2019 Silk Road Mountain Race Report (Days 5-10)
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The race continues… Official media team member Rugile Kaladyte brings us into the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race with another incredible set of photos and first hand account from days 5-10, including the first five finishers…
I’m one of six official race photographers/videographers for the 2019 PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race. Here’s my race report from the fifth day through the first five finishers (day 9/10). Because of limited service throughout the country, I will focus on my observations from the first control vehicle. There are two other control vehicles spread about the course and you can find more photos, words, podcasts and videos on the Silk Road Mountain Race website and their Instagram. If you missed it, be sure to check out my previous race report covering the first four days.
I wake up panicked, noticing the time. It’s 9:30 a.m. I didn’t set an alarm but it’s okay because James Hayden had stopped to sleep and we have plenty of time before we need to be at checkpoint three. We walk to the Nomad Cafe in Naryn and have breakfast, discussing the plan for today. Chris at HQ has asked us to stay in town just a little longer. There’s a rider who pressed the help button on his SPOT tracker. At the rider briefing, Nelson went over the functions of the SPOT tracker. In a non-medical emergency, you press the help button and Nomad’s Land hostel arranges a local taxi for that rider. After you press the help button, you must stay at the same location. The rider who pressed the button had done so four times and was riding back and forth. A medical car close by is sent to the rider as a precaution. There are two medical cars on a private tracking page and they are positioned on the course where they still have cell phone reception so HQ can relay information. Each medical car is equipped with a doctor, medical student, and driver. Jeff Liu tells me that having our own medical cars is more reliable than contacting local medical help. It’s Dion Guy scratching. He was pushing hard to catch the leaders early this morning when he crashed near 939 km, breaking his shoe in half and injuring his foot. He was riding back to Naryn when the medical car arrived.
We fill up on gas before heading toward checkpoint three. Paul asks how I’m feeling today. I feel much better than yesterday and compliment him on his t-shirt. It’s gray and has wolves running across snow with “ALASKA” written underneath. It was a gift form one of his previous driving jobs. He says this past week in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan must feel like Alaska with the cold and snow.
It’s after 5 p.m. when we arrive at checkpoint three on the south side of Issyk-Kul in Tamga. The second edition of the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race finishes on the north side of the lake in Cholpon-Ata. Locals are often confused why instead of taking the paved road to the other side of the lake, the cyclists ride almost 600 km on gravel and tackle seven mountain passes. Nadia, one of her friends from CP3, and Paul take control car one toward the riders in hopes of catching them while descending the mining road. Jeff hangs the last checkpoint banner at the front gate of the AIST Guest House and I go inside to talk with the volunteers and owners. “How many sportsmen?” asks the redheaded woman behind the counter. I try to communicate that there are two sportsmen arriving soon, Jakub Sliacan and James Hayden. We want to make sure there will be dinner available for them to eat when they arrive. “And sleeping?” I tell her that I don’t think they’ll be sleeping here tonight, but rather pushing on. I give her and another woman the web link for the race trackers. Her eyes get big when she sees some hundred riders all over the country and I zoom in to show her the two approaching names. She understands and the two women study the map, amazed.
While I’m waiting out front for Jakub, two guys pass me and one is holding a small, wriggling snake. I realize that while I’m wondering why they’re carrying a snake, they’re probably wondering why I’m stationed in the middle of a quiet street with two cameras, periodically checking exposure and focus. Jakub appears around the corner and I follow him into the complex. He lays out his sleep system and clothes to dry outside before taking his shoes off and going inside. James Hayden follows close behind. He rests his bike against a ledge and takes a puff from his inhaler. He jokingly asks if my camera gear on the ledge is drying out as well. James empties a stack of candy wrappers into a wastebasket, walks inside, and sits at the same table as Jakub for dinner. Over salad, stuffed peppers, and apple cake, Jakub studies the elevation profile of the next pass on Komoot and James remarks how well Jakub climbs. Jakub orders juice and drinks it from the carton. I can see the redheaded woman eyeing the glass she just dropped off at the table. James loved the descent and says he must have hit 80 km an hour at one point. James had bought food at the store in town and doesn’t need anything from the guesthouse. He tells Jakub that he’ll probably see him in 20 minutes when Jakub catches him. James leaves as the sun is setting over the lake. Jakub buys six Snickers and packs his bike. He hesitates outside of the door for a second and takes his shoes off again, just to take two steps inside the restaurant and come back out. Jakub is behind James, but not by much.
