Silk Road Mountain Race: a cycling Odyssey

1,865 km in length and 30,500 metres of vertical elevation, the SRMR in Kyrgyzstan is probably the hardest ultra cycling race in the world

Near the second checkpoint of Köl-Suu – at an altitude of 3,400 metres – David Gambuli had to grit his teeth and fight. After six days already spent in the saddle, cycling in the wilderness and on bone-shattering dirt roads, his luck had started to take a turn for the worse.

"It was a very long day," says Gambuli. "Half the time, it was a headwind, and I got hail in the wind. And hail in a head wind hurts, even if it's small and even if you're wearing a jacket."

The 35-year-old native of Modena, Italy, was riding through an area characterised by washboards, undulations in the dirt that are somewhat reminiscent of the Flemish cobbles, at least on the muscles and bones.

Gambuli descending from the Mels-Ashu Pass towards Baetov (Photo: Radu Diaconescu)

"In a car, you neutralise it because you're driving at around 60km/h. On a bike, you can only dream about that," Gambuli continues. "I took so many knocks and vibrations that at the end, after a while, I realised my saddle had lowered by at least three fingers."

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But in a race like the Silk Road Mountain Race (1,865 km and 30,500 metres of positive elevation on the dirt roads of Kyrgyzstan), challenging moments are an unavoidable constant, and they're always just around the corner.

Embrace the discomfort

Gambuli descending towards the caravanserai of Tash Rabat. Photo: Arno Crous.

Jenny Tough, who this year was the only woman to complete the women's individual event, had already completed the Silk Road Mountain Race on two occasions. She was, therefore, familiar with the Arabel, a plateau at 4,000 metres. However, when she arrived at nightfall this year, she discovered it in a new guise.

"It was obviously very cold, and there were also a lot of rivers to cross," says the 32-year-old Canadian-Scottish native. "So I was prepared to get cold, but with the altitude as another factor - spending the night there was also dangerous."

Jenny Tough spent several nights sleeping at altitude and temperatures below zero (photo: Jenny Tough)

Still, Tough decided to stay overnight on the Arabel, mainly to avoid the other pitfalls of the plateau, such as fording rivers in sub-optimal light conditions. But after just three hours' sleep, she woke up covered in snow and ice. Even the water bottle she had kept in her sleeping bag was completely frozen, as were her bike and shoes. 

"I knew I was going to make it," she adds. "It was just a matter of discomfort."

Up and down, hot and cold

Gambuli towards Tash Rabat. Photo: Radu Diaconescu.

Tough decided to resume her solo march, at night, at 4,000 metres. But, after her experience in the ice, something very different awaited: the long descent from Tosor Pass – the longest of the entire race – and temperatures at the bottom of the valley approaching 30°C.

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After just an hour, the road began to climb towards the pass she was arriving from. But at dusk, and -7°C, one of the cleats on her shoes got stuck in the pedal, making the shoe separate from the cleat.

A bit of mud on Tough's bike. Photo: Jenny Tough.

"It was cold, I was at 4,000 metres, dead tired, and I was having to take the cleat off the pedal and then try to re-engage it using one of the screws on the bottle cage," she recalls.

When one thing started to go wrong for Tough, problems seemed follow one after the other. Once her cleat was fixed, it was the crank that began to give Jenny trouble. Two punctures followed, after which she began to notice a constant rattle inside of her frame. To add to her ever-growing list of things to deal with, she then started her period at a crucial point of the race.

"I was very emotional at the time," she says. "I know how to fix a puncture, but at that moment, I just couldn't do it. I started crying and had to try to calm myself down by petting a dog and telling myself it was OK. I had to be stoic and carry on."

Photo: Danil Usmanov / Silk Road Mountain Race.

Tough reached the height of her bad luck towards the middle of the race, when she was tired both mentally and physically. Her bike started to fall apart, and there was still a long way ahead. However, it's by overcoming these moments that, in races like the SRMR, you make the difference and reach the finish line.

Cyclists had to face pretty extreme conditions at the SRMR 2021 (Photo: Jenny Tough)

"Races like this often become a problem solving challenge," says Tough. "Anyone can ride a bike. That part is easy and fun. The hard part and what makes the difference is facing a series of unexpected challenges all day and all night."

In Tough's case, the mantra that helped her go above and beyond was "be brave, be strong."

Photo: Danil Usmanov / Silk Road Mountain Race

After bad weather, the sun comes out. And after bad luck, things start to go well again. Gambuli recounts an experience and struggles very similar to Tough's. He also recalls his fluctuating emotional states, which changed and alternated constantly.

"After that moment with the hail, the sun came out," Gambuli says. "In these races, it's important to know how to manage yourself."

On the last day of the race, he decided not to sleep and pushed towards the finish line in Balykchky in the northeast. Not least because he was looking forward to the finish line.

