Read Lael’s first Reportage at You Can’t Win a 1,700km Race in a Day: Lael Wilcox’s Silk Road Mountain Race 2019 – Part I
I open my eyes to daylight, take a couple of puffs of my inhaler, compress the air out of my sleeping pad and get out of my sleeping bag. A rider with bags cruises by waving, a reminder that we’re still in a race. I stuff my whole sleeping kit into a dry bag and strap it to my handlebar harness. I turn on my GPS and put the race track on and on goes my SPOT tracker, pressing the boot print to initiate tracking. I move a pastry from my framebag to my gas tank for breakfast. I chug a full water bottle and put on my socks and shoes. The whole process takes twenty minutes and I resent the time lost. This style of racing is all about economizing time. The valley is cold, even at low elevation. I’m still wearing my down suit and rain jacket and I’m back on my bike, pedaling washboard downriver. I pass a pulled over rider and he passes me back. We don’t talk.
I pass through Kyzl-Suu, a village with a stoplight and one closed store and a sign for community-based tourism and some mean dogs. I follow the river to the main road and head upriver to Chaek. It’s Sunday and the streets are quiet, fortunate because the road is very dusty. I stop at a store and buy rolls, a block of cheese, a bag of mayonnaise, a couple cucumbers, four Snickers, a liter of drinkable yogurt and a liter of Coke. Out front, I’m slicing the cheese with a Swiss Army Knife and making myself a couple of small cucumber sandwiches when Jeff Kerkove pulls up to say hi.
“That was a hard night. It was so cold.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“Is it usually hot here?”
“Yeah, during our tour it was 100 degrees.”
The temps are surprisingly cool. Jeff has a liter of Sprite in a feedbag. He says he’s going to keep on and I’ll see him later.
“It’s all easy until the top where it gets really steep. Even after the pass, there are some really punchy climbs before checkpoint 1.”
I finish packing up, drink my yogurt and get back on my bike. It’s more dusty valley-village riding. I stop thirty miles down the way for another liter of Coke to go. The little girls say hello and the littlest one watches me wide-eyed until her father scoops her up and goes through the gate.
Past the last village and over the bridge, the climb begins in earnest. I fill my water bottle from the stream and start my way up. A bright sky turns dark and starts spitting small raindrops. Rideable until a yurt camp, the pitch turns vertical. I crawl in my easiest gear, then I’m kicked off my bike. I set it down, put my rain jacket and sandals on, strap my cycling shoes to my seatpack and start pushing up the pass. A straight shot turns to switchbacks and I catch Jeff Kerkove near the top. It’s a calf-burner.
“We’re almost there!”
I see a couple of cyclists ahead with rear racks and panniers– must be tourists. They cheer for me over the top. I cheer back, but I don’t stop. It’s a quick descent to Lake Song Kol and series of steep climbs and descents along the western shore past yurt camps. The temperature drops and the rain picks up. I stop at the top of a climb next to a herd of cattle to put my down suit, rain pants, cycling shoes, and neoprene gloves on. An enormous white heifer walks to my bike and starts licking my gas tank and framebag.
Back on my bike descending, it starts hailing. Hard pellets bounce off my ears and nose. I stop to put my hood over my helmet, tucking my face in. I put in my earbuds and turn on the pop and I’m having fun again all the way to CP1. The storm passes.
There’s a sign for the Silk Road Yurt Camp. A bundled older man waves me in smiling. Earbuds out. Sage Cohen from Alaska is there volunteering. There are three yurts and a longer building and I don’t know where to go. It’s right in there. She points to the decorated yurt. I change my GPS track, take a couple of puffs from my inhaler, get my brevet card and wallet, take off my shoes and go inside. There are two tables of people eating on the ground. The walls are covered with tapestries and rugs. I see chicken fricassee and rice and salad and bowls of tea in front of them. The tables are covered with ornate plates of dried fruits and candy and cookies and bread and jelly and butter. Sunset is in thirty minutes and I feel a strong sense of urgency. I want to get over the next climb and down.
