For centuries, traders journeyed through dusty deserts, over snow-covered peaks and across infinite grasslands, carrying their goods to distant lands via the Silk Road. The route cemented itself in history as a vital artery of civilization spreading religions, culture, languages, and ideas. Nowadays, during two weeks of August, you are more likely to see cyclists traversing the brutal wilderness, pushing their bikes laden with as little weight as possible, than silk traders.
This year saw the second edition of The Silk Road Mountain Race, an unsupported race through the wild Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Unlike the name suggests, you will not find much actual road here, but rather plenty of gravel and muddy single tracks. Covering 27,000vertical meters (88,582 feet) and 1056 miles (1700km), the race is known as one of the toughest on the map. Last year, less than half of the riders completed its first edition.
Our Freelance Outdoor Editor, Amy, traveled to Krygyzstan to volunteer at the third and final checkpoint of the race. Attempted robberies, broken cassettes, hospitable locals, pea-sized hail storms, friendly smiles, immeasurable mud, and altitude sickness – it all happened here:
The sun painted the mountains in pink hues as we arrived in Tamga, a sleepy village sprawled below the peaks on the edge of Lake Issy-Kul and the location of the third race checkpoint. A former Soviet sanatorium that once hosted sportsmen and astronauts from across the USSR, was about to host a new kind of athlete – the Silk Road Mountain Race riders.
Then, came the waiting.
At 7 pm, the first flash of a bike light darted across the guest house as Jakub Sliacan navigated the Sanatorium’s garden. Ten minutes later, James Hayden followed his path. Their mood was concentrated as they sat, eating two portions of dinner, checking the map and keeping their heads down, before riding into the late evening.
Just after dark, Lael Wilcox arrived, all smiles. The owners of the guest house were surprised to see a female cyclist emerge from the blackened wilderness. “You, sportsmen?”, they questioned in a thick accent.
Jay Peterson, last year’s winner, was hot on her heels. “I ate a whole jar of Nutella today. Nutella with a quarter of a jar of honey in it,” Jay said as he sank a beer and devoured his plov, a local dish made from rice and meat found all over Central Asia. With two mammoth passes behind them and another to go, eating enough calories could make or break the race for the riders as they battle long climbs and freezing temperatures.
1 AM. A phone call. “Where is he?”. Pause. “Should I call the emergency services?”. Pause.
Jeff, one of the SRMR team, looks concerned: “I need to pick up James,” he tells us. “He’s had an accident. Two horsemen attacked him.”
Riders’ safety is paramount but precarious in ultra-distance self-supported bike races. Nightmares are made of phone calls like this.
Control Car 1 quickly rescued James, who had fled back down the pass to escape. “They came out of nowhere from the bushes,” he later tells us, visibly shaken. “They were just two drunken idiots who wanted money, but things turned nasty really fast.” He managed to out-ride the horsemen by returning downhill as they chased him, knocking him off his bike twice.
James had to recount his story countless times the following day when the police arrived, interrupting the quiet at the Sanatorium. The front riders had put so much distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, that we weren’t expecting any more cyclists until the late afternoon.
James had already been at the checkpoint for over 24 hours when he decided to rejoin the race. “I wanted to win,” he told us before setting off. With two transcontinental titles under his belt, he had a good chance. Remarkably, he was still in 10th position ahead of the mid-pack who arrived in droves throughout the day.
This year’s race was plagued by icy conditions, heavy downpours, “hail the size of peas,” and above all, mud. Brown sludge covered riders from head to toe, breaking derailleurs and battling motivation. Spirits were mixed. Some laughed at their misfortune, recounting tales of sleeping in freezing temperatures and trucks covering them in mud as they descended down the pass. Others were struggling: “This was my worst ever day on a bike,” one rider told me.
There was the rider who rode 80 kilometers with just one pedal; Karl Speed who made long detours twice to fix his rear derailleur; A father and son duo from Costa Rica who spent their evening at CP3 hammering a crank arm back into their bike with a piece of wood; Food poisoning; Puffy faces swollen by altitude and bandaged knees. The leading female pair Marika Wagner and Sue Paz Thunström sat drained, tears falling freely when they arrived at the checkpoint. Breaking point was never far for the riders.
“There is no doubt about it, the Silk Road Mountain Race is the deep end; otherworldy around every corner and over every col,” Stefan Anamato from Pannier.cc told me. “It’s not until you are hike-a-biking land slipped passes at 4013m or pushing through a never-ending valley to out-ride a chasing snowstorm that you feel the majesty and high-altitude of Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains. It is the ideal bikepacking playground: challenging, remote, morale-boosting, morale-crushing, beautiful, ugly — all the adjectives. An incredible experience, and a relief to finish…”
I had left checkpoint three to explore Krygyzstan’s spectacular mountains before heading to the finish line when I bumped into Marika Wagner and Sue Paz Thunström. Brimming with energy and smiles, they recounted how they had pushed on through the night, not sleeping. One hell of a bounce-back, I thought. James, too, finished the race in fourth place despite his huge setback. Their transformation from almost giving up to crossing the finish line powerfully a few days later sums up the race – ultimate strength, courage, lots of gravel and absolute grit.
Words and photos by Amy Jones
You can see the full 2019 route in the komoot Collection here.