Nº142 Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows | My Silk Road Recap
Hello! It’s been while. Like, a long while. How have you been doing since I last wrote? (You can actually hit reply.)
It was more than two months ago since I last wrote. This is the biggest break I’ve taken in this modest weekly mail’s nearly 150 issue existence. 😨
Keeping a weekly newsletter consistent for 3.5 years has been no easy feat. And keeping it together since The Silk Road Mountain Race has been no walk in the park either. Frankly, my attention has been elsewhere. And as the saying goes, Where attention goes, energy flows. But, I feel that I’m getting my focus back.
But, first, let’s rewind…
When I penned Issue 141, it was after midnight on the eve of the wildest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. In hindsight, those two weeks I spent in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan were pretty easy to the news that weighed on me throughout that trip & since: I learned I’d lost the battle to keep my kids in The Netherlands the day before the race began. And when I returned home to Amsterdam (even a day early for just 24 hours more with them), they were already gone…
In the weeks since, I’ve tried to focus staying positive and things my business and my girlfriend, Kristy, and her kids. So far, I’ve been out to Florida once to see Otto & Mira and will do so more or less monthly until the day someday that they are able to come back for good. I am coming to grips with it all.
I think the lapse in shipping this newsletter was an indication of how scrambled I’ve been. Revisiting these weeks in Kyrgyzstan was reliving that trauma of losing my children. Thank you to everyone that has checked on me since early September. I’m finally feeling like I’m getting back in gear. And massive kudos to my team for holding it down on all of our projects. Twotone has been busy, we’re closing on our 4th birthday & have availability for new work.
As always thank you for reading,
Enjoy this issue? (It is a long one!) 🙏 Sharing is caring!
The Silk Road Mountain Race was a big deal for every racer that made it to the start line. Of those 98 people, only 29 finished the race. All of them have amazing stories like these:
- Scratching From The Silk Road Mountain Race by Max Burgess on The Radavist: http://bit.ly/2PVIfkb
- Pierre-Arnaud Le Magnan’s Trouble on the Silk Road on the 7mesh blog: http://bit.ly/2q796yD
- Is the Silk Road Mountain Race the world’s toughest offroad bike race? on the Red Bull blog: https://win.gs/2PVjZyK
- My friend Bas Rotgan’s insta posts during the race: #srmno1cap020
- so many more on the #srmrno1 tag: http://bit.ly/2CBut2t
It has taken me ages but below is my day by day account of my experience in the Tian Shan mountains: (each Strava link has more photos!)
I began the race with Max Burgess & Justin Haigh. The two days prior to the race we spent finding last minute supplies in the city (SIM cards, fuel for their stoves & retapping a stripped rack mount on Max’s fork).
The day of the race, we woke at 7am. The night before I had Skyped with my kids, Kristy & her kids + finally got the Kyrgyzstan maps loaded on my Element. Essentially: I went to bed waaay too late. But felt good. Despite the sadness. I felt the stoke.
We rolled to the start. I saw quite a few familiar faces. It was a neutral start. The weather was great. Outside the city, the terrain was mostly fine. We made our way towards the ascent up to Kegety Pass.
We encountered a family reunion & were invited to join. This was an indication of our bike touring velocity as opposed to pushing the envelope at race pace.
Around dusk, it began to rain. We decided to setup an early camp & call it quits for Day 1. We began to realize that we’re already back of the pack…
Up early at ~6am. Our relaxed demeanour permeated. We weren’t on the road until 8am.
We continued up & over Kegety. Really beginning to feel the altitude and how it sucks the energy out of you. Or rather, how a lack of oxygen affects you.
I sliced my rear tire. We tried a few ways to save it. A waste. I had brought two extras so I mounted the bigger one, a 2.1 29'er Schwalbe Racing Ralph. (For the record: Furious Freds were the bane of my existence this whole trip. Were I to do it again I’d roll on Conti Race Kings or WTB anything.)
Also: this rear tire & tube held the rest of the trip!
