A year ago my boyfriend, Jon Woodroof, told me he heard about a cycling race happening in Kyrgyzstan in 2018. I rolled my eyes and said it sounded cool. Fast forward to today… I am currently on the edge of my seat as an official dot watcher for the Silk Road Mountain Race No. 1 (SRMR1). I have gone from 0 to 100 on this dot-watching thing in a matter of days.

SRMR1 is an unsupported 1700-k ride over some wild territory. When the reality set in that Jon was actually doing this, I panicked and found a way to be involved as a volunteer. I procrastinated on downloading the mandatory apps Trello and MAProgress. But once my man took off on a plane to Kyrgyzstan, it got real. I dove into all of the information, watched app tutorials, playbacks and felt amped and ready for my dots to become live. I listened to all of the official podcasts and found some blogs and photojournalists to follow. I also realised I was getting really into it! I was honest with the organisers about having zero experience in dot watching, and I was upfront about my ulterior motive: my boyfriend is in the race!

Jon (left) at the start of SRMR1 – Photo: Giovizz.it

According to my official dot watching brief, my primary focus was to be on rider safety (elevation sickness could set in: take note of long stops, or if riders suddenly off route), but I also needed to look out for any potential breaches of the rules (cheating could occur: take note of riders going way too fast, or backwards).

Dots start moving

The race began on the 18th of August and Trello pinged me that my dot list was ready! List#10 with 9 riders. I immediately found them on social media and messaged that I’ve got their backs. I intuitively felt protective of them—I have no idea if this was weird for racers, but I couldn’t help wanting to know who they were. Everyone responded and some were even surprised they had their own dot watcher!

Left: a live view of the riders (“dots”) on the map. Right: The Trello-list of riders “on my watch”

I realised as soon as the race started that I was nerding out on this: I clicked around and only saw that 8 out of my 9 riders were moving. There must’ve be some kinks to work out, and protocol states that I’m not supposed to take action unless a riders hasn’t moved for more than six hours.

Soon I started to see my riders were not projecting a signal at all. I officially added a comment to their cards, asking the SRMR1 team if this was a tech problem…or was there any info on the riders I should be aware of? Immediately I was told that one rider was out of the race and another two were staying behind due to illness, and they might still take a late start. I was also told that Jon’s tracker might just be offline and they would look out for him. Phew! So I went into the rider cards on Trello and had to make my first scratch update. I felt very official.

Brutal challenge

The SRMR1 route is insane. You can see the terrain on MAProgress and it is brutal. There are very scattered updates on social media from some of the riders I am tracking, and also from the organisation. I keep putting comments in the rider cards in Trello—I am winging it here a bit, but I think I’m doing my job. And, of course, I care about my dots. I am taking this seriously. I note when they stop, their total kilometres, and the elevation where they are camping for the night.

Every day I get into the flow more and also gain a sense of my riders timing. But by day four it’s getting worrisome. I’ve had six of my dots scratch! Everyone is OK—most of those who have had to stop are communicating with me directly, so I can add screenshots of our chats to their Trello cards and the SRMR1 team can officially mark them as scratched. It is harrowing to watch a dot go down the side of the mountain, or go rapidly backwards, or not move for hours on a cliff! I get all sweaty an nervous when I’m watching from my cozy home. I can see where they are! And I know they’re in agony, struggling. It takes my breath away when I watch the dots painstakingly move during a snow storm up a steep climb to nearly 4000m a.s.l..

Photo: @tomhardies

Luckily, all of my dots who have scratched have had mechanical issues, no injuries! One of my riders rode 100+k with no back brakes before throwing in the towel! Stories from the road are coming in and it is clear that it very intense and dangerous out there.

I now have only two official dots to follow and the race must be finished in 10 days. One of them is very behind at 220k nearing the end of the day, the other, a female rider is currently 520k into the 1700k! The pro’s in the race are tracking around 800k now and most of the pack are currently 400-600k in the mountains. Will they make it to the end in time? Is it even possible? The race began with 97 riders and today there are 73.

Photo: @silkroadmountainrace

Stalking the dots

I am constantly stalking my dots. I am addicted to their challenges and progress. I am also amazed at the technology that allows me to see exactly where they are, the climbs and descents, the terrain. Every hour I check in, I see progress and questionable dot movement. Check back for Part 2 to read if my dots make it to the end! Listen to me talk about my dot watching experience here (Podcast episode #5).


~ Kristy Gabriels (@kristyspark)