The Silk Road Mountain Race
There’s nervous laughter in the morning with friends old and new, we all rolled out of town around 9am (we were slightly delayed due to a late police escort). The group rode together for a long time, then started to split on the first climb. One thing that blew us away was the hospitality of the locals. Everyone waves at the side of the roads, and kids would regularly come and ride with you for a bit.
It was pretty hot so we had to refill our water bottles a few times. As we climbed higher and higher up Kegety Pass both Rob and I suffered somewhat with the altitude. The climb itself goes up to close to 4000 meters and our original goal was to climb it over the first day but unfortunately we became a bit unstuck. A thunderstorm and hailstorm (which lower down the mountain was a full on blizzard) meant we pitched up camp at around 3000 meters of altitude to try and get some rest for the night. Our options were, pitch up or push through.
With safety in our minds and not knowing how unpredictable the weather could be we didn’t want to be stuck much higher up the climb. Food in the belly and with the weather starting to improve, (minus high winds) we both managed to get a few hours rest. We had hoped that camping at altitude would help us acclimatise a bit and help us for the final push over Kegety the next day.
Day 2, we woke up early after the storm of the previous night to finish the climb up to 4000 meters. This was literally like being on top of the world, in the clouds with lots of walking and stops with the bike. The lack of oxygen being clearly felt. Upon reaching the top we walked a large part of the descent.
The surface was simply too rough to ride. Rob was suffering badly from the altitude and my first mechanical issue began on this descent, meaning I wasn’t too keen to be travelling fast. As we got lower down the valley the effects of the altitude started to wear off and we began to feel more human, although, in reality we were still over 2000 meters above sea level!
We decided to push hard for this day, make up for the time lost previously and get to the first resupply point, roughly 250km into the race. There were lots of long straight gravel trails where we could finally get some speed up and one road that felt like riding on a washboard for about 5km before getting into the town. Upon arrival, late at night we were thrilled to see the shop open still and purchased pretty much everything. The shopkeepers took pity on us and kindly offered us a warm room to sleep in. Something priceless after one tough day on the bike. What a day.
This was a tough one. We woke up early from our night with the family at the resupply point feeling energised and ready to go. Spirits were high. The family offered us ‘Chai’ which we obviously said yes to. A cup of tea always goes down well to start the day. What we didn’t realise was that this was a full on 2-hour breakfast. Needless to say the hospitality of the locals is something I’ll never forget and I’m truly honoured to have had that experience with Rob.
Eventually we got on our way. Today, on paper didn’t look too bad. Some downhill then one big climb close to 2000 meters and then downhill with a few bumps in it.
The scenery had completely changed by this point, starting to feel much more like a desert than the rocky alpine scenes we had previously experienced. Slowly we started to realise why, as temperatures crept up to 45 degrees.
That’s when things started to go a bit wrong. Rob started to suffer from heatstroke and whilst descending Pereval Kensu pass, on a sharp right hand turn, SNAP: my front brake failed. The heat had caused the oil to overheat and explode out the piston, causing the brake to fail. I managed to swerve the bike away from what could have been a very bad roll off the side of the cliff and shout to Rob. Clearly a bit shaken, from nearly hurtling off the side of a mountain I stopped and Rob rolled back to me in disbelief. Hydraulic brakes don’t really fail, it’s maybe one in a million. I just got unlucky. We had been having a few issues before the race, which we thought had been resolved, but unfortunately not.
Rob, ever the problem solver filed down the cable guides and pulled out the rear brake so at least we could mount this to the front. Down to one brake with about 180km until the next town and some serious descending, now was the time to be careful.
This cricket sat on my shoe for ages. Eventually he was on my handlebar bag. Made me chuckle. Like a story later.
From the moment the brake failed I had to work out what would be the best thing to do. Carry on, scratch, get to the first checkpoint, press the SOS button. Rob and I sat at the side of the mountain for a while in the 45-degree heat trying to come up with a plan. We chose to push on for the day and sleep on it.
The heat baking, it meant that any descent was broken into three parts. Start on the bike slowly, panic on the corners, nearly crash/shit myself. Stop. Try again. Then about half way down any descent walk a while to let my one brake cool down. Once it was cooler, jump back on and try again. The descents seemed to be slower than the climbs. They’re supposed to be the part we enjoy; the pay off for the climb, but in all honesty, I’d have rather kept going up.
With most of the slow descending done for the day and thirsty, we stopped by a stream with a goat to fill up our water bottles. This is where the post that Jimmi put up on my account was taken, with the goat. I still have no idea why we had 3G signal at that point. Rob called up his partner and I just sort of sat on a rock still battling out a plan of action and what the hell to do. Messaging Jimmi and asking him to let my friends know what was going on.
We were both completely cooked from the heat (literally) so we gave ourselves some time to cool down before the next climb, a pretty short one, maybe 8km.
It was starting to get dark and Rob started to really struggle from the heat exhaustion so we turned up a dried river and set up camp. I sat Rob down and got some pepper food into him ASAP to try and revitalise him a bit before we properly got the tarp and bivvy bags out.
Eventually we both camped up and got ready for a hot night under the most stunning night sky. It was at that point Rob started panicking shouting at me to grab a torch. Eventually he got one. He thought something was going to attack us and, sitting on the end of his foot, was a frog
After what was a pretty restless night for me deciding what to do and for Rob, with the fear of frogs instilled in him; we packed up early and started ascending the remainder of the climb. It was about 6am and already hot. Rob and I had chatted whilst packing up. By this point I had accepted I needed to scratch the race. To continue would have been too dangerous, an unnecessary risk. Rob, however, was still undecided.
We nailed the climb and started carefully rolling down descents. How slow and steady I had to take them confirmed in my mind that scratching was the right choice, but that I may have to re-think the goal of checkpoint one. Chayek looked more likely to be the end destination. Eventually we came to what felt like our first junction in years, a building site of what would be a new motorway. Currently gravel occasionally broken up by pristine new tarmac. Lorries whizzing past. It was an opportunity to have a bit of fun rolling into town. Eventually we decided on elevenses by the river. Rob, admirably decided to scratch too. We started as a team, we finished as one. That was always our goal.
We cooked all our camping meals in some kind of celebration and took the rest of the day much more relaxed. Rob even finally got to ride the bike he made for me! Rolling into Chayek we caught up with old friends and made new friends, sharing stories from the road. Beer was drunk (yes, even by me). We celebrated what we had done, and commiserated on the unfortunate situations and bad luck that forced us to scratch. It was just that, bad luck. These things happen in bike racing where you’re testing yourself and your equipment to it’s possible limit.