Our daughter, Alex, was born at the beginning of 2021. At first, I found myself not having enough time for training and such, but later I started to feel more like I didn’t have enough time for Alex. Training at the same rate was beginning to seem unjustified. However, sunk costs feel real so I found it difficult to just throw away years of relatively consistent training without doing one more race.
The original plan was to do HT550 (less travel, less cost, more suitable to my riding preferences, would allow me to enjoy the summer with family because it’s already over at the end of May, etc.). However, I applied 2 days after the applications opened and found myself so far down the waiting list that I was advised not to expect a spot on the startlist. At that point I thought that that was it for me. I knew I didn’t want to keep training the same way for another year and I was mentally too invested in HT550 to find another race attractive. However, with a bit of time, I figured that racing something that suited me less could be interesting because it would be difficult in a different way.
I knew I wanted to race something that was reasonably well organized (I, and inevitably people close to me, put heaps of effort into preparations over the years, so at least some guarantees around the event seemed like a good thing). Thus it was not going to be a Tour Divide or one of the semi-underground races. Another consideration was that while I’d like to race something challenging – not a race that happens to be tailored to my riding preferences, it shouldn’t be a race that strongly favours other types of riders either (short non-technical races can be done without sleep, etc.). Also, it should not be a race on the road with traffic in any significant way. Recently, I wrote an instagram post why I think that SRMR is a good race if you want to ride and compete, the post is here. Of course, I’ve already raced SRMR in 2019 and that could have caused serious motivation problems. Doing something 2nd time isn’t nearly as exciting as doing it the 1st time. But I figured I’d focus on the race aspect of it and not the adventure side. This time around, the (dis)satisfaction was going to come from the execution. And so I signed up and got a place on the startline!
I sketched out my physical preparation in a separate post. Nothing fancy, mostly relying on relative consistency in training over the past 5-7 years. The two main issues I had to deal with leading up to the race were lack of time to consistently keep volume high, and the rapidly depleting motivation.
Volume-wise, from the start of the year till the end of July, I did (all sports together) 8500km, 457h, 136,000m of ascent. Notice that this averages to only 15h/wk. The monthly sequence of hours was (Jan - Jul): 44, 39, 41, 75, 85, 70, 103. Plus ~30h in August before the start, although then they were not exactly training hours, more like sit-on-the-bike hours.
Here are the costs that the world incurred because I did the race the way I did it.
|return flight Stockholm-Istanbul-Bishkek
|flight back from SVK
|train to SVK
|buying material *
So 2.6t is a crude underestimate. I am confident that we’re in fact talking about 3t or more. Just to race one race. To put this in perspective, models suggest that if we want to keep the global temp increase under 2degC, we need per capita CO2e budget to be around 2.1t/year by 2050.
We travelled to KGZ 9 days before the race (with my Dad, a friend Lukáš, and later joined by another friend Katja (cap #56) - she ended up riding from Arabel plateau to Naryn without a saddle – see the photo, that too while dealing with stomach issues). The idea was to go up Jukuu (first hike-a-bike pass of the race) in 3 days and then meet Katja back in Karakol before doing another 4 days of riding towards Enilcheck with her. I found the altitude much easier to handle than in 2019 and I already felt good up Jukuu. So in hindsight, I should’ve just arrived to KGZ 3-4 days before the race. Maybe then my legs wouldn’t have felt so blunt on day 1 after a week of doing very little. But overall, everything went smoothly and I didn’t have any GI issues, niggles, injuries, mechanicals, or any other problems. It would have been nice to have at least some excuse from the get go, but I really didn’t :).
The night before the start, James (cap #2) messaged me saying that he sourced the ergon grips which I couldn’t find in Sweden between my Slovakia trip and departure for KGZ. They were actually Stefan’s (cap #101). So thanks to both of them! My hands were destroyed in a different way than before, making them fairly functional all the way until the finish. So that worked out well!
There were a few things that guided my in-race decisions.
I knew I wouldn’t sleep in guesthouses, I wouldn’t accept invitations from anyone, and I would sleep at low elevation (as much as possible). The exception was sleeping at checkpoints, which comes with little time overhead. If sleeping low wasn’t an option, I’d go to bed early and wake up early to ride through the coldest part of the morning before and around sunrise as it’s easier to stay warm when moving.
