Through the earbuds plugged into my brain, I hear their vodka-soaked throats call out.
“Hey! Heyyyyy! Hey!”
I turn and look. They wave me over to the yurt. I wave back and smile. They keep calling me in.
It’s not a reason to stop nor a reason to be concerned. I continue on my way. I’m riding in sandals, letting my feet get wet in the twenty or so stream crossings along the way up the valley and keeping my cycling shoes dry. It’ll be near freezing at the 3,800 meters (12,500′) summit and I’ll need those dry feet for the 2,200 meter (7,200′) descent to Lake Issyk-Kul.
Five minutes down the road, the horseman sidles up next to me. I turn off the music and turn to face him. I don’t stop riding. First, he points to me and then the yurt. I shake my head no and point farther down the road. He shakes his head no and makes a climbing zig-zag with his finger. I nod my head yes and point there. He pulls a thick white rope out of his pocket, extending it and trying to give me the loose end. He wants to tow me up the pass. I smile and shake my head no and say no. He insists, holding out the rope. No, I smile.
“Just for one minute.”
He keeps offering me the rope and cycles through offers from one to five minutes. I keep saying no. He’s relentless. I stop smiling, but I keep pedaling. I don’t want to encourage him. He pulls a smaller rope out of his pocket. What about this one? No, not even that. I can’t help but laugh. We continue our way up the pass and his little dog trots behind. His horse farts and he wacks him on the booty with a fist full of rope. Time stretches on, the afternoon fading. At some point, the horseman registers that I won’t accept the rope and I’m not turning back and he changes his approach. He starts to cheer for me.
“Molodets! Khorosho! Davai!
I think this is the Russian equivalent for Allez, Allez! Go, go, go!
The road turns to steep switchbacks and the horseman rides off– I assume heading home. I dismount and start pushing my bike up the pass. Then I hear him.
“Molodets! Molodets! Khorosho! Davai! Davai! Davai!”
He’s at the top calling down. The closer I get, the more frenetic his cheer. His voice is cracking and he’s clapping his hands. The sun is setting.
I reach him at the top and I stop. He gasps for air. First, he shakes my hands and then he kisses my cheeks and he smiles huge– a top row of gold teeth and a bottom row of air and gums. Wrinkles crease his forehead and cheeks under a dark golden suntan. Then he points back down at the switchbacks and tells me it only takes him five minutes with his horse– it’s taken me the better part of an hour. We both laugh.
I take off my wet sandals and strap them into the shock cord atop my seat pack. I put on my down pants, socks and cycling shoes. The night is cooling quickly.
He points ahead, drawing one final switchback and then flat and then down. I’m back on my bike and wave goodbye.
“Kak Zavoot? Kak Zavoot?!”
I shrug and start riding away. I don’t understand. A short distance away, it clicks, he’s asking my name.
“It’s Lael!” I call back. By then, we’re back in our own worlds.
This is the fourth night of the Silk Road Mountain Race. I’ve pedaled 1065km (662 miles) with 15,500 meters (50,830′) of climbing. With a field of 140 riders, Kyrgyz horsemen have been my only riding companions. Their visits are brief and without a common language, our communication is limited. This is the first day it hasn’t snowed.
It’s a 13km (8 miles) and 300 meters (1,000′) of climbing to the start of the Silk Road Mountain Race. It feels silly to ride extra miles before the start, but it feels sillier to make any other arrangements. I’m staying at the Ohana guesthouse in Bishkek, run by Yura. I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for a month and this is by far the nicest place I’ve stayed. Yura is caring. He stored our gear while we were touring. He makes us breakfast every day. The wifi works. The air conditioning works. The shower has hot water. Yura is kind and considerate and funny. After an oatmeal breakfast and last-minute packing, James Hayden, Klaus Thiel and I depart at 7:30. The morning is exceptionally cool for this time of year in Bishkek. It feels great. James comments that cool here is cold in the mountains. Thick clouds cover the sky.
The final pitch to the start is switch-backed and loose and at the top, over a hundred riders are already up there. Twenty minutes till go time. I pedal to a bush to pee. I’ve carried an extra 1.5 liters of water up and I drink it. I say hi to a doctor from the US embassy. Rue passes swiftly, all-business mode, and it’s all I can do to get a quick hug. I set my bike down to wait for the start.
