The Silk Road Mountain Race
It has taken over a week but I’m finally beginning to feel “normal,” not recovered, from traveling to Kyrgyzstan and winning the Silk Road Mountain Race.
What an experience. I haven’t pushed myself that hard in a very long time, and I’m happy with my performance. As for Kyrgyzstan, I would go back in a second, for the scenery, the terrain, the challenge, and the people.
I didn’t know a single competitor but going into it, I knew I had a bull’s-eye on my back. That’s just how it is.
After a long neutral roll-out from Bishkek with a police escort, the race started with a 10,000 foot climb. At the start I waited and exchanged some words with Tracey and her ride partner, Mark Seaburg, then took off. I passed everyone but one guy on the long climb, then passed him on the summit before the gnarly descent down the back side. Steep switchbacks in scree fields was a common theme in the high mountain passes the whole race.
The first couple of days I played games with the guys behind me. I had a few hours’ lead on them and maintained it, using the patience I’ve gained through experience to wait them out. On the second day I had to go over twelve hours in the heat with almost no water, which was a challenging time that now gives me the confidence to be in that situation again if it comes up.
The landscape was so massive. Everything was enormous, vast to a point I couldn’t even comprehend. Being out there I felt so small and exposed, I loved it. But just when you think you’re in the middle of nowhere, you see a man on a horse or a yurt near the path. The hospitality from people was amazing—everyone was warm, kind, and inviting. I have never felt so safe in the backcountry coming across a vehicle’s headlights at 3 a.m. In the U.S. I would be nervous and looking for a place to hide.
At one point, communicating only with hand signals, I helped a child pick up a lame sheep and put it on a man’s horse. Turns out the sheep was way heavier than I expected. The high point of the entire race was when a twelve-year-old boy rode out on horseback to escort me into Checkpoint 2. He even wanted to continue forward with me. It gave me chills and made my trip.
After a wide river crossing on the sixth day, there was a long, rough hike-a-bike over rocky, grassy terrain. Five hours later my shoes were totally destroyed. I would definitely have brought different shoes if I had known there would be that twenty-kilometer hike-a-bike.
From there I rode until 3 a.m. to get to Checkpoint 3, which allowed me to open a much bigger gap on the guys behind me, who were getting snowed on during the hike-a-bike.
I climbed another huge pass while it was snowing, then descended all night long through a big open valley, tricking myself hour by hour to avoid an early bivy. It was so cold, I had all my gear on. I finally decided to bivy, then the wind kicked up and I got rained on, hailed on, sleeted on, and then the temperature dropped and everything froze. I slept terribly and had a really slow morning. That was the worst day—I was stopping a lot, moving inefficiently, and felt out of it, while riding for hours on hot, hellish washboard.
I finally hit actual road and descended into town, where I checked the leaderboard and realized there was a guy on my heels only forty or so kilometers behind. I knew in front of me was another twenty kilometer hike-a-bike on a gnarly horse trail, so I decided I wouldn’t sleep until the end of the race. I rode into the night and it was so gorgeous—the sky was bright as I wound up through the grassy valley and as I cut over to the horse trail, I could only see the silhouette of the mountains before me.
The hike-a-bike felt very familiar, like a trail in the Rockies, so I put my bike on my back and marched. I never took it off my back, moving forward for hours and hours. A crazy tailwind pushed me upright. Near the top was a chossy couloir and I had to take mountaineer steps up to the saddle.
The descent was steep with loose, deep scree, and the wind swept over the saddle and pressed me into the ground. I got really anxious on the descent. I felt like I was flailing, my knee began to hurt, and I started puking. I sat down and tried to get my shit together. After I composed myself, I continued meticulously picking my way down. At the bottom I hit one thigh deep, rushing water crossing after another, with my toes already coming out of my destroyed shoes.
It was an absolutely crazy and potentially dangerous night and it left me full of adrenaline.
As the sun came up, I was finally able to ride again and wanted to bust out those last sixty or so miles, but there were three climbs in a row left: one 3000 foot, one 2000 foot and one 1000 foot. It was mentally exhausting. I was so cooked.
I finally ended the race with a descent into a valley with huge views. I spend three days at the guest house in the village, eating, visiting with other racers, doing vodka toasts with the family there, and trying to recover. What a smackdown.
I was really happy with my gear choices. I do not carry the lightest kit. I base most gear choices on the practicality and function of a product first, weight second. I knew we would be in the mountains and at high elevations. Mountain weather is unpredictable. While I would contemplate possibly using a bigger tire in the future, I was absolutely blown away by how comfortable my bike set up was, given the terrain. I took the Warbird V4 to its very edge, and through the whole race my back and upper body were fine and my beat up, carpal tunnel, hands were in great shape at the finish.
The race director put on an amazing event and hopefully learned some improvements for next year. PEdALED, one of the race sponsors, brought a film crew and took over the Silk Road social media, which really increased the exposure and interest from watchers, plus the crew was super professional and never engaged with me while I was racing.
While Tracey and Mark didn’t finish, it was fun to be able to share the experience with them and swap stories, and I enjoyed traveling with them.
I learned a lot about my limits and what I’m capable of, again. My preparation was on point and I’m glad I listened to my coach’s orders and didn’t do any long events prior to the race.
The Silk Road Mountain Race was the real deal. There aren’t many opportunities left to race in such remote places on such challenging terrain with minimal information. It was not the glorified bike tour that some people might have approached it as—only 29 of 98 racers finished. I feel so fortunate to have had the experience.