The World is Big and the Mountains are Tall: Lael Wilcox’s Silk Road Mountain Race 2019 – Part 4

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.

“Jeff Liu needs to talk to you.”

“What happened?”

“James Hayden was attacked.”

“What?” It’s not real.

Jeff comes to explain. James stopped here to eat last night and continued on to the next pass. Around 1am, two drunk men on horseback with dogs attacked him. They yelled at him and pushed him off his bike. He got back on and they pushed him off again and tried to take his bike away. He got back on and descended back down to the pavement, escaping them. We picked him up on the road and brought him back here.

“Oh no! Is he okay?”

“Yeah, he’s sleeping now.”

“Oh, I feel so bad for him. James is strong. What if it had been me?”

We’ve all been riding so hard with limited sleep and tough weather. It just doesn’t seem fair. James was so well prepared for this race. He spent weeks scouting the track. He was carrying more gear than everyone else with a tent and a stove and camping meals and back-up bike parts. He had thought of everything. How unfortunate.

“Oh no. Now everyone is going to think it’s dangerous here. We never had any problems during our tour. James didn’t have any problems during his tour. This is so unlucky”

“It could’ve happened anywhere.”

He’s right. It still makes my heart sink.

The race organization requires that I have an escort up the next climb for safety. The media car will wait for me at the base of the mountain and follow me up past the danger zone.

I get on my bike because that’s all I know to do. I pedal through the gate, then the alleys to the pavement, past the waterfront and along the main road past deserted store fronts and beach resorts. It’s dark and quiet.

Jeff and Paul are waiting in control car 1 at the dirt intersection. I make a left and they follow behind at a distance. The road is sandy and rutted and steep. Just before sunrise, I pull over to pee, take a layer off, turn off my lights and turn on some music and then I’m back in workout mode, loving my ride. The road is rough with roots and plants growing out of cracks. I’m surprised they can drive this. At some point I notice the control car is gone and I assume I’m in the clear, out of danger. I’m on my bike and I’m flying high.

The road summits at a cemetery, briefly descends past a village, climbs back up alongside power lines before the big descent to Bokonbaev, a big city with plenty of shops, cafes and banks. I stop at a samsa stand.


Yes, she has potato samosas and I order four. She asks if I want them heated up in the microwave and I decline. I tuck them into my framebag and pedal down the street, looking for a grocery store. I find a bigger building and hope it’s well-stocked. It is!

I buy a bottle of kefir and a carton of yogurt and a liter of Coke and many different candy bars and chocolate covered peanuts. I look at the counter. Is it enough for 176 kilometers including Tong Pass? It is!

Out front I pack up and drink my kefir and throw out my trash. A huddle of men watch, but they don’t say anything and I roll out. It’s a couple kilometers to get out of town and I turn left at the sign to Tong Pass.

Tong Pass climbs 7,000′ (2,100 meters) in 19 miles (30km). The sky is moody and dark and I’m focused on getting over. Near the top, three horsemen pass me and continue directly up the steep, rocky pathless mountainside with grace. I have to push up the loose switchbacks. I’m clearly on the wrong vehicle. There’s fresh snow on the top and I’m relieved to follow tracks. It’s steep and slippery and the footing isn’t obvious. It’s a grey and white landscape of stone and snow, a beauty in its own right, but I also feel like I could die up there. I’m up and over and I don’t stop because it’s a bit of a walk down the other side too and I won’t lose my heat. At this altitude, my brain is goofy and I can’t think clearly, but I still feel happy. Light rain commences and I aim to get down as quick as I can. A path of loose rock becomes shale and I mount my bike to ride. It’s off camber and slick and I slip on my side. No matter, I’m back on and then I’m off again and it registers that I better walk a stretch, so I do. I descend down to wildflower level and down to a creek and my next focus is the rushing stream crossing. I change into my sandals and I pass it and I’m relieved. It’s a green grass path to a farmhouse and a main dirt road and I’m in the clear. I look back at the pass and the sky is totally dark and I’m so glad I’m down.

A fierce tailwind carries me 10km and then it switches into a headwind, almost like it changed its mind. I keep pedaling. The wind direction carries little emotional weight. It is what it is. I avoided a storm. I feel grateful.

