Jay Petervary on the Silk Road Mountain Race
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Jay Petervary recently won the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race. We asked him a few questions about the route, the gear he brought, and his experiences in Kyrgyzstan. Here’s what he had to say, along with an incredible collection of photos by Giovanni Maria Pizzato…
Photos by Giovanni Maria Pizzato
At 5:15 pm local time on August 26th, 2018, the inaugural PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race had a winner. After 1,721 kilometers in 8 days, 8 hours, and 15 minutes, Jay Petervary was the first to arrive at the finish line in Chong Kemin. “This was the hardest race I have done. But that is not why I took part. It’s about pioneering and racing bikes where no one did before. That is the real beauty of this race for me,” stated Jay on the SRMR blog. Jay led the race from the start, but it was never a sure thing. Several other riders, including second place finisher Levente Bagoly, were always pushing on close behind him.
The Silk Road Mountain Race was the first of its kind and followed a route through Kyrgyzstan based closely on our Tian Shan Traverse. Only about a third of the nearly 100 starters made it to the finish, owing to extreme weather, illness, and the sheer difficulty of the terrain. We caught up with Jay to ask him a few questions about his time pedaling across Kyrgyzstan.
First off, congrats! You finished the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race in 8 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. Did you think you’d finish faster, or that it’d take more time?
Comparing it to everything else I’ve done and the shape I was in going into the event, I thought I would finish in under a week. But that’s just a number, it didn’t matter to me how long it would take. The finish line was my goal. At this point in my career I set high expectations of myself, but they’re never unreasonable goals and I’m okay with falling short of them.
Was Kyrgyzstan different than what you expected? If so, how?
I expected the terrain to be big, which it was. I actually thought it would be more remote in terms of seeing other people, but just when I thought I was far out there I’d come across a herd of animals, a man on a horse, a yurt camp, or even a car traveling through the mountains. I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about being left for too long if I got into real trouble. The people are some of the nicest humans I have ever come across. It didn’t matter if I was deep in the mountains, in a small village, or even in the city of Bishkek, everyone was very nice, helpful, and their hospitality was amazing.
What about the route? You looked at our route, the Tian Shan Traverse, which makes up nearly 1,000 km of the SRMR course, but was it still different than you anticipated?
I actually thought the Tian Shan Traverse route you guys did was more off-road riding, so I didn’t really study it closely, but I did get familiar with the track that Nelson, the race director, sent us. I’m not one to plan, but I do go into events with a sense of what each section might be like and an idea about places for resupply.
The route was more or less what I expected, except for the two 20 km hike-a-bikes that weren’t really mentioned, and the numerous river crossings. It wasn’t that I didn’t like these special tests. I absolutely love real adventure riding, but not knowing the reality of them definitely did my mind in while I was in the moment of pushing all my limits. Looking back, it was everything I want in such a ride and would only change some of the structure to help set up more of the mid-pack riders for success.
Did you have a favorite section of the route?
Yeah. Events like this are funny in that your perceptions of a section completely depend on whether you’re traveling through it at night or during the day. I know I missed some pretty spectacular high mountain vista sections when I was riding in the dark. I could only feel how big they were by seeing the horizon lines in the moonlight, but they’re still so memorable. Tackling Shamshy Pass toward the finish was one of those sections. Actually, both big hike-a-bikes held that same feeling for me, despite never actually seeing them.
I also really enjoyed the long valley leaving Naryn on my way to CP3. It traverses this basin at 9,000-10,000’ with a huge braided river and towering snow capped mountains on either side, eventually reaching the end some 50+ miles later with a 12,500’ saddle to pop over. It was really interesting to witness how the landscape would completely change every time you hopped a mountain range. In this case it was a dry, grassy highland, then all of a sudden you were into a more lush and rugged landscape with rocks and boulders everywhere. As I can find beauty in everything, the entire route was a favorite for me!
Give us a couple snapshots of the people you met along the way. Any interesting interactions that stand out?
All of the people are beautiful! The first interaction that still gives me chills is when I was riding into CP2 and a 12-year-old boy riding a horse and waving a big Kyrgyz flag came up alongside me and started yelling. I’m not sure what he was saying, but it was motivating. The one word I did understand was “champion!” His entire family was standing outside the yurt camp to welcome me. The young boy made sure to be a part of taking care of me, and he also wanted to join me for the out-and-back we had to do toward the famous lake bed.
Another interaction that stands out happened while I was descending a big pass and saw a flock of sheep on the hillside, then rounded the corner to find two young children, a lame sheep, and an older man on a horse. A wave, handshake, and some gesturing later, I helped him pick up the sheep and load it onto his horse. That was the first time I’d ever touched a sheep. They’re way heavier than you might think!
Also, seeing a group of men pushing a car up Tosor Pass, the highest pass of the event at just under 13,000 feet, in the middle of a snowstorm was pretty exhilarating. I remember saying to myself, “People think and tell me I am tough. I’m not tough. These people are tough.”
Having previously scouted out and ridden 1,000 km of the route, we had some concerns about how the scale of the SRMR might impact the people and places it passes by. What’s your perspective on what kind of effect a race like this can have on an unassuming place like Kyrgyzstan?
In this case, I don’t think the impact changes anything as far as the local people and culture go. Very few riders actually got to do the entire route. In the end, I think an event like this is a good thing as both the locals and the travelers get to learn something from each other. The valley I was describing above was the one place I saw multiple Westerns who weren’t part of the event. I was kind of blown away by that, but can also understand as it was very beautiful and it connected two inhabited places.
