A Post-Race Interview with Jakub Sliacan, Winner of the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race
30-year-old Slovakian Jakub Sliacan won this year’s 1,700-kilometer PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race. We had the chance to catch up with Jakub at the finish line to ask a few questions about the race…
As announced earlier, Slovakian cyclist Jakub Sliacan finished the second annual PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race early this morning for the win. Jakub completed the 1,700+ kilometer course in 7 days, 6 hours, and 46 minutes, setting a new record, about a day faster than the former record held by Jay Petervary (8:8:15). We sat down with Jakub for a chat just after he rolled into the finish in Cholpon Ata. Here’s the full interview…
Excellent finish time! Was this the biggest race you’ve done to date?
This is definitely my biggest race…. and the first time I’ve been interviewed. I’ve done several ultra running races, such as the Glen Coe Skyline (50 kilometers) and some scrambles and other stuff, but those are all just one-day events.
You have a history of running. What got you into cycling?
I first got into cycling because I was injured from running. I’m often injured from running, actually. I wouldn’t cycle if I could run all the time, but I have to ride because I’m stupid and I injure myself a lot. I recently had IT band syndrome, before that shin splints, something in the hip, and so on and so forth.
Why’d you choose the Silk Road Mountain Race for your first bikepacking race?
I was thinking about racing the Transcontinental, but it’s on the road, and I don’t like to be on the road when I’m tired and can make mistakes. The Silk Road Mountain Race came to mind as a race that’s basically off pavement in remote places. There are other races that are mountain bike-ish, like the Tour Divide, but there’s still a lot of time spent on the road. Also, riding in 4,000-meter mountains is pretty cool. And there are a lot of variables and problems to solve, even compared to other bikepacking races, this one brings in a whole lot of stuff. For instance, you actually need to worry about supplies. You need to worry about really low temperatures and altitude. You don’t really rest at altitude, so you want to avoid it. The constraints are many, but they’re not so obvious, which keeps it interesting. If I was a brilliant cyclist I’d go win the Tour de France, but I’m not, so if there are other things that can complicate a race, that’s probably good for me.
What was the toughest aspect of the course?
The last climb and descent. It was definitely the hardest. Everything else was mostly rideable. If not rideable, then conveniently pushable. This one… I actually had to lift and carry my bike.
Were you surprised? You were so close to the finish, then there was this gnarly climb…
I was surprised because it wasn’t in last year’s edition, and it was so hard. That means the addition wasn’t just a token. It’s actually a crucial part of the race. That surprised me.
What were your favorite sections of the route?
The other side of Kegeti pass after the big hike-a-bike. That and sections that flowed and I was able to keep good speed with a fully loaded bike.
Give us a couple snapshots of the people you met along the way. Any interesting interactions that stand out?
In Beatov I was looking for a guesthouse. There was a big billboard with an arrow pointing in a direction that there was no guesthouse. I was asking people about it and nobody knew. There were two little girls, one small and one a bit older, and I asked them. One responded with perfect English. She didn’t know so she called her mom. Her mom didn’t know so they offered to let me stay with them. That escalated very easily for a place to sleep, and they were all very nice and curious.
Once, as I was stopped to oil my chain, a car pulled up. A guy jumped out and asked for a selfie with me. He had no clue about the race or anything, he just saw a guy in tights doing something and wanted a photo, I think. And then there were many people who offered me a lift. It’s hard to explain, “Yes I’m going there, but I don’t want a lift…”
How much and how often did you sleep?
I slept every day except for the last day. The first day I slept five or six hours. The second day was Beatov, where I didn’t sleep at all because I drank a Coke before. Third day I slept a lot because I had to wait for the sun to come out. I slept for eight hours. After Naryn I slept for five hours. After Checkpoint three, four hours. Then I slept another four hours just before Kochkor.
I don’t cycle at night, ever. So, on the last night when I decided not to sleep as an experiment, it was quite a new feeling to me that you actually could fall asleep on the bike. At one point I caught myself dozing off and weaving around. I won’t do that again.
The sun was out and you could ride without needing light from about 5:30 AM, roughly, so I was always getting up around 5:00 so I could be on the bike by 5:30.
Tell us about your bike.
It’s a carbon Merida 29er with two wheels and a bar at the front. It’s the only suitable bike I have, so this choice was easy. It has full Shimano XT and I put the 2x setup that it originally came with back on, because I normally run it 1x. I changed the bottom bracket for a new one because it’s a cheap press fit and it’s better to start fresh. I bled the brakes before starting. I have to get new wheels and tires after this. I put bar ends on, but not at the end of the bars. I’m not sure whether I’d do that again as it wasn’t very comfortable, so I don’t know whether that was a good idea or not. The bar ends are probably the one thing that I wouldn’t defend on my bike. Apart from that, I made the mistake of not servicing the fork before coming here and I didn’t have time to send it to Fox. After two days it essentially lost its suspension and was very stiff and noisy. The sounds were quite painful, like something was being damaged. Hopefully it’s a replaceable part, but the fork is gone.
What was your shelter / sleep system?
My sleep system was very clumsy. It was a bivvy, sleeping bag, and a mat that I never used. My sleeping bag was rated to 5°C (41°F) and the bivvy was supposed to add another 5°C, and the mat would add something as well. In the end, I was sleeping in everything I had. I was cold, but it didn’t prevent me from sleeping at least a little bit, so it was okay. It would be nice to have something that I didn’t have to pack away into a stuff sack, which takes a long time, and the bivvy had condensation on the inside, which got the sleeping bag wet and made things not so nice the next night.
How’d you carry things on the bike?
I stored everything in the seat pack. My frame bag had a repair kit, two tubes, and other mechanical stuff. Everything else was inside my seat pack except for waterproofs, gloves, headband, and my warm jacket, which was in my vest. My top tube bags had food I could eat while riding and my battery bank. I convinced my dad that he needs a Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM so I could borrow it from him, and I also had my original Wahoo ELEMNT, but I mostly used his because it’s possible to charge the ROAM while it’s mounted on the stem.
Any problems with your gear/kit? Anything you wish you brought along?
I had lobster gloves, which worked, but there wasn’t a margin for error. They wouldn’t have worked if it had been any colder, so I probably would have brought a different set of gloves. I don’t own any light and warm pants, so I just brought what I had, but they’re kind of heavy and not so warm given their weight. I’d probably change those too, because my sleeping bag wouldn’t have been so important with better pants.
Lastly, is there anyone you’d like to thank?
Of course it takes a village. It always does. Many people bought things so I could borrow them for the race, but those are just the basic things. I’d like to thank my wife, Fiona, who was patient during my training… and I was training a lot.
Please pass it along...