“Good morning, Lael.” It’s Jay Petervary and we haven’t communicated since before the Tour Divide.
I turn to say good morning.
He says, “good luck and have fun.”
I reach out my hand for a shake. He hesitates, then shakes. Considering everything that has happened, this is a positive interaction.
We line up for the start. I’m wearing knock-off clear Oakleys that I bought the day before. They’re grey transition lenses that look terrible, but they protect my eyes. We ride the first 20km of double-track loose dust. I see Jay Petervary mashing at the front. I ride alongside Klaus and a Scotsman that raced around the world on single-speed. He has gears now and he’s really happy about it. He’s on a mint Surly Straggler with extra tires on both fork blades. I’m on a hardtail with a suspension fork and 2.3” tires. The roads in Kyrgyzstan are rough and I’d have it no other way.
“They’re really in a hurry. This is my compromise between my steady all-day endurance pace and not getting too far behind.” It’s James Hayden.
He’s right. No early maximum speed is going to make a difference for a race that takes longer than a week.
Within two hours, it starts pouring rain.
“The real question is when do you stop and put all of your waterproofs on?” Asks James.
I don’t because we’re climbing. I’m waiting for that long descent, but I actually really have to pee. I go about 100 meters past a bus stop and push my bike below a bridge to get away from the surrounding people. I pee and put my rain jacket on and I’m back on the bike. Max from Austria sails past. When I catch him, he says we’re ready for ski touring weather and we’re laughing. We get to the base of Kegety Pass and the rain turns to snow. It’s not light snow, it’s a blizzard.
Luca the Italian pulls off under a tree. I put music in. I really don’t want to stop. Then I do, to put rain pants and neoprene gloves and socks on. Then, I’m totally alone all the way up the pass. It no longer feels like a race. The snow falls in inches, stacking on my aeropads, on my front roll, on my light, on my helmet. I’m listening to the Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Confidential audiobook to dissociate from the cold around me. I’m a feeling person, but I’m not here to focus on hardship. Anthony Bourdain talks about aspics and doing lots of drugs and my fingers freeze, then they hurt a burning recognizing of feeling pain. I fantasize about massive mountaineering down mittens that I saw in a shop in Bishkek. I should’ve brought those! It doesn’t matter. I’m here now. Up, up, up to the top. It’s a 2,700 meter (9,000′) climb all in one go. Earbuds out– no music or voices for the descent ever. I need my focus. There’s a rider up top taking a moment and eating some food. I’m over, but I’m not stopping. It’s at least a kilometer of rough walking down the backside. I follow the GPS track and the horse poop because that shows the actual travel route. I have my eyes on the river below. Once I get down there, the track will clear up, I’ll actually be able to ride.
I get to the river. I put on my down pants and jacket underneath my rain gear and I’m descending at full speed. The snow lets up. Two hours till sunset. The up-top rider catches me and we’re descending the rolling green valley for sunset past yurts and a flowing river and horses and cows. At some point, I don’t see him anymore. It’s getting dark. I’m aiming for over the next pass, then mostly down and a little up 80km to Kojomkul. I do it. I reach Kojomkul around 2 am and ride beyond the barking dogs. I’m camping alongside the river just past at 2:30 am– Rue and I camped here on our tour. The bugs were bad then, so bad we had to jump into the tent with a quick zip of the zipper. It’s freezing now and there’re no bugs at all. I lay out my borrowed Mountain Laurel Designs bivy and Big Agnes sleeping bag. I blow up the Uberlight NeoAir Thermarest. It’s the first time I’ve carried an inflatable sleeping pad on a race and I’m still questioning the process. I slide the sleeping pad into the bivy under my sleeping pad and close my eyes.
I want to get up to ride.
I tell myself that no matter what, I will rest for four hours. Even if I don’t sleep, I’ll meditate for four hours. This thought calms me down. I breathe deeply. The meditation mantra is REST over and over and I imagine my body sinking into the ground and it doesn’t last that long. I’m sure I’m asleep within twenty minutes for a 6:30 am alarm wake-up. I know I’m not winning, but nobody else is either– you can’t win a 1,700km race in a day.