The gravel pit turns to good, hard dirt and I begin the ascent. It’s my favorite kind of road, an even grade that feels like climbing the fortress walls to the castle as the road snakes up. It’s the morning of day 3 and I feel like I’m on a quick training ride, almost like the past two days haven’t happened or they’re a distant memory. I’m listening to music and my legs feel fresh and I’m having so much fun. The climb is an hour of effort and then a quick winding descent to the valley floor and dry Lake Kel Suu. Towering, freshly snow-covered mountains surround that makes me feel really small. I pass a couple of other yurt camps on my way to checkpoint 2 until I see the SRMR banner. A couple of little kids cheer me in. Jakub the Slovakian is packing his bike. I have to keep my focus. I take off my gloves and change the track on my GPS and take a couple of puffs from my inhaler and get my brevet card and my wallet and a couple of plastic bags and go inside the yurt. The floor is grass, so I don’t have to take off my shoes. Inside, a volunteer stamps my card and we get to talking. In some way, she’s related to Yura, the man with my favorite guesthouse in Bishkek. Yura doesn’t speak much English, but he makes jokes with his eyes and his hands.
“Yes! He called me to tell me he was learning new English words every day and I asked him what he learned and he said ‘What time breakfast?’”
We both laugh. That’s pretty much the only thing Yura has ever said to me in English.
I start filling my plastic bags with food to go, with almonds and peanuts and little pieces of fried bread and tea biscuits and dried fruit. There won’t be a store until Naryn, 120km and several climbs away.
“What are these?” I point at a red dried fruit.
“They’re tomatoes. I found them at the bazaar.”
I put one in my mouth. It’s sweet and savory and I add some to the plastic bag.
“Thank you! It’s nice to have something not so sweet.”
I spread butter and honey on bread and take a couple of bites before a woman comes in with a bowl of noodle soup.
“This is good!”
I eat quickly.
The woman brings in a cup of hot back tea.
“Can you tell us something from the race?”
I remember speaking with so much heart about how good I was feeling, but I really don’t remember what I said. It’s zapped out of my brain like a warm, rich dream you wish you could extend. You wish you could fall back asleep and keep living it.
I hear a free wheel spinning and then Jay comes inside. It’s time to go. I head out of the yurt to move water from the bladder into my bottles. I stuff the two bags of food into my framebag and realize I left my bread and honey back inside. I go back in.
“Can I get a utensil?” Jay is holding up a piece of bread.
I get my half eaten piece and chug the rest of my tea and start heading out.
“I thought those guys would be long gone!”
“I only saw one.” And then I’m out of there.
The track doubles back, confusing me and then it turns onto grass. I hear air coming out and feel a sharp poke on my leg and look down. It’s barbed wire wrapped around my rear wheel and jabbing into my leg. I stop to unravel it. Sealant is spurting out. I rock my wheel back and forth, nursing sealant into the hole and it works. The tire holds.
Across the green valley, the track shoots straight up, climbing a grass wall. It’s the Old Soviet Road. I take my down suit off in anticipation of the push. Within minutes, I’m breathing hard with one hand on the handlebars and the other gripped around my seatpost, pushing my bike up one step at a time. Wildflowers line the sides of the grass trail and I have to watch out to avoid coils of barbed wire. Looking down, I see Jay. He’s carrying his bike on his shoulders, trudging up. The road turns at 90 degrees, but it doesn’t get any less steep until it levels out on a plateau, a quick descent and then back up. The batteries die on my GPS and I change them out. I’m carrying plenty of spares. Lithium batteries are lighter than Alkaline and last three times as long. The path is green, ducking down and up and there aren’t great views. It’s a labor chamber and I’m back there for a while. It’s hard work and time consuming, but overall I think it’s probably good for the body to spend a couple hours off the bike pushing. I emerge on a plateau above a valley. Several parallel cattle single-tracks lead down. I take one on the right. Looking back I see Jay take one on the left. It’s a long rough cut across the grass to a prominent dirt road and we’re back to pedaling.
Down the way, a horseman in a heavy winter coat pulls up next to me. He’s holding the reins in one hand and supporting a boxy red plastic bottle in the other– the kind used to store extra gasoline. It’s partially tucked under the blanket under his saddle. He pats the bottle and gestures his hand out towards me, eyebrows lifted, offering me some. I smile and shake me head no. He smiles, nodding yes. He points at and pats the bottle, then points at and pats the horse, then gestures two fists up and down, milking the horse. I smile again, nodding no. He spreads his thumb and pointer finger just a little.
“Chut-chut” Just a little.
“No, thank you.”
Then he points to his yurt and and spins the imaginary spoon up to his mouth, asking me to come eat.
“I can’t. I’m racing.” I shrug. I’m definitely at a loss to explain, but it doesn’t really matter. We smile goodbyes and he doubles back– maybe he’ll convince Jay to drink some mare’s milk or eat at the yurt.
The terrain is rolling and eventually climbs past a village to another military checkpoint. It’s overcast and drizzling. The guards check that I’m on the list, move the barricade away and I start my descent past cows and horses grazing the roadside. I pull over shortly after to put on my rain jacket and pants. I eat little cubes of fried bread and tea biscuits all the way down.
