I've been through a door and am not the same person as the one who stood uncertainly on the other side 3 weeks ago. The door is the Silk Road Mountain Race (2019) and it was so much more than a race in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
Silk Road Mountain Race 2019 - Brendan Hills
SRMR is an unsupported 1700km bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan with over 27000m of climbing, 12 passes over 3500m, and with a time limit of 14.5 days. Due to the altitude, the temperature at night was regularly below freezing, we encountered burning sun, strong winds, torrential rain, snow and hail - often all on the same day. This year saw 135 starters, riding either solo or in pairs. Riders carried Spot GPS trackers so that the organisers and family, friends, fans etc could follow along on the internet - the famous and fabulous 'dotwatchers'.
I came into this race feeling significantly underprepared. A couple of weeks out I said to my partner Kate that if there was any way I could get out of doing it then I would take it. I was terrified. I had never done an event this long, or with such experienced competition, or requiring such self sufficiency. The organisers had been at pains to emphasize the difficulty of the course, the weather, the terrain, the remoteness. Even if you push the SOS button on your tracker, it could be hours or days before help arrives. There is no helicopter rescue service in Kyrgyzstan. There are places on the course that are inaccessible to vehicles. Why wouldn't I be terrified?
The Curve Uprock works as both transport and shelter
Kyrgysh 7 grains porridge with raisins and a squeeze of condensed milk - mixed with hot water. And instant coffee
I finished preparing my bike - Curve Uprock number 001 (the first after Steve's prototype) - a couple of weeks out by rewiring the electrics to provide dyno power for my Exposure Revo light, the Garmin Etrex and my phone, fitting the "tusks" (aerobars), and using the 3D printer at work to build a mount for the Etrex between the tusks. I had done a few short test rides, and one weekend tour in Exmoor with Kate to make sure it all worked. That seemed barely adequate. My camping setup - consisting of a tarp pitched over the Curve - was finalised in Richmond park just days before I boarded my flight to Bishkek.
I arrived in Bishkek 5 days before the start and planned to immediately ride up to the Ak Tash ski resort 2500m up in the mountains to get some altitude acclimatisation. However, my rear brake had been destroyed in transit and didn't work at all. I eventually found Sergei the mechanic at Velo Lider in Bishkek who thought his friend could fix it.
I left the brake with Sergei and caught a taxi up to Ak Tash - so at least I could sleep at 2500m. The next day, Sergei messaged me to say that the brake was fixed, so I got a taxi back down to Bishkek, reassembled the bike, then rode back up to Ak Tash. During that ride, and the descent the next day, I had my first tastes of Kyrgyzstan hills, washboard, dog attacks, and the great scenery. I also enjoyed hanging out with the other riders who were taking the same opportunity to acclimatise.
This race is so unrelentingly hard that it deconstructed me, and left me with only the options to quit or to rebuild myself - and it did this time and time again. Quitting was not an option, but not just for the normal reasons of pride, determination, and avoidance of self loathing, but because there was often not any way to quit. I was in totally committing terrain, often alone, and without any access to a rescue service. Most of the time I had no mobile signal, and for a few anxious days I was also without a Spot tracker when the cable ties holding it to the bike snapped and it was lost.
This was a race in which we were not always safe. There were sections on the passes that would be dodgy with mountaineering gear - you know, with significant risk of rockfall or slipping on ice. But I was doing this alone, in bike shoes and carrying a 20+ kg bike, usually tired and/or sick and sometimes in the dark. One of the other competitors said at the after party: "I've been in horrible crashes on the road, had cancer, and been in a commercial airline crash, but I've never felt scared like I did in this race". I read Apsley Cherry-Garrard's classic "The worst journey in the world" to get a sense of perspective*.
But aside from the danger, there was just difficulty after difficulty. A 5km push up Shamsi pass was followed by a 15km push down the unrideable horse trail on the other side. The beautiful Soviet era track over the last pass had been obliterated by dozens and dozens of landslides, so every couple of hundred metres I was obliged to carry the bike over unstable piles of jagged boulders. Then the 2000m descent was strewn with boulders, riven with erosion trenches and alternating patches of sand - so even there I had to back off as I didn't want to smash a wheel with less than 50km to go.
Each night I so looked forward to pitching camp and downing a hot freeze dried meal. For the last few hours I would be salivating in anticipation of those first few glorious spoonfuls of Sate or Beef Goulash!
Highs and Lows
Guy Jennings invited me to join him in his evening coffee ritual. As the sun dipped below the ridge line, the temperature dropped and we quickly went from knicks and lightweight jersey to thermals, puffer jacket, and warm gloves. Guy and I boiled water while we piled layers on, then sat and enjoyed a delicious coffee while the sun set in the valley. A sublime moment.
Perhaps my best moment of the whole race was on Day 7 when I had the worst day of the event, when I woke up after a short sleep with severe diarrhoea. I could only ride for 5 or 10 minutes between stops, and after taking 3.5hrs to cover a flat 13km, I fell asleep mid squat. Luckily I had my pants up because one of the control cars found me that way. Jeff (one of the course designers) chatted to me for a while and I had to turn away with tears in my eyes when I told him that I couldn't ride, but I didn't want to quit.