All my food would come from packaged sources unless it was a safe kind of food (e.g. bread) or it was at checkpoints (there’s some risk in this, but that’s where I drew the line). I bought some fastfood (fried things) in Baetov as nothing else was open around midnight, but I really didn’t like it so I didn’t actually eat almost any of it.
I’d take care of myself to ride sustainably. The race is in a pretty remote and harsh environment, so decision making should be sound. Operating on lack of sleep makes me not think clearly and ride slow. So I’d sleep sufficiently for my needs. I was trying to be careful with eating and to not run low on food and such. And I’d be careful about the physical condition of my body (saddle sores, numb hands and feet, sun protection, frostbite, dust in lungs, eyes, etc.). From 2019 I knew that I could limit breathing issues by breathing through the nose as much as possible on dusty roads and around car traffic. I also knew that lying down and sleeping for a few hours gave me coughing fits and made me cough out solids and allowed me to breathe better.
I wasn’t going to take risks on descents.
My riding was going to be a bit less reactive this year as I was mostly interested in seeing how well I could execute the race. Because of this, I didn’t have much need to check the trackers. I was going to do so at food resupplies and some major stops.
|Total time [hh:mm]
|Moving time [hh:mm]
|Temp min [C]
|Temp max [C]
|Speed avg [km/h]
HR data was incomplete because the belt fell down to my waist during the day. So averages are missing, The max HR values are most likely about that, so I kept those.
The start was “neutralized” and we had a police escort for the first 25km. As it turned out, the front of the field was really far up front, not waiting for the back at all. So I had to make my way to the front after I had realized that. Yannick (cap #114) did a strong pull and we were at the back of the front group before the race really started. Soon after we turned off the big road, Sofiane (cap #1) crashed on a pothole that he didn’t see. A few people stopped to see if he was OK. I think I was the first one to start moving again when I saw that he was scratched and bruised, but not in danger. After that, the day was tedious until after Enilcheck (CP1). I got there 4th and I met Sebastian (cap #100) just as he was leaving. I left the CP1 in second place but was soon caught and passed by Justinas (cap #53). We were climbing to 3850 that night and there was a storm higher up (lightning, snow, etc.). When I was getting over the pass it was snowing, but lightning and thunder were already elsewhere. The descent was unpleasant as we got sprayed with all that slush and mud from the wheel. I didn’t get too cold though so no issues. When I got to the bottom of the descent, I stopped to sleep. It was warm and the rain seemed to be clearing slowly. We did 300+km that day with a 9am start. Enough for day 1 (for me anyway).
I woke up around 5am and left towards the long flat to Saruu - a village under the first proper climb (Jukuu). It was ~100km of flat riding on the roads. When I checked the tracker, the leaders were already there, in Saruu! I wasn’t sure what that meant… Did they miscalculate their paces? Or was the bar raised so much that I was no longer competitive? 100km behind after 1 night is a lot. I knew they’d slow down (finishing the thing under 5 days wasn’t going to happen), but I wasn’t sure by how much. 100km is 5+h. A gigantic gap. Anyways, I kept riding at my pace and found a few of them at the hike-a-bike towards Jukuu and Arabel plateau. Some looked better, some worse :), but all of them were behind on sleep. The headwind on top was pretty debilitating, moving 7-12km/h on a flat road is not an encouraging situation, but there was nothing else to do anyways, so I kept moving. I knew Justinas and Sofiane were ahead and I expected some of the others to leapfrog me at night again. I decided to sleep early because the valley was going to be cold in the early morning. I wanted to be back on the bike after 2am. I was already having considerable breathing problems on day 2, so during the night, I had the coughing fit (as expected) and coughed out some good bits. That freed my breathing for the next day. It became a routine going forward.
