The Silk Road Cargo Race (Film)
“The Silk Road Cargo Race” is a new documentary that recounts Allan Shaw’s audacious attempt to compete in the 2023 Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan aboard a cargo bike. Find the 13-minute film plus Allan’s heartfelt written reflection on the experience and a gallery of analog and digital photos here…
In August 2023, I raced in the Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR) on my Omnium Cargo. The SRMR is a 1,880-kilometre mountain bike race with 30,000 metres of climbing across the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and it was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My last year in cycling has brought me a profound sense of escapism. While dealing with some rather serious challenges personally, the goals I have set myself in cycling have been a welcome and massively fulfilling distraction. With so much time in the saddle, people assume you must have so much time to think. What I tell these people is that when I’m riding my bike, I’m really not thinking about anything at all. My mind is quiet and peaceful. My eyes are wide open, and I’m focused on breathing and moving. The noise of daily life dims.
The action itself is so simple: one foot in front of the other, over and over, eat food, and sleep when you can. Keep moving. Even in the most extreme of circumstances on the bike, the sheer simplicity of it, for me at least, can make it feel more digestible than the abstractions and complications of everyday life.
It’s true that I raised a lot of eyebrows when we announced I was racing this year’s Silk Road Mountain Race on my Omnium Cargo. There were people who were excited to see it, and people who thought I must be mad. Many people didn’t believe it would be possible, but everyone wanted to see me try. I was willing to admit that it was ambitious, but I refused to admit that it would be all that much harder, and anything but impossible.
In the days before start and at registration, I felt pretty intense levels of both excitement and dread. Every time I heard a strange noise from the bike, I panicked. I called my mechanic in Copenhagen and questioned him on details I normally would never worry about. It made me realise just how important succeeding was to me. I felt a little bit of pressure to prove what I came to Kyrgyzstan to prove. That feeling came from knowing clearly that this bike could do this but also knowing that anything could happen to stop me. So many years in the making, so much time thinking about it. It was time to stop thinking and start making it happen.
Once we left the start line as a group and made our way off into the mountains, I had this feeling of relief that I was a little closer to the finish with every kilometre that passed. One pedal stroke at a time, I was making it happen. In this way, these first few days of the race were immeasurably satisfying.
In these early days, I kept an ambitious pace, covering over 400 kilometres in the first 36 hours of the race. I was keeping a pace that could have had me finish at around the 10-day mark, which I had in mind as an incredible goal to aim for. But running your engine so hard for so long, you run the risk of overheating, and I knew how important just reaching the finish was to me. I really didn’t want to risk that. So, at some point around day four, I opted for slightly longer sleeps and breaks with lower mileages but much better recoveries. I made a conscious effort to dial down my pace a bit and do a better job of protecting a finish that meant so much to me.
I made it over the monster that is Jukku Pass at over 3,600 metres, pushing my bike up the boulders one shove at a time for hours. I battled through dust clouds and intense headwinds down into the Arabel Valley and eventually to Naryn, otherwise known as “Scratch City.” By this point, the field had already thinned out quite a bit. People were being affected by the harsh weather conditions, stomach problems, injuries, and mechanicals. The wheel of misfortune spins. Pick your problem, or rather, let the problem pick you.
Typical of my clumsy timing, I arrived to Naryn really early, perhaps too early to justify a guesthouse in favour of moving on. But, knowing the next section would be harsh, and with this new philosophy to be good to and look after myself, I found my guesthouse at was asleep by 7:30 p.m. with an alarm set for 1 a.m.
That next day, I knew I’d made the right decision, as the cold bit hard as I moved through head winds of desolate valleys and up to the high plateau near the Chinese border and all the way to checkpoint two near the extraordinarily beautiful Kol Suu lake. This was very possibly my very favourite moment in the race. Straight after leaving checkpoint two, you climb the infamous Old Soviet Road, a steep one-kilometre push that gains more than 300 metres of altitude and then keeps you on the high and often freezing cold plateau with no resupply for well over 100 kilometres.
As I was climbing the last hill up to the checkpoint, I watched an ugly storm rapidly approach me from behind. It started raining cold and hard just as I was arriving to the yurt camp of the checkpoint, and as I shuffled and shivered inside to take shelter, I was met by five other friendly faced and slightly weary looking racers. I proposed to all of them that we stop for the day here to avoid stormy weather at high altitude, take a moment to enjoy the surroundings and the company, and get a good feed and a good sleep. Put the race on a little pause for a moment. Given the conditions, most were absolutely onboard.
