'It soon became a survival race for me': Naresh Kumar on navigating 1,705km long rugged terrains of Kyrgyzstan on a bicycle
The second edition of the race was flagged off at 9 am on 17 August; of the 135 riders in the solo and paired categories, only 71 made it to the finish by the 31 August cutoff — the last man to get there after a staggering 14 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes. Naresh Kumar ended his race in 31st place among the 46 solo riders after seeing his fair share of drama over the 12 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes.
What sets the race apart is the rugged terrain over the 1,705km course, and a total vertical gain of over 28,000m, which is over three times the height of Mt Everest
A majority of the route winds its way through the Tian Shan mountains, never once dipping below 1,300m and with 12 passes over 3,500m
And of course, with no support from the race crew or other riders, unless in case of an emergency
When Naresh Kumar, 36, decided to sign up for the Silk Road Mountain Race — a self-supported bicycle race in Kyrgyzstan — it wasn’t your usual entry form that was to be filled. He had to put his mind to a few scenario-based questions, which he was likely to encounter during the ride.
One such query quizzed him on what would be his course of action, if he were to be completely drenched during one of the river crossings en route. Though Kumar’s response was satisfactory to earn him a spot at the starting line, the real test was when he landed up in a similar situation during the race. And knowing what needed to be done not only helped him survive the sub-zero temperatures, but also got him across the finish to become the first Indian to complete one of the most gruelling bicycle races in August.
What sets the race apart is the rugged terrain over the 1,705km course, and a total vertical gain of over 28,000m, which is over three times the height of Mt Everest (8,850m). A majority of the route winds its way through the Tian Shan mountains, never once dipping below 1,300m and with 12 passes over 3,500m. And of course, with no support from the race crew or other riders, unless in case of an emergency.
“There are times they cannot come get you immediately because it’s so remote. So you need to get to a certain place to be rescued or just wait till they reach you, which could often take a few days,” Kumar says.
Though the race threw new challenges at him, Kumar is no stranger to long-distance cycling. It all started out in 2011 when he wanted to get away from running. In the next few years, he took to randonneuring and races such as the Paris-Brest-Paris and the Tour of New Zealand in 2015. But soon, distance cycling had a whole new meaning for him.
After quitting his Information Technology job, Kumar started the Freedom Seat Foundation to work with the rescue and rehabilitation of women and children from slavery. The rides were then meant to create awareness about the cause and raise funds for the project. Some of the longer rides that he took on was the length of New Zealand, and across Australia from Perth to Sydney. His last ride before the race stretched from February to May, when he rode from India to Germany, picking up strangers along the way on his tandem bicycle and telling them about Freedom Seat Foundation’s work.
“These rides gave me a good idea about going solo and unsupported. The last one was also great training for the Silk Road race, but the unpredictable conditions in Kyrgyzstan can hardly be simulated. What I worked on was a lot of hike and bike, climbing hundreds of metres during the week and of course, spending long days in the saddle,” Kumar says.
All riders were equipped with the route on their GPS devices, besides a physical map as a backup. With no support en route for hundreds of kilometres, the riders had to be self-sufficient. At the same time, the gear had to be minimal to ensure that the bicycle didn’t weigh much.
“Nobody really rides the entire route, so you have to be prepared to push the bicycle. How much is too much is something only you can figure out. There are markets in the villages on the way, but they’ll either run out of supplies if you’re too slow or shut shop if you arrive late in the evening. My entire bicycle weighed about 16kg; yet, I could only afford the luxury of using a single pair of clothes throughout the race,” he says, laughing.
The second edition of the race was flagged off at 9 am on 17 August; of the 135 riders in the solo and paired categories, only 71 made it to the finish by the 31 August cutoff — the last man to get there after a staggering 14 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes. Kumar ended his race in 31st place among the 46 solo riders after seeing his fair share of drama over the 12 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes.
“I had a target of finishing it in under 10 days, but it soon became a survival race for me,” Kumar says.
Right after the start in Bishkek, Kumar gained a good understanding of just what he could expect over the next few days.
“Even before we got to the mountains, it started pissing down rain, which lasted until midnight. As we gained altitude, it turned into snow and hail, and it was imperative that I got across the Kegety Pass (3,780m). I only stopped riding at 4 am that night,” he says.
“On another day, the rain turned the ground into peanut butter. I had to sit by the road and push a stick through the chains to get the mud out. You would ride for about five minutes, before stopping to do it all over again. A section that was to take two hours stretched to about eight that day,” he says.
On the stretch closer to the passes, the path got really narrow and a mistake would mean certain death. Kumar erred in carrying batteries which would die out in the cold, instead of charging his headlamp through a dynamo. As a result, there were times he would simply have to stop riding when it got pitch dark, uncertain of the path ahead.
It was on Day 6 that Kumar found himself in a similar situation that he had responded to in the questionnaire. He was drenched in the rain and shaking due to a bout of hypothermia. He first pitched his tent and sat stark naked in it, wringing his clothes before huddling into the sleeping bag for the night. By the time the sun was out, he had tied his damp clothes to the bicycle and was off to take on another day.
“That’s what it’s all about in a sense. A challenge isn’t real unless there is a possibility of failure,” he says.
When the going got rough, Kumar experienced the kindness of people along the way. At major towns such as Chaek and Bagis, he would stock up on noodles, dry meat, cola and local sweets. But it was in the middle of nowhere that he was embraced by Kyrgyz nomads and handed shelter in their yurts.
“Language is never a barrier for human connection. They would welcome you and feed you cheese, bread and horse milk, even though they had limited resourcesu. It humbles you when you think of what you’ve done to deserve this kindness,” Kumar says.
The urge to call it quits was tempting on reaching civilisation after hard, lonely days toiling in the wilderness. But there were other days when he would make a gruelling climb to finally sit and gaze at an arresting vista of cascading mountains in the distance.
“I would try to ride past the big towns as soon as I could. There were a million reasons to put an end to the hell that I was experiencing. So, I would quickly restock on the supplies and set off,” he says.
“The fear of not finishing was a great motivator towards the end,” he adds.
Just 60km from the finish, Kumar’s tyre split open after the wear and tear that it had suffered over all the days. Sourcing a spare was not an option. Yet, Kumar was clear that he wasn’t calling it quits after all that he had endured. In that moment, his jaded mind came up with the most unlikely of solutions.
“I had a wallet that was made of cuben fibre - the same material that sails of a ship are made of. So I emptied it out and stuffed it inside the tyre to cover the holes. There on, I had to be really conservative to protect my tyre,” he recalls.
Around the same time, he met race director Nelson Trees, who made photos and looked on in amazement as Kumar edged on at a snail’s pace.
“I told him I had three days to finish and would push the bicycle all the way if needed. I was going to roll up my sleeves and put on the best fight I had in me,” he says.
When Kumar finally crossed the finish, the gathering looked on in disbelief at the state of his tyre. When he was done narrating his experience, they asked him what he wanted, now that it was all over.
“A fresh underwear, a chilled beer and deep sleep,” Kumar remembers saying.
And perhaps, just a few days off his bicycle.
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