You’ve reached the summit of a 3600m climb, and the weather is quickly deteriorating into freezing rain. Visibility is reduced, you’re starting to shake with cold. Nightfall is in two hours. What do you do?
The Silk Road Mountain Race isn’t the typical weekend event; it’s one of the hardest ultra-races in the world. Reviewing the application form questions, it was clear we had to carefully assess if this cycling challenge was appropriate for us!
With zero bikepacking experience under our belts, we weren’t equipped to answer this question, and for the next two days, we laid the application aside and geeked out on google, typing in searches such as “how to stay warm if you fall into ice water”. We didn’t even own bikes that were appropriate for this event at the time, much less possess the knowledge of high-altitude weather systems! Nervous, but committed, we finalized our application as best we could, and within a month had an acceptance letter in hand.
We couldn’t be more excited and motivated for SRMR, but we still lay awake at night talking through potential scenarios that we’ve never faced before — “What’s it like to push through freezing cold weather at high altitude? Will we bring enough food and water to make it to each resupply? How far will we ride until we stop for rest?” There is no caravan or support car in Kyrgyzstan — no free wheels or bottle hands ups!
With our roadie backgrounds, our biggest learning curve isn’t the pedalling: it’s the practical application of self-support — packing, mountaineering, mapping, and the mentality it takes to ride through the rugged terrain and conditions of Kyrgyzstan. It means calling on our strengths from road experience — building momentum, being efficient with gearing, technical skill, and climbing ability — and then learning about the “adventure” side of the sport we’ve not yet mastered.
How does one train the adventure portion of a self-supported cycling race?
In anticipation of SRMR and the challenges ahead, we’ve tried to simulate elements of the race at home. We’ve gone on multiple training rides under the full weight of gear we intend to take to Kyrgyzstan. Through that experience, we’ve learned how to distribute the weight between the two of us most effectively. And just because we aren’t sleeping out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t mean we can’t practice setting up camp. We go and do our training ride, then when we get back home fatigued, we set up our tent and sleeping systems so that we are used to the feeling of setting up camp when exhausted — and then pack it back up quickly and efficiently. We’re also making little notes as we go to memorize what items are where in our bags.
Basically, we’ve spent just as much time off the bike “training” as we have on the bike. Reorganizing our bags 100 times over, learning new equipment like tubeless plugs, dynamo hubs, dry bags, and sleep systems.
All these years of road racing experience, and yet there is a whole realm of equipment that’s completely new to us. But we understand how efficiency really is EVERYTHING — the meticulous details that, when added up for days on end, make a huge difference.
And talk about unknown territory: what we’re using now compared to when we first began is comical! We started with entirely too much and have whittled away at it as we get closer to the event. At first, we had an entire cookware system – we are now down to a single small pot. We originally had sleeping pads that were basically the size of Kyrgyzstan! Now we have pads that fold down to the proportions of a Coke can and weigh virtually nothing. We also cut out additional clothing items and after carefully looking at the Kyrg map for resupply options, we’ve opted for less water storage.
Since we are racing as a pair, we started by packing a “his” pack and “her” pack. But that didn’t make sense! If it’s getting really cold, we will both stop to put on warm gear. If we are pitching our tent for the night, we will both need overnight clothes…so why open two packs for the same scenario? Instead, we now organize our packs situationally. All the warm clothes are in the same pack. That way we are only opening and closing one pack per condition.
While we won’t know if all these decisions are correct until we actually reach the finish line, we really are putting our gear to the test, asking questions like: is this item easily accessible? How often did we use it? Does it go in the frame pack, seat pack, or front roll?
Packs to take off the beaten track
The terrain and equipment are foreign, and then there is pacing. SRMR requires a different type of fitness and riding style than a single-day road race with a mountain top finish. The rugged nature of this event is intimidating, and pushing “hard” looks and feels entirely different than going into the red for a KOM. Riding for hours and hours on end presents a unique kind of fatigue, and we have changed our training style to try and adapt to that.
With so many things unknown, there is one catchphrase in our vocabulary that still applies, and that’s what we call “riding into it”. Sometimes when we saddle up, the first hour is complete agony. Legs are stiff and sore, the backside is bruised, and the energy is lacking. Yet one hour passes, and this brand new energy arrives on tap. Something changes, and you’re ten times the person you were an hour ago. That’s what “riding into it,” means to us — that what you’re feeling NOW won’t be what you feel forever. One mile could be the difference between hell and heaven on the bike, and it’s completely unpredictable! This much IS certain!
And with that, it all comes full circle, to why we’re adventuring in the first place — exploring ourselves, our limits, and experiencing the world on bikes, in its purest state.
Scotti Lechuga is one half of a husband and wife team from professional racing backgrounds attempting the Silk Road Mountain Race in 2019. Follow their progress on Instagram.