Jeff reminded me that I was well ahead of the cutoffs, and sensibly suggested I should camp where I was for the day, get a good rest, and give my body a chance to recover. So I did that. I set my tarp up on the grassy meadow near the river and next to a big boulder with some spectacular petroglyphs of mountain sheep. I felt the sweat of childhood summer camping holidays as I slept in the hot tent for most of the day. The afternoon wind turned gusty and cold and there were little rain squalls so I moved to a more sheltered spot across the river.
I had settled there, and was starting to dread the approaching long night - fearing laying in the dark awake and alone. But then who should arrive but my friend Bengt! He was looking to take a short nap and wanted to shelter to let the rain pass by so he pitched his tent directly in front of mine so we could chat in comfort. We both were just starting to cook some food when along came another mate (and fellow Curve rider) Hayden. He decided to shelter and brew up as well, and like a magician he produced a tiny packet of St Ali coffee and shared it around. What bliss!
We sat eating delicious freeze dried meals and sipping exquisite Melbourne coffee in comfort while the wind swirled the rain spatters all around us and the rushing sounds of the river provided a counterpoint to the serene mountains all around us. What a moment to share with comrades in arms.
After 3 or 4 days of being sick, but still managing to cover moderate distances I found some dodgy Russian antibiotics in Bokonbaev which seemed to sort me out. I got a good sleep on my way up Tong pass (the highest of the whole race, topping out at just over 4000m) camping that night in one of the nicest spots imaginable; soft grass, sheltered from the wind, next to a babbling mountain stream, and with a view of the lights of the finish line in Cholpon Ata sparking off lake Issu-kul.
In the morning I felt great and I wanted to push on again. After a couple of hours riding I was excited to come across Bengt again. But then I realised he was in his tent at 9:30am. Oh no…
Bengt was so sick - at least as bad as I had been a few days before. For a while I sat in the sun in his tent vestibule chatting with him and snacking on salty Tuc biscuits (yum!). He wanted to ride in together, but said he needed 20 minutes sleep first. I relaxed in the sun and contemplated this situation while he dozed, but the main conclusion I reached was that 20 minutes sleep would not be enough to fix Bengt: he needed a whole day of rest. Since we were still far ahead of the cutoff times, and he had plenty of food, with water in the river 100m away, it was better to rest there and regain his strength then to push on slowly. I woke him after 20 minutes and went through this suggestion with Bengt and he agreed. I filled his water bottles and reluctantly left him there dozing in the sun. As it turned out, Bengt stayed in that spot for 36 hours, sleeping for 28 of that.
The last 3 days were amazing.
I crossed the incredible Shamshi pass in beautiful weather together with my friend Markus Spitz. The pass itself is great, but seriously, who wants to push their bike 15km down a hill like that? But then I pushed hard over the "3 bonus climbs" (any of which would be a major climb in another event) so that I was close enough to the finish that I could push through without camping again. I slept fitfully from 3am for a couple of hours, then got up with the dawn to cross the final challenge: the fearsome Pereval Kok-Ajryk pass.
That challenge was much more than I imagined with a beautiful road covered in dozens of landslides requiring carrying my bike over jagged rocks - alone and in the dark. A slip or a trip would put me in a serious position - but luckily that didn't happen. This last pass took me hours and the sheer difficulty and stress of the danger and possibility of being lost in the dark eroded away my sense of elation at being so close to the finish. I reached the end of the 2000m descent flat and empty.
However, the final 15km of smooth highway into the rising sun were excellent (other than having to stop to fight off packs of dogs). I wanted to feel elated or excited, or to have tears as I finished - but truthfully I felt empty and blank. But I had finished. One of the hardest bike races in the world, amongst the hardest, most prepared, most experienced racers on the planet. That understanding has laid a pillar of confidence and strength within me.
No injuries, no breakages, no long term pain: the gear turned out to be perfect. I am sure I carried much too much weight, but I was warm and dry at night, never ran out of battery power, food or water. I had reliable, delicious and nutritious breakfasts and dinners; and I used every piece of clothing and equipment that I carried. The Uprock was flawless - comfortable and fast, but above all reliable: all I did was lube the chain each day and I replaced the rear brake pads once. Tyre choice was excellent with the Vittoria Mezcal giving great traction on the rocky descents, and still rolling well on the occasional tarmac sections. Letting them run quite low pressure took some of the sting out of the hundreds and hundreds of km of corrugations that I rode.
Now I am back in London and back to reality. I have lost a few kilos, my fingertips and toes are tingling and sensitive I suspect the skin will peel off them in a day or two), and I am hungry all the time. Other than that, I am unscathed. I find this amazing - having done much shorter rides (600 and 700km) that have left me with unusable hands or knee or Achilles pain for weeks. Somehow I have escaped that. Having said that, I haven't been tempted back onto the bike this week…
I feel calm and confident. Work stresses and the normal minor setbacks and issues in life seem easy to deal with. I also feel that I could take any cycling challenge right now - and although it might be hard, I would no longer have doubt about my perseverance or ability.
That feels like a gift.
*If you haven't read it, please go and get it. It's nearly 100 years old and has yet to be surpassed** as a tale of hardship and heroism in the most extreme conditions on Earth. And it's beautifully written.
**Oh but "Touching the void" is close.