We kinda regretted our early camp but dragged on. We had our first encounter with Dominic, an Irishman with whom I’d later spend much more time. The climb was amazing. Daunting. Grueling.
We lunched at the summit and scrambled down the face on the other side. That was wild. On the more rideable section, I got my second flat. A dynaplug meant we could keep my tubeless setup on my front wheel.
We ‘dodged’ a storm by huddling under my RAB tarp and made it up the second ascent (1ooom) on the route. We hoped to get further on the next descent a whopping 100km false flat down but were doing so in the dark . It was near freezing & frequent stream crossings were slowing us down. Both Max & Justin had some missteps in the dark & water. Wet. Cold. We wondered where we would camp.
We noticed a flashing light. Like morse code. Was it a racer? Who? Turns out: it was a local sheep farmer. We stayed in his yurt for the night, which was amazing but did cut our day short.
We woke up in a yurt. Amazing. Still 2 hrs from outta bed to on the bike but we were soaking it all in. We had a brilliant cloudless sky under which to descend all day.
We flew along a river on hard pack double track. We ran into my friend Rob & his girlfriend Emma! I had brought tires for them from Amsterdam & left them in our hotel in Bishkek for them to pick up as our encounter was not planned.
One massive bummer & silly goof on this day was a bunny hop at 40km/h. I ate shit.
At the first town of the trip since the start, we met up with my bud Fish from Amsterdam. His partner Joachim had already scratched (quit). We continued onto the 2nd town. We met more racers there and after a picnic by a river where I also washed my wounds, we continued up the next big climb. We camped about halfway up.
Crikey Moses, what a day. I nearly pulled an all nighter this day. It was BRUTAL. Slow start at 8am. It was tough and cold at the top. The descent was brutal. It just kept going and going. Fish left (dropped) us early in the climb. Justin too. Max & I mostly ride together. Everything became a rusty red clay. I flatted again.
We reconvened also again with Dominic at the valley. It became a death valley barren wasteland climb through what seemed like a desert after the jungle we just came down through.
That climb brought us to a ‘pass’ that was spraying water from a pipe overhead. Another brutal descent to the ‘Chinese Highway’ that we had been expecting all day. I flatted again. (I did this 4 times on day 4.)
The surface of the ‘highway’ was smooth but a reminder of the geopolitical circumstances we were riding through. My understanding is that China’s new (silk) road & belt project here meant Kyrgyzstan forfeited hydroelectric power if China could build this highway. It was all Chinese equipment and workers. Didn’t really feel like a fair deal as I enjoyed my smooth gravel descent but it was a welcome change after such an arduous day.
We regrouped at the bottom. I recall that we we had something like 40+ km to get to a guesthouse in the last town before Checkpoint 1. (CP1) Tomorrow was the deadline.
We hit paved roads. Sublime. And pacelined there. I think we arrived around 22:00.
I went to sleep at 4am. I had repacked all my stuff.
Patched all my tubes and tossed that god damn Schwalbe Furious Fred for a WTB Riddler from Max. My Lester was hot rodded with a 37c in the front and knobby 55c in the back.
I was up at 5am. We were rolling at 6am. We were determined to get to CP1. I had a slow leak on the patched tube I had mounted. Stopped, replaced. The 2nd one stuck. Max & Justin got away from me. I felt pretty blown out. I found my rhythm and when I saw they had stopped at a shop, I kept rolling. I put my head down and tried to keep a steady pace.
I later stopped at a shop. I bought a 1.5 liter coke & a local variation of monster energy. Some time later… the hike-a-bike to Song Kul began. Justin caught up to me. Then Max. Time was getting tight. CP1 was 20km away.
We continued along the lake at 3400m over several little climbs until we finally made it to the checkpoint with a mere 30mins to spare before the cutoff.
Here, we connected with several more racers like Carlos & Philip. Fran, Dominic and Fish were all here too. Max & Justin decided to scratch here. I knew I had to make it to CP2.
Today was wild. What day here isn’t?!
