This week there is an exciting new ultra-distance race taking place, and I am thrilled that my partner Lee and I have been given two of the 100 coveted places on the start line. The inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race is a fixed route, self-supported, single-stage off-road bike race through the spectacular mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The clock does not stop and prizes are not awarded. It will follow gravel, single and double track and old Soviet roads that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair.
The race will be an adventure on a grand scale that will take me through some of the wildest areas of one the most stunning, mountainous and desolate parts of the world. The setting is awe-inspiring but also extremely hard on us that dare to venture into it.
Kyrgyzstan had been up at the top of my bucket list for many years (…even though I’m still learning to spell it, haha!) I knew from the second I saw the race advertised on social media it was for me, it didn’t matter that I have very little off-road cycling experience, in fact, I didn’t even own an off-road bike, but I didn’t have to give it a second thought. I just got my application sent off immediately. It appealed because it was more than a bike race. The wild and isolated landscape (my favourite) means decision making will become more critical than how fast I can ride. Although riding heavily laden bikes for up to 20hrs a day will be as much of a physical and mental battle as it always is in these kinds of races…with little sleep you drift off to sleep on the bike, you start to hallucinate, parts of your body stop functioning, you get a loss of appetite which in turn leads to a loss of energy etc, but this time there’s no way out! There is no hotel 10km down the road to fall back on, no train to jump on in the next town 50km down the road if you have had enough and want to scratch from the race. In the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan, my goal will be to look after myself and just keep moving forward. It’s the only option. And I love the sound of this.
Although I have very limited off-road cycling experience, I do have a lot of remote wilderness experience, having previously walked 4500km across the deserts and mountains of Northern China, skied across un-charted IceCaps in Patagonia, as well as and living on the Arctic Ocean for 2 months in temperatures as low as -60C. I can’t wait to get back to how wonderfully simplistic life in the wilderness becomes, where you have no frivolous things to worry about, you just function on a primal level and each day becomes about eating, drinking, sleeping and in this case peddling.
It is an understatement to say that Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, with 80% of the country being made up of the Tian Shan Mountain range, and over 40% of the country sits above 3000m. The race route essentially never leaves the mountains covering a distance of 1700km and 26,000m of climbing (1056 miles and 85,300ft) to be completed in less than 15 days. There will be 15 mountain passes over 3000m, 7 of which are above the delirium-inducing heights of 3500m. As well as passes, we will cycle through lush river valleys, cross boggy marshlands and tackle a number of freezing, and potentially waist deep, river crossings. We have already been warned by the race organisers to expect some very difficult sections of unrideable terrain. Often known as ‘hike-a-bike’, these sections of up to 20km, will at best have me pushing my bike and at worse have me carrying it heavily loaded on my shoulder, up and over 40% gradients of landslide rock debris.
Kyrgyzstan is a rugged Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. It is situated along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean. The rugged topography physically isolates the nomadic villages which mean their ancient culture has been protected, with a large proportion of farmers living in yurts and use horses for transportation.
In a landscape where everywhere is likely to be the most beautiful place I have ever been, I don’t anticipate setting up camp each night will be much of a problem. I will ride till my legs are too tired to ride anymore and will then stop and set up camp right there and then. No need to hunt for a suitable spot!
With very limited phone signal for the duration of the race and because of the extreme isolation, remoteness and difficulty of getting help if you get into trouble, all riders will be required to have a GPS tracker with an SOS function. As well as for safety, the trackers allow friends, family and “dot-watchers” to follow the progress of the race as it unfolds, a feature that makes this kind of racing particularly compelling for fans at home.
If you have never experienced dot-watching, it is the weirdly addictive pass-time of watching a number of dots, generally people you don’t even know, move across a map! You find yourself checking the web and refreshing your browser more times than you knew was possible, as you will on your favourites, watch in awe as riders take huge leads while their competitors sleep, and gasp in horror as others take the wrong road. You can follow the tracking map here. Lee and I are number 19a and 19b. In addition to my tracker, I will also be trying to microblog about my journey as and when I can on Instagram at @katielherpiniere and my adventure Facebook page.
