This past month, Salsa sponsored rider Jay Petervary took on the challenge of competing in the first ever Silk Road Mountain Race, a 1700 km self-supported bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan. Here, he shares some of his thoughts following his first-place finish in the challenging event.
All photos courtesy of PEdALED and Giovanni Maria Pizzato...our gracious thanks for the wonderful images. -Kid
SALSA: Leading up to the event, what were you expecting?
JayP: Honestly, I had some feelings of hesitation, as I was not 100% sure what to expect, but I envisioned big country. I knew there was going to be altitude and elevation, and that I was going into big mountains. I did some research and tracked down some people that had been to that part of Kyrgyzstan before. I looked at maps as that’s something I normally like to do.
It did look like it would be very remote with very open country at times.
As per expectations of the people, I was very unsure. My experiences in life have led me to believe that most people are amazing, especially when you meet them on a bike. But going into a ‘stan’ and what we hear on the news and such, it had me a bit worried as to what I was going to experience…whether it was bandit stuff or terrorist stuff or whatnot. I’m not a negative person by any means, but I’ll admit that was an itch in the back of my head.
I also was quite nervous about food and resources and what that would entail. The promoter, Nelson Trees, laid out a track and put on it some points of interest. So, I’d zoom in and if I saw a town I’d inquire about it, but sometimes some of the points were just one store, which in reality might have been someone’s house. Maybe there’d food. Maybe there were just drinks. I could gather some of those thoughts from home.
My strategy became that I would carry most of my food for the entire event, take meals at the three checkpoints, and use whatever I could find enroute to supplement what I was carrying. It worked out great, because I wasn’t sure what the food options really might be, and I didn’t want to risk getting sick. And if you travel at all, you know you how easy it is to get sick by eating something you, or your digestive system, aren’t accustomed to.
In the end, that strategic decision really helped boost my confidence. At the start, I knew I could go a week without anything. I had 10 pounds of food and didn’t feel like I’d even need to see another human for a week. I’d never really gone into a situation like that.
SALSA: How did you acclimate yourself upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan?
JayP: We (JayP, wife Tracey, and friend Mark) arrived at 5AM and we forced ourselves to stay up that whole day to get through jet lag. It was pretty tough at times but in the end that really helped a lot. Some people had arrived a couple weeks in advance. We put our bikes together and cruised around town, and we were super foggy, but we knew we needed to stay awake. The next day was registration and a rider meeting, and then the following day the race started.
SALSA: How long did it take to get a real feel for what the race would present?
JayP: Well, it was a pretty pleasant start with a police escort out of town. It was a neutral roll out for a long time, like 18 miles, and then it was game on. We made a left turn and hit the mountains.
We did a 10,000-foot climb right out of the gate. It was pretty harsh. Many of the mid-pack riders were really hurting. Only 30-some of us made it over that first pass on the first day.
To be honest, I was a bit worried because an event with few finishers isn’t good for sustaining the event, and I’ve shared those thoughts with the promoter.
As far as the terrain it was kind of like I expected. Big mountains with huge long valleys. I was surprised by how steep some of the climbs were, especially the last couple thousand feet to get over the saddles. Often times, I didn’t have a low enough gear.
I also didn’t expect all the river crossings the course had, but I love that type of thing. Had I known, I might have chosen different shoes. Some rivers were swifter than others, some more dangerous than others. But I love that style of adventure riding. It took me back to my adventure racing days. It gave me chills as I love the unknown but also know that I’m prepared to take it on.
It reminded me of how nowadays in bikepacking ultras everybody wants to know all the details. I’m even guilty of it. We’ve become spoiled of knowing too much about routes and having too much information about resupply and such. So, while it was crazy at times, and frustrating at times, I also really enjoyed it because that unknown is what I really love.
We’d been warned about a long hike-a-bike near the end. It was literally 20 km of bike-on-the-back rip the shoes off your feet hike-a-bike, making your way up the horse trails.
And there were also other hike-a-bikes that we didn’t know about. Those are tough..
The scenery of the Kyrgyzstan landscape was really beautiful and incredible. You're riding at 9,000 feet in a valley with a braided river with 16,000-foot mountains rising all around you. Really beautiful.
SALSA: So, was it as remote as it sounds?
