Words: Peta McSharry / Images: Andi Buchs
The Silk Road Mountain Race is an unsupported bikepacking race around Kyrgyzstan. The first edition took place earlier this year, with 99 starters taking off into the unknown, racing every day at impossibly high altitudes, tackling saturated bogs, rock-strewn ‘roads’ and endlessly wondersome vistas at every turn. Peta McSharry shares her experience.
Lifting my head over the handlebars on the bike, the views ahead show endless layers of mountains rising to over 3,000 m as far as the eye can see. Below me lies a red dirt road, rising from the valley in gradients reaching 20%. My Garmin shows I’m at 3,000 m with another 300 m of climbing left. Gravity claims my head as it rests back on my handlebars. I breathe heavily. Looking back from gazing at the horizon my eyes focus on the bike. It’s resting on top of my legs. The red dust from the road coats my left side. Like a mare, flogged to death, my movement resembles a last flailing attempt to rise from the ground. A short grunt precedes my attempt to sit upright, but fails to bring life back to my limp body. I slump back onto the road, resigned to remain there for the next few minutes.
As to how I found myself in a pile of dust halfway up a mountain: I can only describe it as a comedy of fatigue errors. Once I finally got myself into a seated position my memory returned. Pushing the bike up a nasty incline I felt a little light-headed and leaned over to rest my head on my handlebars. It was not enough to prevent syncope. Not wanting to crest the mountainous rim of the lake in the dark, we pressed on. Hard miles in the heat with limited food and water intake got the better of me. In this tough terrain acute attention to these needs were crucial and I’d neglected them. Two Snickers got me going again.
Elated to make the crest before dark, we found a horse-mounted Kyrgyz sitting proud on his steed, guard to the plains lying below. After layering up, we beat a hasty descent along the single track to the lake. Suddenly the horseman was running alongside me, passing to catch up with Rolf ahead (my racing pair). Dust puffed off the back of Rolf’s wheel and the horse’s hooves. The backdrop of green valley leading to the glistening lake below in the fading sunlight framed them as we descended. I laughed at this joyous sight as energy returned to my legs.
A decision faced us at the lake: set up camp and cook dinner, a two hour process, or ride to checkpoint 1, which we estimated would take around two hours. We elected the latter, layered up some more and started the ride. As we crested the first ridge a cold, strong headwind tamed our speed to a steady crawl. In our minds the terrain was flat along the lake. What followed were several mini ridges, disappearing into the encroaching dark. Beyond lay the flat plains leading to the yurts of our checkpoint. But there were several to climb before we were on the flat and our grim progress did not ease once on the plains. There are no formal roads here, just jeep tracks in the grass. When one track becomes unrideable a new one is created next to it. The next two hours required constant panning with the head torch to ascertain a rideable path. The temperature dived and the wind held – it felt like the checkpoint would never arrive. The small diversion on the Garmin track indicated our turn-off. Glowing out of the dark as we neared, a row of yurts came into view. We laid the bikes on the ground outside the yurts, stepping inside the warm air enveloped us, our race cards were stamped, hot food and tea warmed our cold extremities before we were escorted to an even toastier yurt for a good night’s sleep among other weary racers.
The Silk Road Mountain Race, a beast of a race in Kyrgyzstan, took place over 1,700 km through remote areas with limited resupply. More than 30,000 metres of climbing, on roads better suited to mountain bikes and 4x4s, took the riders over climbs close to 4,000 m above sea level. Rarely did the elevation drop below 1,500 m. 99 riders took to the start line, 30 finished.
Our journey to checkpoint one took four days, 579 km and just under 10,000 m of climbing. Heading south from the start of the race in Bishkek, Kegety Pass at 3,788 m was the highest point in the race and our gateway to an ever changing topography of mountains and valleys. The gradient kicked up. On the gravel we found ourselves pushing the bikes until 10:30pm before making camp, a mere 100 km in but with 2,800m of climbing. As I crested the narrow, stony pass the following day a lone horseman rode up the slopes to join the road just in front of me. He dismounted for a selfie, his iPhone screen badly cracked.
Microclimates varied as much as the flora did. A lush valley adorned with a large variety of flowers, yellow butterflies congregating at the puddles, would lead into an arid valley, hot air sucking moisture from any exposed areas where the heat radiated off the bare rock and pale-coloured sand. It was as if we passed through a portal to another world.
In parts we rode through very remote valleys. Yurts were visible down yonder, cattle and horses grazing in the distant hills. Other times we come across small congregations of yurts in the lower plains, like smallholdings or perhaps an escape from the higher altitudes. We came across a group of nomads walking along the road, men in the first row, ladies singing in the following row. As we approached one man spread his arms to stop us. Without a common language we struggled to understand their words. This happened a few times. Usually they were jolly and perhaps they were inviting us in for vodka. One older nomad flagged us down. His teeth were covered in gold, he looked well-oiled and he was very keen on getting us into his yurt. We declined and pressed on.
Racing in remote conditions we go back to a very primal state. My toiletry bag consists of toothpaste and a toothbrush. To tame my unruly locks I go for my ‘race plaits’ – two plaits on either side of my head so they don’t bulk out my helmet. They stay good for about two weeks without the need of a comb. It turns out these ‘race plaits’ are also a symbol for young women in Kyrgyzstan who are ready to marry. I bet that old nomad thought his lottery ticket came in – here was an old woman being chaperoned around the country looking for a suitor. No more ‘race plaits’ hereafter.
We were spoilt for choice picking stunning places to wild camp, but they didn’t always coincide with the end of our race day. Coming off the top of a climb into an arid valley just before sunset we claimed the end of race day as we found a flat, campable section off to the side of the road. We rigged up the bikes – using guy lines and a tent peg to keep them upright for easy bag access – and laid out our beds under the stars, rehydrating our freeze-dried dinner as the sun went down. Fast asleep, we heard a car slow down as it drove past. Worried about the bikes, we sat up. The driver was checking to make sure we were OK. The same happened with a second car. How novel – and we felt the same throughout the ride. When we left our bikes outside a shop, they were still there when we got back. This could be problematic. There were times we hoped if we didn’t use a lock, the bikes would not be there on our return – because if they weren’t there we wouldn’t have to push them up yet another rough road over a huge climb.
FOUR LETTERS SPELL THE END
By day six our legs were hollow, our feet weary from rolling constantly off the rocks as we pushed our bikes up the mountain and our arms toast from the endless corrugated roads. A horse transporter drove past going up the mountain ahead. I joked about flagging a truck down to skip the next climb. Two hours later the horse transporter returned, a quick discussion resulting in me getting the task of flagging it down and negotiating a fee. As the truck came around the corner, there in the windscreen were four wonderful letters. I put my hand out as any good Londoner would and called “TAXI!”
There ended our race. We were deposited at the base of the climb just before a wide, stony river bed. We cycled over the narrow stream, stopping to fill our water bladders, and sat to eat some food. We were in a bowl: mountains surrounded us in every direction, each one different. Red soil with bright green vegetation. Pale shale. Grey rock, sharp edges. Striated rocks jutting out of green slopes. It seemed all the ‘worlds’ we’d traversed on this race collided at this very spot and we were meant to finish up here.