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Mountains of heaven: Silk Road Mountain Race

21 Aug 2019

Currently racing across the vast plains and mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan is the 2019 Silk Road Race, a mighty 1,720km race of mental and physical strength. Cyclist spoke to protagonists of the 2018 race to see what makes this incredible event truly unique

This article was originally published in issue 1 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Jennifer Doohan

‘I turned my GPS off and on again three times. I must have spent an hour standing there, trying to work out what was up with it. This left turn wasn’t a road, or a track. I was just staring at nothing,’ says John White, 55-year-old 10th place finisher of the Silk Road Mountain Race.

‘In the end I just went on into the wilderness, and literally had to hike with my 30kg bike for 10km – over massive boulder fields and a couple of big river crossings with my bike on my back. It took me four hours.’

In August 2018, in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek, 88 riders took to the mountain roads to begin a 1,720km mountainous point-to-point race. Only 30 crossed the finish line. The route, which traversed the Tian Shan mountains, clocked up a dizzying 26,000m of vertical ascent – three times the height of Everest.

The top finishers took eight days, and while all the riders experienced severe difficulties with terrain, weather or sickness, they also all left with incredible stories to tell.

‘After doing the Transcontinental [the annual race across Europe] I was looking to organise my own event,’ says Nelson Trees, founder and director of the Silk Road Mountain Race.

‘I was in Kyrgyzstan in 2013 and I always had this location on my radar. It has started to get a bit of traction as an adventure destination.’

Kyrgyzstan is indeed enjoying an ever-growing reverence among a variety of bikepackers and tourers owing to a combination of undiscovered charm and stunning landscapes. Locals are famed for their friendliness to foreigners – and especially cyclists.

Yet given the length, challenges and competitiveness of the race, few participants of the Silk Road had much time to enjoy their hospitality.

Into the unknown

There’s no prize for winning the Silk Road Mountain Race, but competitors nonetheless take their finishing time and position very seriously, with progress marked using trackers and mandatory stops at the event’s three checkpoints.

Unlike in most self-supported endurance races, planning which roads to take was not a key factor, as the organisers selected the route themselves, and it was almost entirely off-road.

‘The format of the event grew out of what is available in Kyrgyzstan,’ says Trees. 'I thought of a road event but then realised Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have many paved roads.

‘You probably wouldn’t want to be organising an event where racers were mixing with Kyrgyz drivers either. So we ended up with an off-road event in the Kyrgyz mountains.’

While keeping the route off main roads meant there was less danger from traffic, plotting the route allowed Trees to engineer other challenges, such as the seven passes over 3,500m along the way.

‘There are dangers from altitude, exposure – people get hypothermic,’ says Trees. ‘But if you’re well equipped and know what you’re doing there’s less risk, and we can get to those people in time if they encounter a problem.’

The route started by heading south from Bishkek to Song Kul lake, a 470km leg with 9,000m of climbing to set the tone for the race.

From there riders looped through a flatter section in southern Kyrgyzstan before re-entering the Tian Shan mountains (home to numerous 7,000m peaks) and on to the third checkpoint on the shores of the vast lake of Issyk Kul.

Finally, five savage climbs, including the Shamsy Pass at 3,570m, separated competitors from the finish. Most of the route was between 1,000m and 4,000m of elevation.

‘Trying to sleep at 3,800m was tough, particularly because the temperature was -10°C,’ says White.

‘My water bottles were freezing. When I woke up the tent was frozen over, and when I packed it away the ice on it was crunching.

‘Then when I dropped down the valley, the temperature was 35°C again. It was quite bizarre.’

The unique setting and tough terrain of the Silk Road meant that while the race was nowhere near as long as the Transcontinental, it proved to be considerably harder, possibly even the hardest ultra-endurance event on the planet.

Hard and fast

The winner of the Transcontinental Race (TCR) tends to work out a route between 3,200km and 4,200km in length. The Silk Road is only 1,720km long but the winning riders in Kyrgyzstan took a day longer to finish than those in the TCR.

‘We were expecting the winners to take between seven and seven and a half days. The winner actually took eight and a half days, so it was a little bit tougher than we expected,’ Trees says.

The competitors Cyclist spoke to were also unanimous in considering the Silk Road to be uniquely difficult.

‘It’s a different level altogether to the TCR,’ says Tim France, who competed in the Silk Road as one of a pair.

White agrees, ‘At the end of some races I’ve felt emotional, even sad to be finishing, but at the end of the Silk Road I didn’t want to do another minute. ‘I was just completely spent.’

