Silk Road Mountain Race 2019 Race Report

15.08.2019 – Prequel

It’s two days before the D day. A dinner is organised by the SRMR committee to meet all the riders and so I go. After a nice Indian dinner and a good chat with fellow riders, I decide to head back to the hotel. It’s 23:30. Roads in Bishkek are pretty lively during daytime, but in the evening things quiet down and a strange atmosphere sets in the streets with flower shops in the basement still open at midnight, the whole picture lightened by a distant blend light bringing shadows out…

My hotel is 12km away from the restaurant. I ride the first half with a few riders staying in a place closer to the center, and then our ways separate. I turn on my GPS and set the destination point. A do a quick stop at a dodgy shop in hope of finding some fuel for Kegety pass: M&M’s! Found them! I carry on my route and, not to miss my turn, I often check the GPS screen. All of a sudden, my peripheral vision encounters an obstacle straight ahead… the shock is inevitable. A fucking parked car in the middle of the street!!! I immediately check for damages on the bike. Nothing to report. What a solid beast this Reilly Gradient! Lucky me. On the body side, my knee is achy… I feel a bit concerned because my knees have always been my Achilles heel… Still one day to recover before the great start!

16.08.2019 – Registration day

I wake up with zero pain whatsoever. Wow! Am I dead? 😜

I pack all my stuff, charge the bike cover on my back and slowly ride towards the registration point, 5km away.

There, an old school gym facility hold the whole organisation logistics. Admin formalities: check! Gas canisters pick up: check! Bike check: check! Cap number #78: on my head!

With three other fellow riders, we decide to have a nice local lunch in order to carboload in perspective of tomorrow’s race start!

Alberto, Erik & Uwe (not on the pic)

Time flies, especially after a good laugh, and it’s time to buy the last supplies and pack all the things not to end up in a hurry.

Packing: ready.

Breakfast: ready.

Time for a last carboload! As for the last 2 days, I’ve been eating exactly the same things over and over in this precise order: chicken broth with noodles, manty (dumplings with lamb meat), potato filled dumplings.

17.08.2019 – D-day

The alarm clock wakes me up at 7 o’clock. I feel calm. I take the last shower before what sure will be a long time… Eat my mnomnomnom breakfast and off I go!

I ride very slowly towards the starting line with four other cyclists I met in the lobby: a 150m climb is waiting for us, ahead of the start. As soon as the climb starts, I feel my rear dérailleur going wild, doing many noises. It shifts very badly and prevents me to shift to the easier gears… I end up walking up to the starting line. 🤬 There, I try to fix it but nothing convincing; still, I can now shift to the easy gears and that’s the most important thing! In addition, my hydration/purification system leaks… I try to put some tape but I can feel my jersey getting wet drop after drop. 🤬

It’s nine o’clock. I’m still fiddling with my problems so I miss the “hot start”. Trying to catch up, I lose one of shoes I had previously hanged on my saddle bag… I tape it with duct tape. What a start!

The first half of the day is spent on tarmac. We all feel heavy and cannot appreciate enough what “tarmac” means yet… we see in distance weather approaching.

The second half gets an alpine vibe with road getting consistently worse and worse and with increased gradients. The rain invites itself. My mind is still used to the Alps: “keep pushing in short clothing, you’ll put a rain jacket at the top and quickly drop down in the valley and everything will be alright.” I’ve never been so wrong. This first pass goes up to 3800m… fair to say it’s a quite different chunk to grab. It starts snowing… and I’m still with my short jersey. At 2800m I decide to make the call of wearing everything warm and waterproof I have. Too late, underneath I’m all wet and can’t feel my feet. Why did I not take overshoes?! 🤬 the hate against myself is quite high at the moment.

As the ascent goes on, fellow competitors start to encourage each other. Best feeling ever! Everyone is struggling: no exception. Half way to the top, a huge bonfire was glazing, lighted up by a couple of Swiss supporters. Unreal…

I power up and try to maintain a steady rhythm: I want to get over this pass before nighttime. A little water stream overlapping the path freezes my feet even more. Already not feeling my left foot, a strange sensation of warm gets into my foot. That’s the next step of hypothermia. I’m scared. I beat myself, I try to run, jump in order to wake my numb foot. The only answer to this problem is: the sun. And that answer came at the top, where a golden sun ray broke through the clouds and sparkled warmth and happiness to our souls and bones! I get to the top with Marin De St Exupéry (yeah, he’s family related to the mighty Antoine)

Some say that hiking and trail running is more difficult than cycling, because you can’t rest in the descents. Your legs keep working no matter the terrain gradient. Well, the Silk Road Mountain Race is the same, but carrying a bike. The descent of the Kegety pass doesn’t have a proper road. Not even a proper path. We have to imagine our way as we get down across massive screes. Only the last bit down to 2900m is rideable and being almost 21:00, I decide to call it a day.

