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Tales from the 2021 Silk Road Mountain Race
Written by Tom Hill // Photography by Chris McClean
In partnership with komoot

Bikepacking racing at altitude through the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan – a gruelling journey, but one that left a strong impression on every person who entered.

1,800km of non-stop bike racing, covering 30,500m of climbing and descending through the Tian Shan of Kyrgyzstan, reaching altitudes of over 4,000m. Over eight days and nights in the saddle for the winner, and much longer for the last placed finishers as they crossed the line just two minutes before the 15-day cut-off time. Fewer than half of the 98 starters completed the route.

Statistics are a useful tool. They give a sense of size and scale. They can shock, challenge perceptions, and allow comparison. Statistics don’t tell stories, though. They can’t convey the exhaustion and elation, the intensely personal hours and hours of pedal turning and hike-a-bike, and the moments that happen along the way. Statistics don’t capture the transient friendships formed on the trail, the solitude of solo, self-supported racing, the human encounters that punctuate the loneliness. Neither do they explain the impact of sleep deprivation, the wear and tear, the injuries and niggles, calorie deficit and dehydration, sunburn and hypothermia. You cannot express the diversity of terrain with numbers, from joyful, smooth tarmac to energy-sapping washboard and body-breaking rocky singletrack. Most importantly, statistics can’t tell you the impact the journey had on those racers; instead, they act as a book cover to the chapters written in the stories of the competitors’ lives.

Personal stories were being written over the entire length of the Silk Road Mountain Race 2021. After a break in 2020, the SRMR returned for its third year with its longest and most challenging edition. The SRMR follows the historic trade routes of Kyrgyzstan; modern nomads tracing passes and roads (in the broadest sense of what a road can be) that have been journeyed for thousands of years. Any bikepacking race has the potential to push riders to their limits, but the altitude and remoteness of the SRMR add another layer of difficulty to the challenge.

We spoke to three komoot ambassadors and racers, with three very different racing backgrounds, to understand a little more about the attraction of the race, their experiences, and the stories they took away.

The riders:
Jenny Tough finished the race as first female
Max Riese came in ninth overall
Natt Williams scratched after six days of racing and a bout of food poisoning

 
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What specifically attracted you to the Silk Road Mountain Race?

Jenny: ‘As both the first person to have run across the Tien Shan and then the first woman to finish the SRMR, these mountains have a very special place in my heart. I never thought I would need to come back, but it’s been niggling at me for a few years now that I could probably race better than I did in 2018 [the first edition of the race], so I returned to compete against my previous self.’

Max: ‘The 2019 SRMR was my first ultra-race experience. I spent nearly a year preparing for the event, not knowing what to expect and if I would be able to make it to the finish line between all those (in my mind) superhumans. Kyrgyzstan has been an experience I cannot put into words. I specifically say Kyrgyzstan, because the SRMR experience is made by the landscape, the culture, and the people you encounter while battling one of the hardest challenges in ultra-cycling on the planet. It was anything but what I expected. The experience [in 2019] always stayed with me as being something special that changed my life forever. I had to return at some point. With other races being cancelled I was happy and honoured to be able to participate once more.’

Natt: ‘For me, it was the opportunity to travel somewhere and enjoy new experiences on my bike in an ever-changing wondrous and nomadic environment. It’s fair to say that it exceeded all my expectations – the panoramic views, hospitality from locals who waved and smiled, and the gruelling landscape and terrain that I’d heard so much about. Also, meeting everyone from the bikepacking community was brilliant, especially the opportunity to meet a few “hitters” in real life. Realising they are awesome human beings who love riding bikes far and wide was pure gold.’

What were your expectations before the race?

Jenny: ‘I hoped to ride much stronger, both objectively and subjectively, and finish with a faster time, even though the course was much harder and longer. I don’t believe in having expectations of the experience, but I was really looking forward to interactions with the local Kyrgyz people and of course sharing the trail with other racers; some old friends and new ones.’

Max: ‘I told myself that if I ever managed to return I wanted to finish under ten days, which most likely would result in a top-ten position. Four weeks before the race I dislocated my thumb during a local MTB race in the worst possible fashion. I wore a cast until three days before I flew out, trained indoors, and had to wear an orthosis for the race. I buried all my aspirations and told myself I would join for the experience and an incredible journey.
I was excited about the night start and the rough hike-a-bike sections like Tash Rabat. It is where I am really in my element and what I love doing. I was also looking forward to interacting with the locals again, feeling like a nomad myself, escaping our everyday lives for at least ten days.’