I hoped to make it to CP2 for the next night. It was going to be a ride of slightly over 300km with a stop in Naryn after 170km or so, but mostly easy riding (up to headwind): some washboards, some climbing. Before sunrise, I made a few mistakes. One was going off route. We are allowed to take alternative double tracks of the same road, but my tracks peeled off the original road and I hadn’t noticed in the dark as my map was zoomed out too much. So that cost me over 7km/~30min including retracing. The other mistake was getting my shoes wet/muddy. They then froze solid by sunrise and my feet only began to defrost at the end of the second climb out of Arabel valley. That familiar hurt of defrosting limbs served as a good distraction for a while. In Naryn, I resupplied, checked trackers (Justinas, Sofiane, and Adrien (cap #4) quite far ahead of me), and left again. I caught up with Adrien as I was reaching the border zone checkpoint at the edge of the plateau towards CP2, km ~765. I figured Adrien and I would both sleep at CP2, so we could as well ride a bit together. It was nice to chat to him a little, as I had never really met him before. With some elasticity between us, we basically reached CP2 together. Sofiane was still there, but Justinas pushed on. At that time I figured he must have been feeling really good given that he didn’t mind little inconveniences like sleeping in the open at 3200m on a clear night. Also, doing Soviet Road at night is definitely a bunch slower than doing it in daylight (although I’m not sure if that was ever an option for him given that he’d have to be stopped at the CP for ~9h). We chatted a bit with volunteers at the CP before going to sleep, it’s always nice to meet the good souls at CPs. I heard Sofiane leaving around midnight (or what I thought was midnight).
My plan was to leave CP2 so that I get daylight on the hike-a-bike up the first part of Soviet Road (easy to get there in the dark, light not needed up that push, but I wanted light for the rest of it). Adrien left with me, but we separated over the Soviet Road section. As soon as I reached the only repeat section of the route, I found headwind. Not too strong at that point, but in one hour it was pretty bad and it stayed bad until the route turned the corner out of the border zone (at the end of Chinese highway). The rough surface and terrible headwind sometimes brought me to standstill. Progress was very slow, and the plan to be in Baetov by 9pm had to be discarded. I was happy to eat some bread in a quiet trailer at Torugart (where tarmac starts). The headwind makes riding very noisy, so quiet in the trailer was nice. The paved highway from that point onwards was faster than the rough gravel, but still 10km/h or so. When I finally got tailwind in the evening, there was an uphill and a downhill before I turned off the tarmac section. I was happy to finally climb a hill out of the headwind. By the time I reached the final climb before Baetov, it was well dark. I arrived in Baetov just after midnight, and everything except for a dodgy-looking takeout place was closed. So I ate some bars and nuts I had and went to sleep behind town. Sleeping outside was definitely my preferred option. The weather was good, altitude low (temperature high), and the amount of wasted time was up to me.
In hindsight, the headwind on this day probably decided my race (apart from insufficient preparation). I tried to rest my elbows on my bars as much as possible all day. I was leaning forward A LOT that day, and it might have been the reason why my neck gave up 2 days later. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems plausible. Overstrained muscles are often the worst not the next day, but afterwards. Though, this is only speculation on my part.
Sofiane and Justinas were already a bunch ahead when I woke up (not unexpected, but I was hoping that they were at least deteriorating by doing this over and over again). The section that followed was hot, dusty, and roads were rough. I resupplied in a village I was passing that morning, and used the stop to put on a new chain. Given that I usually use an MTB chain for ~1000km, I should’ve done the swap earlier and avoided carrying a spare chain. Laziness is a real thing though. So I saved a section of the old chain for potential repairs and continued… …and I enjoyed a clean chain for the next 3kms… There was nothing very notable until we got to Kazarman. Except heat and lack of water, the signature of this section. In Kazarman, I ate a few ice creams, drank a few cartons of juice, ate something, and had a chat with a dotwatcher – thanks for stopping by! I knew there were a few climbs coming out of Kazarman, so there was stuff to look forward to. I felt good on the first one, then it was up and down for a while before we hit the last climb (in the dark for me). I knew I wanted to catch up with the front the next day, so I took this last climb easy, ate a lot on the way up, and basically just started winding it down to go to bed (I slept just after the descent).