Lael Wilcox arrives. Nadia, her friend, and Paul are back now. “Sportsmenka?” the redhead looks at Lael. Lael says she would like to eat and sleep. “What time breakfast?” Lael explains that she’ll be leaving at 4 a.m. so probably no breakfast. “4 a.m.?” Lael eats quickly and quietly. At the counter, she buys a Coca-Cola and pastries for the next stretch. She brings things from her bike inside and is soon in the room for a shower and sleep.
Jay Petervary is next. He’s coughing and it looks like he’s wearing everything he owns. Before stepping inside, he takes the insoles out of his shoes and leaves them to dry. Opening a small fridge, he holds a bottle in his hand, “Is this beer?” He walks to the counter and asks for dinner, a room, and if it’s possible, to heat up the apple cake. They don’t understand the last request. He tells Jeff Liu that he was getting sleepy on the descent. He’s also been having problems with his tubeless setup and has been working tirelessly to avoid putting a tube in. Jay says the dinner is so delicious. Before this, he ate a jar of Nutella mixed with a third of a jar of honey. He also ate a third of a jar of peanut butter.
Jeff has been on the phone and he tells me it’s an emergency. James has been in an incident on the pass. Two drunk horsemen with dogs attempted to rob him and he’s back on the main road at the bottom of the pass. We need to go see him. Everyone exchanges looks and I gather my gear for the car. “On that note, goodnight everyone,” says Jay and he walks to his room.
“My brain isn’t really working,” says James Hayden. “I don’t really know what to do right now.” We find James on the side of the road standing next to his bike at the base of climb past checkpoint three. It’s just Jeff, Paul and me that go to find James so there’s an extra seat in the car. James had called Chris at HQ to tell him what had happened and Chris passed it forward to Jeff. I don’t take any photos, but record audio on my phone, thinking that James will probably need to talk to the police and the incident is fresh in his mind. Jeff says we have to raise an alarm with the local police and suggests we take James and his bike to the station. James can’t ride at the moment, he lost his front light while descending. Checking the trackers online, Jakub is over the pass and has avoided the dangerous situation.
Paul knocks again on the heavy metal door of the police station in town but the only response is the barking of dogs in the distance. We go back to the checkpoint where James gets a room and goes to sleep. Jeff and I stay up all night and make sure we don’t miss Lael and Jay when they wake up. Jeff and Paul will escort Lael and Jay up the pass where the incident occurred. Lael is the first to wake and Jeff tells her what happened and the plan. “Is he okay?” She can’t believe something like this would happen — it has to be an isolated incident. We toured for weeks before the race and only experienced an overwhelming amount of generosity and hospitality. Then she says that it could’ve happened to anyone. It could’ve happened to her. “James is strong.” She’s really glad he’s safe.
After she’s gone, Jay’s coughing fills the room. “I had all the lights on in my room and the snooze going off, one after another,” says Jay. He asks for tea and drinks it slowly. The people working at the guest house have stayed up all night, ready for the riders.
Outside, I wait for the sun to rise and take photos before finding a bed to sleep for a couple hours. Jeff is back, but control car one isn’t because it’s stuck on the pass. Jeff ran down to the main road and got a ride back. Soon, there’s a local with a 4X4 that will help Jeff get the car out. James sits at breakfast and I tell him there will be police coming for a report of the encounter. I notice a tattoo on his arm and read it. “C’est la vie.” Soon, the police arrive and there are five men in uniform, but not one speaks English. James understandably isn’t going to give his statement via Google Translate. I’m on the phone calling a number from HQ for a translator but one arrives while I’m talking. James gives his statement and Nelson Trees arrives to CP3.
Jeff Kerkove arrives at 1:50 p.m. and is the fourth rider at CP3. He’s surprised to see James and is filled in on what happened. Seeing Nelson, Jeff ask, “It’s all downhill from here, right?” This is Jeff’s longest bikepacking race and he tells us he’s brought three pairs of shorts — he’s on his third pair. It’s time for control car one to head out and we plan on backtracking over Arabel Pass to catch other riders and eventually find the leaders. We don’t know that we won’t see Jakub, Lael or Jeff again until the finish.
James will later continue riding. Even though he had the option to take a control car to the spot of the incident, he rode the pass again by his own choice.”It means that my ride was unquestionable and unsupported in any way,” says James. We also won’t see James again until the finish.
