2019 Silk Road Mountain Race Report 1 (Days 1-4)
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Rugile Kaladyte is part of the media team following and documenting the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race. In this first of several reports from the field, she provides a detailed account of the race from days 1-4 alongside an incredible photoset…
Words and photos by Rugile Kaladyte
“It’s almost sacrilegious to race this, to put your head down and not see it,” says Dion Guy as he pours Coca-Cola into two water bottles. “It’s so beautiful.” His face is level with the bottles, making sure he’s distributing the drink evenly. Checkpoint volunteer Sage Cohen asks if he’s taken any photos. “Lots,” replies Dion.
Dion is the third rider to arrive at the yurt camp that is checkpoint one of the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race. Located at kilometer 392 of the 1,700 km course, the yurt camp provides accommodations and hot meals. Jakub Sliacan and Jay Petervary have already come and gone. Jakub arrived 31 hours into the race. He is from Slovakia and it’s his first bikepacking race. He says he’s not used to the attention — another control car was on the last pass and he said there was a drone flying. He’s humble and is surprised by his position. He wonders out loud if he should be in second place instead. He reminds himself that it’s only the second day. I take a few photos and leave the yurt to give him some space to eat. Jay Petervary is the next rider and volunteers wave their arms and cheer. Two women yell his name when it looks like he might ride past the checkpoint. They shout “it’s mandatory!” He makes a left turn, and after shedding layers, he’s in the yurt. While his brevet card is being stamped and time recorded, he says his timing isn’t good — the next couple resupply spots will be closed by the time he gets there. His stomach has been giving him problems. He eats lentil and lamb soup slowly. He wraps a blanket around himself and says he has the chills. He looks up at the ceiling of the yurt and smiles. He’s calm and not in a rush to leave.
This checkpoint is the first time we’ve had the chance to really see the riders for more than a few passing seconds. For this year’s Silk Road Mountain Race, I am one of six official race photographers/videographers. In order to cover as many of the 135 riders over the course of two weeks, there are three control cars positioned at carefully calculated locations. Last year, there were five media vehicles. The race route ventures into the remote places of Kyrgyzstan. There are 12 passes above 3,500 meters, and over the course of the race riders will climb a total of 27,000 meters. Logistically, this poses a challenge for tracking racers and documenting the event. Cell service is limited and we’re relying on information from HQ in Bishkek over Garmin InReach messages. Because of this, I’ll be sharing race reports from control car one and our experience documenting the race. You may track the progress of riders here, and follow more of the race on the Silk Road Mountain Race website and Instagram account @silkroadmountainrace.
First, let me introduce the media team. In control car one, there’s Nadia, Jeff, Paul, and me. Nadia Moro lives in Milan, works for PEdalED and has a background in commercial fashion photography. Jeff Liu helped scout the route and is responsible for opening checkpoints and providing border permits to border police. Last year, he was in control car three. He also shoots photos and flies a drone. Paul lives in Bishkek, is a professional driver and helps us translate. When it’s snowing and we’re wearing puffy jackets, he’s smoking a cigarette in a t-shirt. I have a photojournalism degree, a background in working at newspapers and will be shooting stills and video for the race and BIKEPACKING.com. I arrived a month early to tour part of the route with Lael Wilcox. It was my first real bikepacking trip and we didn’t know the next time we would be in Kyrgyzstan. We wanted to experience the culture at a slower pace together. Here on BIKEPACKING.com, you can find the Tian Shan Traverse. Parts of this race were based on this touring route.
Antonio Abrue and Stefano Nucera are in control car two. They’re accompanied by a volunteer and driver. Antonio lives in Portugal and typically shoots enduro races. Stefano will be creating six podcasts during the race. In control car three, there is Nelson Trees, Danil Usmanov, Evgeni Chistyakov, and a driver. Nelson is the race organizer. Danil is a local photojournalist. Evgeni is a videographer working on putting out five videos highlighting places of interest on the route. Mirlan Abdulaev shot video before the race to accompany Evgeni’s footage.
Our schedule for day one is to be at the start, drive five hours to the south side of Kegety Pass, and sleep in Karakol Valley. The other two control cars will focus on the north side of Kegety. It’s nearly a 2,700-meter climb over 45 kilometers. Within the first few hours, riders are met with rain, hail, and snow. Approaching the south side of the pass, we see a few riders descending switchbacks. Everyone is walking the rocky, steep descent. Three horsemen approach us and ask what channel we are documenting for. National Geographic? Paul helps explain that we’re documenting 135 cyclists riding throughout Kyrgyzstan. They tell us they’re proud so many people would come to visit their country. The horsemen cross paths with the riders on the switchbacks. Jeff Liu poses an interesting question, “Would bikes or horses be faster on the Silk Road Mountain Race?”
