Pain is Just Information: Silk Road Mountain Race Stories

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We’ve shared many riders’ perspectives from the Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR) since the event was launched in 2018, but in this unique piece, we hear from Julia Nicksch, a volunteer who was working at one of the checkpoints during the weeklong race. Find a behind-the-scenes look at the 2022 SRMR here, paired with a fantastic gallery of images from rider and photographer Stefan Haehnel…

Words by Julia Nicksch (@_hey_jules), photos by Stefan Haehnel (@stefanhaehnel)

Much has been said about the Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR), an ultra-distance cycling race through Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains that is mostly described by superlatives. By now, there’s a variety of reports, recaps, and analysis out there. And yet, here I am with another one. If you are expecting data, stats, or details on gear ratio or equipment, this is not the place. Or if you are keen on critical analysis of gender balance, white privilege, and the like, I’m afraid to disappoint you. This is just an easy peasy lemon squeezy piece of writing because I am a fan. I can’t help it.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

I dot watched the event in 2019 and volunteered on site after I moved to Bishkek for a job in 2021. Since the race generates so much attention, not only in the ultra cycling and bikepacking community but also among a non-bike-related audience, I thought about sharing some bits and pieces from the circus behind the SRMR from my volunteer’s perspective.

  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

As soon as the doors to registration fling open for numerous riders from around the globe, the spark is lit, and it’s impossible not to be sucked into the bubble of excitement, tension, reunion joy, and last-minute changes—all accompanied by chatter, the familiar sound freewheels, and the scent of chain lube. As with every other event, as much as you are sorted and have a plan, it’s equally chaotic and messy yet full of laughter. For everyone involved, it is a wild ride. The stoke is real.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

It truly takes a village to run the SRMR and to make it a safe ride for everyone involved. From HQ to photographers and control car drivers, medics, numerous volunteers, yurt camps, and guest houses that function as checkpoints, as well as the connection to team green, all conceivably well and virtuously held together by the race director Nelson Trees.

  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

The race has three mandatory checkpoints, each run by four volunteers (mostly a team of locals and internationals) and the local host family for about six days. Volunteers welcome the riders and stamp their precious brevet cards. The host family provides hot food and sleeping facilities, and volunteers help with communication. Kyrgyz people are amazingly hospitable and incredibly proud that these riders have chosen their country to test their limits. For some volunteers, it was the first time they left their communities and went to more remote places like Song Kul. It’s not very common for locals to travel around Kyrgyzstan, but luckily they were open to embarking on the adventure as well.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

I have volunteered at CP2 twice in completely different yet utterly charming settings. Last year, it was close to Kel Suu Lake at Meder’s Yurt Camp with its infamously hearty yak meat soup. There was no signal or running water and only limited electricity. We couldn’t follow the tracker to see how many riders would arrive or when. So, we divided into shifts and got up several times at night to see if there was a flickering light approaching from the distance. Remote yurt checkpoints are cozy, simple, and closer to the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle.

  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

This year’s CP2 was in a guesthouse in Tamga on Issyk Kul, with all the amenities you can imagine: splendid summer sun, a lake for early morning swimming, a funky beach taxi with pan flute tunes, several shops with ice cream and fruit, the most ridiculously amazing sunsets imaginable, internet for all the updates, and 24/7 tracker availability. I think my phone has never been so busy, and I’m still wondering how riders were able to leave that place at all. Furthermore, CP2 was quite a famous place in Soviet times. It was the restaurant of the sanatorium where Russian cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, recovered after their journeys into space. I guess their spirits still float around or have at least been captured in some mosaics.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

From my experience, there’s some sort of predictable dynamic to working the checkpoint. You are still setting up and sorting out everything when the front of the pack and media cars rush through. That’s followed by a more relaxed period to adjust and bond as a team and with the hosts while playing soccer with their kids, cutting vegetables in the kitchen, petting their cat, or going on a horse ride before the mid-pack and other control cars arrive.

  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

The mid-pack is like a swarm of riders coming in frequently, and within an instant, you find yourself communicating, juggling hot plates, providing snacks and lunch boxes, giving hugs, blow drying wet brevet cards, providing frozen chicken legs for swollen ankles when there is no cool pack to be found, putting riders into beds that might still be warm from the previous ones or helping with anything else they may need.

There’s then a half-time low where you feel the exhaustion and linger around just until you feel the cut-off time coming closer, and you put yourself together to cheer for the riders in the back and give a special shout-out to the lantern rouge. I vividly remember Captain Meder turning his car radio up to full blast and having a big dance for the final riders and the checkpoint crew.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

My favourite checkpoint moments, however, are those with the riders. From the moment they get off their bikes, they have tales to tell. A common one this year was the story of the shepherd with his dog on Arabel Plateau. He was wearing a face mask and was looking a bit intimidating while protecting himself from wind and sun. He was patiently intercepting riders and trying to swap goods like sunglasses or Swiss pocket knives. He made quite an appearance.

Riders roll up in various conditions: some are drained or limping and sunburnt, others are in surprisingly good shape, all of them visibly relieved to have reached another milestone. With 150 riders, you get to hear 150 different stories. There are so many emotions, and everyone goes on their own journey. I admire the riders’ strength, vulnerability, and resilience.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

The participants’ stories of exhaustion (“Pain is just information”), crappy food (“I’ll have three litres of Red Bull, but no pickles please”), loneliness (“I was dancing in the night with no one around me”), motivation (“I’ll continue until the steel melts!”), demotivation (“Every hour I consider scratching”), power naps in freezing temperatures (“I just lay down up there with my helmet still on”) or hacks (“I have super glue and zip ties at the ready”) will certainly add to my motivational quotes list. Rise and shine, the journey is rich. As much as the outstanding photo coverage reflects the determination and struggles of the riders, I wish the podcast with the hilarious snippets from the road would return to the race in the future.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

The Silk Road Mountain Race isn’t just another bike race. The route provides those who take it on with a unique journey and adventures along the way. Riders—especially through remote and unrideable sections—navigate through altitude, weather, and infrequent supply points. They must manage and deal with their bodies and, most significantly, their minds. I have been touring bits and pieces of the route myself, and I can empathise with their fatigue, rush, all sorts of sickness, logisticsal hurdles, and mechanicals, albeit even at my relaxed pace. Once you are out there, the only battle you are fighting is the one with yourself. Nature isn’t judging, but your mind can be great at playing tricks on you, especially when there’s no one around. As one rider mentioned, “It is as hard as I imagined, but the scenery makes up for it.”

  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel
  • 2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

I have a sneaking suspicion that once you’ve set foot on one of the Central Asian mountain ranges with their breathtaking, ever-changing landscape and experienced the hospitality of its people, a piece of it settles in your heart and won’t let you go again. This checks out, as I’ve heard that it only takes a week from once you’re done with the SRMR to apply for the next edition.

2022 Silk Road Mountain Race, Stefan Haehnel

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