Checkpoint 4: Stories From the Finish at the 2023 Silk Road Mountain Race

Held in the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Silk Road Mountain Race is known as one of the toughest ultra-endurance competitions in the bikepacking world. It earns its demanding reputation as riders not only have to deal with a very tough course profile and terrain conditions, but they also have to overcome other obstacles such as high altitude, scarce and basic resupply points, sickness, unforgiving weather patterns, river crossings, and remoteness.

Tristan Bogaard was among the starting group in this year’s edition and his partner, Belén Castelló, decided to wait for him at the finish line while volunteering at the last checkpoint. Going into the event, Belén had no reference for what to expect and below she shares her experience dot-watching and soaking in all the first-hand stories.

Cholpon Ata is a town by the shore of Lake Issyk Kul and the Kyrgyz’s favorite vacation destination in the country. Somehow, it reminded me of a run-down Mediterranean beach resort where the beaches are dominated by families during the day, and in the evening, the youth crawl out to party. For riders, it felt like the ideal location to finish and being their well-deserved recovery.

At the checkpoint table, our role was to greet the cyclists rolling in (at any time of the day), stamp their brevet cards and try to accommodate their needs; usually food, bed, shower, beer, or a lighter. Not a complicated job, other than the night shifts and the challenge posed by the lack of organized business at the complex where we were all staying.

With 151 participants at the start, the 2023 edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race saw one of the highest finisher rates—53% of them arrived in time—and it also presented the most anticipated podium race as the claim for the first rider, first female, and first pair was fought for until the very last minute.

From the first to the last finisher, there’s a world of difference in what kind of journey they experienced and in what conditions they arrived in Cholpon Ata. The top 15 riders are in it for the chance of making it to the podium, enduring pain as well as sacrificing sleep and comfort for a week’s time. Sleep deprived and with an empty stomach, they described their hallucinations upon arrival: “I could hear my tires talking to me,” or “I saw many glowing eyes staring at me as I was climbing the Soviet Road.” But what struck me the most was witnessing the sense of camaraderie between these strong, competitive cyclists as they cheered for each other at the finish line.

Riders from the 35th position onwards seemed to no longer be in the same racing mindset but in fast-touring mode. They told me they preferred to ride during the day, when they could actually see their surroundings, whilst clocking in 6-8 hours of sleep each night. After two weeks on the road, constantly having to keep moving forward, they felt quite out of place at the checkpoint. Most of them had no idea what day it was or for how long had they been racing, but I could read the relief of being done and having achieved their mission on their faces.

From the 70th rider onwards, it became a private race against the insomniac snail: a digital icon moving at a constant speed of 5.87km/h, and indicating the slowest pace riders should ride at to make it in time to the checkpoint cut-offs. A dozen riders made it within the last 11 hours of the race, and they received the most powerful cheers around!

It was interesting to hear everyone’s unique reasons for participating in such a demanding event. Some signed up to claim a title, others to prove to themselves they could do something this hard (and perhaps never try again), others have unfinished business, and a few happen to be there because they thought it’d be a cool way to see the country. Some promised never to join a race like this again and others already had the next year’s edition in the back of their heads.

Scratchers and finishers, all had fascinating stories to share. Below are a few.

As for Tristan, he decided to conclude his race on day 5 in Naryn, after 700km and 9000+m of elevation gain. Over the course of those days, he developed aching pain in his left shoulder and neck with some numb fingers and painful saddle sores. This didn’t feel like a strong enough reason to quit but he worried about what these would become if he kept going. In the end, it was the constant rush that proved incompatible with the way he enjoyed riding his bike. For him, speed creates so much more risk and takes away from the real pleasures of using a bike as an adventure vehicle. Some people find thrill in the adrenaline of pedaling day and night, pushing themselves to the limit, but for him, this experience made him realize he’d rather absorb everything slowly and enjoy the many side stories a journey by bike brings.
He concluded that racing is not for him.

#1: Sofiane Sehili – 6 days, 16 hours, 47 minutes

Even though he crashed during the first hour, scratching his skin and self-esteem, he was able to catch up to Justinas Leveika within 24 hours, who was leading the race by then. From that moment, the chase started with the lead changing numerous times between these two strong riders until Jakub Sliacan caught up. Sofiane had him on his tail for the last 48 hours and he could see his lights lower on the last mountain pass, which made him push until the very last minute. A well-claimed win for Sofiane, which also brought him a triple victory in his monumental race for first place.

