Bikepacking with
James Hayden
bikepacking story
It all started in 2019, the year of my first Silk Road Mountain Race. I've had three of them by now, and I'm still not satisfied. Going back to the race, it never ceases to amaze me what a big imprint it has left on my life. After 4 years, the impact of the first start of 2019 continues until now.
In August 2019, three days before the start, I decided to go for a warm-up ride on the Bozboltok Hilsl to try out my new Pedaled cycling apparel provided by the race organizers. Going up above the railroad bridge on Almatinskaya Street I noticed a bikepacker on the right side. Without hesitation, I rode up to him. It was Max Riese from Austria. He agreed to join my ride. That day was actually marked by getting to know more him rather than James. But that was also a day when we met James and his mate, on the serpentine before the giant monument flag up on the hills south of Bishkek. At that moment I was patching up a flat tire, Max showed me his compact-sized brand new pump, and James and his buddy caught up with us. Max struck up a conversation with them, they seemed to know each other. I suggested we all take a picture. Later, after the race, looking through the photos, I recognized James. He had finished fourth that year, after that dramatic moment out of Checkpoint 3 where he had met some locals who had confronted him with their aggressive antics. He was fast after that incident he caught up with and overtook the 20 riders ahead of him. I was told that James was on his way to win that race. That's how I discovered James Mark Hayden.
I go back to my 2019 finish very often, even though it wasn't my last. It was a pleasant August evening in Cholpon-Ata at a lakeside hotel. Among other positive emotions of that victorious evening, I was filled with joy reading many congratulatory comments on several posts about my finish. There were many warm greeting lines from people I know, and many warm words from people who I never met. James's comment was one of them. It was very nice, and my mind was spinning with thoughts of why all those people decided to take the time to write words of encouragement to me. Now those kind comments are gone from social media, I don't know why. They remain only in my memory now.
In 2021 at the next race, we all lost him before the start in Talas, he was not among those who made it to the start. There were rumors among riders. James did not respond to my message. Later he posted on his feed that he had contacted the one who was Covid positive, and decided not to race.
The 2022 race brought us all together in Osh. Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan, James wrote to me and offered to climb together, for acclimatization, to the Zhyptyk Pass which is between Papan and Sary-Mogol Villages. I didn't expect such an invitation and was happy about it, but I refused to go to Zhyptik because I planned to be in Osh just before the start. He greeted me from a distance at the briefing and I never saw him again that year.
A few weeks before the start of SRMR 2023, James wrote to me again, telling me that he was planning to spend time acclimatizing on the Arabel Plateau at the side of Zhuku Pass. This time I didn't hesitate to offer to climb the pass together, and James happily agreed to accept me into his company.
We dropped off in Saruu Village on the south shore of Issyk-Kul Lake at 4:00 pm on Saturday August 5, 2023, where we laid out our bikes on the side of the country dirt road toward the pass. After short preparation, we set off into the mountains alone, on our bikes, with our own supplies, essentials and each with their own tasks.
In publications on his website, James explains his preparation for the race
Shortly before arriving, James suggested that I take a series of photos of his acclimatization in Zhuku for sponsors and personal publications, so taking photos for him was one of my tasks for the next couple of days. Among other things, I wanted to ride a route along the gorge and valley of Zhuku to explore it, gather material for a publication about the trip with James, and get to know him better.
Last year in 2022, I discovered the Zhuku Pass and valley when I was descending from the Arabel Plateau heading towards Lake Issyk-Kul on the route of the SRMR 2022 race. That descent was difficult due to a strong headwind and a time limit that kept me constantly pedaling. I was only aiming to reach the 2nd Checkpoint by evening and get another brevet stamp. This did not allow me to fully admire the beauty of the valley. It is very beautiful there, unlike the Barskoon and Jeti-Өgүz valleys, which are heavely exploited by mass tourism.
James didn't speak much, or maybe it was just my feelings, which didn't correspond to reality. He had just arrived after long flights, and I felt my English skills were lacking. He had a whole race ahead of him, and I had to get back to everyday life in a couple of days. We were free to escape to Juku Pass, but each of us was limited by our own realities and personal needs. James is not a tourist in the classic sense, and participating in bikepacking races is his main job. I, for my part, was immersed in thoughts of those back home in Bishkek. On the second day, during lunch break, we recorded a spontaneous video "5 Tips for SRMR success".
I wanted to get to the upper lake, and as is often the case, I was very hesitant about whether I could do that. We planned to get to the lower, smaller lake, camp there, and hike up to the big upper lake.
For an amateur, such trips are of great interest, because you find yourself in the company of an ultra-distance champion, from whom you can learn certain skills and knowledge and talk about that. James has podiums in top ultra races (Transcontinental, Highland Trail 550, Italy Divide, Atlas Mountain Race, and our Silk Road Mountain Race) I'll be honest, I didn't bother with it, I tried to keep up with him, and James was relaxed and riding just my pace. We were tourists after all and enjoyed it. At the camp, James would eat dehydrated vacuum-packed food, and I would eat a similar sort of packed meal, but precooked. I noticed that James would transfer dry oats from one package to another, empty and smaller, pour honey and water over it, and set it aside overnight. This was his way of making himself breakfast after dinner for the next day.

I left James early in the morning at the upper lake on August 7th.
- I need your luck,- he talked to me out of his tent.
I only nodded my head in response.
"Good luck James! This is what I should have said to you" - I wrote to him later in a message upon my arrival in Bishkek, when James went online in the town of Karakol.
In the last story on his website, James mentioned me, calling me his friend. I'm pleased to hear that. The three days I spent with James in Kyrgyzstan will remain a part of my life and a warm memory. James and I spent a wonderful time in places where we don't have to talk much, often it is difficult to talk at altitudes of 3000 meters or more.
These places are appealing in their silence and welcoming to a lonely stranger.
watch a couple of films about James
founder & editor
happy slow rider
Malik Alymkulov
bikepacking kyrgyzstan 2023
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