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Rocky Mountains: How to Survive The Silk Road Race

Interview by Peter Harrington

When you embark on an unsupported bike race far away from home, you better be prepared. But what to pack? What works? And will there be wi-fi? With more questions than answers, we asked Silk Road racer and 20th position finisher, Max Riese to come clean on the kit he used to finish at the sharp end of one of the world's hardest endurance bike races.

Nothing about The Silk Road Mountain Race is easy. Just getting to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to start this 1700km, self-supported bike race is a mini-adventure. And when you arrive, ahead of you lays 27,000m of climbing over a course even kindly observers might describe as 'a bit rocky’.

A couple of weeks after completing the event, we caught up with Max as he decompressed and readjusted to life back home in Salzburg. "I never did a race this long," he admits. "But the more I was in it, the less I thought about how others are doing, or whether I'd lose place if I went to sleep. You're just in sync with your mind and body. It's this weird kind of meditation sometimes when you're on the bike, and all you think about is being happy because it's so beautiful and you're making good progress.”

Taking a break
Moldo Ashuu to the Chinese Highway

For the majority of riders, food and water are top priorities. But the Silk Road is a race, and every gram counts. So how much do you take, and how much do you rely on re-ups along the way? "I was going into the race pretty conservative; others took a completely different strategy," Max says. "For example, Lael Wilcox and I were talking before the race, and she was only going to carry food for one day - essentially going on the edge. But I knew from my experience in the mountains back home, that if a severe storm appeared and I got trapped in the tent for a couple of days, I could get into trouble. So I knew that I needed to have more food! I took so much that I could have survived for up to seven or eight days stuck in one place. But it was a lot of weight!" Still, in the tense final moments before the start, the lay-it-on-the-line approach of other racers did give Max pause to doubt his strategy. "I saw many people packing light," he recalls, "and I did wonder whether I might have overreacted and carried too much. But I can honestly say, no, I wouldn't have done it any other way.”

Ton Pass

Ton Pass

If nutrition is a concern, keeping hydrated is even higher on the endurance cyclist's list of priorities. But as Max explains, managing, not finding water was the real issue during The Silk Road. "Kyrgyzstan has lots of streams, and most of them are fast-running and crystal clear," he notes. "But you don't want to have two small bottles of water and have to fill up every two hours or something - that won't work because it's getting you out of your rhythm." Or provide enough hydration during the race's long, dry stretches, either. "The Chinese Highway, for example, is just a dead, straight road," he says. "You're just going through a desert for 200km. And if you don't have enough water there, you have a huge problem." In the end, Max carried four litres of water, augmenting it with an additional bottle strapped to the top tube as a fail-safe in extreme conditions. "Thankfully, I managed fine," he says with relief. "I had a two-litre bladder and two one-litre bottles with me all the time. And for the stretch of 340 kilometres along the Chinese Highway where it was difficult to get to resupply, I took an extra 1.5-litre bottle - I didn't need it, but it gave peace of mind.”

Our conversation turns to camp gear - specifically, tents. "If you're camping close to home and there's a thunderstorm, that's a whole different thing to being in a thunderstorm above 3,000 metres," Max explains. "It gets a lot colder with altitude, and the weather becomes increasingly hard to predict."

Naryn, Arabel Pass and the way to CP3

Informed by his experiences at home in the Austrian mountains, Max chose something light, and cosy. "I didn't want to carry a two or three-kilogram tent," he says, "which is why I went with an ultra-lightweight model - it's awesome." And he didn't want to bivvy, either. "I saw other riders just pulling a sheet over themselves to sleep - I could not imagine doing that," he laughs. "No, I just wanted to have my breakfast in my tent and not freeze my ass off before even getting on the bike.”

Max also picked an equally cosy sleeping bag. "I had a really warm model, rated to -8° (17.6°F)," he says. "On the first night, temperatures dropped to -12° (10.4°F). During the day, I'd climbed 5000 metres, and was exhausted. And of course, I couldn't build up any heat." Still, some participants chose weight over warmth. "I was seriously scared of spending the entire race cold and sleep-deprived," he admits. "So even though I got cold a couple of times, mostly I was ok. I hate to think what it would have been like with something lighter."

But whether you choose a tent or a bivvy, how long should you sleep? "I needed to build a rhythm," Max says. "I only slept between four to five hours per night, and then I would get up and breakfast and get on the bike. But I needed that routine. Everyone is different, but I can recommend trying to get a flow going and staying in your comfort zone.”

Chinese Highway

Clothing is the next conundrum. When prepping for a bike race of extreme conditions, how do you know what to take? "I took two jerseys, one thin sports jersey for the scorching days, and a warmer jersey for the cold days," Max explains. "I also had a long sleeve, a waterproof jacket and shorts, and a down jacket - that was a good decision." But like many riders who manage to keep warm, but suffer from cold hands, Max struggled with cycling gloves. "I would have probably packed two pairs of gloves," he says. "Even though the ones I had were Gore wind blocker or whatever, they got wet. If you're going through hours of rain, at some point, they're just gone. And then your hands are numb, and that's a shit feeling - you can't even put your tent when you have numb hands. A second pair would have helped.”

Happy with his waterproof shorts, Max would nevertheless have preferred to take fully waterproof bike pants. "I don't usually like wearing long pants on the bike because I prefer to maintain freedom of movement" he explains. "But I would have probably gone with waterproof pants - long legs - to have a bit more coverage from the elements.”

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention shoes at this point. Max tackled the Silk Road in our Gran Tourer bike shoes, footwear specifically-designed for the rigours of hike-a-bike, bikepacking and all flavours of gravel riding. How did he get on? "Man, I saw BOA dials flying off, shoes so damaged I honestly wondered how people could continue," he laughs. "But the GTs were awesome - super comfortable. And they seemed very resistant to water ingress, too.”

Deciding on the type of bike you should take to race the Silk Road is a whole separate post. But having ridden this famously rocky course on a rigid machine, for Max, the decision to ride with suspension in the future rests on a fork. Or rather, not being able to hold one for a week after the event. "Some of the roads are not just gravel, or rocky - they're destroyed," he laughs. "At times, every ligament in my body was screaming. And yes, the terrain was so bumpy that I couldn't hold a fork in my left hand for at least a week after the event. I've never had that before."

Max

Max rode with what might be considered a pretty capable gravel bike, but perhaps a hard-tail mountain bike with front suspension might have been a better choice? "Yes, it's probably worth considering," he admits. "Or a gravel bike with wider tires and a Lauf fork, perhaps. But really, it depends on what kind of rider you are. I love having drop bars - I'm used to that because I come from a road cycling background, and cross country and all that stuff. So really, go with what you know but have a solution for the extremes of terrain."

I put it to Max that it the one overriding takeaway from our chat seems to be: soften the extremes. "Yeah. I would generally agree with that," he says. "If I had a shitty day, I knew I could push through it. If it rained, I had the clothes to keep myself dry, and at night, warm in my tent." And as he notes, in extreme conditions, keeping something in reserve could save your life, too. "If you're on the edge in a race like this, you have to realise that one small mistake, one health issue or a gathering storm could spell disaster. Being prepared for all eventualities will always serve you well."

Words of a true mountaineer.

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Photo credits: Danil Usmanov, Jeff Liu, Rugile Kaladyte and of course, Max Riese.