Natt: ‘With the global pandemic playing a huge part in my preparation I didn’t go with the mindset to break myself. The only expectation was to ride my bike, have fun, and most importantly stay safe. As an adventure cyclist it’s all about the journey and taking everything in.’

 
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In general, how did the race play out for you?

Jenny: ‘My race mostly went to plan, until about the halfway mark when I began being plagued by mechanicals – in particular, non-stop punctures. For the most part, I woke really early to ride the first few hours in the dark (usually tearing myself out of a frosted bivvy!), then trying to remain steady throughout the day until sleep monsters would get the better of me close to midnight.’

Max: ‘Under the circumstances I performed unexpectedly well! Our night start turned into an early morning start as our bikes didn’t arrive in time, leaving us without warm clothes in Talas in the wild west of Kyrgyzstan. After shivering in a yurt we stormed an abandoned hotel to sleep for at least two hours in the warmth, and all that stress definitely affected my body and mind. I planned on taking it easy on the first climb and just sticking to my comfort zone. I was surprised that after a while I overtook more and more people while reaching higher elevations, and finally reached Adrien Liechti who told me that there was only Sofiane Sehili in front of us. I left him shortly after to arrive on top of Terek Pass in second position. Now I was on fire and ready to race!

‘However, the downhill made clear that racing and having an orthosis on your thumb don’t go well together. I had to take breaks and cool my swollen thumb in order to keep going at all, and had to accept moving at a more stable speed, sticking to my comfort zone. Maybe this was a good thing as I moved very consistently. Towards the end of the race, I felt way better and pushed hard into the nights – I didn’t sleep the last night at all, which suddenly put me in reach for my sub-ten-day goal. And hell yeah, I did it!’

Natt: ‘I settled into my own rhythm on the second day, once the nerves from the previous day subsided. I aimed to keep moving but I seemed to stop a lot more than I intended to – shops by the roadside, speaking to my fellow racers. This was nice, and broke up the long days in the saddle.

‘Looking back now, some parts of the race are a complete blur, but I do recall having to remain focused and adapt to changes in the weather, terrain, or cycling at altitude as the days passed. I scratched on day six: I had to bail out and think of my body first. I’d got food poisoning a few days before, and I really tried to push through, but two or three days being unable to hold fluids really took the strength out of me. I felt like I was knocking on death’s door.’

 
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How did you physically and mentally cope (or thrive)? Did you have a race strategy and did you stick to it? What worked and didn’t?

Jenny: ‘My mantra in this race was “be brave”. I knew I could physically do everything the race required, because I had already done it before, and it’s terrain I’m very experienced in. But I wanted to ride harder and stronger and to do that meant getting uncomfortable, and for that I would need to be brave enough to put myself into that place. So when the river crossings were freezing or the climbs felt too hard or the nights too long, I just kept telling myself to be brave. I even put a reminder on my phone – every time I looked down at my screen, that mantra popped up at me.’

Max: ‘It was an interesting experience for me as it is the first race I have completed twice. I usually like to see new events and places, trying to feed off the energy of going somewhere new and wanting to discover all there is. But in this race sometimes I struggled as I had already been through this. It was weird, but I was not as hungry for the success of finishing as the first time. Carrying an injury probably didn’t help. In the end it was a mental game of motivating myself and I just made it simple: I reminded myself how much I love to ride my bike. I felt very privileged to do it in a place like this together with amazing athletes in a crazy event. My strategy was simple: ride as far as you can, eat and drink as much as you can, and most importantly I know I need about four hours of sleep per night. So that’s what I stuck to and it worked.’

Natt: ‘I’ve always considered myself a cyclist who rides to explore, so I went into this year’s edition blissfully naive and in search of adventure. My strategy was a simple one. Do stuff. Have Fun. Be Nice.’

Did you have a favourite section of the route? Least favourite? And why?