“I think I’m going to keep going.”
I hear multiple voices murmuring, “She’s not going to eat. She’s not going to eat.”
I want to eat. I just don’t want to take the time.
A young woman takes my brevet card to stamp it. The yurt matriarch comes in with a bowl of soup and sets it down on the third table.
“There’s the soup. Just drink it.” It’s Sage.
I nod, pick up the soup and start drinking the broth.
“This is the best thing I’ve eaten the whole ride.”
I take a spoon from the table, kneel on a rug and start spooning down the lentils and meat and potatoes from the bottom of the bowl.
“That’s how we pray in Asia.” Remarks Jeff Liu.
“It doubles as a quad stretch too.”
Lifting a spoonful, I see a hair and put it in my mouth anyway.
“No, that’s enough. Thank you very much.”
“Take some bread with you, it’s fresh.”
I grab three small slices, stuff them into my top tube bag, pay the woman 350 som and get back on my bike.
“Do you have your permit number for the next stretch?”
The sun’s going down and everything is golden– the most beautiful time of day. I stop at the main dirt road away from the lake to wire in my headlamp, brighten my screen and take off a couple of layers. My mind is working. The next village, Jangy Talap, is 52km (32 miles) away with a small store and a restaurant and a guesthouse. It’s a short steep climb and then a huge descent. Will anyone be awake? If I can only get there before 11 pm, I have a chance. After that, the next village, Baetov, is another 42km (26 miles) away. It’s bigger with more stores and a hotel, but it’ll be way too late when I get there and the stores won’t open until late morning. After that, it’s a 300km stretch to CP2 with no food and very limited water. I have to shoot for Jangy Talap. I have to at least get water.
A couple of cars are parked at the top of the climb. I stop to put some layers on for the descent. A man emerges in a military uniform and asks me not to stop. I don’t ask questions, I just move on– descending the first switchback before layering up. I check the time. It’s ten o’clock and a huge descent to the pavement. What a relief. I’m cruising to the restaurant and the lights are on! I prop my bike against the building. Inside, a table of four sits with watermelon rinds on their plates and a couple of bottles of vodka on the table.
I approach shrugging, “Guesthouse?”
They point at the door to the kitchen and the owner emerges.
He looks so tired, a week’s worth of whiskers sprout from his boyish, round face.
“Yes.” It’s a tired smile.
“And I can get water from here.” I point at the sink. “And maybe I can buy food from the store. I’m in the Silk Road bicycle race and the stores in Baetov will not be open until late.”
“You’re in the race?!” He brightens up. “No, the stores in Baetov won’t be open until 9 o’clock. But we have good food here. Fresh food. Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Yes, I stayed here.”
“When? One week ago? One month ago?”
“About three weeks ago when it was really hot.”
“Yes.” He smiles. “It was really hot and now it’s cold and it will just be colder. I did not know you were in the race.”
“Yeah! And I think I’m in fifth place or so.”
I go to my bike and get a two-liter plastic bladder and my two water bottles and fill them in the sink. He meets me in the store next door. I buy two liters of coke, a liter of sparkling water, two packages of filled croissants, a pack of tomato basil crackers, a package of wet wipes and five Snickers.
He counts them out and then counts the remainder in the case.
“Only four left.”
“Can I pay?”
“Yes, for the food it’s 440 som.”
“And for the room?”
“It’s 350 som. So, 790 som total.”
It’s the equivalent of just over $11. I give him a thousand som and tell him to keep it.
“It’s a tip.”
He smiles and then shows me around the building to the guesthouse. Inside, there are three two-wheeled carts with bags.
“They are not here. They are in the mountains and will be coming back.”
He points to the room on the left. “There is an older couple sleeping there.” He points to the right. “You can sleep there.” He points to a cardboard box on the floor. “This is for garbage.”
I thank him and he departs. On the way out, he whispers, “Do one thing. Win this race!”
“I’ll do my best!”
I need to get organized.
