“To follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished leaving behind the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit boarders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.”
Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road
It’s August. After four years racing at this time of year in the incredible Transcontinental Race (TCR), it feels to me as if one door has closed but another one opened. Now, I’m on the other side of the world, with a completely new cycling challenge. I have learnt so much from the TCR, as a person and a bike racer. I’ve progressed from scratching, to finishing fourth and then winning it twice. Now I need something new to take me out of my comfort zone. Well, I’ve found it!
I’d spent the winter getting on with my studies as a civil engineer, while working on some new ideas for riding my bike. In early season I rode a gravel bike in the short 200 km Dirty Reiver in England. In April I entered the off–road 1,200km Italy Divide. I had planned to not really push myself in the race from Naples to Lake Garda, but my animal instincts took over and I buried myself into a very deep hole from which it took me four weeks to climb out. Really though; racing hard, off road, for days on end, having to endure appalling weather. Well, I loved it! I also shared a win with the brilliant Sofiane Sehili in an unusual and exciting finish.
Then I switched to my first ever mountain bike, a Canyon Exceed. (Quick shout out to my new bike partner, Canyon Bicycles). In late May I headed north into the Scottish mountains for 880 km of rain drenched, rock strewn, off road adventure; the Highland Trail 550. I wanted the challenge of course. More importantly though, after having so much fun in Italy, I had actually entered the Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR). I wanted competitive experience in racing a mountain bike.
On the first morning in Scotland I enjoyed a spectacular rookie wipeout. My helmet cam captured the ‘over the handlebars and into the freezing river’ moment. Plenty of people enjoyed that film but what I didn’t share was that I had hurt my knee in the crash. It didn’t stop me finishing in reasonable style but over the following weeks it became a real worry. If you are going to really compete in ultra-endurance racing, on any surface, there are no easy days. On new terrain, in a period of six weeks, I had raced four brutal days in Italy and another five in Scotland. Looking back, I know that I pushed my body too far.
Everything is good with my knee now and I want to shout out to the people who helped me to get it sorted out: Liz, Darren, Jim and Dan at the Centre for Health and Human Performance (CHHP). Dan is a specialist physio who works with the World Tour team, Mitchelton Scott. He did a bike fit and taped up my knee. Finally, Nichola at Velophysio. She helped me get an MRI scan and did follow up physio. She’s really good!
Mental resilience is one of my key strengths. I imagine it to be the contents of a finite box. As I race, I take out what I need. Only once I stop racing, when I’m resting and feel at peace, can I replenish it. I had started the race in Scotland with a box that wasn’t full because I had emptied it in the snowstorm in the Dolomites, just before the finish of Italy Divide. Both races had been described by the organisers as their toughest ever. Only a third of the starters finished in Scotland. I was happy and proud to have been amongst them with my empty box.
Where am I? West of China, north of Tajikistan, south of Kazakhstan and east of Uzbekistan. If that doesn’t help, I’m around 3,800 km straight north of Mumbai in India. I’m in the incredible country of Kyrgyzstan.
Why am I here? “As soon as I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I realised it was exactly what I was looking for. Expansive spaces, extensive silence and breath-taking mountains, as far as the eye can see. I felt that I was on the edge of the world. The Kyrgyz are hospitable people, but their land is certainly not.” These are the words of Nelson Trees at the start of the wonderful short film “Wild Horses,” made about the first Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR) in 2018. I know him quite well. Nelson had raced against me three times in the Transcontinental Race. In 2017, he told me at the finish line in Greece about his plans for organising an incredible off-road race. I wanted to defend my TCR title in 2018 but I promised myself this adventure in Central Asia for 2019.
Getting ready. I never really do things by half measures. So, I came out here four weeks before the race. I wanted to acclimatise; to the country, the topography, the altitude, the terrain, the food, the people. I also wanted to spend some time here to make some new memories, rather than just turn up for a week of racing. It’s been incredible but hard as well, no doubt. Not so much the cycling and training, more being away so long from my wife, Isabelle. I miss her! I do believe though that the preparation I have put in will be super powerful for the race. I’ve also filled up my imaginary box with mental toughness.
In all ultra-endurance racing, there are certain skills you must have to excel. Physical ability, mental strength, survival skills, race experience. There’s also physical awareness, which is about understanding how your body is working under competitive stress and protecting it as needed. For these five skills, let’s compare the demands of ultra-endurance road racing, such as TCR, with this SRMR. Their relative importance varies. I suggest that survival skills and physical awareness are going to be more important. Conversely, the importance of physical ability and mental strength will decrease. Finally, in such a remote and even savage wilderness, race experience will increase.
There you have it, that’s why I’m here so early. I lack survival skills and race experience, so I’ve been out on my bike, finding out about this extraordinary country. Already, I know where to get water and how to anticipate mountain storms. My digestion system has also gone through some adaptation and I know I’ll deal with the altitude. After all, we will regularly be racing up to 4,000 m. We also go along by the Chinese border in the high desert and for a constant 200 km, our route will be at 3,000 m.
The race. As with all my races, it’s unsupported. There’s a set route of 1,710 km with 26,000m of climbing. We start in the capital, Bishkek and finish at the beach resort Cholpon Ata, on Lake Issyk-Kul. If I crest the rocky and barren Tong Pass towards the end of the race, I’ll be at the high point, 4,100m (13,450 ft). I have already ridden some sections and have found it unimaginably hard. I like racing and I’m going to push myself very hard. If I could end up in the top five, I’d be happy. I would also be pleased just to finish and to have enjoyed the experience. I am a quick learner and I will undoubtedly be back here in the future. My race number is #32. You can track us here.
I finish with this wonderful quote from race organiser, Nelson Trees, about one of the final sections. This excerpt explains exactly why 140 bike riders are so thrilled to be lining up at the start in Bishkek on Saturday, August 17th.
“The route from Kochkor to Shabdan includes what is still likely the hardest pass of the race: Shamsi. It’s essentially a horse track over a 3800 meter pass that includes around 20 kilometres of hike a bike. That being said it is also one of our favourite sections and more than one rider from last year agreed with us. It’s best tackled during the day for all but the most experienced and confident riders. The top of the descent is a steep scree slope that very few riders were able to ride. It soon becomes a little gentler, and if you have the mountain bike skills for it, it’s a fantastic descent. There are four river crossings lower down on the north side that can be up to waist deep if it has rained recently. Please proceed with caution.”