A story from the Silk Road Mountain Race, 1700km of unsupported cycling in Kyrgyzstan.
Words and photos: Antonio Abreau, Jeff Kerkove
Looking at the statistics, the Silk Road Mountain Race is certainly a challenge that most of us would be scared of from the start, but when you embrace the adventure the right way, it takes on a new meaning. Finishing, or even just starting, can be an emotional rollercoaster where excitement, doubt, fear, happiness and relief play in your mind through every single pedal stroke.
The clock started ticking on the 17th of August, 2019 in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and ahead of 140 racers, solo riders and pairs, there was a 1700km fixed route with 27000 metres climbing and three staffed checkpoints. If you want to be a finisher you have to reach Cholpon Ata before 23:59 on the 31st August. There were only 70 racers who accomplished this feat in 2019. The route is made up of just about anything, from bits of singletrack to old soviet roads that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair. The entire route generally stays between 1800m and 4000m in altitude, making the going quite slow for a lot of the time with a little less oxygen, and more inclement weather.
As civilisation is left behind, riders start to face an environment that can be as tough as it is beautiful, where you feel how small you are compared to the big mountains that surround you. There is also no escaping how remote the course is – this is a challenge for riders physically and mentally. Along the way; you get to experience the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan as well as the warmth and generosity of its people. You ride into the unknown, making decisions that test your body and soul to the edge, in a journey that takes you further than you ever imagined would be possible.
As part of the media crew, I got to know some of the strongest and bravest men and women that embarked on this wild adventure. I met some of them at the start line and I asked myself, multiple times, how far each one would get. They all went further than I ever thought possible, facing harsh weather conditions, mechanicals and illness. Some thriving, some surviving but all taking their sore bodies and beat up bicycles as far as they could. From the latest model to 1989 frames, single speeds and homemade frame bags, all have a story to tell.
ONE PEDAL HERO
South African Guy Jennings rolled out of Bishkek closing out the front pack, feeling confident and excited. We saw him before Kegeti pass, where riders were hit by a snowstorm before reaching the top at 3780 metres. As we went to the other side of the pass, in the Karakol Valley, we saw a rider pedalling with only his right foot as he had broken the left crank arm on the descent. He pedalled, pushed and ran, over 180km to get to CP1, followed by a lift to Bishkek (16 hours total) where he managed to get a new crankset. He then got back to CP1, where he was the last to leave. Before he crossed the finish line he would break his right pedal and was able to get a spare one from a local kid’s bicycle. He ended the race in 34th place solo, with a total time of 13 days, 4 hours and 23 minutes.
FROM SWITZERLAND WITH A SMILE
When you sign up for the Silk Road Mountain Race, the natural order of events would be to then book a flight to Kyrgyzstan. Not for Marin de Saint-Exupéry, who decided to start his journey from Lausanne (Switzerland) and ride all the way to Bishkek. It took him two months to complete the journey but he ended the race in 9th place solo, with a total time of 9 days, 17 hours and 59 minutes. He rode the last 20km on the rim and the entire route with a contagious smile on his face.
MACGYVER TYRE FIXING
I met Naresh Kumar on registration day where he breathlessly told me about his latest adventure: to ride ‘solo’ with a tandem bike from India to Germany as part of his charity project called ‘Freedom Seat’. With 550km and 5 high elevation passes ahead of him his tyre had enough and the possibility of failure became so real. The goal of finishing under 10 days was gone with no more riding at night or in extremely rocky terrain. Besides duct tape, super glue and patches he found an old time on the side of the road, using a thin layer to cover up the holes. He also emptied the content of his wallet, which was made out of recycled sails, layering it inside the tyre for extra protection for the inner tube. From there on it was a conservative ride to the finish line with the tyre rubbing the fork from the extra rubber stuffed inside.
What bike for the Silk Road Mountain Race?
We took a look at the Canyon Exceed CF SLX that Jeff Kerkove used to compete in the event.
Get the details here.
Find your Own Adventure
If you want to find your own long-distance self-supported adventure, take a look at these events. Just remember there is no sag wagon and course tape. It's up to you.
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Whether you tackle 350 miles or the full 1000 miles, this race is one that rewards dedication and perseverance. You wouldn't want to tackle Alaska in March without those two in spades. Troy Szczurkowski from Queensland has found himself vying for the overall honours at this race, and it draws an international crowd of devotees.
Stretching 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, this route lets you ride head to toe across both of New Zealand's islands (or toe to head depending on the direction you go). The route takes in lots of mountain bike routes and other cycle trails.
The Colorado Trail Race
This epic loop takes in over 800km of Rocky Mountain singletrack, with over 21000m of climbing. This route is only truly passable for a short window in the North American summer, and even then summer storms can wreak havoc on those that attempt it. Some say there's a whole lot of hike-a-bike, others say it's all worth it. The event is on July 26 in 2020, but the route is always there.