With periods of up to 3 days, between any settlements, and even then settlements may be little more than small yurt villages, my equipment choice and quantity of supplies I have chosen to carry will be critical.
Some of the big decisions I had to make in preparation for this race where:
What type of bike to buy. I opted for a 29er hardtail MTB. I don’t think there will be many hardtails in the race, I think most people will be riding a gravel bike, but I had to weigh up what bike I would get the most use out of for other races and events after this one to warrant the cost of a new bike. I then had to learn how to take it apart and fix everything (…I am still very worried about this bit).
How to power my equipment. I considered at length dynamo hub, solar panel, power packs and AA batteries and I have gone for a combination of power packs and AA batteries. For navigation, I will be using an Etrex 30x which runs off lithium AA batteries, as well as the new Land Rover Explore outdoor phone. The phone should only need 3 charges for the duration of my race, and that’s whilst using it constantly to record our ride stats on Strava, back up mapping on RideWithGPS, a few weather apps, and to update social media as and when we can. In addition, the phone is waterproof, drop proof, the battery doesn’t drain in the cold, you can use with gloves on and has many other outdoor relevant features.
Bivy bag or tent. As there is a high chance it will snow at 3700m I have gone for a tent. Our two-man double skin 3 season Nordisk Lofoten 2 ULW race tent weighs in at just 500g!!! To go in this I am taking my amazing Mountain Equipment Firefly sleeping bag, which has a fantastic temperature to weight ratio, keeping me warm to extremes of -16°C, comfort of -1°C whilst only weighing in at 560g.
Altitude sickness. The race starts at 800m and heads straight up a monster first pass of 3790m. Although we have spent time acclimatising prior to leaving France, we have made the decision to not sleep above 3000m for at least the first couple of nights so we can acclimatise better and not ruin our body’s before we even get started. We will start slow and hope to pick up the pace as the race goes on when our bodies are used to being above 3000m all day every day.
Extensive medical kit. With large sections of the race being incredibly remote, with no phone reception, no emergency helicopter evacuation if needed, plus cycling on very difficult and unstable terrain in places, I have packed a hefty medical kit. Of course, I hope we won’t be needing most of it, but it may be 24 hours from an incident before we would receive any form of help, so better safe than sorry.
How much food. We hope to pass settlements with some form of shop approximately every 3 days. How much is left on the shelves of the smaller shops once all the speedy competitors have been through and bought all they can possibly eat and carry is anybody’s guess! I am starting with 18,000 calories of food on the bike, which will see me through the first 3 days and leave me with a few emergency Outdoor Food Firepot meals. Firepot meals are utterly scrummy by the way, not like any other expedition dehydrated food I have ever tried, these actually taste like proper home cooked food!
And probably my biggest decision of all… was how to balance the fact it’s a race, whilst also not wanting to rush through each day without enjoying the country I have wanted to visit for such a very long time! The timeframe to meet checkpoints and finishers parties, and the competition element of it being a race, do provide a fantastic mental and physical challenge that allows me to push myself to my absolute limit which I love. However, for this particular event, I may just travel a touch slower, limited night riding so as not to miss a single view if I can, and allow myself the time to chat with locals if the opportunity arises. After all, I’m not fast enough to be a front-runner, so I may as well just have a grand adventure and enjoy it. Our aim is to finish the route in 14 days, just in time for the finisher’s party.
A quarter of the competitors in the race are women, which is an amazing number, as we are usually very undersubscribed in these ultra-distance bike races! The calibre of ladies is also incredibly impressive, with some who will definitely give the men a run for their money for the overall race victory. Of the ladies I have heard off, the one to watch is Lee Craigie. She is not only a European champion MTB rider, but she is also won these kinds of races outright. She has also been in Kyrgyzstan for several weeks acclimatising to the altitude in the mountains. Others include; Naomi Freireich, another European MTB champ, Rickie Cotter who has completed the Tour Divide, Jenny Tough who has done a massive amount of endurance challenges, plus many other fab women.
Despite only planning to be in Kyrgyzstan for 19 days, I foresee the experience to be unforgettable, beautiful and culturally compelling, and I hope to share all my stories and images from the trail with you here, in full, on my return.