August 2019 Markus Stitz set off on a ten-day bikepacking trip through Kyrgyzstan as preparation for the Silk Road Mountain Race.
We arrived in the Kyrgyz city of Karakol in what has become a familiar state after a stretch in the wilderness… tired, hungry, desperate for a shower, and in need of clean clothes. It’s true that civilization never feels better than when you’ve been away from it for a handful of days, and for us, the timing was perfect to reset and not think about the bike or riding for at least a moment.
I put my bra back on and brush my teeth and walk from the dorm room past the pool table salon to the restaurant and out the door to my bike. It’s four in the morning and still dark outside. It’s a new day. I’m ready to ride. Rue is on her computer waiting at a table and follows me out.
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.
Three years ago when I was tossing around the idea of a long-term bikepacking trip, I had two primary options on my mind. There was Peru and the Andes of South America, which I had a tiny bit of familiarity with given my short previous stint there, and then the wild card… Kyrgyzstan. A small former Soviet country dotted with lakes and covered in glaciated peaks as tall as 24,400 feet. With a rich nomadic history due to its place on the ancient Silk Road trading route that passed through from neighboring China, it makes for an ideal locale to load up your bike and get lost in the mountains. So even while I was still in Patagonia, I was scouring maps of Central Asia for the possibilities that awaited in the faraway lands of the Kyrgyz Republic.
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.
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.
Nine days into the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race, the top 5 has revealed itself. It took winner Jakub Sliacan an astonishing 7 days, 6 hours and 46 minutes to complete the 1708 km of decrepit Soviet roads, river crossings, and alpine passes. He was followed by Lael Wilcox, Jay Petervary, James Mark Hayden and Jeff Kerkove.
A lot can happen in 48 hours. At 4 am on Tuesday morning (local time) James Mark Hayden was the first rider to reach CP2. After suffering from altitude sickness in the first stage of the race, the two-time Transcontinental Race winner has made a remarkable recovery and is currently leading the race. While the main contenders were taking a much-needed rest in the deep hours of the night, James pushed through to be the first to get his brevet card stamped.
At the dawn of Day 3 of the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race 2019, it’s becoming clear that the second edition of this 1705km long endurance race through Kyrgyzstan will be a close pursuit. While last year’s winner Jay Petervary was in the lead for the first 360km of the race, first time competitor Jakub Sliacan overtook him on Sunday afternoon before they arrived at CP1 within 30 minutes of each other. After only a very short break at the checkpoint, both riders continued on their way.
Scratching from the Silk Road Mountain Race
Words and photos by Max Burgess
So what happens when you make the decision to quit the first edition of one of the most anticipated endurance races on the planet? I’m laying outside a yurt at 3,000m above sea level, next to Son Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan. I’m exhausted. The last few days of the Silk Road Mountain Race have tested me to the limit both physically and mentally.
It is the first time for my race partner Justin and myself to take part in an endurance race and if the truth be told, we never really came to race. It was evident from the first day out of Bishkek, as we meandered up Kegeti Pass along with our friend Jon. A few weeks earlier, I had divided the entire race route into manageable chunks that would put us at the finish in 13 days. But, as I’m lying by Son Kul lake at the first checkpoint, the reality dawned on what we are actually taking part in. We are already 24-hours behind our schedule within five days and can’t afford to loose any more time. Missed flights home are not an option for either Justin or myself, especially that I have a ten-year wedding anniversary only a few days after my return!
This beautifully shot video focuses on Belén and Tristan’s tour on the ‘Pamir Highway’, through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, highlighting why they cycle.
This lo-fi and long video captures the energy of this bikepacking trek that took Lucas Winzenburg, Joel Caldwell, Logan Watts and Joe Cruz across Kyrgyzstan in 23 days.