Completing Silk Road Mountain Race on a Classified Cargo Bike
Completeing the Silk Road Mountain Race on a Classified Cargo Bike
Two weeks ago, ultra cyclist Allan Shaw completed one of the hardest off-road ultra endurance races on the planet - on a cargo bike! 1,800km and 30,000 metres of climbing, mostly on tough gravel and rock-strewn roads, we caught up with Allan after the dust had settled to discuss the race and how he got on with his Classified equipped Omnium cargo bike in such a difficult environment.
Classified: Hi Allan, massive congratulations on completing such an awesome challenge. Talk us through the feelings when you crossed the line? Was it somehow different to the last time you completed SRMR?
Allan Shaw: For me the finish was the top of the last climb. The pass was 16km long, and it took me 7 hours in total. From the top of the pass, there was a 30km descent and then 20km flat to the finish. There was this great big gorgeous gate at the top, and when you’re on the climb it just refuses to come any closer! It’s tough - there are large sections of bolder you have to carry the bike over, which is obviously harder with the cargo bike. It’s 28% for the final 300 metres, so this was the real end of the race for me.
It was an emotional moment at the top, as the event photographer, Nils, and a few others came to see me finish. I had a good cry when I got to the top, both because I knew I’d made it, and also because I knew what it meant from a logistical point of view. It was dark and getting very cold, my gloves and clothes were wet from the thunderstorms. I knew I couldn’t stop there, so I had to do the descent in the dark and push on to the finish. I think I got to the finish around 23:30.
No doubt there were many unforgettable moments. Can you tell us about a few of your favourite?
Checkpoint 2 was a big moment. I arrived with a bunch of other racers, with a thunderstorm right behind us. We all decided to have a pause, and spend some time in the nice yurt. Others arrived, and there were around 26 racers at one point. It turned into a bit of a party and a really nice bonding session. Kegety pass was also a highlight. It felt shorter than I remember, even with the last 2.5km 'shove'. But I definitely remember it being harder, which was a nice feeling. From the top of Kegety there is a beautiful 45km descent. I’ve done it 3 times now, but this time, looking down and seeing the cargo bike, was awesome. Definitely my favourite time up and down Kegety Pass.
And the lowest moments of the race?
The washboard section before Kazarman was so tough. 120km of straight up washboard; super rough road with a headwind, slightly uphill and 35 degrees heat. A perfect storm of the elements! Washboard is loose pack gravel with horizontal ruts from the cars and trucks. Keeping momentum is very hard, even though you’re not going at all fast. And knowing how speed and time works, you work out that you will have to keep going on this hellish terrain for around 7 hours. It was a really dark place. Then directly after the washboard, I got stomach problems. I’d been very careful with eating, so I think it might have been from the heat. And then the crash was a real low point. Mostly just because of the unknown, and feeling of dread of what might happen.
But even when you’re at your lowest, there is always a moment that brings you back to realising how lucky you are to be there. It can be a conversation with another rider, or an interaction with a local at a rest stop. Something always brings you back up.
Let’s talk bike set up? You hadn’t ridden the Classified system that much in training, and certainly not on such rugged terrain. How did the system perform?
Super perfect. Honestly the whole bike was amazing during the whole race. I didn’t so much as have to put air in my tyres! And the Classified hub was perfect. I didn’t have to charge anything for the whole 12 days, it never missed a shift, it worked perfectly every time I needed it to. It was incredible. Truly, I couldn’t fault it. The Omnium cargo bike was also brilliant. I had no issues with the bike, except maybe having to tweak the rear derailleur cable. Even after the crash, the carbon fibre parts we’d added were in perfect order. Hardly even a scratch.
What do you think the advantages of the Classified system were on a ride like this?
From the outside, it looks like the Silk Road Mountain Race is all up mountain pass, down mountain pass, but there’s loads of rolling terrain too. Of course I used it on all the climbs, but I also used the system a lot on the rolling sections, flicking easily between ‘big ring’ and the ‘small ring’. But one of the biggest benefits is the cleanness and ‘integrated-ness’ of the system. There are no wires, and no adjustment is needed. Not having to worry about your drivetrain is a huge benefit in an ultra race.
Having now put Classified through the most extreme paces possible, do you think it has a big future in extreme bike packing and long distance racing?
I think so. Even during Silk Road this year I kept thinking how great it would be to use Classified on a ‘normal’ bike for other events and rides. I think it could make a huge difference. I’d never used electronic shifting before during a race before, not wanting more things to charge, but I can see the benefit now. The fact that I didn't have to charge the system, or really even check the battery level, is very reassuring. After 12 days of really hard riding, as well as leaving the bike outside in -10 degree cold overnight, there were no battery or shifting issues. I was so impressed.