We photograph riders descending the mining road in what is a mix of rain and snow. Marin de Saint-Exupery is one of the riders we see descending with his blue rainjacket flapping in the wind— he biked from his home in Switzerland to the start of the race in Bishkek. Next we see the first place pair, Scotti and Ernie Lechuga. I stand at a distance off the road looking to get a profile shot of them riding together.
It’s getting dark and a couple riders have pitched tents. We see a headlight in the distance and pull the car over to the side of the road. There’s a small stream crossing and I position myself to get a rider making their way across. Nadia is in front of the car and it looks like she’ll get the rider descending a small hill and they’ll be lit by the car headlights. We wait. After a couple minutes, we say that the rider should have passed us already. Nadia walks to the crest of the hill and quickly comes back down, saying that she sees the light. Again, we wait. It still feels like too long of a wait and I tell Jeff Liu that I think we should continue on. Back in the car, we see the light. It’s a shepherd wearing a headlight in the distance off-course.
The road is rough and we’ve been traveling a lot slower than anticipated — we calculate that we’ll probably see the leaders tomorrow afternoon. We set up camp for the night and a headlight comes to a stop by the car. It’s Klaus Thiel. He’s surprised to see us and says he saw Lael riding towards him. He thought something had happened, but there are 16 km of track that overlap with each other. He stopped and talked with her for a bit. “I ask Lael, ‘Hey, what are you doing when you have bad feelings?’ She listens to books… I’m basically talking to myself when I’m riding.” Lael has been listening to the audiobook “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. Klaus says goodnight and says he plans on riding for a couple more hours until midnight.
In the morning, we’re greeted by a girl and her dog. Nadia gives her wafer cookies and the girl feeds them to her dog. Her brother arrives on horseback and invites us to their yurt. We try and communicate that we need to keep moving forward. I give the girl a brick of packaged halva before she leaves.
Driving the course, we see two more cycling pairs. The first is Marika Wagner and Sue Paz Thunström from Sweden. They’re riding side-by-side in matching yellow helmets, purple rain jackets and yellow Scott bikes. The second pair is David Sear and Stefan Amato and a Dutch touring couple takes photos of them as they pass. The couple became aware of the race when Lael stayed at the same guest house as them in Jangy-Talap. The couple was touring and after talking with Lael, started following the race, taking photos and talking with racers. They were smiling ear-to-ear when the cyclists passed.
We spend hours driving the route, trying to get on a main road that will allow us to intercept riders. We haven’t had service since yesterday and at the rate we’re going, we don’t think we’ll be able to catch the leaders on Shamsi Pass. Control car 2 is sent to cover the leaders today instead.
We stop the car for Paul to take a smoke break and I walk a bit off route to pee and stop in my tracks. I’ve just stumbled across petroglyphs on a rock in the middle of the valley. I call Paul and Nadia over to take a look. “Oh yes, these are old,” says Paul. “But how old I don’t know.”
Around 2 p.m., we spot Jay Petervary and he stops at a fish stand to eat. The spot is at 1,397 km and is labeled as “Intersection Cafe” in the race manual. It’s the first resupply spot after 176 km. There are numerous cafes, shops and vendors. There’s fish frying in a pan and Jay tells us he loves the oil. The woman selling the fish draws the price with her finger. “70?” asks Jay. It’s equivalent to $1.
A touring cyclist from the Czech Republic pulls up next to Jay while he’s eating.
“Are you Jay Petervary?”
“Yeah,” responds Jay and shakes his hand.
“WOW. You are a legend.”
“No, I’m just a guy who rides his bike.”
“Are you in first?”
The tourist hadn’t been following the race and just happened to stumble across Jay. His face is beaming and he takes several photos. He tells Jay that he’s touring because of the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race film from the year before. He says he’s touring because of Jay. After a second piece of fish and some bottled tea, Jay is ready to descend the asphalt to Kochkor. He wonders out loud if he’ll regret the fish in ten minutes.