I take the soaked sandals off my seatpack and set them out to dry. I pull the drybag off the front and pull my sleeping bag, pad and bivvy out. They’re damp from the morning dew. I take everything out of my framebag to make room for the two-liter water bladder and pack around it. I put the two-liter bottles of coke in my feedbags and get my iPhone charging cord and cache battery to charge overnight.
I’m trying to be quiet, but I wake the couple next door. First, the man comes out than the woman.
“Hi!” I whisper. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m in a bicycle race.”
“A bicycle race?! Where?”
I show them the GPS track.
“We’re touring too. What you rode in two days, we rode in five. I’m afraid you’re probably leaving very early in the morning.”
“Yes. I have to.”
The woman asks a few more questions. My brain is foggy, but I’m doing my best.
“Yes, I’m tired.”
“We will let you sleep. Good luck!”
“I have to set an alarm, but I will try not to make too much noise.”
I finish packing by the light of my headlamp and go into my room. There’s a mat on the floor and no blanket. I go back out to my bike to get my sleeping bag. I plug in my phone. It’s 11:30 pm. I set my alarm for 3:30 am, close my eyes and start breathing deeply. It’s time to slow down my brain. Meditation or sleep, it’s all rest and before I know it, the alarm is sounding. I turn it off in consideration for my guesthouse mates and I’m up packing. I drink as much of the sparkling water as I can get down. I empty a package of cream-filled croissants in my gas tank. The dry sleeping bag, pad, and bivy go back in the front roll that goes back in the harness. The sandals go back on the seatpack. They’re still wet.
I roll my bike out of the house, past the restaurant, along the narrow walk to the paved road. It’ll be dark for at least another two hours, but my mind is clear and I’m ready for day 3. I have water and food and nothing to worry about.
It’s a gentle paved climb to Baetov. The road is silent and the sun comes up in the village ten kilometers to the north. I pass through town before 7 and everything is closed. A few men are packing trucks on the main street. Men and women in collared shirts and jackets walk the dirt roads with purpose, toting plastic bags with supplies. I drank a full bottle of water on my way and I’m looking for a fill-up. In front of a park, across from the museum, I spot a spigot with an engraved sign in Arabic. It looks like some kind of water project. I down a liter and a half. It hits my stomach hard and I get back on my bike. I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I don’t. This next stretch of road is exceptionally dry and I’ll need the water.
It’s loose washboard to the next village. Then, the route cuts through a dry field and quickly starts climbing up the mountain. Steep switchbacks and pop music, there’s no way to ride this stretch fast, but I feel strong and consistent and I’m making good time. A beat-up truck passes and the driver calls out the window. He waves me in and pats the door, offering a ride. I smile and shake my head. He does it again. No thanks. He drives off ahead shrugging. A series of Land Rovers come from the other direction with decals of maps from Bejing to Copenhagen, or some other western European city. I can’t quite remember. The first rolls down their window and asks if everything is okay.
The train rolls past and then it’s just me and the horses to the top. The climb out of Baetov is a solid 1500 meters (5,000 feet) in one go. At the top, I put on a wool long sleeve shirt and descend past a couple of yurt camps with flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle and horses to the valley floor. There are a couple of larger farmhouses and in the distance, I see a bike with bags leaning against the one on the left. I keep pedaling and cross a couple of streams, shallow enough that my feet don’t get wet. I stop and fill one of the empty Coke bottles with water. A horseman approaches smiling. He points back at the yurt, holding an imaginary spoon to his mouth, smacking his lips and nodding. I smile back.
“No thank you.” I smile back, pointing to the next climb.
“No, I’m American.”
He points back at the farmhouse. “Italienets.” He pulls up the imaginary spoon again.