The wind and the washboard are not my friends for the rest of the afternoon. I listen to Lonesome Dove and get through it.
I ride through the village of Ak-Muz at sunset. Cars rev around past me, sending up clouds of dust. Twice I see groups of men huddled around bottles of vodka and I don’t look too closely. It’s a bit of a climb to the pavement and fully dark when I get there. I stop to turn on my taillight and put on my suit and sweat up the last bit of the climb and then it’s all down. I’m on high alert. The road is narrow and winding. If I hear a car or see a headlight, I get clear off the road and wait for them to pass. It doesn’t take long. I ride past my turn to resupply in Naryn, one of the larger cities on the route. I have to buy enough food for the next 250km, including the 1,755 meter (5,880′) climb over Arabel Pass. Just before 10pm, it’s brightly lit and people are out walking the streets and sitting in the park. It feels festive.
I stop a kebab stand and the worker welcomes me in English. Taken aback, I take advantage, asking what kind of meat is in the stack of Xachan, a deep fried bread roll filled with meat and onions.
“It is cow.”
I order three and ask about the two corn dog shapes in the case.
“Are they sausage?”
I ask for both.
He passes me the heavy bag and says, “enjoy your meal.” And I imagine eating all of this in one go.
I put the steaming bag in my helmet and go into the shop next door.
I go straight to the refrigerator to buy drinkable yogurt and see they have sūrelis, little flavored cheesecake bars dipped in chocolate that I ate in Lithuania. You could eat the whole thing in one huge bite. They’re delicious and full of calories and I told myself if I ever saw any, I’d buy enough to eat for a whole day. I buy the entire stock from the store– probably eight or ten of them. I start loading the front counter up with food. Some young people come in to buy packaged sandwiches. I get a couple more Snicker’s, a little bag of gummies, two bottles of yogurt and a liter of coke and I’m set.
Out front, a touring cyclist with panniers says hi. His name is Dan and he’s touring the Silk Road Mountain Race route. We pedal the lit street together to the guesthouse where Rue and I stayed while touring– 500 som ($7) per person per night. I roll my bike through the gate to the back. I’m even staying in the same pink princess room. It’s packed with international tourists milling about. I find the owner and pay her and she thanks me. Most light are out, so I wire in my headlamp to pack. The batteries are dead, so I swap them. I turn off my GPS and SPOT and connect my phone to my cache battery. I pull out my damp sleeping bag and bivy and hang them from the clothesline to dry. I throw out my trash and old food and repack my framebag and lube my chain. I drink a few swallows of vanilla yogurt and head to the communal kitchen and bathroom to fill my water bottles and take a shower. There’s a tourist on a mattress sleeping in the kitchen.
“What are you up to?”
“I’m in a long distance bike race around Kyrgyzstan.”
“So you’re just going and going?”
“I’m going to take a shower, sleep for four hours and get back out there.”
“I’d never do something like that.”
I shrug and head for the shower.
“Good luck in there.”
I’m grateful and surprised that it’s warm.
I rinse off and put my dirty clothes back on and go back to the princess room. Dan and another bike tourist occupy two of the beds and I get into the third. I set my alarm for 2:30 and apologize for the noise it’ll make.
“I’ll try to be quiet!”
“Don’t worry about it!”
I tuck my clean body and dirty clothes between the clean sheets and start breathing deeply and soon I’m out. In the night I get paranoid that my alarm is on the wrong time zone and I have to do an internet search to make sure it’s correct. Then I sleep again until the alarm sounds in the dark. I turn it off and creep out to pack my sleeping bag, fill my water bottle one final time and roll out.
Dan gets up to wish me well.
Out of the gate, the streets are mostly quiet with a few late night drinkers in the park. The stores are all closed.
I ride past a triple sized yurt advertising Karaoke and the parking lot is full. A white van pulls up beside me and the driver lowers the window. He asks me a few things in Russian and I don’t understand and I keep pedaling and eventually he leaves. A black sedan says hello out the window, then pulls up ahead of me and gets out of his car, waiting out front. He doesn’t say much, but he smiles and doesn’t seem a threat. I don’t stop. It’s three in the morning and the party hasn’t ended for these guys and I’m just getting my day started. I pedal in the dark through the villages.
The sun comes up near Tash Bashat and I notice Jay coming up behind me on the switchbacks just after and I pick it up. I’m warmed up and ready to ride. I unwrap a sūrelis and bite into it and an immediate feeling of happiness fills me. I am exactly where I want to be. I pedal morning light through Eki-Naryn and into the canyon just beyond. This is possibly my favorite stretch of the whole route. The road is steep and the walls are narrow. I’m listening to pop. A dog comes out to bark and chase me and I sprint away as fast as I can and I don’t really mind because it gave me a sudden burst of energy and speed. Being able to breathe hard four days into an ultra-endurance race is a gift, a gift to still feel athletic and ride with heart.
Rolling along the river, on my way out of the canyon, I see a rider ahead on the side of the road. His bike is laid down and something is wrong. I stop.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh, you don’t have to stop for me.”