Jenny: ‘There is a very special and obscure patch of grass, which the race has passed twice, that holds a place in my heart – it’s where I camped when I passed halfway on my expedition to run across Kyrgyzstan in 2016. In both editions of the race, I’ve sat down at that old campsite and reflected on how far I’ve come and the things I’ve accomplished. It’s probably silly, but seeing that patch of grass and reminding myself that I got through the hard efforts before really helped me keep going with the one I was in!

‘Least favourite? This year the race included a lot of challenging hike-a-bike, where I had to carry my 23kg bike on my shoulders while hiking up landslides, mud, and steep goat tracks. My bike weighs the same as the men I’m racing against, and I had to really dig deep to keep the pace on these segments. Secretly, of course, I loved them.’

Max: ‘The least favourite is easy: the Chinese border road was the hardest and most annoying stretch I’ve ever cycled twice in my riding career. About 80km of slightly uphill rough gravel road with washboard and barely any turns in it. Oh, and it is worth mentioning that you will most likely have a headwind and many rivers to cross. You will spend your whole day there asking yourself why you do it!

‘The favourite is hard to say because every day in Kyrgyzstan you will stare at something in awe. Maybe I would say the amazing, wildly exposed singletrack leading to Tash Rabat. It felt like a reward for carrying my bike up to 3,900m of elevation. Or perhaps it’s the lake we passed during the last long hike-a-bike pass. Friendly nomads invited me for dinner and tea and didn’t want to let me leave again. It’s hard to say, really, as there were so many highlights on this race – I could tell stories for days!’

Natt: ‘There is so much I’ve taken away from such a beautiful country. Being in Kyrgyzstan, at a time when travel was restricted, was a blessing. Jumping through so many hoops getting to the start line was worth it in the end. Every single part of the course that I was able to do stood out for its tremendous difficulty, remoteness, and warmth and hospitality from local people. But my least favourite section was the valley toward CP1. That one went on forever, and by that stage I was dealing with food poisoning.’

 
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What were your defining moments of the race?

Jenny: ‘Especially after such a long time of mainly riding alone, this race was very much about other people for me – both locals we met along the way and riders I got to share the trail with. I saw old friends and made very good new ones, and that’s what made the experience for me.’

Max: ‘If you race a lot of ultras you know and cherish the short interactions with other racers. Still, there is this feeling of competitiveness. You are there to beat them. During the Silk Road you are going through this harsh landscape together, though – it feels like a great family. Sometimes you are so happy to see another racer after days of being alone. You share an experience you will keep for a lifetime, which is something extraordinary even in our times. The same applies to the locals and nomads. Once you have experienced their friendliness and their keenness to help you, you may ask yourself why we cannot act the same in Europe. It changes your perspective on how to approach strangers.’

How does the race environment change the way you experience a bikepacking trip such as this? What do you miss out on compared to simply touring? What do you gain?

Jenny: ‘In a race, you go no matter what. The conditions change and can be brutal in the Tien Shan, but you put on your jacket and push on. If I were touring, there were definitely days when I would have sheltered in a guesthouse or waited out storms in a yurt! The thing I really like about bikepacking races is that you find out what you’re made of – you just keep pushing to that level of discomfort and see how far and how fast you can go every day. Of course, you sacrifice the pleasures of touring, like staying with locals, taking more photos, and lingering in beautiful places. For me, I need a balance of both and I don’t think I could ever race in a country I hadn’t already toured.’

Max: ‘I have never been a real tourer. I love racing, I like to move fast and push my body to the limits. In Kyrgyzstan and on this route, the term “pushing your own limits” gets elevated to a whole new level. In most ultra-races you have four jobs: turn your pedals, eat, drink, sleep. You just need to make sure you pick up enough food and water on the way.

‘In high mountainous areas the game is different. You need to do all that, yes, but you also need to check your elevation for being able to sleep, you need to check the weather so that you aren’t trapped in a storm in the worst place, you need to have a strategy for resupply as sometimes you might not have any for over 200km. You might want to filter water and most importantly you need to know your body inside out. If you move at your limit there is no margin for error. So, I make sure to leave a bit of comfort for when I am suddenly actually pushed to my limits.’

Natt: ‘Bikepacking racing is completely different to my exploration trips. You’re against the clock with little to no time to stop. That left me feeling far removed from the reasons behind why I enjoy riding my bike. For me, bikepacking or touring is the ultimate experience. Take in the journey and be proud of the thousands of pedal revolutions you made as you move through landscapes. But from a racing point of view my key takeaway is this: a new resilience to tackle day after day with next to no sleep. It’s very tough both mentally and physically.’

