Silk Road Mountain Race
With two-thirds of competitors not even finishing the inaugural 1,700km race across the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, it turned out to be more of a survival race than a bike race!
The inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race was a fixed route, self-supported, single-stage off-road bike race through the spectacular but brutal mountains of Kyrgyzstan. On the 18th August 2018, just shy of 100 international competitors set off from the start line, with only 29 finishing! We rode, hiked and scrambled across gravel, deserts, bog, 4000m peaks, horse tracks and old Soviet roads that have long fallen into disrepair, and endured 27,000 metres of climbing. We battled sweltering heat of 40 degrees Celsius, to snowstorms and lows of -12, freezing everything from our brake fluid to our shoes. At times we were on a desperate quest to find water, other days we were carrying our bikes through deep fast flowing rivers trying to not get swept off our feet. There were very limited options to re-supply along the route, no bike shops if something breaks and no mountain rescue teams if something goes wrong. For all these reasons, I loved it. …continues below
At all three checkpoints volunteers asked, with a slightly perplexed face, why I was always so smiley, but I was loving it. The race was everything I expected it to be from reading the race manual and my research into the Kyrgyzstan mountains and therefore it was everything I wanted it to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have entered. It was challenging of course, but none of it was a surprise, and therefore I arrived with the right mindset, equipment and experience to enjoy it, and enjoy it I sure did!
Riding as a pair, my partner Lee Townend and I finished the race in 14 days, 1 hour and 24 minutes. We finished 23rd overall, 1st pair, and I was the 2nd of just 3 women to complete. Despite having arrived in Kyrgyzstan with a 12 – 13 days finish time planned, I was absolutely thrilled to have just been able to finish at all, considering how ill I became in the early stages of the race.
With only a third of the field finishing (and only 3 women out of 25), people have been quick to ask what caused so many people to drop out of the race and what helped us complete? There were a number of reasons so many people scratched; extreme weather and lack of suitable equipment, illness from food/water or altitude, an element of bad luck with things like mechanicals and lack of spare parts, and just the simple fact that people were ‘done’. It had been harder than they expected, they didn’t want to suffer any more, they had just had and seen enough to call it a day.
I’m not a particularly fast cyclist, and pretty inexperienced riding off-road, buying a mountain bike just prior to riding in this race. However, unless you are planning on a top 5 finish, I don’t think your cycle experience has a massive part to play in the SRMR. I believe our years of experiences in remote and mountainous regions of the world played a massive part in our successful completion.
When conditions became tough, I was able to tell myself I had been through worse and it really isn’t that bad. When it was cold, it wasn’t as cold as living in a tent in -50C on the Arctic Ocean. When it was snowing and I was scrambling down a mountain carrying my bike, I could tell myself it wasn’t as difficult as pulling your way out of crevasses you have just skied over and fallen down.
We were also well prepared when it came to our kit. We took a tent and ultralight sleeping bags designed for -10 to -15c, allowing us to sleep well and recover for an average of 7 hours each night. We carried a medical kit, probably the size of everyone else’s put together, which included three types of antibiotic, a ‘Quickclot’ to stop traumatic bleeding, Diclofenac for inflammation and much much more. (View the kit list blog post here, or view my kit spreadsheet here.) We pumped and tablet purified every drop of water we drunk. We predominantly ate our own food and did not take the generous hospitality from the locals in a bid to not get sick. We rode mountain bikes with front suspension making for a more comfortable ride. And perhaps most importantly, because we were riding to complete not compete, we were able to make sensible decisions to increase our comfort levels, not just push on because it was a race. For example, when we got very cold wearing everything we had going up the lower slopes of ‘Shamshy Pass’ at 4.30am we just stopped, chucked up the tent, got in our sleeping bags for two hours until we had thawed out, ate a large amount of food to increase our body temperature and waited for dawn. Then we were up and within 10 mins everything was packed away and we were on the move again. Decisions like this meant we never really had any worrying moments. However, to be at the front end of the race there would be no time for this, you would have to continue no matter what. Only you know how bad you want it, and what are you willing to risk to win! …continues below.