Another thing that might not be so evident for non ultra racers is the pain you often get in your hands on an event like this. Both from the bumpy terrain, but also from constantly shifting with a mechanical derailleur. With the Classified Ringshifter, I didn’t get that painful feeling at all, because it’s just so easy to flick between gears. Like, my right hand was very sore from using the mechanical rear mech, but my left wasn’t anywhere near as sore thanks to the Ringshifter. It’s a big consideration for ultra racers, and a massive plus for electronic shifting in ultra events.
The Classified R&D team is very interested to know if you experienced any issues with the technology during the race?
No, during the race I had no issues. If I had to report anything back, then the very first shift of the day, the ‘wake up’ shift, there is a delay of maybe a second. But I’m sure that’s just the system waking up. After that every shift was instant.
And how did you find the proprietary Classified cassette? Different to what your used to?
No difference or issues I could notice with the cassette either. I mean I would normally have a dinner plate cassette on the back, so with the classified cassette (11-40) I didn’t have those enormous jumps between gears. I certainly experienced problems with the rear shifting, but that was down to the terrain and mud. The bottom jockey wheel of my derailleur even froze at one point due to 4am river crossings, so that didn’t help the shifting! At one point near the Chinese border there were trucks backed up for kilometres trying to cross into China. Thanks to that, and a recent thunderstorm, it was incredibly wet and muddy. So my rear derailleur had a really tough time here, but the Classified system was totally unaffected and kept shifting perfectly.
Was there any point when you thought you might not make it?
I think it’s really important in a race like the Silk Road Mountain Race, something with so many variables, to keep expectations measured and be ready for things to fall apart. Keeping your mind open to not finishing, means you’re adaptable to inevitable changes. You can easily punish yourself for not meeting goals, but you made that goal an hour ago, so letting it go can be the difference between keeping going and not keeping going.
When I crashed, it would’ve been so easy to be swallowed by the comfort of leaving the race. I really had to focus on just being ok, getting back into the race and keep moving. The discomfort was bearable, so I just had to get over the line. I was lucky it didn’t happen earlier in the race.
Tell us what happened with the crash?
The incident was so meaningless. The day before I’d descended Kegety pass for 45km with no problems. This was a boulder-strewn, hardcore, off-road descent, and I nailed it in the dark. Where I crashed, however, wasn’t a particularly steep or technical descent, I was just going too fast and hit some loose gravel. I was covered head to toe in dirt, and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, but my first thought was just to keep going. Luckily I was with another rider who sat me down and made me see reason. I had to leave the race to get stitches before coming back to carry on 24 hours later. I stashed my bike in the back of a restaurant. It wasn’t hard to come back to the race, I knew I wanted to finish it off.
Do you think you’ve invented a new class of ultra cycling racing? The cargo bike race?
No, people being weird on bikes in ultra racing is not new! Two people did it on a tandem last year, and finished. As I’ve been saying from the start, I may be a bit crazy, but I don’t think I’m more crazy than the others! I hope that my story encourages people to see cargo bikes in a different light, not just as a vehicle for moving stuff. I hope that I’m able to inspire people to dream big, and enter a new challenge, whatever it is. I think the story has really captivated people for many reasons. I’ve received tons of messages from people which is awesome.
Did you get a lot of questions about Classified?
Actually a lot of people had already heard about it, but this was their first time seeing it. So they were interested in how it was performing. There is a bit of an adoption lag in the ultra community, especially with electronic products, so there were a lot of questions. People wanted to know how it was working and what the battery life was like. They were impressed when I said I hadn’t had any issues.
Looking back, do you think riding such a tough race on a cargo bike was a good idea?
I could recognise that some bits were harder for me than others, but I wouldn’t change it. It was an incredible experience.
Would you do it again?
No (laughs). Concretely, would I do SRMR on a cargo bike again? No. I have that unique experience now, but another race with the cargo I’d definitely be up for.
What advice would you give to others who want to ride the Silk Road Mountain Race? Especially equipment-wise?
Easiest practical advice, talk to someone else who’s done it. And find a pack list, my list is available on Bikepacking.com. Do your research on the route, do your homework. But also just go for it; it’s an awesome experience. I do believe that any competent cyclist with outdoor skills can complete the Silk Road Mountain Race. Have faith and keep moving!
What’s next for you? Any more events this year? And will you ride the cargo bike?
I will be going back to work on the cargo as a bike messenger, but event wise I think I’m done. I’ll be going to Mexico for the rest of the year in October, and I’ll be taking the gravel bike for some big rides there. Next year I think I’m going to focus on pairs races. I keep meeting amazing people at these events, and I’d like to ask some of them to do a whole race with me. And I want to continue riding in new places that I’ve never been before. Basically having new and unique experiences by bike.
We can’t wait for the full video recap. Will there be an online premiere we can shout about?
Friday 6th Oct is the planned release date. There will be a live screening at Omnium in Copenhagen with a live stream on Youtube for those who can’t make it.
Massive congrats again Allan, and thanks for taking the time to share your journey with us. Sign up to the Classified newsletter (below) to hear all the details of the live stream event and more Classified related news.