 
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How did you feel as you reached the finish, physically and emotionally?

Jenny: ‘I rode through the last night of my race to push through the final 37 hours without sleep, so heading into the finish I was hallucinating a wee bit and kind of confused, which saved me from what was likely to have been an emotional moment! When I reached Balykchy I was just glad to be able to stop and recover. I’m incredibly proud to have finished the race again and improved significantly on my old time, but this race isn’t defined by finishing – at nearly 50 per cent, this was one of the highest finish rates the race has ever seen, and that stat speaks for itself!’

Max: “I felt tired and upset. The downhill was way harder and less rideable than described in the roadbook and it took me forever to reach the finish. I arrived at 3.30am and the gate was locked, no lights, no-one to greet me and welcome me to the warm hotel. It turned out that the volunteers set an alarm but overslept. Soon, after all the confusion was gone, I was able to relax and enjoy some great and much-needed social interaction. More importantly I slowly realised that against all odds I had reached all my goals and oh my god did it feel good!

‘My body felt surprisingly good. I actually went on to my next race two weeks after finishing the SRMR. However, my body paid a toll for finishing the Silk Road: numb hands, constant feeling of fatigue, weight loss – and a never-ending longing to go back into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.’

Natt: ‘Unfortunately, I was forced to scratch from the race. Mentally it was a lot to digest at the time but continuing felt impossible. Another factor to deal with was the altitude. I felt dried at the top of every summit but I told myself that the downhill was coming and I would tear down that with a huge grin. That mindset worked, but ultimately did not last.’

 
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And, reflecting back, how did the race compare with your expectations? What have you learned from the experience? Will you go back, or has the race inspired you to do something else?

Jenny: ‘The first thing I asked Nelson, the race director, was that he blacklist me from the race so I won’t come back again! I’ve had two incredible experiences on this course, and it’s definitely more than enough. I’m glad to say the race met my hopes and expectations, and while there’s always areas for improvement – and those moments where I wish I had pushed harder will stick in my memory – I’m still really happy with how I rode.’

Max: ‘I am pretty sure I will be back at some point. I knew what to expect – races like these are where I feel most at home. Nelson Trees put up something incredible and special here and I am sure that other racers share this experience with me.

‘I’d also like to say thank you to the volunteers – without them the event would not be possible. We often forget that while some brave souls travel around the world to race this crazy event, brave volunteers travel out there sacrificing their sleep and free time, spending their days in the wild just to make sure the racers can race. Thank you, seriously!

‘One more thing: ultra is an amazing sport, and what I really love is that women are more equal here than elsewhere. Often you will find women smashing the competition and winning the overall race. Sometimes even setting records men will struggle to overcome for years to come. That is amazing, and I can’t wait to see more incredible female athletes entering the scene. However, even with role models like Jenny Tough, Fiona Kolbinger, and Quinda Verheul, we still only had four women at the start. In some countries it is harder for women then for men and, yes, we need to work harder to make competitions really equal for men and women, but I strongly hope we can encourage more women to join the races! I am sure you will love it, and in order for the sport to evolve it needs all you strong women.’


You can view the full route collection from the 2021 Silk Road Mountain Race on komoot

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Komoot lets anyone find, plan and share their adventures. By using the ’Find Your Next Adventure’ button on the app or the ‘Discover’ search on the website, and searching by region or worldwide, it’s now easier than ever to find the best bikepacking route Collections. Riders can then bookmark bikepacking route Collections and if needed tailor their individual journeys. To find out more, head to komoot.com

The Silk Road Mountain Race is a fixed route, unsupported, single-stage cycling race through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The clock does not stop and there are no prizes. It follows gravel, single and double track and old soviet roads that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair. There is very little tarmac. There is some walking, and at times there is great distances between resupply points. For more information and details on the 2022 route, visit silkroadmountainrace.cc and follow them on Instagram @silkroadmountainrace.

Follow the rider’s adventures on komoot:
Jenny Tough // komoot/jennytough
Max Reise // komoot/maxreise
Natt. E Will // komoot/natewill

Written by Tom Hill // @24Tom
Photography by Chris McClean // @chrismcclean

 

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