Racing and robbery on the high roads of Kyrgyzstan
James Hayden looked west towards the Kyrgyz mountains. He was exhausted. After six days of pedalling on little more than three hours of sleep per night, he left the third and final checkpoint of the Silk Road Mountain Race and rode out into the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. Turning left off the last piece of asphalt road for days, he began to climb up the mountain pass of Fairytale Canyon. The road led inexorably upwards. His fully-laden bike sank heavily into the loose surface. His lungs bellowed in the cold, thin air. As he had done thousands of times before, he switched his headtorch onto low beam and submerged himself back into his own familiar little sleep-deprived racing bubble.
Two horse riders emerged from the dark. He knew what that meant. A veteran of ultra-endurance races and two-time winner of the Transcontinental Race, he prepared himself to greet the usual displays of friendly curiosity from inquisitive locals. The riders approached. They blocked the road. He saw the dogs, spotted the rifles, and heard the loud voices. His racing bubble burst. He realised that he had been wrong.
The world of ultra-endurance cycle racing is one of far extremes. Riders race extremely long distances, quite frequently across entire continents, on extremely little sleep. They face extremes of temperature, terrain, and their own temperament. Races demand extreme physical endurance. That’s a given. But they also demand that competitors are able to endure themselves. Many races are totally self-supported, which means that competitors must plan their own race—down to the very finest detail—for everything they might expect, and manage their situation when they come across something they don’t. And that’s simply to finish. To be in with a chance of winning takes abilities that sit at the frontiers of human capability.
Even amongst this world of ultra-endurance cycle racing, the PeDALED Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR) is unique. In its adversity and exposure, it is peerless. Nearly 2000 kilometres long and passing through some of the most remote high-mountain terrain in the world, it sees riders climb to over 4000 metres on little more than sandy single-track. They think nothing of passing from snowstorms to searing desert plains over the course of just a couple of hours. Opportunities to resupply are few and far between. In fact, it can be days before riders see anybody or anything at all.
At its heart, it is a true bike-packing adventure. As the winner Jakub Sliacan said, as he overtook James Hayden on his way up Fairytale Canyon, and in doing so retook the lead: “you’re not going to sleep as much as I am, so I need to ride faster than you are.” Yet unlike many transcontinental bike-packing races—the most famous being The Transcontinental Race that traverses Europe—there is no easy escape route. Come a cropper in Europe or the US and it’s never all that far to the nearest train station or budget airline to whisk you home. In the SRMR, there is no easy escape hatch. You can’t check in to a hotel, or hop on a train, because there aren’t any. Ninety percent of the route has no mobile-phone signal. Whatever may befall you, you are forced to ride on, if only because that is the quickest and simplest way to scratch from the race. There is nobody left to rely on but yourself. Often, having continued that far, riders realise there is no reason for them not to carry on a little further.
This is what attracted James Hayden. Double winner of the Transcontinental Race in 2017 and 2018, the 28-year-old from London had bigger fish to fry in August of 2019. He packed up his bags and his mountain bike and headed to Kyrgyzstan.
James could smell the alcohol on their breath. After several weeks of cycle-touring around Kyrgyzstan to acclimatise to the terrain and his own equipment, and four and a half days of racing from Bishkek, James knew the characteristic warmth and hospitality of the people in this remote Central Asian country. These two shepherds springing from the undergrowth did not fit the bill.
“They were obviously charged up on vodka and were shouting at me really loudly,” James says. “One was blocking the front and the other was blocking behind. Until this point, I was in my own world, just cycling along, and then all of a sudden the adrenaline kicked straight in, and I was thinking at a million miles an hour. I don’t really know what they were saying, but they were pretty aggressive, looking at me. And looking at my bike.”
Ultra-endurance racing is a long game, one where every little drop of energy could turn out to be a waste of strength that might prove useful later on. But James had little choice. He politely acknowledged his two assailants, squeezed past the one in front, and rode on as hard as he could. His heart rate was rocketing, his lungs were burning, and his eyes scoured the track for a safe passage through the treacherous stones. He made it half a minute up the road, before he heard the thunder of hooves. Two wheels had been no match for four legs, and they had caught up with him. One in front, one behind. They dragged him to the ground, grabbed his bike, and pinned him down.
“One guy started shouting ‘money, money’ in English and picked up my bicycle and started to go through my stuff, while the other one was holding me. They had hunting rifles; they weren’t brandishing them at me, but they had them, and the one going through my bike had a knife on him. I was thinking: ‘this is not really a great situation’. I was shouting, ‘no money no money’, they were shouting louder, and it wasn’t really getting any better. This was not great.”
Vast swathes of Kyrgyzstan remain devoid of permanent settlement and ignored by the advance of asphalt and alloy investment coming in on a tide from the East. Bordered by the steppe of Kazakhstan, the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and the soaring 7000-metre ramparts of the Tien Shan, the country’s mountains—ancient obstacles once criss-crossed by the threads of the Silk Road—form choppy eddies on the margins of the raging torrent of globalisation. They are safe, for now, although thanks to efforts by the Kyrgyz state to encourage foreign tourism—including the removal of complicated visa requirements—travellers are no longer unknown to the seasonal herdsmen of these places. Of course, people racing two-wheeled push bikes for no pecuniary prize—and apparently for no particular reason than to make themselves uncomfortable—remain a curious novelty. As a result, bike riders are almost always welcomed in for tea, food, or a night in the spare bed.