The harshness of the race meant Trees had to be brutal with his cut-off points to ensure he was able to manage the safety of participants.

‘At first I said there was no cut-off,’ he says. ‘The idea was that if you’re outside of the checkpoint times then you can’t get in the general classification, but you can get a finish.

‘The problem is that emergency services are really limited and the reality is that if someone is outside the cut-off and they get into trouble, they’re still going to use the SOS function on their tracker – and we’re going to be the people who need to go back and help them.

‘We put up a sign at one resupply point saying, “Do not continue to CP2”, which was the most remote and wild area of the race.

‘We actually had one rider who was quite pissed off about that, but I just wasn’t comfortable letting a rider go into the wilderness if we wouldn’t be there,’ says Trees.

While the race has very unique elements, Trees is clear that his inspiration was Mike Hall, the Transcontinental founder who died in 2017 while racing across Australia.

‘The reason I did this was because of the heritage created by Mike,’ says Trees. ‘I wanted to add something to that community. That was the driving force behind it all.’

Now, four entrants to the inaugral event give their accounts of the challenges they faced on the Silk Road Mountain Race.

‘It was exciting to wake up unsure if I would get through the next few hours’

Jenny Tough, 30, from Canada, 15th overall, 1st woman

Tian Shan translates as ‘mountains of heaven’, and it’s so fitting. They’re beautiful, but they’re also unforgiving – high altitude, temperamental weather, horrific inclines and tough terrain.

I’m no stranger to ultra-endurance events, but I distinctly recall saying at multiple points throughout the Silk Road that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Strangely, though, looking back I can only see myself having fun. I suppose you remember the highlights and forget the painful parts. I rode only as hard as I could and focused on making good choices, meaning I was happy to walk my bike over things that I thought could cause a mechanical.

That meant I did a lot of walking. I didn’t take on any gnarly descents in the dark – I just wanted to put in a clean run, and accepted that I might not finish in the top of the field. In hindsight, I think I should have gone a lot faster but at the same time I’m totally stoked with my result.

I’ve learned that it helps to be on a sleep schedule, so I tried to be disciplined and bivvy down between 11pm and midnight, and wake up at 4am.

I was one of the few people not to use a tent, which was a challenge given the change in temperature and altitude, but I didn’t regret that choice. By the end of the high passes a few of us kind of stuck in a group.

We were riding individually but seeing quite a lot of each other, which was reassuring as sometimes it could feel very isolated and a little scary. The people I rode with were definitely the highlight of the experience.

It was a real adventure. It sounds strange, but it was really motivating and exciting to wake up every day unsure if I would get through the next few hours.

‘The remoteness was kind of crushing’

Tim France, 36, from Huddersfield, DNF

My first competition was TCR in 2015, and the following year I finished around 30th, but I was very unfortunate – I was struck by lightning. It was in Romania. I was riding through a storm and I was in awe of the lightning and thunder. Next thing I know I’m lying on the floor.

When I came to I was mostly fine – just a few cuts where I’d fallen off the bike. I don’t know if it struck me or the bike. It didn’t kill me, obviously.

I entered the Silk Road as part of a pair, and we started really well. The first climb was unbelievable, from 1,000m to nearly 4,000m. Only 20 riders made it over on the first day, which included us.

The riding was simply amazing – it was like Scotland on speed. Everything was so big, it was just beautiful countryside.

The remoteness was kind of crushing at times, especially when we went to the Chinese border zone – we didn’t see any human life apart from an occasional shepherd on horseback.

It was all going well up until day five, when my partner had to drop out with food poisoning. I decided to push on and was doing well, in about ninth place.

I remember one very long day across a pass, which also involved a five-hour hike, pushing my bike over rock pools and rivers, all at altitude, but I managed to make it to CP3. The next day I went up the mountains and a blizzard hit right at the top. I wasn’t really prepared.

It’s pretty scary at 4,000m so I thought I’d descend as quickly as possible but I got a puncture at the worst possible time.

I started repairing it in the snow, but my pump broke. It was getting really cold so I started putting up my tent when two guys drove past in a pick-up truck. They’d been hunting wolves with shotguns. They wanted to drive me to a yurt to get warm.

Obviously I had no idea what I was getting into, but had no option, so they threw my bike on the back and took me down the mountain. Those guys were really kind. They gave me food and vodka and drove me all the way back to Bishkek.