Barely 30 minutes later, the storm passed, and the sun came out. Damn it! What now? Still, I was more than happy with my decision and felt the benefit of a warm bed and a good meal with pleasant company would serve me better than making a marginal distance further along the track. My alarm was set again for 1 a.m., no regrets. In the end, 28 racers took shelter in checkpoint 2 that night; the mid-pack had officially formed, and I was glad to be in the midst of it.
In the previous edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race that I’d raced, I had ended up in a chase pack of barely four people, stretched out and far from the other formed groups, meaning I saw very few people with very little frequency. This time around, I crossed paths with so many interesting, inspiring, fun, and unique people. From Dylan and Sara, celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary by racing together as a pair to new best friend Quinda and so many in between. This time around, even with the vast majority of the race spent on my own, it truly felt like a shared experience.
I had innumerable successes during the race and just a few small failures. As many people saw and heard, after scaling many of the huge passes of the race, I had a little crash barely 150 kilometres from the finish after a small wobble on a loose gravel descent. I couldn’t correct in time, and I was going really pretty fast when it happened. Thankfully, Quinda was barely 500 metres behind me when it happened. We sat at the side of the trail for a bit to assess the damage. Covered in dust and dirt and with a few minor but bloody scrapes, the immediate concern quickly shifter to a large, deep cut near my knee.
Sitting there in the dirt, there was pretty little the antiseptic wipes and bandages in my first aid kit were going to do to help. Looking down at myself, my first thought was massive disappointment. Everything had been going so well up to that point. It was also impossible to know for sure how bad it was given all the adrenaline racing through my system. Fortunately, I was close to a main road, barely two hours from Bishkek, the capital, and I had four more days left to finish. So, despite being desperate to get to the end, I did the right thing, used the time and the access I had and went to a hospital in Bishkek to get checked out.
Stepping away from the race course and returning to a mega metropolis was overwhelming. The noise, the traffic, and the civilisation were so out of place in the middle of the race. I had to get back to my bike and finish this thing. I made my way to the city’s best hospital, where they cleaned my wounds with the highest grade antiseptic and put five stitches in the cut in my knee. The doctor told me it was only “little bad” and not “big bad.” With the help of my interpreter, we discussed how wise or unwise it would be to continue, and I was given a tentative go ahead.
After just 24 hours away from my bike, I arrived back cleaned up, bandaged up, and determined to make it to the finish. I had a mounting feeling of dread, as I had no idea how unpleasant this last part of the experience might be, and the first few pedals strokes were not super enjoyable. I was relieved to find that I really didn’t experience too much discomfort once I found my groove—the beauty of the bicycle’s lessened impact and resistance.
I rode just 40 kilometres that afternoon, using it as a little test, and arrived at the final village before the final push. Once there, I took a bed in a guest house and set my alarm for 2 a.m., having no idea how long the last stretch might take. With many racers already finished, I’d heard plenty of stories of just how big a push it was going to be.
In the end, it was one of the harder days of the race. Aside from my injuries, I had multiple rain storms pass over me, the trail slowly climbed up an endless valley for some 60 kilometres before reaching the final pass, Kok Ayrik, a 16-kilometre trail into the mountains strewn with landslides. It was almost entirely unrideable, and it was a huge effort to make it up. I knew I was moving at a snail’s pace, but I also knew I was going to make it at this point. The burning fire of determination in my gut kept me putting one foot in front of the other.
As I neared the top, I spotted the media team car waiting to capture the moment, and I was hit with the realisation that I had done it. I had made it. I had succeeded in the mission I’d obsessed over for years. I was overcome with a huge wave of emotions at the summit, and frankly, I cried like a baby. I was so happy, so relieved, and oh so tired.
I had been determined to not let a crash define my experience. After having innumerable successes and huge achievements, one failure couldn’t take away from that. In the days and weeks after the race, I thought a lot about how we let our successes or failures define our experiences. In the end, the feeling I’m left with is that who we are and how we define ourselves has far less to do with our successes or failures and much more to do with how we deal with each eventuality. Both are a certainty in life and in races like this, and what I want to embody is the mighty pendulum that swings between the two: managing, adapting, learning, and accepting them for what they are.
I crossed the finish line at 11 p.m. on the 24th of August, 2023, after 12 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes out on the route, successfully becoming the first and only person to complete the race on a cargo bike. Would I do it again? Honestly, no. Not because I think it was a bad decision, and not because I didn’t have a very rewarding experience. But, for me, doing the Silk Road Mountain Race on a cargo bike was always intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which it certainly was.
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