Observations: Brandon Camarda
Brandon Camarda raced the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in 2018. It is perhaps the toughest self-supported bicycle race in the world. The route covers 1,700 kilometres of rugged mountain terrain and provides racers with a smorgasbord of possible reasons to abandon. Camarda was forced to withdraw after fighting through injury, illness, extreme temperatures, and severe dehydration. This August, the Seattle-based rider will head back to attempt the route one more time.
__RETURNING__ Everything is different this year. I came home last year and said, ‘I’m never going to do this again, ever’. I held on to that until December first, when I saw that signups were open and signed up that day. It was very drastic, from ‘Never again’ to ‘Just signed up for it.’ I didn’t know if I was actually going to do it, but I wanted to have the option. In my head, I was noncommittal, but I knew if I signed up, I’d probably do it. This year I have a new coach, I have my bike figured out, and I’m rested.
__COMPETITORS__ There were 100 people in the race last year. I’ve kept in touch with probably 30 or 40 of them. It’s such a tight group. It’s nothing like a road race where everyone’s staring at each other with opinions, like that guy’s sketchy or whatever. If you show up to the start line, you’re a badass. It’s just mutual appreciation. No matter how you do or when you drop out, everyone who shows up is awesome.
__RULES__ The second night of the race, I was talking with this girl, Philippa, and we decided to ride together until it got dark and then camp. I was unpacking everything and opened up my bag and realized that the igniter on my stove was broken. Philippa said something like, ‘Oh, I have a lighter.’ But I had this realization, ‘Damn, I can’t take the lighter without breaking the rules.’ It’s self-regulated, because no one else is going to know. People take some assistance here and there, but it’s on you to stick to the rules and decide how strict you are. That night, I didn’t let her use the lighter to ignite the stove so I could eat.
__EXTREMES__ The race starts with a 9,000-foot climb in the first 45 miles. It’s super gnarly. It’s almost singletrack at certain points, and there’s massive exposure. There was a thunderstorm, and then it started hailing. I’m thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ We’re up over 10,000 feet, and it’s hailing, and the race just started six hours ago. ‘We have two weeks of this?’
__GOALS__ My number one goal is to finish. I want to wrap this thing up; I want to complete the task. There are so many factors I can’t control; finishing has to be my number one goal. My second goal is to be competitive in the race. I want to finish in ten days. That would be fourth or fifth place in last year’s race. The route is pretty much the same, other than about 300 kilometres. Anyone who raced it last year has a big advantage.
__START__ The start was a hammer fest. There were 15 of us going super hard, and then the guy who won, Jay Petervary, came by in his TT bars, just hammering, going 100-mile-race pace. It’s a 1,200 mile race! He was just gone. He dropped us, maybe 30 miles in, and after that first mountain pass none of the other racers saw him again.
__ORIGINS__ One of the first things I did when I started riding was move across the USA on a bike. I met some Trans Am racers while on my trip. From then on, I was following all of these self-supported bike races. I signed up for Trans Am the following year, but the timing didn’t work out. It was something I always wanted in the back of my mind: to race an ultra-long-distance, self-supported bike race.
__GEOGRAPHY__ As soon as I heard about the race, I was in. I didn’t know where Kyrgyzstan was; I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. It was like, ‘OK, here’s this crazy bike-packing race. Perfect. This is it. I’ll do it. It’s the right distance. Two weeks is realistic.’ The time frame for the Tour Divide or Trans Am is a month.
__LOCALS__ In other self-supported bike-packing races, you can’t get help or take support from other racers, or take assistance from normal people you meet along the way. But Nelson, the race founder, modified the rules to allow for unsolicited help. He didn’t want racers to ride with their heads down through towns and not interact with locals because they didn’t want anything to be offered to them. The local people are very hospitable, sharing people, and Nelson wants racers to experience interacting with people. He also didn’t want to leave the impression on locals that cyclists are unfriendly. He wanted it to be a positive experience both ways.
__ABANDONING__ On the fifth day, I spent the night on the living room floor with a whole family, babies and everything. They made me dinner. The next day, I got super, super sick, and really dehydrated in a section without any water. I was in total struggle mode, and then, all of a sudden, I felt this shooting pain through my ankle, like my Achilles tendon was just ripping apart. I knew I’d made bad choices with my gearing, so I was hiking a lot, and my shoes weren’t great, and at some point all of that stress just manifested in my ankle, and I couldn’t pedal anymore. It was 80 miles to the next checkpoint. I spent six hours trying to finish that last 25 miles and had to camp without water. It was awful.
__FATIGUE__ You make weird mistakes. Last year, on day seven, I knew I was dropping out, and it was just a matter of getting to the checkpoint. I came across another racer having a bad day. She’d been trying to take ibuprofen, but she was swallowing chlorine tablets by mistake and was really sick, just terrible. That kind of stuff happens so much when you’re that tired.
__MENTALITY__ I think have a different level of mental whatever. The rules say you cannot accept help from other racers. If someone is able to offer you assistance, you’ll take it. It makes people push through things they wouldn’t have otherwise pushed through. It’s awful during it, but in the end you appreciate it. When you’re in the race, you don’t have a choice, you can’t call your spouse and get picked up.
__NERVES__ It was five o’clock in the morning after 30 hours of traveling. I got to the hotel, tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I rode over to the race HQ in Bishkek and started hanging out with some other racers. Everyone was stressed out; everyone was scared. I asked, ‘Have you done anything like this before?’ ‘No definitely not.’ Then it turns out they’ve raced the Tour Divide multiple times. ‘Yeah, but this is way more crazy.’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is my first bike-packing race ever!’