Of course I’m going to stop for him. It’s Dion Guy. He’s still smiling, but he’s having trouble with his shoe. He shows me and the bottom of the shoe is completely pulled away from the top, opening like a puppet’s mouth.
“Oh no! Can you tape it?”
“I tried that, but the tape just broke. I guess these shoes just weren’t made for all this hiking and the stream crossing.”
“Oh shoot! I’m so sorry! You were doing so well.”
I’m wracking my brain, trying to think if I have anything to help him, but I don’t.
“It’s just a shame because I was enjoying the riding so much.”
“I know! This is such a great part. Maybe you could hitch back to Naryn and get a pair of hiking shoes and platform pedals and keep going? It’s such a tourist spot, they might have shoes.”
He smiles and nods. Such a shame how one small thing can totally take you out.
“You don’t have to wait for me.”
“I think it’s probably a good time to take some layers off.”
I’m still in my down suit and starting to sweat.
“Those pants are brilliant.”
“I know! They’re the best.
I tell him Jay is right behind me and in that moment, it feels like a fun rivalry.
“Please beat him, Lael.”
We wave our goodbyes and I leave him on the side of the road. Ten minutes later I see a man and a boy pass me in the opposite direction in a beat up truck and I wonder if he’ll catch a ride with them.
I ride the river, passing two tiny villages, both with posters for stores, but I don’t stop. I descend to a stream and change into my sandals to keep my feet dry. Two cyclotourists with panniers are sitting there.
“Hi there. How’s it going?”
“Good. We eat our second breakfast.”
They’re eating porridge out of a pot. They have seen some other riders this morning, maybe ten kilometers ago.
“Are you going this way?”
We’re all going the same way and I leave them to it.
I climb a steep pitch past a vacant farmhouse to power lines. I’m listening to music and near the top I hear,
And I actually scream in surprise. It’s Jay, startling me. My heart is racing and I hit the pedals to get away. I want my space.
It’s a steep descent back to the river and I’m in a broad open plain surrounded by mountains capped with fresh snow. The sky is blue, it’s perfect. Many tracks run parallel and cross one another. They’re worn in by cars and horses and cows and sheep and it’s not evident which to ride as the official track. I pedal from one to another, avoiding mud and washboard when I can. Having Jay at my back starts to make me feel paranoid, so I pick up the pace and drop him once and for all. The valley climb is very gradual with at least a dozen small stream crossings. I leave my sandals on all afternoon. I listen to music, then Lonsome Dove until the horseman rides along and Molodetzes me up Arabel Pass.
It’s getting dark at the top and the down suit and lights come on. I’m rolling double-track along a couple of alpine lakes at 12,500′ (3,800 meters) until I hit a main dirt road. One of the media trucks with Nadia and Paul drives alongside me in the dark to record video. I can’t imagine it looks like much. They leave me at the top of the gold mine road with it’s a 7,000′ (2,130 meters) descent all in one go, all in the dark. I pull off for a couple trucks to pass me, but there aren’t many. There’s one final climb and a sandy descent to Tamga. The apricot trees were dropping ripe fruit three weeks ago. This time, neon palm trees light the village and at 11pm, tourists are still out on the streets. I ride the alleys to Checkpoint 3 at the Aist Guesthouse.
Nadia and Rue come out to take pictures. I roll my bike up to the well lit restaurant and go through my routine. I change my GPS track and take off my layers and get my brevet card and wallet. I take off my shoes to go inside and get stamped and buy food and try to find a bed for a sleep.
The redhead asks, “Dinner yes? Five minutes yes?”
I bring my brevet card to a volunteer on a computer.
The redhead points at a table with a plate of salad and a basket of flatbread and a slice of peach cake.
“You? Sportsman? You eat?”
“Yes.” I smile.
She’s still confused. Somehow the equation is not adding up. I sit down and start eating. She heads behind the bar and into the kitchen and comes back with a bowl of two stuffed peppers in broth with sour cream. I eat in big bites and go meet her at the bar. She has a list of prices.
“Lunch box yes?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll just take a few snacks.”
There are also a couple of plates with baked goods, Snickers and chocolate bars, hand packaged small bags of nuts and dried fruit and wet wipes. I point at some orange rolls.
“What is inside?”
I order two rolls and a Snickers and a package of wet wipes.
“And a Coca-Cola?”
She sends her assistant to the cooler to get a liter of Coke.
The redhead tallies up my total for dinner, a bed and snacks and it’s less than $20. I put the peach cake from my dinner in a plastic bag and go back out to my bike to get rid of trash, repack my food, lube my chain and bring my phone and charger inside. The redhead walks me across the restaurant to the guesthouse and brings me to a room with five twin beds and shows me the shower.
“Hot water yes.”
“Yes, thank you.”
She says goodnight and goes back to the restaurant.
I plug in my phone and turn the shower on. The water is icy. I turn the handle the opposite direction. Still icy. I derobe and get in and soap up and spray myself down quickly. It’s midnight. I get back in my bibs and t-shirt, slide shivering into the little bed closest to the door, turn out the lights, set my alarm for 4am and breath my deep breaths. I’m out and then back up again. The sleep was a snap of the fingers.