My day started with a 20km flat washboard followed by a climb to CP3. I felt alright on the way up, but nothing amazing. As I was arriving to CP3, Justinas was leaving and so I knew that my stopped time would therefore be the time gap between us. I ate a couple of fried eggs, bought some pepsi, and left again. With only 1.5d to go, I knew I wanted to ride a bit faster to close on Sofiane by the end of the day. The climb that came after the descent from the Son Kul plateau was probably the nicest of the race (in my opinion). There was a short section off the bike (30-40 meters on two occasions), but the rest was just about rideable. I caught up with Justinas who was pushing the bike struggling with breathing (he also had a big chainring on – not a lucky combination). After that, it was a tedious transfer towards the Kegeti climb. Justinas and I both resupplied in the villages on the way and that was the last time I saw him during the race – he was resupplying a bit up the road from where I had stopped, so as I was riding by I decided to stop for another ice cream and a chat. He bought a jar of something and had to ask a nearby driver to open it for him (I was never going to be any help with that given the state of my hands). As I was leaving, I remember thinking that it was a pity he was having all the issues, and that he seemed to have burnt some matches unnecessarily in the earlier days. He was, from what I could tell, the strongest rider in the race (maybe except for Sebastian Breuer), and that’s after doing Tour Divide less than two months prior. I got that all-too-familiar feeling of an imposter who knew he got lucky and could pretend just a bit longer without being found out. Not much longer as it turned out… Anyways, I figured I’d try to catch up with Sofiane on the way to Kegeti, but I saw that he had a 20km gap on me up the valley (maybe 1.5h) and it was only ~40km to the pass, so while it was a good carrot, it was also unlikely to materialize. However, I was confident that I could make a dent into the gap to set up a comfortable last day… I saw his lights towards the top of the last hike-a-bike to Kegeti pass. It took me 40mins to reach the top from there, so up at the pass I knew that he was less than that ahead. At the bottom of the Kegeti descent, on a smooth tarmac section, one of my spokes in the rear wheel broke. It split in the middle, so I assume I must have damaged it earlier and it only broke then. It took me longer than I liked to tape it so that it didn’t bang around as the wheel spun. When I was done, the momentum was gone and I decided to sleep - so I found a place in the gutter down the road and slept for ~2.5h behind some trees. I was feeling very good, saw that Sofiane was sleeping not far ahead, and I figured that the next day was going to be pretty simple: ride hard over bonus climbs, get some rest riding alongside him up the valley, then go ahead towards the end and create a fair gap on the hike-a-bike. I figured that he’d have ridden away from me if he could by now, as the remaining route wasn’t giving him much comparative advantage: I knew that I was losing time by sleeping 5h a night and riding slow on straightforward sections, especially into a headwind. On the other hand, I was usually taking some time back on the climbs and technical parts. We had lots of climbing, a big hike-a-bike, and only one easy valley ahead of us. Even that valley was a bit bumpy and uphill. Also, my plan was to only sleep little that night, so I wouldn’t give up too much time that way. I felt my plan was realistic and I was almost looking forward to it. But…
The first part of the plan was to catch up with Sofiane by the Oasis (the set of restaurants/shops by the big road from Bishkek to Issyk Kul that we were crossing after the 3 bonus climbs). I ate my “breakfast”, a snickers, while getting to the bottom of the first bonus climb into a block headwind. I drank all my remaining water in the process with the intention to fill up on top of the climb (the traverse on top had lots of streams crossing the route in 2019). However, this year there was no water there. Some green wet patches under yurts, but no real streams. At that point I was still moving well, but was very thirsty. There was no water until I got down and started climbing up the 2nd bonus climb. So I refilled and had to wait 30mins for the purification tablets to take effect because the water was pretty much sewage. I have not eaten since “breakfast” because I was very thirsty and snickers weren’t going down. Towards the middle of the 2nd climb, I could recognize the signs of bonk. I slowed down, then drank what I had and ate some snacks. By that time though, it was too late. I had to allow a few hours to come back from that state. I did the 3rd bonus climb very slowly and then had to stop to retape the broken spoke as it broke loose again, this time I used a proper tape which was deep in the down tube bag. I wasted at least 20mins doing this with my broken hands. When I reached the big road (oasis) I was still quite weak, though getting better already. Sofiane was some 17km ahead of me and there was a lot of climbing still ahead, including a major HAB. Given that he was so close even after I had such a rough patch with such slow riding, I figured