In early August, Markus Stitz embarked on a journey to Kyrgyzstan to take on arguably, the most challenging race in the world, The Silk Road Mountain Race.
This is the final part of a four-part blog series by Markus, recounting his incredible experience.
When I spot an empty hut before the final climb up Kok-Airyk Pass, I flick the switch. For tonight, race mode is turned off.
Reminding me of Scottish bothies, this is the perfect place to stop and rest. I sit outside with a piece of cheese, some stale bread and the remainder of my chocolate spread, watching the sun slowly disappearing behind those majestic mountains. It is those moments that I savour, those memories that last forever.
I sit here, eating my cheese and thinking about the race. Tomorrow at the same time I will hopefully have crossed the finish line. But while I look forward being back in civilisation, the thought of leaving this behind makes me a little sad. I will miss the simplicity of being out here. Eating, sleeping, riding. Getting lost in the moment.
At 3.30am the alarm goes off and I am out again. First the climb seems easy, but there is no doubt Nelson has saved the best for last.
Shortly afterwards the road disappears under massive rock avalanches. I can spot Ciaran behind, while a massive gate marks the top of the last climb in front of me. Slowly but surely we both edge forward.
As fittingly described in the race manual, ‘the quality of the road varies from really quite good at times, to utterly destroyed. There are many sections where landslides have completely obliterated the road.’ The race manual doesn’t lie.
Only a few hours from the finish line this feels like the final punishment. The views from the top of the pass are worth every bit of the effort. Before me lies a surreal world with massive mountains and glaciers.
In the distance, an abandoned wagon and an old caterpillar remind of the time when this road was built 30 years ago. I sit down, breathe and close my eyes. It’s all downhill from here.
On the descent my front wheel loses traction in a sandy rut and I go down straight afterwards. I swear loudly. It is the first time in the whole race that I cry.
With blood dripping from my right knee I curse Nelson. My arms are sore, the rest of my body is equally battered. All I want is to finish, but it will take another two hours until I reach the final stretch of tarmac to Cholpon-Ata.
With only 15 km to go I make best use of my ambitious 44t chain ring and squeeze every inch out of my beaten body. I have less than an hour left before my dot on the tracking page bounces up and down, telling the world I am done, and less than a day until my plane takes off again from Bishkek.
The final 15 km are a calm return to normality. Passing small settlements along the way I still admire the mountains that surround me, but also look forward to a shower & proper food. I make a final stop at a small shop and buy a bottle of Coke. It will be my last for a long time.
Although the race has thrown a lot of unexpected situations at me, scratching never crossed my mind. The encouraging messages from friends and family, the cheers of the Kyrgyz people, the wild horses galloping on the horizon, the company of other riders along the route: all those provided great motivation along the way.
But in the end, it was down to me to get through this. I embraced the challenges. I fixed my own problems. I enjoyed the rewards.
Shortly after 4 pm I finally roll over the finish line. I stop and lean my bike on the wall.
Lael Wilcox is one of the first people to congratulate me. She came second, holds the women’s course record for the Tour Divide and won the Trans Am in 2016.
Although she finished almost a week ahead of me, she hangs around at the finish to congratulate everyone that arrives. She and I climbed most of the first pass together, but soon enough Lael was way faster and off on her own race. And what a race she had. In many ways Lael epitomises what bikepacking is about: camaraderie, adventure and a mutual respect for people and environment.
Nelson comes over and gives me a big hug. Long forgotten are the swearing and cursing a few hours earlier. It’s Nelson who created this epic. It’s him who presented us with those incredible challenges, but also those amazing moments that made the Silk Road Mountain Race an experience I will never forget.
Picture: Antonio Abreu
I stink, my jersey hangs loose and my shorts are stiff from almost two weeks racing without a single wash. While I am smelly and worn out, dust and salt on my face are replaced by a big smile.
Out of 140 starters I am one of only 70 people that finish the race. While the Silk Road Mountain Race provided me with challenges that often pushed me way beyond my comfort zone, I left no stone unturned to finish.
If happiness has a face at this very moment, I am sure it is mine.
Picture: Antonio Abreu
Markus Stitz is an adventurer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has cycled around the world on a singlespeed bike from 2015 – 2016, including a crossing of the Nullarbor Plain, and now runs Bikepacking Scotland, Dirt Dash events and is working with various organisations on sustainable tourism products.
Future events and more information about Markus can be found at www.markusstitz.com.
More pictures from the Silk Road Mountain Race can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/reizkultur/collections/72157710764136681/
An article about the race preparation can be found on the Yellow Jersey Blog: