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 second part of a four-part blog series by Markus, recounting his incredible experience. If you have not read Part One, read it here.
When we left the flagpole just outside of Bishkek on the morning of the 17 August, I had no doubts that this race would test me.
I had spent about two weeks in Kyrgyzstan before, mainly to acclimatize to the conditions and the altitude, but also to experience the country at a different, slower pace. I had experienced hundreds of kilometres of washboard gravel roads, broken up by steep mountain passes; hundreds of kilometres without any shelter and very little opportunity to resupply.
Eighty per cent of Kyrgyzstan is covered by high mountains, with the remainder made up by valleys and basins. Often called the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’, this is the perfect backdrop for an unforgiving race, a Hunger Games on bikes.
Photo: Antonio Abreu
A few hours after we leave the capital behind us and climb gradually towards the first mountain range. I navigate safely through a herd of cattle that shares the road with me.
Soon torrential rain gives me a first sense of what to expect. While I experienced one chilly night on my scouting trip, rain is something I hadn’t had so far, neither snow. It was the heat, sometimes well above the 40 degree Celsius mark, that tested me in the weeks before the race.
While I have packed waterproof trousers, two sets of warm gloves, overshoes, knee high socks, face mask, skull cap and down jacket, I wonder if the space would have been better used for extra food.
Crossing the 2,500 m mark I suddenly understand how different the conditions can be. Shortly after a rest on the climb up Kegety Pass a snow storm transforms the landscape into a frosty winter wonderland.
This is August, the second warmest month of the year. And it is just the beginning of what is to come.
Photo: Danil Usmanov
When Stefano bumps into me at the tourist information in Naryn, one of the only three places along the route that serves proper coffee, he senses that something is seriously wrong. Pale faced with watery eyes, I am hiding from the dust, heat and diesel fumes inside, waiting for about thirty minutes for my cappuccino.
Having just arrived by car from checkpoint three he joins me for a coffee, before we both decide to use the opportunity and get some proper food before we part ways again.
While we left checkpoint one at Lake Son Kul together, I didn’t meet Stefano at the second checkpoint close to the Chinese border. 746 km into the race his hydraulic brakes gave up.
He scratched and decided to go for a walk instead.
The Silk Road Mountain Race doesn’t allow for mechanicals unless you can fix them yourself. There are no bike shops along the route. You either have spare parts, the capacity to improvise, or both. Otherwise the race is over.
I am close to a ‘Did Not Finish’ when a spoke on my rear wheel rattles itself loose on the descent from checkpoint one. Although I have carefully planned what to take, the spoke nipples in my tool kit don’t fit. This is a very amateur mistake.
For a short moment I am utterly annoyed with myself. I sit down, have a coffee and stare at my bike, resting upside down on handle bars and saddle in the dust, while others cruise past.
After a few minutes of self pity I remember Jenny’s mantra: ‘Fix your own problems.’Jenny is a good friend of mine and the first woman to finish last year’s race. Her stories from the Silk Road Mountain Race and her running adventure, unsupported across the Tian Shan, inspired me to come here.
Perseverance is needed as I fix my own problem, spending more than four hours outside the café trying to rattle the nipple out of the rim. Patience certainly isn’t my strongest character trait, but I persist. It takes another couple of hours to re-seal the rim tape.
Finally I succeed with the help of a small piece of plastic, cut out from a toothpaste tube and isolation tape.
Not all luck has left me on the dusty road here. It is the brilliant company of Mars, the owner of the cafe, that makes me smile again. Not only does he feed me coffee and proper food, he also knows someone in the tiny hamlet, consisting of six houses, who owns a compressor to seat the tyre again. Mars is what I would simply call rad.
After a frosty cruise along the Chinese border I roll into Kel Suu Yurt Camp, checkpoint two, with Stefan and Dave from Pannier.cc in tow. Liam joins us.
While the temperatures have soared well beyond the thirty degree mark again, he is still wearing his down jacket. The day before his handlebar bag gave up, while I got caught out in another fierce storm. We spent the night in an abandoned house along an empty highway, which quickly became known as ‘Liam’s Guest House’.
Space is premium on every bikepacking setup, so in the absence of an alternative to his broken bar bag, Liam has to wear the clothes contained inside.
A day later I find myself in the same situation. I am wearing almost all clothes I carry with me. Not due to a broken bar bag; it is bitterly cold.
After soup, bread and cookies I was the only rider pushing on after checkpoint two. I still had three major passes to climb on the 131 km to Naryn. Feeling well and properly fed, my plan was to get all three passes out of the way in the evening and during the first half of the night.
The strategy was to set camp in the valley closer to the town and arrive there by midday at the latest. The idea was great, but reality was something different.
I got very tired on the last climb and decided not to carry on. Pitching my tent close to the road under a star-lit sky around midnight, I woke up a few hours later, shivering in a tent covered with ice...
To read Part Three, click here.