I woke up in the yurt by Song Kul. Breakfast and off by 9:15. Fish caught up with me and we climbed out from the lake together. In fact, not just Max & Justin decided to scratch there. Fran, Carlos & Philipp all scratched too. I was more determined than ever for CP2.
The descent was radical. Looked like a gnar gravel Alpe d’Huez. I got a snake bite. What is that my 6th flat in 6 days? I was trying to make a patch work but no luck. Philipp, Carlos & Max stop as they pass me. I get a tube from Carlos. (Mega nice and I get to keep my reserve of three patched tubes stowed.)
They roll off. I keep going. Gingerly. Is gravel puncture PTSD a thing? (In hindsight, I think that I simply was under-inflating…)
I pinch flat again. I was out of ear shot of anyone. Alone. I try to patch it. Nope. I reach for my reserve. It is gone…
I have a dark moment. I contemplate a solemn reality: no more tubes means that I would need to scratch. I see Max coming back up the hill. He hands me a Tubolito. And out of nowhere a couple (@more_erratic_wanderings & his girlfriend) roll up & lend me patches. AND THEN! A Kyrgyz truck driver rolls up with my saddle bag full of spare tubes! I was back in business! More about this magic moment here.
I roll with Max to the bottom of the descent to the Nomad’s Cafe that everyone had been raving about through the grapevine as they have an espresso machine ; )
Long story short, Dominic and I join forces to continue on to CP2. We set our goal for 120km for the day. We have great conversations and make great time. We camp in an abandoned farm house & pass out at 1:41am. The alarm is set for 5:45.
Today was bananas. Slogged back up to 3000m and across a plateau valley at around that altitude. Visited with two families along the way for bread and tea. Lethargy and exhaustion was a theme at that height.
The descent down towards the first stretch of paved road in some time was some white knuckled riding. essentially STRAIGHT down a face. Wild. I alternated between my two cantilever brakes as to not melt them…
We made it through the first military checkpoint as we were entered a militarised zone near the Chinese border. it was quite cold and we’d been more or less on the bike for 15hrs. We stayed at a family’s home right by the military base. They were so wonderful. : )
Fuckin A, this day was intense. 12hrs 15mins on the bike. We woke at 4:30am. I had a hangover from the vodka and whiskey the night before. The family that we stayed with and their friend from Bishkek all got up too. We rolled at 5:30am. it was -1ºC.
Dominic was really struggling. I gave him a pair of my extra Ornot socks. He already had my Patagonia merino long johns. We turned the corner around a rock face & huddled under my tarp as the sun rose. I knew if I was going to make it to CP2 on this day by 19:0o, I had to really push it.
Dominic urged me to go. I didn’t ask twice & got on my bike and took off. The road surface was sublimely smooth. This tarmac also came with a tailwind which helped propel me to the Chinese border. Based on our math I was thinking I had 140km to go. Later I thought 150 or something. Either way, I had to just put my head down and pedal.
This was the only day I listened to music on my headphones. It was Neil Young, Cursive, Cold Cave & Thursday. The only random tunes available offline on my iphone. The gravel road along the Chinese border was pretty smooth too. Several dried lake & riverbed crossings began to really wear me out.
I really had to sprint to make it to the Checkpoint on time and wasn’t sure exactly where it was. At the end, it was a relief and the warm dinner & yurt accommodations felt like luxury.
Maybe my most epic day. My journal entry starts with: “what a gnar day”. I woke up to a snow storm. I take that back, initially when I woke up, it was raining.
Two people in my yurt left in the rain around 7am. I had ZERO interest in that after the massive day I had the day before. Once I woke up again, it sounded silent. I peered outside. Snow. Everywhere. I ate breakfast with the checkpoint volunteers and knew that I was officially the Lantern Rouge. I had reserve dry clothes and was slathered in warming muscle rub (e.g. embro). I was anticipating the little dog leg jaunt up to the dried lake before continuing to CP3 but as I was preparing to depart, the two that had left at 7am returned. Hypothermic and forlorn. They hadn’t dressed for snow. I did. I also knew I couldn’t wait around for the snow to pass. If I was gonna make it to CP3, I had to go now.