I was going to return to the same point later on to restart the race but my thru-axle broke and there was no chance of finding a replacement in Kyrgyzstan. That was the end of the race for me.

‘I got up and rode over the pass at around 2am in pitch black’

Pete McNeil, 33, from Derbyshire, 8th overall

When we set off from Bishkek, we were right into the thick of it. The route climbs up to 3,800m on the first day, to the Kegety Pass. That was a bit of a qualifier – if you could make it up to that pass on the first day, you were in good position.

As we were making our way up, we got hit by this thunderstorm with enormous hailstones. I could see bolts of lightning hitting the ground near me. I passed people who had stopped and put up their tents even though it was only 5.30pm, and I thought it might be stupid to carry on in that weather.

It was really far too early for a proper stop, so I slept from 6.30pm until midnight then got up and rode over the pass at around 2am in pitch black, and it was quite a technical and rocky descent on the other side.

Because 11 days is such a long time I went through all sorts of different thought processes about the race. There was a certain amount of jostling for position, getting upset if you got a puncture and people rode past you.

But beyond that there was a bit of, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I was riding really fast past communities where kids were running out and people were inviting me for tea, yet I was having to gesture that I didn’t want to take that up, and keep going.

The people I passed had no comprehension. Even if they knew what I was doing they wouldn’t understand why I was doing it. There were such hard moments – the ‘grass wall’ after CP2 or the Shamsy Pass were particularly difficult.

But even then there were great moments. I camped at the top of the Shamsy Pass among yurts and wild horses.

I vividly remember the last day as it had a 90km stretch and three passes, and I knew I didn’t need to leave anything for the next day so just went all out. I came in around 8.30pm and was amazed to discover I’d come eighth overall.

I was just really glad to have finished and to have enjoyed this sense of community and these amazing stories. I felt it scratched my itch for adventure for a while.

‘I tried to sew my knee up, but the needle was too blunt to go through my skin’

John White, 55, from Surrey, 10th overall

A friend sent me a link for the Silk Road Mountain Race, and even though I hadn’t heard of Kyrgyzstan I thought, ‘I’ve just got to get on this.’

To be honest I didn’t hold out a lot of hope of making the entry. It was massively oversubscribed and limited to 80 riders. When the start list was issued, I was number 79. I retired from work so I could get the time to train.

The race manual described the Shamsy Pass as the hardest part, and when we got there we only had 136km to the finish. We thought we’d be finished that night, but we just couldn’t believe what was in front of us: a massive hike through a gorge and up into the snow.

Actually, the Shamsy Pass was hard, but the toughest moment was probably the climb out of CP2. There was a grass slope. It was only 1.5km long, but the height gain was something like 900m.

I was trying to carry a 30kg bike up this unbelievable gradient. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In the final section there were so many river crossings and when I was coming across one of the rivers I fell and smashed my knee on a boulder.

At the bottom of the valley I took my legwarmers off as they were soaking – I thought it must be from the river but it was blood. I actually got my sewing kit out to sew my knee up, but the needle was too blunt to go through my skin.

I wrapped my knee up in insulating tape, and wrapped my armwarmers around my knee to stop the blood and then rode to the finish.

Mission unpronouncable

Kyrgyzstan is the setting for this epic undertaking

What: PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race in association with Alpkit
Where: Kyrgyzstan, from Bishkek to Chong Kemin
Distance: 1,720km
Elevation: 26,000m
Next one: August 2019

Do it yourself

The details

The PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race is an epic unsupported ultra-endurance bikepacking race sponsored by Alpkit.

It takes between eight and 14 days to complete and includes numerous climbs of up to 4,000m in elevation. Riders must bring all necessary supplies and will only be able to resupply in towns and pre-set resupply points.

Control cars follow the course, ready to assist in any emergency, but any other assistance (a wheel change, for example) results in the rider being pushed off the GC. Each rider has a tracker for organisers and spectators to mark progress, as well as offering an SOS button for emergencies.

The route

The route is dictated by the organisers, owing to the uniquely remote nature of the Kyrgyz mountains and the related safety concerns.

The race starts by heading south from Bishkek, and traverses the Tian Shan mountain range. Checkpoint 1 is at Song Kul lake, and from there the route drops down to Checkpoint 2 at the Chinese border.

After 700km, riders then return north to complete a loop to Checkpoint 3 at Issyk Kul lake. That’s followed by the final 477km (with 8,000m of climbing) journey west and then north to the finish in Chong Kemin.