2021 Silk Road Mountain Race Report #1: Bad Ideas
Reporting in from the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan, photographer Chris McClean shares his first in a series of 2021 Silk Road Mountain Race vignettes. Find three short stories and a gallery of images here…
Words and photos by Chris McClean (@chrismcclean)
A friend once told me that bad ideas make for the most interesting stories. Now, I’m not saying Nelson Trees’ idea of a Silk Road Mountain Race is a bad idea, but it certainly churns out plenty of interesting stories. This year, some of them came about even before the race had started.
A Delayed Start
Moving the starting point to Talas from the previous years’ launching point in Bishkek meant transporting all 100 riders and their bikes and kit five hours west. It’s a complex undertaking in any country. The riders made it, but unfortunately the trucks carrying their bikes didn’t. They were delayed at a one-way tunnel through the mountains for over five hours. Thankfully, I’ve never seen a more good natured bunch of people accepting the delay.
The only restaurant in Talas big enough to feed a group of our size was hosting a wedding party inside, so out back they prepared a spread of stews, bread, and tea in yurts. After eating, riders got their heads down in yurts, cars, and at local hostel until the bikes arrived and the race could start. The bikes arrived around 3 a.m. and the race finally started around 04:23 in the morning. The silver lining to this was that riders traversed Terek Pass in daylight, leading to lots of thank god the trucks were late so we actually got to see this!
At the top of Terek Pass, a stiff wind blew up the south face and through the gap in the rocks that the road runs through. The landscape changes dramatically to the north, becoming greener, with a mixture of scrub and meadow. To the south is rock and rugged scree. The north side was exposed to the sun as it rose in the east, but the great natural barrier of the mountain obscured any heat from penetrating the natural amphitheatre we found ourselves standing on as we documented participants coming through.
The first rider up the pass was Sofiane Sehili, a Frenchman competing in this for the first time. In amongst the chasing pack was the pairing of Markus Weinberg and Philipp Markgraf (@pedalskillscancer). Philipp is a cancer survivor who changed his lifestyle to become fitter and healthier, which included cycling from his home in Germany to southern India, crossing all the mountain ranges in between. Early on his trip whilst staying with a friendly couple, he told his story of having to sell his prized piano to fund the trip. This touched a nerve and the couple gifted him a small wooden flute he could fit on his bike.
Sadly, Philipp ran into trouble in Iran and he was badly beaten. After recuperation in Iran, he returned to Germany and spent months learning to eat and talk again. He still plans to finish his trip, but a yearning for more adventures drew him to the Silk Road Mountain Race, and the fact he made the starting line is a testament to his dreams. Back up the Terek Pass in that stiff wind, Philipp lent his bike up against the control car, unzipping his frame bag and pulled out a wooden flute, proceeding to give us a tune, his ritual for reaching each summit his journey takes him on.
With an array of carbon, modern gearing, full-suspension, and lightweight bikes on display at the start line, Andy Offenbacher’s 1988 Ritchey Ultra certainly caught some attention. Rim brakes, racks, and bar ends will do that amongst today’s modern offerings. But with the first pass dealt, his front rack sheared off. We bumped into Andy at a local garage in the process of getting it welded back together. Still in good spirits, we hope the repair lasts and we meet again at the first checkpoint.
The race continues, through rain, hail, and snow as riders roll into CP1 and out again. Let’s see what the next few days along the Silk Road Mountain Race route bring. Stay tuned for more…
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