JayP: Yes, it was remote, but at the same time it wasn’t. There were lots of people out there. The nomadic culture lives everywhere out there. Just when you think you haven’t seen anyone for a long time or aren’t going to see anyone for a long time, you suddenly come across a yurt, or a guy on a horse, or a guy in vehicle trying to get somewhere. So, in some ways, chances are you are closer to someone than you think and that does provide a margin of safety.
The people were absolutely amazing. The hospitality was incredible. You could see it their eyes when we couldn’t express it together in words. But the friendly waves came from across the valley, and I’d just wave back and keep riding. I was on a different program as I was trying to complete the route as fast as I could, so I got to experience less of it, but the people further back in the race field got to experience more of it with invites into yurts and homes for tea and meals.
I do think about going slower sometimes to enjoy that stuff, but if and when I do, it won’t be at an event. I see competitive events as times to push myself and to challenge myself. If I want to go slower then I’ll just do it as a vacation or tour, but not as part of a competitive event. This one does have me thinking a bit more about that though, and looking for more opportunities to have shared experiences…new experiences.
SALSA: How did your gear work out?
JayP: I definitely have that kind of figured out. I’m not the guy carrying the lightest load. I don’t have the lightest jacket. Those guys that went as light as possible froze up there and I didn’t. I was really pleased with my clothing and gear. I used a backpack this time, which is something I normally don’t like to do, but I needed to create space for all of that food. So, my frame pack was filled with food that I had repackaged once in Kyrgyzstan, and my clothing was all in the pack on my back. I endured a range from 100-degrees above to below freezing during the race…the full spectrum. I came out o fine. Not sunburned. No frostbite.
This was a mountain race and I live in the mountains. I knew how to prepare. I told myself, ‘You’re going to be racing in the mountains Jay’. I kind of compared it the Tour Divide but I went a little heavier because of the greater remoteness that would be involved.
SALSA: In typical JayP fashion, you made a late decision to ride a prototype of the new fourth generation Warbird (launching September 17th) …how did it treat you?
JayP: The new Warbird was amazing. The comfort of it was amazing. I’m kind of blown away by it. In all fairness, I took this wheel size and tire size to the limit and beyond with this event, but that’s a racer thing. It’s something I enjoy doing with equipment.
But I was just thinking yesterday about how my body held up extremely well, and I think the bike had a lot to do with it. I went into the ride very fit and I hadn’t done a long ride for about two months, so my body was definitely rested and prepared for it. But I also think the bike had a lot to do with it. I rode washboard for one section, and by section, I mean 40 miles, and I came out of it fine.
The carbon Cowchipper bars also really helped a lot. I’ve been using them for a while and I choose the widest ones for this type of adventure riding. I think that stuff really matters, as it increases leverage but also comfort.
It is clear to me that the front end of the new Warbird is way more comfortable. I’ve spent tons of time and many miles this year on the previous Warbird, which is a great bike, and then I jumped on the new one for this event and it was extremely noticeable to me.
The bike is also more stable than the last. I was riding it fully loaded in the Silk Road Mountain Race at 40 mph downhill on rough mountain roads, and uphill on very steep roads at 2 mph. The increased stability only helped, and I think people will find that true in one day events as well.
I love the new ways to carry gear on the new Warbird. Water bottles up front. Direct mount toptube bag…more stability and a clean look that I like too. I even direct mounted the frame bag I had by chopping some straps off and bolting it to the frame.
SALSA: For anyone out there considering taking on the challenge of the Silk Road Mountain Race in the future, what would you tell them?
JayP: Absolutely do not take it lightly. Meaning, understand that the route demands physical ability and physical fitness. You can’t get by in this event with an off-the-couch approach.
Understand and wrap your head around on how wild it can be out there. You need to be able to fix everything you have and take care of yourself. If a storm brews up there are no trees to hide behind. You are exposed, and you are vulnerable. Understand that.
I think it should be understood how great the people are and how comfortable you should be out there. Don’t let the news and fears overwhelm you. I wish I’d have understood that going into it.
I also think that people need to understand that even as people share information, and while you may know more than we did, that this route will always hold more mystery and less analytics than the majority of bikepacking ultras.
I’d encourage anyone taking on the event to try to spend more time there afterwards. I’m missing the Nomad Games right now and I’m kicking myself.
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"I do not train,” Jay Petervary says. “I ride my bike a lot because I love to!" Jay first discovered cycling post-college, but was immediately prepping for a 500km multi-sport event. He’s logged many races in 18 years, everything from cross-country mountain bike to a cross-the-country time trial. Nowadays he rides for adventure, the longer the better.