The Italian rider is eating in the farmhouse. He beckons me back. I just wave and smile and keep going. It’s a quick steep climb to another high point. I layer up and then head down a ripping descent to the Chinese Highway. I take a right onto smooth pavement– such a relief for my hands and wrists. This is the first stretch of the route that I didn’t ride in my scouting tour because it requires a special permit. The pavement continues for the next 150km (93 miles) and takes all of my daylight hours. It climbs and descends and I’m relieved that it’s so easy. There’s almost no traffic. It feels like free miles. I climb to a Kyrgyz flag and a gate blocks the road. It must be the border permit zone. There’s a small square building with a couple of guards waiting inside. I pull my passport and phone out of my bag and approach the window. I try to show them the picture of my permit number, but it’s hard to see. They take my passport and look through their list. It starts snowing.
“Kholodno.” The guard crosses his arms and pulls his shoulders up to his ears shivering. They invite me in, pointing at the woodstove.
“Yes, that’s me.”
The guard gives me my passport back. I pack it away and pull my down pants and jacket out of my seatpack to layer up. Another guard tells me to leave. I hurry it up and get out of there.
Down the next stretch, I spot control car 1. This is one of the five times I see them the whole race.
I’m on pavement. It’s easy. I’m happy.
Near sunset, a transport truck passes. A small girl runs from her yurt carrying two big plastic Coke bottles full of opaque liquid and shakes them in the air. It’s probably horse milk. I consider buying it but decide to be cautious. Also, I really don’t want to stop.
It’s getting dark and I wire in my headlamp and turn up my screen. At nearly 3,300 meters (11,000 feet), the air cools rapidly. I am riding towards many bright lights, but it’s not a city. As I get closer, I realize that it’s lines of semi-trucks all with headlights and taillights and little lights illuminating their trailers. I turn onto dirt right before I reach them and I realize it’s the Chinese border. I’m tired and think there must be a place to sleep around here, but I don’t want to waste time trying to figure it out. I keep riding down the dirt another hour or so. The road is pretty rutted, making it challenging to ride in the dark. I pull off at ten for an early sleep. At this point, I can see my breath and my clothing is sparkly with frost crystals. I lay out my bivy and insert my sleeping bag. I take off my helmet and put on a wool hat. My shoes and socks come off and dry socks go on. I blow up my sleeping pad and lay it under my sleeping bag. I charge my phone and set an alarm for 2:30. Or was it 1:30? All I remember is getting four hours of sleep and I do.
I wake up to my alarm in the dark. Under the beam of my headlamp, everything glimmers with frost. I take a couple of puffs from my inhaler and press the air out of my sleeping pad, making sure to pack my sleeping bag away last for a couple more moments of warmth. I put my rain pants and rain jacket on and get on my bike. I’m well-rested and ready for some dark riding. I can see my breath.
The track feels like riding an endless gravel pit. It’s flat and at times, a bit hard to follow. I feel the moisture from the lake to my left, but I can’t see it. I listen to Lonesome Dove – stories of cowboys and horses and adventure and love and death. I love it.
The sun rises and it’s still well below freezing. The caps on my water bottles are completely frozen and the water inside is slushy. My half-full liter of Coke is slushy like a slurpy. I have to stop to drink.
An hour after sunrise, I advance to a series of stream crossings. Mist is rising from the water. I stop to put my sandals on and hoist up my pants to my knees. Another rider approaches in a white helmet and a baggy black suit. My brain is a little frozen from the cold, but I recognize it’s Jay Petervary. He’s wearing plastic bags inside his shoes that come up over his pants.
“Good morning?!” He looks confused.
“How are you doing?”
“Me? I’m great.”
I start pushing through the water. It’s icy cold. There are some gravel bars between water stretches. I’m looking for the track, it’s shaped in an arc, but I’m not finding it. I see Jay take a straight line to rejoin the road on the other side, climbing away. A ride in my sandals until I’m confident there won’t be any more water to cross. I change into my bike shoes and get back on my bike. A mile down the way, Jay is on the side of the road with his bike propped up against a gate. He’s brushing his teeth. I’m in my aero bars, cooking the flats.
“Shweet!” He calls out through a mouth full of toothpaste.
I’m not looking back.