I decided to skip the extra section and continue further on the race course. It immediately became a 15–20% hike-a-bike up an old soviet ‘road’ with barbed wire strewn about. The waterproof socks were key on this day. I felt fine on the slog up and was relieved to see the sun begin shining through the clouds.
The snow stopped. And it began to heat up. Like REALLY heat up. I started shedding layers and I notice the snow rapidly melting. It went from below freezing to 10, 15, 20, 30 and all the way to 39º C at one point. The snow became wet clay and I couldn’t even roll my bike without scooping mud out every few meters. Man. This was rough. I had left around 9am and by 15:00 I had covered 15km. By 18:00 only 40km. That evening a rain storm chased me and I rode in the rain for some time as well.
I had dinner at a random yurt where I asked only for hot water for my ramen & gratefully accepted several bowls of tea too. It was good to get out of the cold as the temperature dropped again.
I desperately wanted to make it to Naryn but passed out under a bridge at 2am and 32km away.
I woke to the sound of cattle and kids laughing.
I was laying surrounded by cow shit and broken glass under a pretty picturesque cement bridge.
I continued on to Naryn. Mostly a descent & into the 1st proper city since Bishkek. I got my data to work. Messaged friends, paid bills, messaged the kids and spoke to Kristy. A lot was changing in Amsterdam. It became clear that I’d only have them a week before they were taken from Amsterdam. Damn, I had cried so much this trip. Physically I felt fine but my heart was easily the heaviest thing I carried on my bike.
I fell short of my 120km goal by 20km yesterday. And hoped today woulda been 120km too. That meant tomorrow should be 160km or something crazy. Doubts about Cp4 & finishing the race crept in.
Ultimately, I didn’t even mess with my tent and slept under my tarp on the side of a mountain.
9.5hrs on the bike today and only 77km.
Essentially half of what I hoped for. I was on the bike by 7am and feeling strong. I ran into Austin Horse. He was riding the opposite direction. He had realized what day it was and had a flight to catch. He told me I could catch his riding partner that was likely still breaking down camp & eating breakfast several kilometers ahead. I did.
I caught Tai of Belle Bicycles and we rode together until lunch. He had a sweet MTB that he had built on 2.0 Conti Race Kings and simply could shred harder than me. We had an awesome lunch together and he essentially dropped me.
I was starting to feel weak. My average speed dropped to 8km / hr. My body temp was all messed up. Hot then cold. Then hot then cold. I went as far as I could and when some dogs from a nearby yurt chased me and the kids rushed out to stop them and invited me in, I gladly obliged.
I struggled through dinner with them and slept in their tent outside. Tomorrow was the cut off for CP3. I went to sleep still thinking there was a chance.
I slept well but diarrhoea had reared its ugly head in the night. I woke up feeling better I thought but extremely weak. 6am, then snoozed. 7am then snoozed. 8 am up.
I went with the 8 year old son & his father to corral the horses to milk the mares for kumis. Seeing the son with his father made me miss mine so sorely. Every kid reminded me of my own. As ill as I was from likely the fast food I ingested in Naryn, my sadness certainly weighed on me too.
Once I departed, I could barely ride my bike. I walked. A LOT. I had hoped to get across the valley and up on the plateau but NOPE. 30km did bring me to the end but I was completely toast. I had awful diarrhoea the entire day.
I saw a shepherd’s tent and asked to lay down. I immediately passed out around 16:00 and up much later for dinner with him. His name was Ramir.
I hoped to make it to Issyk Kul tomorrow. Albeit a day late but at least I’d make it to Cp3. Ramir made an amazing dinner and we had a great time trying to tell each other stories.
Heartache had really reached fever pitch too. My heart has been aching for days and I’m tired of being alone. I wanted to be home and hold Otto & Mira. To hold Kristy and to rest. I wrote: “a long ways to go before that!” At around 9pm, I passed back out.