Then I start seeing them, riders coming my way. They’re dirty bikepackers, mostly in groups of two or three. I must see at least ten of them. Their expressions are confused, but I know why we’re all here. This is the stretch where the route doubles back on itself– these riders are headed for Arabel Pass with the cheering horseman, then checkpoint 3 and the beach on Issyk-Kul, then the washed out climb where James got attacked and Tong Pass covered in snow. They have a treasure map of experiences ahead and so do I. The last one I see is Klaus. He stops.

“Is something wrong?” He looks concerned.

“Oh no no. This is where the route loops back and repeats itself.”

“Oh really?!”

It’s good to see him. I first met Klaus in Israel in 2015 during my first bikepacking race, the Holyland Challenge. I love that we’re both here right now.

“How do you stay motivated? Is it your music?”

“Right now I’m listening to a book. It’s really good.”

He’s been struggling. The first day in the snow he camped in an abandoned van before Kegety Pass. He made up a lot of distance on day 2, but got sick after checkpoint 2.

“Are you in first?”

“I think I’m in second, but I haven’t checked the tracker so I can’t be sure. I know Jay isn’t too far behind.”

He’s been really enjoying the night riding.

We hug our goodbyes and pedal opposite directions.

At the bottom of a hill, I fill my bottles from a stream and get up and over the next climb. The sky clears up and about an hour after sunset, I pull over in a wide valley at the bottom of the next climb to sleep. In the night I awake to a sky full of stars and the Milky Way. It feels like a reward to sleep in such a beautiful place. I’m out cold, sinking my tired bones into the earth.

I’m up again in the dark and I climb through the night. Dogs bark at me through a closed up village. Will any of the stores on the main road be open when I make it there?

The lights are on in the restaurant and an old lady is sleeping in a booth. She wakes up when I come in. I see fried bread discs, stuffed pastries, smoked fish and a basket of eggs on the counter.


She nods yes, then wakes up her son to unlock the door to the store.

I buy Snickers and Coke and tea biscuits and a couple of little containers of strawberry yogurt. Back on the restaurant side I buy five discs of fried bread. I point at the eggs. Are they cooked? Yes. I buy two. I don’t really want them, but know the protein will do me good.

Out front, I throw out my trash, peel the hardboiled eggs and put them back in a plastic bag. I eat the yogurt with a tire lever and get back on my bike. It’s sunrise and a paved descent to Kochkor. I swallow the chalky eggs on the way down. The town is still sleepy when I get there with dozens of boarded up shops. I find an open one on the way out and stop to drink a bottle of kefir, an effort to help my digestion.

It’s pavement and washboard to the village of Shamsi. Control car 2 with podcaster Stefano and photographer Antonio is waiting for me outside of town. They leapfrog me several times, kicking up dust and I’m breathing it in. Severely steep grades up grass hillsides lead to the final yurt and the trail becomes a horse track for the next twenty kilometers. I change into my sandals for the hike and the stream crossings. To the top, the moments of riding are few. I push past horses and cows drinking from the stream. It’s sunny and windy and I’m grateful it’s not storming. A steep push through loose shale gets me to the pass and I walk the first stretch down the other side, holding my brakes. I see the storm coming in and I’m motivated to get down. When it turns to switchbacks, I’m back on the bike, riding horse-packed singletrack. This is real mountain biking! I stop to walk across a series of streams. I’m back down into the wildflower zone. I’m on and off the bike, getting through it and I’m actually having fun. It starts sprinkling. Looking back at the pass, dark blue-purple clouds blanket the sky. I keep moving forward. After a small gate, the surface becomes double-track, then past a yurt and a railcar it turns into a chunky road. Home free I’m relieved.

There are three or four major stream crossings on the way down. Descending through rocks, the shock cord on my seatpack snaps, slapping my thigh and my shoes drop out. I hold them in my right hand and get back on the bike, thinking I just want to make sure there aren’t any more stream crossings on my way down. I’ll change into my shoes soon. Poor choice. I slide out on wet rock and fall down, knocking my handlebars crooked for the rest of my ride. I’m too stubborn to stop and fix the handlebars. As long as I don’t look down too much at them, they don’t bother me. I stop to put my shoes back on and individually stuff my wet sandals into empty feedbags and I’m moving again, but the sun is going down and it’s getting cold. I stop to put on layers. A young horseman stops to talk with me, asking where I’m going. All I can respond is Issyk-Kul because that’s where I’ll finish. I think he gives me some route advice, but I really only remember his smile.