I put my tent next to a Spaniard. I am trembling and this day has been a splendid nightmare. I quickly cook some freeze-dried food to cheer me up. Sleeping is hard though: the heart beats way too hard.

Camp site day 1

SUMMARY

Start 9:00

Stop 21:00

123km – 3748m D+

Bed altitude 2900m

18.08.2019 – Day 2: the washboard nightmare

Clear sky above our heads. Sleeping next to someone’s tent it’s not ideal: Sleeping mats make a lot of noise every time one moves in his bed… lesson learnt. At 5h30 I wake up: everything is frozen. I start the hassle of packing. First time in real life: it takes me ages. I however quickly find the time to cook some porridge. It’s 6h47 when finally my wheels move. Menu of the day: a short ascent and down to the Karakol Valley.

The ascent of this short col is quite pleasant, the sun is out, back in short clothing! In the descent I meet Brendan Hills with whom I’ll ride most of the day.

We cross our first river and off we go. The nice thing of this valley is that is all the way slightly downhill. The negative side is that its road is crippled with washboard (see Brendan’s picture below).

You spend your time zigzagging on the road, at 20km/h looking for the least corrugated path. I’ve noticed that the best side is actually the left side so I keep riding on there, which is on the opposite side of the driving rules.

The ride is very dusty and it doesn’t get better as the km pile up. That doesn’t help my transmission neither… and that’s also how I lost a pair of nearly brand new Salomon SLAB trail shoes. Too many vibrations. Shite! I hope a Kyrgyz boy will take advantage of them!

We end up in a little village with literally ONE shop. Three riders are already there sitting on the doorstep, eating bread and sausage and drinking Coke. An oasis in the middle of this dry land. I buy my round of Coke and crisps for everybody! Cheers!

Before leaving town, I try to check for any signal… and there it is! Clink clink clink clink! 150 notifications 😂. I quickly take time to send one or two messages but quickly decide not to rest further.

After riding for a long while with Brendan, we stop in Chaetov at about 18:00 and make the decision not to stay in a guest house but to continue further on.

From that moment onwards, rain and thunder threatened my ride until late in the evening. As we ploughed on, at sunset we landed on a kind of sandy motorway leading to a mine, full of lorries, passing by cemeteries.

In some slopes, I was going faster than them because they were so charged… They were snailing up in first gear, full gas. Exhaust gases were thick dark! I was full gas too, didn’t want to get rained upon and, being past 21:00, I wanted to find a nice place to camp. That didn’t happen for a good hour. Brendan and I decide to split. I turned left into what I thought was a small village, that actually spread over 10km. 10km of slow riding in the dark. A few people were roaming in town, until a loud and ferocious bark woke me up from my torpor. I sprinted like ever! I could hear the clamp of its jaws 😱 Further down, two dogs started to chase me, I decide to take the first path I see… oh no, it goes uphill! 1000 watts were lost there, for sure! Off route. I decide to cross the field to get past those two wankers and get back on track. Little by little houses start to become rarer, and as I find a nice spot near a river and on a nice piece of grass. There, I spent the best night of the whole trip!

Start 6h50

Stop 22h00

219km – 1826m D+

Bed altitude 2166m

19.08.2019 – Day 3: off to CP1!

The day starts at 6h50. On time! Everything is dry and as I climb up towards Tuz Ashuu pass (3210m), I meet a Frenchie competitor: Frédéric Chambosse. Nice speaking Molière’s language again! We ride up together and have a chat about our bike configuration and stuff.

This morning effort is tough! A lot of hike a bike. Still, many biscuit breaks later, we get up to the top of the pass and this view was presented before us:

Son Kul lake

Liam Yates later related to me that, riding there at night, he couldn’t see anything and his mind played him tricks by imagining there was a volcano down there!

We could see CP1 far away. Still, there were many short but steep hills in between: what a torture! The landscape eventually flattened, but didn’t help my orientation. I end up in the wrong yurt. WTF! Joining back the tracks, I meet Stu Taylor and ride with him to CP1. Nice!