I also think this type of travel and route is going to attract a certain type of person who understands and respects their surroundings a bit differently than those who might ride a more accessible route with more amenities. You must be fully prepared and self-supported to take on this route, which is not attractive to most bikepackers.
And I think it is a good thing for people to understand the reality of such a place. Many would assume that Kyrgyzstan, being a ’stan, is a dangerous or horrible place to visit. That is completely wrong and people should know that.
Tell us a about your bike. Did it fit the terrain? Anything you’d change?
I rode a Salsa Cycles Warbird v4 prototype. I do these events for many reasons, and these days testing new equipment is one of them, regardless of what others think or recommend. In a sense, it’s my way of pushing, learning, and giving back to the sport. The bike itself performed better than I imagined, especially considering the cowboy terrain.
I loved my setup and every piece of gear I choose. At times I was questioning my tire size, and at times I felt like I was blazing the countryside on a cannonball run just like I’d hoped. I’m blown away by how comfortable it was on Kyrgyzstan’s rough terrain. I probably wouldn’t have taken the previous Warbird as I was very keen on all the added mounts on the new v4, and its modified geometry is a step forward for more stable adventure riding.
Let’s talk about those 42mm tires. We rode plus and fat tire bikes when we were on the route. Did you feel a little under-gunned?
Yeah, running 42mm tires was maybe not the best decision, but it made me a better rider and I now know exactly what I’m capable of on them. The most frustrating part was not being able to open up on the downhills as I would have liked. I lost my rear tubeless on the first day and was fixing pinch flats every single day, patching and rotating between two tubes. I had to run them at higher pressure than I would have prefered, and I really needed to concentrate on my lines. I didn’t let it get in my way, but embraced it instead, paying very close attention to my line and finessing the bike, especially on the rockier stuff at higher elevations. The flip side is that with so much climbing and some fast rolling through open valleys, turning over a lighter wheel mass is significantly easier. Ultimately, I don’t regret my decision.
As far as gear, is there anything you’d change?
Nope. Oh wait, yes. Shoes! I destroyed my shoes, and they were almost brand new when I started. My toes were almost popping out the end and were destroyed from the hike-a-bikes. Debris kept getting inside and the bottoms of my feet were almost unbearably tender at the finish from feeling like I was continually grinding them against small stones.
How much and how often did you sleep?
It varied. I slept three or four hours most nights. One night I slept a little more while waiting for the sun to hit my face since everything had frozen overnight. The last night I didn’t sleep at all. I went about 36 hours straight to reach the finish!
Did you encounter any snow or ice along the way? Any other crazy experiences or sightings?
Heck yeah! Although I think I encountered less than many of the other racers, for whom it seemed to be almost a nightly occurrence. I’m pretty mindful of where I am and where I’ll be as far as elevation and terrain go, and I’ll always push it if I need to in order to get to a lower elevation. I’m also quite strong mentally, and whatever I tell myself I can do, I do it.
I got caught up on a snowstorm on Tosor Pass. It’s about a 20-mile climb and the weather was finicky the entire way. On and off went my jacket. The weather quickly alternated from hot sun to rain to sleet to sun to rain to snow. Cresting the saddle in the snow, I smiled and yelled in excitement. I could see that it was dry in the valley below and I knew I just needed to get lower. I put on all my layers and descended into the evening. While bivvying that night I was rained, sleeted, and snowed on. Then the temperature plummeted. I awoke to a frozen sheet of ice covering everything. Without question, it was the most challenging morning of the trip.
Heading over Shamshy Pass on the last night was also pretty memorable. There was no playing around with this one. It had a mountaineering aspect to it. I was tip-toeing around with my bike on my back, and before I knew it I was hiking across a scree field with strong gusts of wind nearly blowing me off the mountainside. Needless to say, it was intense. Once at the top, it felt almost as if the wind was trying to pry my bike from my hands, and it nearly pinned me against the scree. Negotiating the switchbacks on the way down was mentally and physically exhausting, and was one of the few scary moments of my riding career. I had to keep reminding myself to just take one careful step at a time. That challenge made all the water crossings at the bottom seem easy, although I admit they were a bit scary as well. Oh, and I did all of this at night, making it extra exhilarating.
Personally, I love adverse weather conditions. When I’m in them, a certain instinct takes over. My awareness becomes very heightened, and I just march on. I also love how it changes the contrast and the way things look. I have a ton of experience in extreme weather and a lot of confidence in the equipment I carry. One thing I’ve learned is that things often end up worse if I stop in these situations. So, the silver lining is that I’m always moving forward and covering miles!
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
The whole experience was better because I went into it with my best friend and wife Tracey and her teammate Mark. These adventures are tough to prepare for, and doing it all alone can feel a bit selfish. It’s also not nearly as fun as being able to share with others, even if we weren’t actually traveling the route together. So, my thanks to them.
I would also like to thank the real pioneers of this route across Kyrgyzstan for opening it up to others with what you learned: Joe, Lucas, Joel, and you! And I thank Nelson and his crew for the courage and vision of actually hosting an event like this. Kudos to a job well done! I have many sponsors and partners, but I can’t thank Salsa Cycles enough for supporting me in ways that allow me to do things like this. They respond to my last-minute requests and help me achieve the best, often in an untraditional way.
Lastly, to the people who follow me, send me notes, and make comments: THANK YOU!