- - Bikepacking the "Sick" Road Mountain Race

Bikepacking the “Sick” Road Mountain Race

words by Sofiane Sehili photos by Nils Laengner (@nils_laengner)

A few days before the start of this year’s Silk Road Mountain Race, I found myself bedridden with a bad case of tonsillitis. For two days, I couldn’t do much but sleep, cough, and drink tea. As the start got closer, I got a little bit better, but on race day, I was still far from being 100%.

For the first time ever, I was lining up at the start of a race thinking I had no chance of winning it. I felt so sick and weak. I was gutted to have traveled this far and not even having a shot at defending my title. But, deep down, a small part of me wanted to believe. What if I could get better while riding? The least I could do was try, so I showed up at the start, diminished but not defeated. I got through the first day with my head rather than my legs. After 20 hours, I was only two hours behind the leader, Rodney Soncco. That felt miraculous. I went to bed with my chances in this race intact and was absolutely stoked about it. The part of me that wanted to believe grew bigger and bigger.

I let go of my usual strategy of starting fast and digging deep with very little sleep. This seemed unsustainable, given both my recent illness and the very little time I had to recover from my Tour Divide effort. Instead, I made sure to get plenty of rest and be consistent during the day. As the race went on, I felt stronger. On day three, I was back to being my old self. I felt strong and determined. I chased patiently, going from fourth to first. Starting at the halfway point of the race, I worked on solidifying my lead, taking more risks and pushing my body a bit further. I pushed through the night to get to Naryn, where I allowed myself an hour of quality sleep in a hotel. After that, I kept the same regimen of four hours of sleep every night. Even when James Hayden was chasing and getting closer, I chose to get good rest and push harder afterward, rather than cutting back on sleep. We battled it out until the very end, and I finished only an hour ahead of him.

I enjoyed this race so much. Maybe because I never asked too much of my body. As a result, I was able to enjoy every moment. I rode this race as if I was in a dream. It was highlight after highlight, with a truly stunning section from Naryn to Issyk-Kul that had me convinced I needed to come back next year. I can’t overstate how magical Kyrgyzstan is. I don’t have enough superlatives to do justice to its beauty. Every day, the prevalent emotion I was feeling was how privileged I was to have the opportunity to ride here.

Of course, I’m elated that I managed to get another win here. But I might even be happier just to have ridden this course. The victory is the icing on the cake. The real reward is the ride itself. How can I describe the otherworldly experience that is the SRMR? Yes, it’s a race, but it’s much more than that. It’s an adventure of epic proportions that will leave you with life-long impressions.

On top of the magical riding I was able to enjoy more fully, there’s one way that my 2022 race differed from the 2021 edition. This year, I found the time to share in brief moments of the lives of locals. I had a late-night tea with a group of young men in a Mosque near Arslanbob. They offered me peaches, and I must have eaten a whole kilo. A 15-year-old kid on a horse invited me to spend the night in his family’s shack near the Arabel Pass. I had dinner with them and tried kumis, fermented mare’s milk, for the first time. A couple of days later, a shepherd invited me to share breakfast with his family after I had bivied near his yurt camp. We had the usual tea with bread, jam, and cream.

The Kyrgyz people are one of the most hospitable I’ve ever encountered. I received many invitations, including people offering to drive me places or just give me a lift to get to the top of the next climb. Of course, I had to decline. This culture of friendliness and hospitality is one of the things that makes this event so special. And while it is a race, I was happy to sometimes snap out of it to fully live the experience of traveling in Kyrgyzstan, something that goes beyond a contest to determine who is the fastest cyclist.

In the end, I believe this was my most memorable racing experience to date. First, because it was a proper race with worthy opponents and a need to ride to the best of my abilities to prevail. And second, because I went much further than just racing. It was as beautiful as it was hard. It was as magical as it was wild. It was as removed from my everyday life as any experience can be. And it filled my soul so fully that I don’t think I can ever forget it.

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