Control car one is ready to find the leaders, but we’re asked to head up to Kok-Airyk Pass, the last pass, and deliver checkpoint permits. It’s a long, bumpy drive and it’s soon dark. We haven’t seen the checkpoint yet and we’re running out of drivable road. We’re parked when we see a light flash at us from a house and we drive towards it. Out come three men and one smokes with Paul as he explains the situation. We’re looking for the checkpoint guards but we don’t know where they are. The local tells us that the guards are mobile in a truck and they usually only work during the day. He then tells us that they don’t work in the winter, only half the year. But it’s August and that means they’re working and we need to make sure they have the permits before the riders come through. The guards could be anywhere the local tells us. We’re not planning on driving the car over the pass, right? It hasn’t been drivable in 15 years due to rock slides. We assure him we’re not driving the pass. Nelson had said that from where we are to the finish, it should take some riders at least seven hours. It’ll take us seven hours to drive back down and around to Cholpon-Ata. We can’t photograph them here on the pass and get them at the finish line as well.
We arrange for one of the medic cars to meet us at the bottom of the pass where we can give them the permits so they can ensure the riders get through. We need to go to the finish and wait for them. We arrive at Cholpon-Ata around 5 a.m. and we sleep for a few hours.
The First Five Finishers
Jakub Sliacan of Slovakia is the first to arrive after 7 days, 6 hours and 46 minutes. It’s 3:46 p.m. on Augst 23rd and Aidai, a local girl, presents him with flowers. This is Jakub’s first bikepacking race. He has a background in skyrunning, running high in the mountains, and comments how after running he’s more stiff. This is a gentle stiffness. He jokes that he can probably go for a run now. Jakub is cap no. 30 and he’s 30 years old.
Jakub sits, eats and talks about his strategy. He was studying the tracker during the race and others’ positions would determine when and for how long he would sleep. He had thought about copycatting in this race and making a break in the last five hours. While it’s something he could do in a running race, he said this approach is not the nature or spirit of this bikepacking race. While he’s talking, volunteer Sage Cohen puts her vest over Jakub’s shoulders. He protests slightly but she says he looks cold.
Karolis Narkevicius of Lithuania has stopped by to pick up a bag after scratching. The highest point in Lithuania is less than 300 m and I wonder how Karolis could have trained for the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. After an attempt at a selfie, he asks if I can take a photo of him and Jakub together. Jakub sits down and we do a quick interview.
A local asks Jakub if he will return next year to defend his title. “Don’t ask me now,” Jakub laughs. “Sleep is coming. It’s been coming for a couple days.” He asks if someone can let him know when Lael is getting close to the finish.
Lael Wilcox is the second to arrive after 7 days, 15 hours and 23 minutes. It’s 12:23 a.m. on August 24th and Jakub is standing with his vase of flowers to hand off to Lael. Lael asks what place she’s in. We tell her she’s second overall. Lael hasn’t looked at the tracker once. She actually hasn’t been counting her distances each day either. Instead, each day was measured with a challenge: a pass, storm or resupply spot. Lael says she went as hard as she could from the previous night at 10:30 p.m., a 26-hour push to the finish. She took an eight and a half minute nap on the descent of the last pass.
20 hours later, more people have gathered at the finish line and are waiting for the next racer. There’s a large banner of the Tetons near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, against the wall. Jay Petervary is the third to arrive after 8 days, 11 hours and 21 minutes. It’s 8:21 p.m. on August 24th.
“Where am I?”
You’re at the finish.
“But where am I?”
This is Cholpon-Ata.
“But what is this place?”
It’s like a resort. The lake is right there, but you can’t see it in the dark.
People have waited to eat dinner until Jay arrives and Jay requests two dinners. He talks about the difficulty of the last pass, having to bivvy in the snow three times and hitting the snooze maybe 800 times.
I wake up Jakub and Lael when James is almost at the finish per their request. James Hayden is the fourth rider to arrive after 8 days, 15 hours and 44 minutes. It’s 11:44 p.m. on August 24th. Despite the incident after checkpoint three, James has been riding hard and is in a top position. He talks about how well all of his gear worked and is set on coming back next year. He’s thinking that it may be possible to complete the race closer to six days.
Jeff Kerkove is the fifth rider to arrive after 8 days, 16 hours 32 minutes. It’s 12:32 a.m. on August 25th. His legs are swollen and he had used his arm warmers on his legs for compression. He can’t believe they started a week ago, it doesn’t feel real.
For the remainder of the race, I stay at the finish line, greeting and photographing each finisher. I will do this until the Lanterne Rouge, the last finisher before the cutoff time of August 31st, 11:59 p.m. Photos of each finisher with their bike and an additional portrait will be complied in the final race report.
Stay tuned for a final roundup of the finishers with their bikes. And, be sure to check out #silk-road-mountain-race for more coverage from the past two weeks, including photos and interviews with the two top finishers.