivers battling on this unforgiving road. I try to ride as close as possible to the sandy shoulder. The pavement seems to be in better shape but it sometimes completely disappears and I end up riding on nothing but fine sand which, almost every time, means losing my grip and crashing, literally biting the dust. It doesn’t hurt as it’s just soft sand. But the dust ends up accumulating in my shifter which, at some point, stops working. I’m expanding a lot of energy and making very little progress. It’s hot and I’m out of water.

Luckily, soon enough I spot a small town with a shop. I grab a couple of bottles of soda, but when I look for my money, I notice I lost a bill somewhere and I can only afford a single bottle of lemonade. No problem. I’ll find water at the border or in Karalapakya.  

About five hours after leaving Beyneu, I reach the border checkpoint. It’s not the busiest in the world and I had prearranged my visa in Paris, so after fifteen minutes, I’m allowed into Uzbekistan. As soon as I’m in, money changers rush towards me. I checked the rate this morning and they’re clearly trying to scam me. Their offers are so ridiculous, I don’t even try to negotiate. I just leave, telling myself I’ll change money in Karakalpakya or withdraw some cash if there’s an ATM. As I pedal away, I hear a money changer yelling but I don’t pay attention. Maybe I should have.

Now I have spent pretty much all afternoon hoping the road would get better after the border. Five hours at 17km/h is not something I enjoy and I badly need a change. Things look good at first. The road is not covered in sand, which is good. But the improvement is marginal. The layer of asphalt survives here and there, but there’s still too many potholes and cracks to ride at a decent speed. It takes me about an hour to cover the 20km to Karakalpakya. It’s dark when I get there. A bit too dark actually. Where are the lights of the city? I take a gravel path off the main road. I soon find out that the dot I saw on google maps is not a city, nor a town. It’s a tiny village with barely any street lights, and said streets aren’t paved. No shops, no hotel and of course no ATM. This presents me with several problems. The most pressing one being that my water bottles are empty. Riding around the village, I notice a small faucet from which a little water comes out. Is it drinkable? Probably not. I still fill up one of my bottles in case of emergency. Sometimes dubious water is better than no water at all. 

I ride out of Karapalkya and back to the main road. I still have a few cookies for dinner, so it’s not all bad. Then it’s a matter of getting as close as possible to Jasliq, where hopefully I will be able to change money tomorrow. But after battling with this broken road for 6 hours, I’m mentally exhausted. And the surface doesn’t improve, far from it. An hour after leaving the village, I’ve only covered 17km. I can’t take anymore. I need a break. An hour, maybe two. I sit down on the shoulder. I’m hungry; I’m thirsty; I’m tired. I eat my nougats then I wander a bit further away from the road to lie down. Not too long. But I soon get cold so I decide I’m gonna be more comfy in my sleeping bag. And that’s my doom. I fall asleep and every hour I opt out of getting up and choose to spend another hour in the warmth of my bag.

I know it’s a bad idea. Because riding during the day, when temps are high, I will need a lot of water to get to Jasliq. The right thing to do is to ride now, to cover as much distance as possible when it’s nice and cool. But I fail to gather the mental strength necessary to get back on this hellish road. And worse than that; in a semi-sleep state, I drink all the dubious emergency water I had gotten in Karakalpakya.

When the sun gets up, I know it’s more than time to go. Yet I still can’t get up. The way I see it, it’s too late already. No matter what, I’m fucked. Leaving now or in three hours won’t change much. So I might as well keep sleeping. I close my eyes and, for a few hours, my problems go away.

to be continued