Silk Road Mountain Race founder and organiser Nelson Trees fell for Kyrgyzstan’s beauty when he rode across Central Asia several years ago. An ultra-endurance racer himself, he took inspiration from his favourite events elsewhere and organised the first edition of the SRMR in 2018.
“It’s the combination of the natural setting and the warmth of the people that makes it a very special place to ride,” he explains. “An ultra-race in Kyrgyzstan is something that can be incredibly powerful. Going beyond your limits and achieving something that you didn’t think you were capable of, sleeping three hours a day and riding for 15 hours a day, pushing through hail and snow and rain, it’s just something you wouldn’t do if it weren’t a race. It sounds terrible if you describe it like that! But having gone through those hardships and pushed on, it is incredibly satisfying.”
Put simply, facing up to an attempted armed mugging on horseback was not something James Hayden, or anybody else, was expecting. It didn’t fit his pre-race risk assessment. Kyrgyzstsan is not without its problems 30 years after the break-up of the USSR, but a hold-up didn’t fit the nature of the country and its people. Ultra-racing is a small and tightly knit community, its bonds fortified by the shared risks inherent in such pursuits, and he had never heard of something like this happening to anybody before.
Yet ultra-racing is the only sport where athletes confront and navigate threatening situations at the same time that they aim to perform at their peak. It could be something as simple as a puncture; throw in cold hands, shivering arms, and a howling gale, and suddenly something as simple as changing an inner tube becomes infinitely more complicated.
James grabbed the arms of the man behind him, dragged him over his shoulder, and grabbed his bike from the man in front. He knew from a few weeks’ cycle-touring in the country beforehand that going downhill the tables were turned and someone mounted on a bike could descend far quicker than someone mounted on a horse. With scarcely a moment to collect himself, he turned around and set off down Fairytale Canyon, back the way he had come.
“I was going way too fast, flat out,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t even go that fast in the daylight. But while I had the element of surprise, I wasn’t gonna go slowly.”
Having all of a split second to react to the road, with nothing more than a thin beam of low-powered light to read the conditions, James sliced through the inky air. Slipping and sliding across the track, he listened for the sickening sound of hooves behind him again.
“At this point, I was thinking, these two people are pretty determined; they’ve chased me once already; it’s likely that they’ll try to chase me again. They know the mountain. So how far do I go before I stop? They have dogs that will be able to smell me, so if they want to find me they’ll easily be able to find me if I stop before the bottom.”
“I realised the only thing I could do was descend the whole way down to the tarmac main road. Anything else would probably have left me open to the risk of them coming after me. And they were probably gonna be pretty pissed off because I’d just put one of them on the floor. So I descended all the way down to the main road.”
Whether such quick-fire decision making is something you’re born with or something you learn, it’s something that every ultra-racer needs. To be a good racer, you need to be smart.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, but you have to be able to look after yourself and make good decisions,” James explains. “When to stop, when to eat; they seem like simple decisions, but when you haven’t slept in several days, those simple decisions can become quite difficult.”
This was not a simple decision, but James still has a rational argument for taking an option which most people would consider to be highly risky: confronting armed assailants and fleeing.
“The fact is that I made the decision in the moment and it was the one that carried the least risk to it. And if I started handing over money, what happened then? I couldn’t answer that question, so I thought it was best to get away.”
James descended to the foot of Fairytale Canyon and the main road. He called race organisers to inform them what happened, and messaged his loved ones at home in the UK. It wasn’t far to one of the race’s control points, so organisers picked him up in a vehicle.
“When I went back down to the road and the checkpoint, I was a fish that had been dragged out of water. The race was my water, and all of a sudden I was in air, and I didn’t know what was going on.”
He spent a frustrating and fruitless day in the company of Kyrgyz police, snatching moments to rest and recover. All the while, competitors came in and out of the checkpoint. He had been duelling for the win; now he was in free fall down the race classification.
“I didn’t feel like I was being held up at that point because there was nothing left to hold up,” he says. “It was over.”
Many people would have given up, their focus broken. It was a tempting option. James had been determined to experience and endure whatever the race would throw at him, but this was something he never saw coming.
“Add to that that I was now a bit scared of riding, in the dark especially. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”
Yet James carried on. The following day, he rescaled the mountain, pausing at the site of his attack. Time stood still, and he soaked in the scene. After five long minutes had oozed by, he carried on again. It wasn’t plain sailing. During his first night of riding, he jumped into a drainage ditch before the lights of an approaching van could pick him out. The emotional stress was almost overwhelming, and he slept out a storm during a long and fitful night.
“I realised that actually, if I could endure the next couple of days —which would be quite stressful and not much fun—that I would feel so much fulfilment when I got to the finish that it was just worth it,” he says. “There was no choice in what I was going to do. I was just going to have to finish. If I could deal with this, then there wouldn’t be much that I couldn’t deal with in the future. Every time you experience a situation that tests you to your limit and pushes you beyond it, you find that your limit isn’t where you thought it was and you become comfortable in the uncomfortable. That’s one of the incredible things—by doing these races, you become a better, stronger, more resilient person in everyday life.”
The unavoidable pressure of competition forces endurance racers up that mountain in bad weather, when the tourist would sit it out over dinner. Racers take risks. What is normally avoidable instead becomes essential, and in confronting these situations of discomfort or adversity we grow and learn. Just as our muscles recover from physical stress and become stronger, so grow our minds, our characters and our behaviour after an ultra-race. And even to one of the very best riders in the world, it was a welcome reminder: riding a bike across a country changes what we are, but it is racing across it that changes who we are.