Jay Petervary is the first to descend Kegety Pass. As last year’s winner, he’s wearing cycling cap 01. He’s low in the drops and flies past. Dion Guy and Jakub Sliacan follow close behind. Lael stops to knock snow off her hood and put on extra layers for the descent. We wait for more riders before descending in the control car. A rider is stopped fixing a flat and asks if we have an air compressor. We don’t. Even if we did, we can’t offer help in this self-supported race. He has to put a tube in. In Karakol Valley, Marin de Saint-Exupery is sitting on the ground ripping and tossing pieces of bread to the side. He explains he’s getting rid of the parts that got wet and muddy. Ernie and Scotti Lechuga are riding in matching shower caps over their helmets, a trick they credit to Jay Petervary. We pass other riders and they’re asking each other when they’ll sleep. Some just want to get over the next pass while others plan on riding until 2 a.m. It’s dark now and in the mountains you can see bicycle headlights shining for miles. It’s cold and a few riders pass as we set up tents in the valley.
Morning frost covers the valley floor and we wake up to an unexpected guest. Max Riese had set up camp near us and is now working on fixing the front bag on his bike. The buckles had frozen and one had broken off when he was making adjustments. He makes a quick fix and is off. We pack up and drive toward the first checkpoint. When we reach an area with service, we realize that the leaders are traveling faster than we had anticipated. We need to open the checkpoint and we can’t risk missing the first rider. We decide to take a short cut and we pass riders before going off the race route. There isn’t any time to take photos of them. The road we’re taking is rough and we’re rocked back and forth. Editing photos on a laptop is a challenge and soon our computers are closed and Nadia and I are in the back bumping around. We haven’t had service for over an hour and we’re guessing where the riders must be. We descend to Song Kul and rejoin the race route. It’s raining and we’re looking for any signs of riders. We mistake a distant horse and touring cyclist for a racer. We’re in a car but we’re hardly moving faster than a bike on the bumpy road. We spot the cluster of yurts and are greeted by volunteers. We’re safe; no one has arrived yet.
After Jackub Sliacan, Jay Petervary, and Dion Guy, it’s Lieven Schroyen, Lael Wilcox, Eric Saggiante, and Jeff Kerkove. Those are the first seven riders at the checkpoint. Lieven arrives close to Dion and they eat together, safe from the rain. Lael didn’t plan to eat, but there is soup ready and she eats it happily, remarking it’s the best thing she’s eaten so far. She looks fresh and leaves in a fraction of the time of the others. Eric is the youngest competitor, only 19. Nelson had spoken to his dad before the race to discuss safety and make sure Eric was prepared. Eric lies to the side of the table to sleep for an hour. The hostess tells him there are other yurts to sleep in. Please, not in her dining room. Jeff decides to spend the night and start early in the morning. Control car three arrives and it’s time for us to head to Baetov for the night. Once in service, we see that Jakub and Jay are both in Baetov. It’s past midnight when we arrive and we watch their trackers. If they continue riding into the night, we must go as well. We need to open the military checkpoint before any of the riders arrive. We stay in the only hotel in town and Jeff Liu sets hourly alarms so he can check on the riders’ progress. I stay up for another couple hours editing and uploading photos before going to bed.
Jeff knocks on our door. It’s 4:30 a.m. Jakub and Jay have left Baetov and are climbing the pass. Downstairs, Dion’s bike rests against a wall and soon Dion is buying Fanta and water at the counter. We pass Jay and find Jakub at the top of the climb. We give him a few minutes before descending, he’ll be traveling much faster than us and we want to give him room. Eventually, we pass him, set on getting to the military checkpoint. Every rider has a permit for the section south of the Chinese Highway. We deliver the 135 permits and the riders will present their passports for access. However, we’re not confident the guards received the message. We hope nothing was lost in translation and to be safe, we park a few hundred meters past the checkpoint to see whether the first rider has any difficulty crossing.
We wait longer than anticipated. It’s always difficult to know exactly when and where riders will be, especially without service. After a couple hours, Jakub clears the military checkpoint and we spend the remainder of the day finding riders on the asphalt. It’s the smoothest road the riders will encounter on the route. On the road, Jeff Liu finds a few meters of cell service and Nadia walks around trying to upload photos. At the end of the road, before it turns to gravel, there is a new gas station. Jeff is excited and lets the other control cars know about the opportunity to refuel on gas and unrefrigerated beverages. James Hayden passes us and is set on getting to the second checkpoint. He thinks he may arrive around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. There’s hot food and accommodations at this yurt camp as well.