Gambuli on the second day of the race, just before the first checkpoint, at 3,500 metres (Photo: David Gambuli)

"I spent 45 minutes changing a tyre because I couldn't get it right," he says. "So after wasting almost an hour on this, I got back on the bike, and a pedal came off."

With 160 kilometres to go, and no mechanics around, Gambuli did the last stretch with a broken pedal, and he got off the saddle at every climb and pushed the bike.

But the negative experiences were also accompanied by positive moments - like when he was challenged by a young boy riding a donkey. "Things like that then leave you smiling for two hours."

Toms Alsbergs and Janis Viskers on their aerobars. (Photo: Danil Usmanov / Silk Road Mountain Race)

The SRMR is a competition, for all intents and purposes. The rules that apply to these events – even when organised in foreign countries – are those in force in the organiser's country of origin, in this case, the UK. 

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The SRMR's Grand Départ took place in Talas, in the northwest of Kyrgyzstan, at four o'clock in the morning (due to various delays). The participants followed a fixed route towards the finish line in Balykchky (on Lake Issy Kul), almost 2,000 kilometres away. Three mandatory checkpoints were positioned between start and finish, at which participants had to stamp a travel booklet to prove their passage.

The first day. The calm before the storm ... Photo: David Gambuli.

The start was at an altitude of 1,200 metres – and 41°C – but most of the route was at much higher altitudes (averaging around 2,500 metres with passes between 3,200 and 4,000 metres) and temperatures were often below freezing. 

"Of asphalt, there were, I think, three or four sections. So few that you remember them. There is never an easy stretch, not a day when you don't struggle.

"It's exhausting, the weather is inclement, and it's fast, and it's really an event where you have no outside support. If you have a problem, you have to be able to fix it yourself."

David Gambuli at the finish line

For his SRMR, Gambuli used a rigid steel bike and carbon fork, custom made by a friend (Erman Bike). "I was happy with my set-up. Although in some places, a suspension bike would have been nice," he says.

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Gambuli then opted for 2x 'old school' gearing. He carried a backpack in which he had a camelback with two litres of water, some snacks, and light changes, a frame bag (where he had dry sausages, bars, trouser covers, and other clothing); a rear bag with overnight kit, rain jacket and down jacket; and a small front bag with more snacks – for a total weight of 20 kg.

 A different use of the top tube (Photo: David Gambuli)

"In the end, the stuff you carry for three days is the same as the stuff you carry for ten," Gambuli says. "Then you take it for granted that you don't wash. And it's the same as in the mountains, so you dress in layers. I had a light summer layer, base layers, and a heavier jacket. So at night, when it was cold, I would just put my long-sleeved base layers over my summer underwear, and I wouldn't even take it off."

But, as Tough also adds, "there's no real right bike for the Silk Road. I first did it with a gravel bike, this time with a 29 hardtail. And I'm convinced that Silk Road can be done on the bike you feel most comfortable with. Both options will turn out to be wrong at some point, and any bike will start to lose bits after a long way. Silk Road destroys bikes – so the right thing to do is to do it with the bike you love the most."

A stop for a lolly just before the finish line (photo: David Gambuli)

Apart from what he had compared for the big start, Gambuli didn't find much nutrition along the way.  

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"There were little villages of four houses where maybe there was a convenience store, which was basically an old lady's house, who would open up her basement to you and sell you her stuff," he says. "And when it was good, there was bread, Snickers, sausages, various sweets, and some fruit. If not, there were tins of herring and a tomatoes that sat on my stomach for at least an hour."

Overnight stay

A harsh wake-up for Gambuli. Photo: David Gambuli.

Only for two nights did Gambuli manage to sleep in a small guesthouse: on day four, on Lake Issyk-Kul (the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca in South America), and then at checkpoint two, after the dramatic day that had put him on the ropes, when he slept in a yurt. Otherwise, he used a waterproof sleeping bag and a cover.

Preparation

The beginning of the climb in Tepke, after a very long flat section. Photo: David Gambuli.

To prepare for the SRMR, Gambuli had done big 200-300 kilometre rides, sometimes back-to-back on weekends. "Let's say that my preparation could have been better because I have never done athletic preparation in any sport. Of course, you have to be physically prepared, but you also have to be ready to ride. So I took it as an extreme cycle tour. That way, I could enjoy it, and I didn't have to train so hard."

At the finish line

The last climb before the last descent. Photo: David Gambuli.

Gambuli finished the SRMR in nine days and 13 hours – a result that earned him fifth place at an average of 14km/h. Only 50 out of a total of 100 starters crossed the finish line. "If I had recovered better from Italy Divide, I could have gone on the podium, but that's OK. I did the last 160 kilometres with a broken pedal, and as soon as there was a climb, I had to get out and push."

Tough completed her third SRMR in 11 days, 14 hours and 6 minutes.

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