Racing Shame // Lee Craigie

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Racing Shame // Lee Craigie

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“Im кечиресиз мен токтото албай. Жарышка им. Мен орой болуу деген жок.”

(“I’m sorry I can’t stop. I’m in a race. I don’t mean to be rude.”)

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Three weeks ago, my bike and I landed in this mountainous little country in Central Asia with the objective of travelling solo and self supported by bike for a while. The combination of mountainous terrain, nomadic tradition and Islamic hospitality intrigued me from the first mention of the Silk Road Mountain Race but I also knew that by racing the 1700km route beginning in Bishkek on 18th August in the company of 90 other foreign riders, I wouldn’t get a proper sense of these things. So I was arriving early to ensure I had enough time to really experience Kyrgystan. 

Going fast is usually a selfish and inward looking thing to do and moving through new places by bike has always been about the opposite of that for me. When I visit a different culture or meet new people I want to show respect and curiosity which are difficult things to convey while racing! 

 

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Having spoken at length to race organiser Nelson Trees at the end of the Highland Trail 550, I felt confident that my concerns around our impact as bike racers travelling through these underdeveloped towns and yurt encampments had been considered and that this actually presented Kyrgystan with a much needed strand to their tourism bow. I felt sure Nelson had been thorough and considerate in the planning of this race. I knew he had spent extensive time riding in Kyrgystan and that his naturally respectful and empathic way with people meant he was able to make sound judgments around the impact of the race. Still, I needed to arrive early and spend some time making my own mind up about such things. It felt very important that I do. 

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I’ve never been quiet about the internal conflict I feel about racing these self supported bikepacking races. On one hand they are the purest form of challenge I have ever experienced. They offer life affirming lessons in self reliance and tilt my everyday reality in such a way that my appreciation for the small things cannot fail to be heightened. They are humbling and empowering all at once and every time I’ve put myself on that uncomfortable start line and dug deep into my resolve to keep moving forward through pain, hunger and fatigue, I’ve come away with new learnings about myself, about the wild places I pass through and, most importantly of all, the tightly woven interconnectivity between the two. 

 

The last three weeks have convinced me that the inspiration Nelson Trees felt to create a race through the vast, impressive landscapes of Kyrgystan was nothing short of genius. All the reasons I race long distances would be multiplied tenfold by doing so here and that this adventure would be unparalleled.  

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And yet I’m findng it harder than usual to get my head around racing through Kyrgystan. It’s not so much about being able to stop and drink in the nuanced colours of the magical desert landscapes or allowing myself time to gaze at the evening light shifting over glaciers or the watch the moon arc over the mountains. It’s the people. In my three short weeks travelling here I have been shown a kindness and hospitality on a level I’ve never experienced before. I’ve been invited, dripped wet and freezing cold, into countless warm yurts and fed gallons of sweet chai. I’ve been taken to family celebrations and given babies to hold. I’ve been patiently taught songs and phrases and smiled at so warmly that it’s made me stay entire evenings. When leaving, I’ve been hugged so hard the wind has audibly escaped my lungs and I’ve had insistent hands shove bread and biscuits into my already bulging bike bags. I’ve shared so much mutual laughter that’s erupted from games of Pictionary or charades (instigated to bridge language barriers) that it’s made me wonder why we bother to use words at all! 

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In moving slowly though this place and taking my time speaking to people and accepting their generous gestures of hospitality I have realised just how much it’s possible to give by receiving. It’s not something I’m always very good at. Before I can accept a kindness or offer of help from someone, there’s a brittle barrier that needs to be pierced. For that reason I much prefer to give than to receive but in always having structured my life so I can be in the position of giver, I realise I have denied others the pleasure I feel in giving. In moving through this Islamic culture I have been forced to be in position of receiver, from kind family to generous shepherd, all over the mountains of Kyrgystan. 

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Now I need to race and remove myself from this delicate generous dance of humanity and I don’t know if I can. 

 

“Im кечиресиз мен токтото албай. Жарышка им. Мен орой болуу деген жок.”

 

As I sit here in Bishkek awaiting the start of the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, I actually feel a kind of shame at the thought of speaking these words to the Kyrgys people whose world I will be whipping through next week. But going fast and finding those moments of pure solitary joy on my bike under my own steam is also an important part of me. It remains to be seen which side of me will prevail once this race begins. My hope is that both will and that I’ll find a middle ground that is true to myself and respectful to others. Perhaps the truest way to race the Silk Road Mountain Race is to do so with continual awareness of both the positive and negative impact my presence will be having environmentally and culturally. There isn’t an easy answer to this one. So like the beginning of most of my biggest adventures, I’ve done some thinking and preparing, now all that remains is to wing it! 

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The Highland Trail 550 Reframed // Lee Craigie

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I can’t fathom how a person can move through an environment like Fisherfield smoothly and with ease without first stopping to doff their cap in admiration and awe. Omit this humble gesture and a wild place remains intimidating. A bike rider can charge on if they wish, and slip, slide and stumble their way through somewhere like Fisherfield but there will be tears and stubbed toes. Personally, I don’t think racing this way is faster but, perhaps more importantly, it feels pointless and really hard.

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