I didn’t write about days 13 (and 14) until I was on an early flight back to Amsterdam on Sept 1.
What a whirlwind. I guess I’ll start in Ramir’s tent. The water in my bidon is frozen. He fries some fish he caught. And eggs and toast. AMAZING.
I set out at 8:40. I made it up the climb pretty quick as his tent was at the end of that never ending valley. The gravel was nice, to be honest. I braced for the 5 hour hike-a-bike that everyone had spoke of. It came. It sucked. It was boggy, rocky and involved several river crossings. I was determined to stick to the route. WHY? I was already ‘out of the race’. In hindsight, I shoulda just rode on the hard pack mining road 1–2km adjacent to the ‘path’ I was following. I bouldered over some pretty burly rock gardens and swampy marsh shit that likely killed many dinosaurs.
I made it across. I ran into some Dutch hikers. I told them my story and continued on to the ‘descent’. It also sucked. Rock surfing essentially. A dead cow, steep scree and boulders. It was 18:00. I knew I was about 60km from Issyk Kul. I kept hoping the next section would be rideable but I knew I was out of options. My dynamo hadn’t worked in days. My Elemnt was at 20% battery and dusk was creeping in. I had no way to light my path…
I saw a 4wd van crossing a river. “Electricity!”, I thought. It was indeed, the SAG wagon. The Silk Road Mountain Race was officially over for me. My heart sank & soared. I was equally dismayed and relieved. I was happy to see Tai in the van as well. 5 hrs later I was in a bed with him in Kochkul. I was wired and overwhelmed. My lawyer had filed an appeal to keep my kids in The Netherlands. I had spent 13 days coming to grips with losing them and now thought I may still have a chance not to lose them. I was holding onto hope.
Day 14 & 15
Having showered for the first day since a quick river bath on day 3, I awake refreshed. We repack our bags and depart from the guesthouse the van had brought us to after breakfast to meet Jeff from Factory 5. A taxi driver calls out “Bishkek!”. I stop & say goodbye to Tai. Two Dutch ladies are sharing the cab with me. Wat toevallig! It takes ages but I get back to the race registration location, meet up with Max, have dinner there & head to his hotel.
Being back in civilisation is bizarre and the looming realities that await me at home are growing closer.
The next day, Sept 1, I awake in a strange purgatory of emotions. I had skyped with the kids the night before and told them to make a list of everything they wanted to do while we’re together before the move. I was overjoyed to see them on Skype but missed them now more than ever.
Svea from Headroom had found me an early flight home and I did a quick interview with Max for a film he’s making about the trip after I had packed my bike. Then I headed to the airport with Kim. The feeling of returning home to uncertainty after embarking upon a trip of uncertainty is daunting. I was at peace but still anxious. The turning point I had postponed for 2 weeks was drawing near.
Unsurprisingly, it is hard to summarise this trip. Flipping through my journal’s pages and reliving my emotions. My stoke. My sadness. I remembered each time I cried on the bike. I might cry now. But what does it mean? Do I care about CP3? Kinda. Anything I coulda done better? Nope.* I got what I came for. I came for escape. To suffer. To explore. To become better friends with some and to make new ones. And give away every single Twotone sticker that I brought with me. I know Kyrgyzstan now and know myself better. I faced my hardest days. I never wanted to scratch but I didn’t approach this as a race. I cherish every memory & appreciate the time it gave me to mourn about the Dutch court’s decision to lose my children to the United States. My heart was the heaviest thing I carried with me but its lighter now. ❤
*ok, ok. I coulda had tougher tires for sure, a front derailleur, a stove, went race pace out the gate and then I would have finished for sure.
Stefano interviewed me before the race. This was my feeling afterwards.
This post came out shortly after the race ended and shares some of the vibes that I still felt so acutely upon returning to Amsterdam.
It was great to share our experience with such a larger and attentive crowd.
We later also did one at Rapha recently to a smaller group. I’m stoked on the widespread interest that exploring the world by bicycle is garnering.
Here are the photos I shared: twotoneams.link/SilkRoadSnaps