I follow a river down and then I turn and start following another one up. I remember this as a valley of mean farmhouse dogs and I aim to get past them. In the grass, before the climb really gets steep, I stop to sleep. It’s 8pm and clear and dark and will be dark for another eight hours. I lay my bivy out flat and crawl into my sleeping bag. I don’t blow up my sleeping pad cause it’s warm enough that I don’t need it. I set my alarm for 10pm. This will be my last sleep. In two hours, I’ll get up and ride to the end.

At ten, it’s still warm and calm and I’m excited to have the whole night to myself and ahead of me. I’m up and down the three bonus climbs before sunrise. It’s still dark when I hit the main road stands, but a sleeping lady out front opens up for me. I buy five more fried discs, a liter of Coke, a liter of Fanta and an energy drink. I ask for milk, but she doesn’t have any. This will get me through. Food has become fuel and I wish I could skip it.

It’s a mellow climb up a river valley past Shabdan and then into the national park. The riding is punchy and beautiful– one of the only regions with trees and forests. I hit the pedals hard, thinking I might be able to finish by sunset. A driver in a pickup truck flags me down, but I don’t stop. Up the way, there’s a lady waiting at a gate. She asks where I’m from and where I’m going. I’m not supposed to go over the pass. I see some admission tickets on her clipboard and point at them. Can I pay to get through? I give her 200 som and she gives me a slip of paper and I’m on my way.

A few rollers lead to a river plain and I’m cranking. I’m inspired to ride fast and get this done. I finished Lonesome Dove in the night and I’m listening to Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw and it’s not very good– too much harping, too much talk about hamburgers and foie gras.

A horseman calls out to me from a yurt and I continue past to a wide river. There doesn’t seem to be any easy way across. I put on my sandals and start making my way, but it’s deep and swift. I step back to dry ground to refigure my grip and make another attempt. The horseman trots down to the river bank. He asks where I point over Kok Airyk. He whistles surprise and points up to the sky and wraps his arms in tight and shivers. It’s so high it’s so cold up there. Then, he motions me to come back to the yurt to eat.

Zavtra. Tomorrow I can go over the pass. I smile and shake my head no and point up into the mountains. I have to go over now.

From his mount, he pats his horse’s backside, gesturing for me to give him my bike and he’ll carry it across. I shake my head no. I have to do it myself. I start my way across the river. The water is rushing and I’m having a hard time holding on. I’m wobbly in the water. Before I know it, the horseman dismounts and is next to me, water coming high over his rubber boots. He puts a hand on my bike frame and we carry it across together.

On the other side, we’re both gasping. I thank him and put my bike down to change into my shoes. He points ahead and indicates there’ll be another stream crossing, then I turn sharply right and it’s steep to the pass. I thank him and get back on my bike wondering how bad the next stream crossing will be. It’s passable.

Not long after, I make a sharp right past a cattle shelter and a barking dog. I’m soon off my bike pushing up another grass wall that leads to an old wide road. I’m thrilled that it’s rideable, but not for long. A couple kilometers up, the road is covered with rockslides– large loose rocks and stones and boulders. I’m trudging along, partially dragging my bike and sometimes lifting it, sometimes riding for a few meters, but mostly not. It’s slow going. From the river, it didn’t seem like I was too far away. I zoom in on my GPS and there are three sets of many switchbacks. The road is quite gradual, but it’s so damaged that movement is terribly slow and each switchback is long. There is still an exceptional beauty to it– bare faced rock and rushing water; it’s so immense. About a thousand vertical feet before the summit, the road is covered in snow and I see a kind of gate indicating the pass. It’s nearing sunset and I’m up above 13,000′ walking through snow in sandals and it’s getting cold. I stop to layer up and put on my neoprene socks. I reach the top at an orange-pink sunset and start walking the descent to Issyk-Kul.

The road down is in worse condition than the road up covered in rockslides that are mounded boulder hills at times. I’m losing daylight. I pass an old rail car near the top. The door is ripped off its hinges and the entry way is open. It’d be a good safety for someone caught in a storm. I wire in my headlight and plug my dynamo light into my power bank for a consistent beam. In the dark, it’s hard to find a good way through. I’m along the edge of a cliff and I imagine my bike tumbling down. I’ve been up for nearly 24 hours and I’m starting to lose clear sight. I stop to close my eyes. I need a reset. I set my alarm for eight minutes and I fall asleep. The alarm sounds and my first thought is that maybe I should sleep for another half an hour. Then, I imagine waking up here in the rocks in broad daylight, thirty miles from the finish and that’s a reality I don’t want to live. The reset works. My mind is clear again and I’m able to crawl through the slides.