It’s about a four-hour drive to checkpoint two, Kel Suu, and we drive it all in the dark. It’s freezing outside and we cross streams, following the GPX track. Paul steps outside for a cigarette break and to stretch. He’s in a t-shirt despite the cold. For those sleeping before the checkpoint, it’s going to be a very cold night. Volunteers greet us at kilometer 743 (at 3,348 meters) and I’m shaking hands with people whose faces I can’t see. The hostess takes us into a yurt and starts putting out plates, dried fruit, cookies, and candy. A man offers us chai and we thank them but say we really want sleep. We’re shown to a yurt and quickly discuss the plan for the next morning. It’s midnight, and if James continues riding, the earliest he could arrive is 3:00 a.m. We have no service and look over the InReach message from HQ again. Everyone else appears to have stopped or will not arrive earlier than James. Today has been relatively relaxing compared to the first two, but we’re exhausted. It’s midnight and we’re thankful for the solid three hours of sleep we’ll get.
“Excuse me, but there’s a rider coming.”
It’s 3:40 a.m. and we step out into the dark. In the distance, we can see a single light bobbing up and down toward us. “Where do I go?” asks James. The volunteer that woke us leads him to a yurt. “Is there food?” The volunteer assures him that the hostess is preparing food right now and it will be ready soon. James sits inside and asks how many others have been through. “I’m the first one?” He had no idea. After writing down his arrival time – 2 days, 18 hours and 44 minutes – a volunteer asks James if he has any comments to record on the sheet. “It’s not the time of day for it.” She writes that down. James will be sleeping at the checkpoint tonight and counts 5, 6, 7 a.m. He’ll be up in three hours.
For the next three hours, it is quiet. I wake up to voices and find James about to head off. He gives me a thumbs up and rides away. Jakub arrives at 8:49 a.m., just shy of 72 hours into the race. He spent the night below after having difficulty finding the track. He lost his headlight somewhere near Baetov. Another rider approaches. It’s Lael. “It’s a woman!” exclaims one of the male volunteers. “Amazing.” It’s 9:33 a.m. and Jakub is packing up his bike as Lael unloads hers. Her water bladder and Coca-Cola bottle are frozen. In her down suit, she steps inside the yurt and is beaming. She’s been sleeping four hours every night and she feels great. Jay Petervary walks into the yurt 15 minutes after Lael’s arrival. Lael is out the door and walks in and out filling up water bottles. She stuffs a piece of bread with cheese into her top tube bag and books it. Jay talks about how different the race is this year. “It was just so hot last year and now there’s this,” says Jay. It will snow at the checkpoint later today. After eating soup for breakfast, Jay thanks everyone for being here and takes off.
Jeff Kerkove arrives two hours later. He’s surprised that there aren’t 10 or 12 people in front of him. He remarks how slow he feels he’s going but the volunteers assure him he is doing great. One by one, riders arrive. In between them, I run back into the yurt to edit photos. Jeff Liu and Paul had left around 8:00 a.m. to open the next military checkpoint. It’s a two-hour drive away but they have been gone for more than seven hours. A volunteer knocks on the door outside the yurt and says she needs to speak with me. Jeff left his passport. I think Jeff Kerkove and wonder if he’s on his way back to pick it up. No, it’s Jeff Liu that left his passport I’m told. A couple of Russians had seen Jeff and Paul at the border checkpoint and they were holding Jeff because he didn’t bring his passport with him. Jeff was only going to drop off the border permits and turn right back around. There’s an extra car that we can take to give him his passport, but we can’t find it among his belongings. Shortly after, Jeff returns with Paul. The guards had released him and his passport had been in a bag we had mistaken to be Nadia’s. Jeff assures me that it’s good we didn’t find it, because then we would have wasted four hours driving. After spending most of the day at checkpoint two, I say goodbye to the hostess and the volunteers I can find. Some of them will be at the finisher’s party and we’re excited to see each other again. We have a four hour drive to Naryn.
I have altitude sickness and we pull over twice so I can throw up. I think about the riders and how they must be handling all the elevation. I never got sick while touring, but you’re experiencing elevation change at a slower rate on a bike versus a car. Nadia gives me wet wipes, Jeff offers me the front seat and his jacket to use as a pillow and Paul gives me the rest of his bottled tea and two yellow pills for my stomach. I’m having difficulty understanding exactly what the pills are, but I trust him. They look like yellow Skittles. I thank everyone and Paul says, “We are team.” I must have fallen asleep because I wake up to Jeff asking Paul if he’s okay. Paul has been driving all day and we’re almost to Naryn. Paul assures us he is and we pass Jeff Kerkove on the descent. Jay and Lael are somewhere in town, but we decide against trying to find them this late. It’s almost eleven o’clock and we need to get up early to get to the next checkpoint. The only thing is, we spend an hour trying to find a hotel or guesthouse with rooms available. Once we do, Nadia and I stay up late editing, writing and uploading. It’s only day four and it feels like we’ve been out here for weeks.
As of the this posting, Jakub is in the lead, nearing checkpoint three, with James in close second. Lael is in third place, 60 kilometers behind the leader. Stay tuned for more ongoing coverage of the 2019 SRMR. In the meantime, track the race here, and find more content about the race at #silk-road-mountain-race.