2021 Silk Road Mountain Race Report #3: Stubbornness
Photographer Chris McClean checks in from the Tian Shan Mountains for his third field report from the 2021 Silk Road Mountain Race. Find a collection of images and another series of vignettes here…
Words and photos by Chris McClean (@chrismcclean)
“It would have been smart to stop and sleep, but sometimes its better to be stubborn. Stubbornness wins races.” – Sofiane Sehili
Eight days, 14 hours, and 35 minutes
It was a cold morning as the sun broke over and into the valley to the north of Terek Pass. As the sun rose, so did the temperature, and the blues became hues of reds, oranges, and yellows. Horses, sheep and cows dotted the landscape and the gravel track wound its way south beside the Beshtash River.
We met Sofiane as he rode along the river and up into the foothills towards the pass, and his focus was obvious. He was the lead rider and he looked unwilling to give that up. Steely eyes behind big mirrored glasses concentrating on the road, he didn’t glance up as he cruised past us. Brady the filmmaker noted from his previous experience at the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco, “He won’t say much until he knows he has a good lead,” which proved to be the case. As our paths crossed over the next few days, our conversations were brief but genial. He knew fine margins mattered and a five-minute chat every day would add up over the next eight days.
At the top of Terek Pass on the first day, he had a 20-minute lead over Adrien Liechti. He ended up winning by 12 hours and 16 minutes, with Axel Brenner in second and Adrien in third, a monumental effort over the 1,858 kilometres cycled.
Towards the end of the race with approx 200 kilometres to go, we headed out to find Sofiane as he approached Kegeti Pass from the south. He had a solid lead at this point, and you could tell he had relaxed. We drove alongside him talking about his singing in his Instagram stories, and his recent wheel rebuild that cost him seven hours. As we followed him along a dirt track and across a sketchy bridge crossing, he seemed to lose his bearings, and amongst the tall grass he lost the track. It was too thick for us to follow, but a few minutes later he retreated, pushing through the thick undergrowth and retorted, “Another of Nelson’s little tricks, I see.”
He slept down by the river that night in an old abandoned building; it was freezing and he didn’t sleep well. We caught him the next afternoon on the other side of Kegeti in the dry heat of the valley re-stocking with water and Samsas, a local savoury pastry. There was a smile there, the finish line was in sight but the focus in those eyes remained. I was reminded of Gaetan, one of the drivers, who’d said after tracking him for 24 hours earlier in the race, “I have been following Sofiane all day and all night. He has hardly stopped, this guy is not human.”
Apples and Pairs
At checkpoint two, we’re treated to steaming yak soup and fresh bread. Steam billows from the stove and the smell is wonderful. It has been cooking for 12 hours and the warmth of the yurt pulls you in like a warm welcoming hug. It was well needed, as the road to CP2 was brutal, windy, and dusty. Dust storms would intermittently fill the air, leaving riders blinded and seeking shelter. Army checkpoints were in operation as the route runs close to the Chinese border, and although the respective governments work closely together, a collective fear of the much bigger neighbour remains with the local people.
The first pair to arrive at CP2 are Latvian pair Toms Alsberg and Janis Viskers, distinctive in matching white jackets. They pile into the yurt to rest and warm up. Hot tea, soup, and bread are served. They look as if they have taken the long brutal road in stride. They are approximately 100 kilometres ahead of the next pai, Jay Petervary and Jacob Hora.
Jay, a previous winner of the race, has decided to commit to a different challenge this time around and is riding with 16-year-old Jacob. We meet them on the long road not far from a checkpoint, Jacob wearing an oversized blue raincoat splattered in mud as the one he arrived with had been lost. He looks tired and pulls his zip up to his chin. A different Jacob to the one who was hooting up the first pass on day one. Jay says it’s the best kind of a university you could wish for, and I have to agree.
At each checkpoint the riders’ brevet cards are stamped. The stamps are symbols from the atavistic practice of Tengri that originated in Central Asia, one of the original faiths of the central Asian nomadic people. As it was explained to me, the ancient Turks and Mongols believed that Tengri governed all existence on earth, and prosperity and well-being of the individual depended on maintaining reverence and respect for its codes and for living in harmony with the universe.
So, it seemed strangely fitting to me that if riders managed to ride this race in harmony with the universe they would reach the finish in Balykchy. Balykchy sits on the western end of Lake Issyk-Kul. A quarter of a century after the break up of the Soviet Union, Balykchy was once one of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial powerhouses. Today, it is a symbol of communist decay.
It’s not hard to see why in places like this people still cling on to memories of Soviet times when food and housing were cheap. The name Balykchy means fisherman in the Kyrgrz language, and the tale of the city is that two brothers fell out and have remained at war ever since. One blows from one direction in the morning, and then as the temperature rises, the wind swings to the other direction in the afternoon.
This tale to me is all about the Silk Road Mountain Race. It’s about extreme opposites, such as the weather, which played a massive part in the race, from snow storms at the top of passes to baking heat in the valleys. Riders had to prepare for both and everything in between. They needed to respect the codes of the natural universe.
The race is brutal, some 1,858 kilometres with over 34,000 meters of climbing. It’s not if the body can do it but if the mind can push a rider over the finish. I had to return home before Sofiane crossed the finish line but the race is not over, the women’s and pair races has it all to play for. I’ll be joining the dot watching from afar and wishing all the riders a safe passage. I leave Kyrgyzstan with a desire to return to see more of the place and its people, but the jury is still out whether it will be in next year’s race with a bike on the Silk Road.
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