#9: Jochen Böhringer – 7 days, 20 hours, 29 minutes

In every edition of the SRMR there are multiple accidents, and this time Jochen was one of the rider’s joining the club of nasty falls but enduring spirit. After crossing mighty Kegeti, the second-to-last pass, he lost his balance, fell off his bike and carved a deep wound into his arm. Doubting for a while whether to continue or to scratch, he decided to leave his bike on the trail and look for help. Some locals at a nearby mosque took him to see a doctor in Tokmok, but not much could be done on his wound other than clean it. With a bunch of antibiotics in his pocket, he returned to the track and managed to finish the race, still securing a solid position.

#14: Nathalie Baillon + Peggy Marvanová – 8 Days, 16 hours, 18 minutes

Both Nathalie and Peggy joined this race looking to bring the 1st place back home. During the week, they exchanged leads multiple times and endured constant pressure knowing the other one wasn’t far behind. On the last night, Peggy overslept and fell behind but she was able to catch Nathalie, as her derailleur got badly damaged just as she reached the top of the last pass, Kok-Ayrik. After 8 days of chase, they decided to ride the last kilometers on the tarmac together and share the first place in the women’s category: a very celebrated end to such an epic battle and proof of how special this small bikepacking community is. You could tell they both enjoyed the thrill of the chase, knowing they forced each other to perform at the top of their capabilities.

#29: Pascal Tay + Dilara Tuna – 10 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes

Dilara’s planned partner for the race dropped out last minute so instead, she intended to ride solo. Upon arriving in Bishek she met Pascal who, in the taxi to the start line, offered to pair up with her. Not knowing each other even a little, they took a big risk in riding together. But, it somehow worked great for them as they were the second pair to arrive in Cholpon Ata, by just a couple of hours difference from the first pair. Pascal was sick for the initial couple of days, so it was hard for Dilara to wait around, not knowing how much she could actually push him. “Maybe it was an advantage that we didn’t know each other as we were not aware of each other’s boundaries. We were very lucky that our cycling pace was similar”. They pedaled into the hotel complex looking extremely relieved and happy to have made it without major issues.

#33: Filippo Nicoli – 11 days, 0 hours, 36 minutes

Upon arrival, we learned that his journey actually started in early June when he raced the Trans Balkan Race and then cycled his way to Kyrgyzstan for the Silk Road Mountain Race. Mechanicals are always an issue during the SRMR and in this case, Filippo broke his derailleur when pushing his bike over Jukuu Pass. Scratching wasn’t an option for him so he made his way to Bishkek by taxi to visit a bike shop. Luckily he was carrying a spare derailleur with him, but not a hanger, so they welded the one he had back onto his frame. He lost 1.5 days in the process but returned to the race feeling fresh after enjoying a night in Bishkek. We checked his bike at the end line and everything kept up!

#57: Allan Shaw – 12 days, 14 hours, 30 minutes

This was his second time participating but for this edition, he wanted to ride his dream bike, the Omnium Cargo. Choosing the right equipment for this race is key but being physically (and especially) mentally strong is what will actually get you to the finish. Allan faced several issues during the race but these weren’t bike-related: he got sick before Naryn and also had a bad fall after Kegeti Pass. Luckily, another rider was nearby and after taping him up, she convinced him to go to have his wounds checked by a doctor. A day and a half later, having quickly taxied between the crash site and Bishkek, he returned to the point where he’d fallen and pushed his bike up the last valley and pass with scorched hands and stitches on his knee. I loved seeing how, in the end, the bike had little to do with his success in the race. His perseverance got him to the finish line and the cargo bike brought all the fun he’d wished for.

#75: Köves Lajos – 14 days, 6 hours, 40 minutes

For three years, he trained to take part in the 2021 SRMR edition but unfortunately, on the 8th day, his bottom bracket froze overnight, the inside expanded, and the bearings popped out. He scratched and started preparing for the 2022 edition. Again, luck wasn’t on his side and he was the first rider to scratch after breaking his ankle on Jiptik pass. This abrupt ending wore on him a lot, as he’d invested a lot of time and money in these two editions without a satisfactory conclusion. This year, he returned once more, with the goal of making it in 11 days. But after arriving on his rims at CP3, he had to quickly visit Bishkek to purchase new tires. In addition, he got very sick just 130km from the finish line and stopped for 19 hours with a guesthouse family taking care of him. He pushed his way over the last pass and made it to the finish line just in time. He couldn’t believe he’d made it! Later that evening he got an honorable mention over dinner for his perseverance.