Checkpoint 1!

After a very tasty and reinvigorating meal, I leave for new adventures! First, Moldo-Ashuu pass, a formality. Second, the 45km descent from Son Kul lake to the Nomad’s Valley. That col looked like the Stelvio!

There, headwind mac 2 but a smooth tarmac! Me, head down in the handlebars with my new target destination in mind: Baetov. This time, I want a guesthouse!

I get to Baetov at about 18h30. Time to find a guesthouse. I ask a local child by bike. He brings me to a nice guesthouse and I’m pleased to see there are already 4 bikes in the lobby. The host indicates me a shared room where I would spend the night and, when he opens the door, Liam Yates appears all smile telling me he had been there since 14h00 to rest and that he will spend the night there too. He had reached CP1 the previous night at 1AM!

Time for Instagram and calls! I also have dinner with a Spanish couple racing as a pair.

Start 6h50

Stop 18h45

140km – 1937m D+

Bed altitude 2100m

The night didn’t pass as calm as expected. At 4AM Liam woke up and left, like many other riders. This phenomenon woke up many dogs in the city as they barked for nearly an hour. At 5AM, the Muezzin called for the prayer… needless to say I didn’t sleep much.

20.08.2019 – Day 4: Cruising the Chinese Highway

Baetov would be the last city before a long time! I stocked up with water and climbed up towards the main difficulty of the day: MELS Pass (3420m) As I go up, I notice my gearing isn’t easy enough. I have to walk up big chunks. I get to the top of the final climb in company of the pair David Sear and Stef Amato. They take advantage of the moment to bite a nice cheese sandwich. I, on the other side, am short of food so I eat a biscuit and a scoop of peanut butter and off I go.

MELS Pass

The descent is insane! As insane as the surprise we did not expect!

Chinese Highway

A full sleek tarmac road climbing to a huge plateau at 3400m!! Luxury!

I join Stu again on the road and ride with him to the military checkpoint. Passport check, permit check. We ask for water and a child takes his bike, rides home and brings us a full bottle back! Lucky, because I didn’t notice I had less than a litre left!

Military checkpoint

We’re joined by Michał Plata and Christian Holweck, riding as a pair. We continue the road together and have a really nice chat about the race spirit and cycling in general. That’s until we get sort of hailed/snowed upon.

Christian & Michał

As the sun sets, we’re out of the smooth tarmac and back into some sandy gravel roads on a huge flat/slightly descending plateau we ride together into the darkness. My mind is playing me tricks: it’s pitch black and my brain thinks Im surrounded by a forest. WTF! Still, noticing the progress downhill isn’t significant, I take the decision to stop near two other fellow riders who have already their tent up! It’s snowing again and I hurry to pitch my tent. The two Ozzie’s are very nice and we go on with a chat until it’s bed time. “Don’t you dare setting your alarms before 5h30!” said one of the two 😂. Good on me.

Start 6h50

Stop 21h30

199km – 3117m D+

Bed altitude 3400m

Oh yeah, by the way, here’s my camping spot with the forest imagined by my brain:

21.08.2019 – CP2 and Game Over.

I wake up with a different mindset than the previous days. I smile, I meet Frédéric again, we talk about nice bike experiences we’ve had in the past and what we’ll do once this race finishes. I must say that the first four day of race I’ve been wondering what I was doing there… But I feel like renewed. We even miss the turn on the GPS and keep on cycling 5km further… even that didn’t make me angry. That’s says a lot.

It’s at that moment that I feel my front brake missing. Totally absent. The back brake disappeared little by little too… brake pads? Liquid gone? Bubbly liquid? The latter has been the final verdict. Bad bleeding. Bad luck. I feel gutted so I decide, once arrived at CP2, to have a hike to Kel Suu lake, place where riders were climbing last year after CP2. That’s to evacuate my mind from bad thoughts.

Kel Suu lake
Checkpoint 2

Start 7h15

Stop 14h15

75km – 553m D+

Bed altitude 3350m

Lessons learnt and next races

The main news is: I got to like bikepacking!

I learnt a lot about the right bikepacking mindset thanks to all the people I’ve met and all the experience I’ve had in the middle of nowhere.

I need to change a couple of things on my bike, such as swap my Sram Force 1 groupset for a Shimano Ultegra.

I will probably mount special bomb proof Hope brakes too.

My next objectives: “Italy divide” (as a pair?), in May, and “Biking Man Inca Divide” as a pair, in August.

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