It has to get better. At some point, the road has to get better. And it does in a way. From rockslides, it becomes a rutted, sandy, rocky doubletrack. I see the bright lights reflecting off the lake and the dazzling colors look like a circus. It’s lumpy and my wrists are so sore from holding on, but all I have to do is finish. The grade flattens a bit and I hit a rock and my body jets forward, my pelvis slamming into my stem. I just have to finish. I see the lights of the paved road and then I see control car 1. Nadia comes out to hit me with her flash in the quiet and I’m unfazed.

I stop at the paved road. It’s quiet and warm with a light humid breeze. I change out of my wet sandals and neoprene socks and I’m back in shorts. I illuminate my taillight and I’m ready to pedal pavement. I get into my aerobars. It’s so easy! I crank on the pedals past bars and restaurants and little shops all lit up. A group of three stout ladies wave from the roadside and I wave back and then I realize they’re flagging down a bus. I see the sign for Cholpon Ata and I turn right to the path the leads to the lake and I realize I over shot the finish, so I loop back to get there. The homestretch is a lit courtyard on pavers past potted roses to a little restaurant and there’s a small crowd waiting and I squeeze the brakes.

That’s it. I’m done. It must be about midnight.

Rue is there and Sage is there and they give me hugs. Nelson’s parents are there and they’re kind. Flo stamps my brevet card and Chris asks me questions– he has the great quality of getting excited about almost everything.

“There’s someone special that wants to talk to you.”

It’s Jakub, the winner. He gives me a vase of flowers and I thank him. He finished nine hours before and he wanted to be sure he was up to congratulate me.

Rue has a salad and yogurt for me. Flo makes me a camping meal. I sit and eat and talk and I’m so tired. They’ve got a room for me upstairs. I leave my bike behind and go up to shower and sleep.

Twenty hours later, Jay Petervary finishes. Jakub and I wake up to welcome him in. A crowd is waiting for him for a fried fish and buckwheat dinner. He promptly orders two.

Four hours later, James Hayden arrives. He took a full day off to deal with the attempted robbery and police report and then he rode himself back up the pass where he was attacked and hauled ass for an impressive finish. He has no complaints and lays no blame. It could’ve happened anywhere. He’s already got plans for next year and I have a good feeling, the record might fall. James showed a hell of lot of character out there.

Forty-eight minutes later, in the night, Jeff Kerkove arrives. He’s wearing his arm warmers over his legs for compression. His legs are like swollen tubes and his feet are white and he’s still smiling. The restaurant is closed, but Rue has some extra food and beer for him.

“Do you know how many of these sandwiches I’ve eaten? Probably at least twenty. Delicious!” He bites into it.

“Would you like some beer?”

“I don’t even like beer, but that sounds great.”

James and Jeff pour small cups of beer out of a big plastic bottle and cheers. We spend a few minutes sitting back in the calm and then we all go to bed.

For the next week, Rue sets alarms every half an hour to make sure she doesn’t miss any finishers. She has a goal to photograph them all. I wake up to her alarms and I try to greet as many of them as I can, but sometimes I just can’t get out of bed. I’m so tired.

For 150 som ($2.15), the hotel cantina serves a couple fried eggs, bread and blini. The mom cooks, the teenage boy serves and the young girl collects money. We all eat like machines and share race stories.

Three days later, I go to Karakol with Sage and the Germans. As part of a US embassy program, I talk with a classroom of high schoolers about my rides around the world. I see the light spark in Alonya’s eyes. She’s fourteen years old. She rides her bike everywhere. It’s summer vacation, but she still comes to school every day to study English.

Sage says, “What do you think? Shouldn’t she come to Alaska for Anchorage GRIT?”

I turn to Alonya.

“What do you think? Do you want to come to Alaska next spring to ride bikes with other girls your age and build up to an adventure ride to the wilderness?”

“Yes!” The excitement swells through her like a wave.

She gives me her contact information and takes down mine.

“When do I write you?”

“How about this month and then again in the winter.”

Now, we just have to make it happen.

The world is big and the mountains are tall and the storms look scary, but as long as you keep moving, you get through it. This is where the route loops back and repeats itself. We all have a treasure map of experiences ahead.