he was not happy on the bike. He had been pushing it with sleep the 2 nights before. The last pass was going to be at night again, so he’d have to push through yet another night. I figured it was still set up pretty well, though not as I had hoped! I started moving gently as I was still coming back from the bonk and legs began feeling alright as we got to the right side of the river up Chon Kemin valley. I resupplied with loads of juice, biscuits and snickers and was on my way up the valley. It was before we crossed over to the left side of the river again that I started noticing my head was slowly lowering itself down. A very strange lack of control, the head was just slowly moving downwards. No pain, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It took another half an hour or so to become very pronounced. Whenever I got into riding position my head started slowly lowering down and eventually, within 20-30s, it was all the way down and I couldn’t see where I was going. I was looking at the ground between my front and rear wheel. Peripherally, I could see slightly in front of the front wheel. I worked out I could keep my head up longer if I was upright. If I was riding hands-free and upright, I could keep the head up no problem. So I did a lot fo that. Downhills were the worst, because I had to lean forward a lot and seeing in front was also more important when going fast. Uphills were not great either because riding handsfree at low speed up a bumpy road isn’t easy/possible most of the time. I even got off the bike and ran up a couple of those ramps on the way - I needed a break for the neck and that was faster than standing still while waiting for the neck to recover a little. The issue was that I wasn’t sure how much damage I could do to the neck if I just let my head hang on it, so I tried to avoid doing that. This meant changing the position a lot and riding hands-free as much as possible. It quickly became clear that the race was over for me because my progress up the valley was so slow. Of course, I was angry at myself for not preparing better and I was really unkeen to meet people at the finish as I felt ashamed of how I handled the race. Realizing how much work just went to waste made the whole thing seem like a proper failure. The helplessness didn’t help much. Anyways, I figured that at least the hike-a-bike up the pass would be easier as I could be more upright. And it was better, but I wasn’t as upright as I had thought. I still had to take breaks, or push the bike at the handlebars with my stomach so I could be more upright. I also couldn’t ride many sections that I would have ridden otherwise. When I was at 3600m I saw someone pushing a bike towards the gate on the top. I immediatelly assumed it was some tourer who was trying to make it over at night instead of camping up high. It didn’t even occur to me that it could have been Sofiane. I was sure he must have been 5+h ahead. Eventually I reached the descent, which I knew was going to be bad. I descended most of it by sitting on the top tube, as in that position (with straight arms) I could sit quite upright and thus see in front of my bike. Of course, rough stuff couldn’t be ridden like this and so I had to take a lot of breaks. Also, sitting on the top tube is not a great descending position, so I had to go slow not to puncture or break a rim, or go over the bars. When I eventually made it to the tarmac and had only 19km to go, I was glad that I could then ride everything without hands. I finished with a bunch left in the tank but broken. It turned out to be a good race to find weaknesses. When I made it to the finish, Sofiane was already showered, fed, sleeping and probably already half-recovered from the race :). Kudos to him for keeping it together all the way until Cholpon Ata. At the finish line, I had a nice chat with Nelson who puts heaps of thought and effort into the event, much of it of the kind that’s invisible to the participants or dotwatchers. It was good to hear some of his considerations.
My stomach turned inside out literally the next day after I had finished, making me feel quite lucky that it hadn’t happened during the race. I only got it sorted after a week at home. So my time at the finish was quite shitty (pun intended). Mostly hiding from everyone in the little room. Also, putting all my vacation days into this meant that I had left Cholpon Ata before the party. It’s not ideal if everyone did this, but it is what it is.
I was still around when the women’s race was decided though (or remained undecided!). Congratulations Peggy (cap #68), Nathalie (cap #77), and Jelena (cap #47)! I can safely say that a few of us in Cholpon Ata were keeping a close eye on these dots. A full women’s podium, and no slow times either! It’s a bit unfortunate that the third woman didn’t get a kalpak though (first three men all did). While it was the first time that the women’s race had a full podium, it wasn’t unexpected. Hopefully, this won’t be an issue from next year onwards.
Thanks to all the volunteers for their time, hard work, compassion, and enthusiasm. Much appreciated! Silk Road Mountain Race is an outlier among bikepacking races - one that’s definitely worth doing even though there are major things to even out. Thanks Nelson & co.