The Silk Road Mountain Race is a unique new bikepacking challenge across Kyrgyzstan. It’s not your standard adventure race – this is a serious place to ride bikes unsupported! There’s no bike shop down the road to fix bikes, you’ll just be stuck with what you have!
I’ve now ridden across Kyrgyzstan from west to east, east to west and most recently in winter from north to south. It’s fair to say I love the place, but each time I go it reminds me not to underestimate the demands of riding here!
Kit is going to be crucial to get right for The Silk Road Mountain Race it’s all about reliability versus weight and performance. Let’s be clear the route is such that no one bike is going to work well for everything so this blog isn’t going to solve all your dilemmas!
This advice however holds true for anyone hoping to cycle tour across Kyrgyzstan on a mix of surfaces.
Don’t get hung up on materials; steel, titanium, aluminium, carbon will all work fine. Just take more care to protect a carbon frame when transporting it. I assume (and hope) you’ll all be running bikepacking bags so there’s no need for rack eyelets nor the frame strength issues that goes with them and a standard touring set up. What you do need is a bike that is properly designed for rough riding, not a road frame branded as a “gravel” bike! You want relaxed head angles and tyre clearance for 700x47mm tyres. You want a frame with disc mounts too. The race is undoubtedly likely to see a few riders on XC mountain bikes with suspension, and I’d say that’s not a bad option; however personally I’d use a modern gravel adventure bike.
While riders will appreciate a traditional short travel suspension fork, I think the Lauf Grit forks will be a good option for this route. They reduce fatigue over long days and soak up resonant feedback from gravel tracks nicely. However the simplicity of a standard rigid fork in steel or carbon is probably what most riders will opt for.
Don’t underestimate how slow you’ll be going up those passes. The rough surface, altitude and sheer scale will slow even the quickest to walking pace; Gearing needs to be super easy. For roadies this means a full-on MTB range not just a drop to an 11:28 cassette!
If opting for a 1x set-up then you’ll probably want the SRAM 10:42 cassette on the back, to get the range needed. Personally I’d opt for a 36 on the front to sacrifice a bit of top end speed on the long downhills but not as much as a 34. Listen to your legs in training and go for that 34 if in doubt. One option is to use a manual down step front ring, a 28t that can be manually engaged for the very steepest sections – very Enduro.
Use a brand new narrow-wide front ring and chain and test them before leaving. Pack enough lube for that new chain because you’ll not buy any out there.
While I love the simplicity and reliability of a 1x setup in these rough conditions, a double front chainset makes a lot of sense. I would ensure something that gives at least a couple of options below the 1×1 ratio. Maybe a 48:32 Praxis Zayante with an 11:42 cassette. Just check your shifters can deal with that step up.
The final option would be hub gears for their reliability but if you’re considering this then I probably can’t add much extra info for you – speak to the guys at Shand Cyles.
Disc brakes are perfect for this race. Yes you can fix rim brakes easier but I’ve had zero reliability issues with TRP mechanical discs or SRAM Hydro’s in the last 4 years. Just look after them and you’ll be fine. High altitude increases the impact of small amounts of air in the brakes. Get your brakes bled by a competent professional to eek out the last of the hidden air. I am pretty competent at bleeding brakes but I still would use an expert for this.
A wet day here can see a set of pads disappear. The descents are going to be huge. Your brakes might overheat a bit but I’d stick with sintered pads and obviously a minimum of one set of spares.
This is the big one. I won’t go into too many specific brands and models but you’ll want a wide, low profile tread on a strong tyre with a high TPI count.
Do you go for a super heavy but reliable classic tyre like a Schwalbe Marathon or tubeless and lighter but risk that potential race ending split in the tyre wall?
Then add into the mix that all good gravel bikes will offer a 650b option. I’d be tempted to go 650b with a 1.9” tubeless tyre on this route, you’ll appreciate the extra grip and comfort; allowing you to go longer and further. A lightweight XC race MTB tyre is not going to be strong enough. A dedicated gravel tyre should have stronger tyre walls adding 100gms or so to the weight. If using 700c then 42mm is the size I’d use.
An obvious point, but don’t save weight in the saddle area! Stick to the tried and tested that you’ve trained on. I use the Brooks Cambium C13 carved which works well.
I’d also go for flared bars if using drop bars. The Ritchey WCS Flared Venture max bar is the best shape I’ve found so far and would recommend those with the SRAM Hydro hoods, the chunky hydro hood shape is great for support on rough roads and offers another hand position. Flares offer more hand positions but also allow a bigger bar bag to be used which on smaller frames is vital.
Although drops are more on trend, don’t rule out flat bars. They offer more control and space for bikepacking kit. The classic Jones H bars being a popular option. Not as aero into headwinds but with a good set of ergonomic grips it can be the most comfy option! If your gravel bike is designed for drop bars though, remember to add a longer stem to compensate for the shorter reach of flat bars. Flat bars also means you can easily run mountain bike groupsets, helping widen gearing and braking options.
I deliberately haven’t said this is the right set up as it will differ between riders. If you have great handling skills maybe go with something sketchier on gravel and faster on the roads. If you’re a roadie and gravel scares you then maybe go for options improving control. I look forward to seeing what people end up deciding and how you all get on! Most importantly stick with reliable options this isn’t the place for experiments that might go wrong.