Before I had even arrived my mind was set on finishing the race, whilst enjoying every minute of such a magnificent country I had wanted to visit for so long. My mind never wavered and I am grateful that I was able to achieve both my goals.
Sadly I was very poorly at the beginning of the race, which probably lost us 24hrs overall, but rarely do things go to plan on races like this. I wasn’t feeling myself early into the first big climb near the end of day 1, and by the morning of day 2 I was struggling just to walk pushing my bike up ‘Kegety Pass’. At this point, we both realised that I was pretty ill. I was struggling to breathe and unable to talk more than a couple of words at a time. I wasn’t 100% sure if I had HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Adema) or Pneumonia, as the symptoms are pretty much the same, but as each hour went by my hunch grew that it was Walking Pneumonia (difficulty breathing, cough, chest pain, fatigue, muscle pain, wheezing etc). Lee of course wanted me to scratch, desperately concerned about my wellbeing, especially in such remote wilderness and that we were climbing higher and higher. Stubborn as always, I refused over and over again. I at least wanted to give myself enough time to try and get better, not pull the plug at the first hurdle. There wasn’t time to take a day off to recover, the cutoff times were to tight. I just needed to keep moving and start some medication. (I was carrying an extensive medical kit after all, including antibiotics for chest infections). I started a course of Antibiotics at the end of day 2. On day 3 I was struggling so much, but was trying to put on a brave face, especially when other riders passed us. However, by day 4 I started to feel more human and by the second week I felt myself, with just a bit of cough left over. Sadly, other riders with the same symptoms had to pull out of the race to receive medical care and antibiotics, so I am grateful for my monster sized medical kit.
Being in a pair is often a hindrance in these races, but on this occasion it was brilliant. Without Lee I might have had to drop out, as there were parts of the climbs on day 3 where Lee had to carry my backpack and push my bike for me. Even then I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I was walking so slowly and struggling to take in oxygen that I looked like I was in the Death Zone on the final bid to summit Mount Everest! I was pleased to be able to return the favour in the second week of the race when it was down to me to keep Lee moving forward. We succeeded only due to teamwork, all day, every day.
Kyrgyzstan as a country was nothing short of incredible. I just loved the vastness and remoteness. The landscape varied so greatly from barren cold deserts to lush alpine forests. As you summited each mountain range you descended to terrain completely different from the one before. It was epic in the true nature of the word. Kyrgyzstan would have even the biggest of home lovers addicted to adventure. The only thing that might rival those views would be the people. What a wonderfully friendly and generous nation. The adults greet you with a warm smile, want to shake your hand, then just carry on with their life, the kids give you a high 5 or race you on their bicycles. I will definitely be going back again, but at a slower pace, perhaps by horse, or as a checkpoint volunteer in a bid to soak up more of the culture, the warmth and the hospitality this wonderful place has to offer.
Over the 14 days, there were of course some tough times psychologically. These for me were the long monotonous sections of endless stretches of gravel washboard, where all you could do was weave from side to side desperately trying to find a moment’s relief from the shuddering. Whereas the more ‘technical’ difficult sections were usually so spectacular that your mind drifted off from the fact you were about to push and carry your bike continuously uphill for the next 6 hours, by the sheer WOW factor of the landscape, giving you such a high that you can do nothing but stare and smile, knowing it’s these moments that truly make you tick.
There was something very special about this being the first Silk Road Mountain Race. It was an unknown to us all, making it a true adventure. We were a bunch of riders who perhaps all have a little touch of the ‘crazy’ within us and an unexplainable desire to test our limits and be prepared for anything. It is human nature that when something has been done once there will then be people who will want to do it faster and do it better, and so they should. Next years riders will have access to all the images, videos, write-ups, and kit lists from this year. With this knowledge, they will be able to ride more strategically, and no-doubt quicker. They will be able to stand on the start line with a little less of that ‘fear of the unknown’ churning away in their belly. I wish them all luck on what is a fantastic, life-changing race.
Thank you Nelson and Jeff for organising such a wonderful monster. I feel privileged to be one of the first.
A couple of podcast interviews about the ride