Six Hundred Miles In The Saddle

Lucas Winzenburg’s ginormous Kyrgyzstan bikepacking epic is a jaw dropper.


A trio of bikepackers—the first Lucas Winzenburg had ever seen—blew past him on a steep descent of the Colorado Trail in 2009. As Winzenburg huffed on foot, the biking triad whooped and hooted and hollered as they flew by, down, and out of sight. That was all it took to plant the seed. When Winzenburg got home he bought a mountain bike and some frame bags. And since, all of his free time and attention has been occupied by bicycle travel.

Winzenburg spent his childhood in North Dakota, but currently calls Minneapolis, Minnesota, home. As a kid he spent weekends camping and riding bikes with his father, and, from his earliest memories, always felt a draw to adventure and wild spaces. Even as a child, Winzenburg had a kinship with remote, mysterious far off adventure. As a young man, he spent a year living in Iceland, exploring the fjords and isolated peaks as often as possible. He spent another year living on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, hiking through the most stunning cirques and valleys he’d ever seen.

The 31-year-old is a professional photographer and the founder/creative director of the bicycle travel magazine Bunyan Velo. For Winzenburg, life is simple really: travel to as remote a place as possible, and make sure to always have a bike. The trip that most exemplifies his life’s goals is his most recent, a little jaunt of 600-miles through Kyrgyzstan.

Why Kyrgyzstan? What stood out?
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Kyrgyzstan since I watched the late Kyle Dempster’s short film, The Road from Karakol, back in 2013. The rugged landscapes, rich history and culture, and the sense of isolation all appealed to me. A trip to see it for myself felt kind of inevitable after I’d watched it for the third or fourth time.

I was emailing with a few friends, Joe Cruz, Joel Caldwell, and Logan Watts, and we were all interested in an extended bicycle trip somewhere. The original idea was to ride Mongolia, maybe Uzbekistan, but someone suggested Kyrgyzstan, and we all jumped on it. I think we all had the same inkling of what Kyrgyzstan might have in store for us.

But why so many miles? Six hundred is kind of a lot…
A little under a month was about as long as everyone in our group could stick around due to work and other commitments, and 600 miles was roughly as far as we imagined being able to travel in that time frame. Knowing what we know now, we could have safely tacked on at least another 100 miles to the route, but it allowed for some lazy days soaking in sweeping views of the Tian-Shan Mountains.

Joe mapped out our route across Kyrgyzstan. He pieced the whole thing together from satellite images and a stack of old Soviet maps he’d somehow acquired. The 600-mile route consisted of a hodgepodge of winding gravel roads, horse trails, and open steppe. It took us through incredible stretches of the country. We’d sweat and push to get over craggy mountain passes, then spend entire afternoons descending through lush landscapes.

What was the biggest surprise?
My expectations were high when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. After years of dreaming I’d built it up as the ultimate adventure destination. What I couldn’t predict is that it would surpass every expectation I had. I should know by now that looking at Google Earth doesn’t compare to the real thing. But man, Kyrgyzstan’s beauty blew me away.

Riding through a new and incredible landscape each day was one thing, but what stuck with me was our interactions with the Kyrgyz people. Our route traversed a remote enough stretch of the country that we didn’t meet too many of them, but nearly every time we encountered someone it involved handshakes and grins. On several occasions we were invited in for hot tea, bread, and fermented mare’s milk. After warming up with tea in a family’s yurt, it became a tradition to watch various members of the family try to ride one of our bikes around while the whole family looked on, laughing hysterically. It never got old.

And the biggest challenge?
Despite being cautious, I’d already picked up some kind of bug by the first day of riding. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent the first few days stopping every thirty minutes to dart behind rocks or into the trees. Given the demanding riding, especially as we gained elevation riding into the Tian-Shans during the first few days, it was really hard to recover. The combination of stomach troubles, adjusting to the altitude, and the lack of riding I did before the trip made for a constant challenge.

My most challenging day of the trip started with several hours of pushing and lifting our bikes up a rocky scree slope. The afternoon greeted us with strong wind, rain, and hail. In the evening, we had to wade across several bone-chilling rivers. By the end of the night, I was pedaling along like a zombie, shivering uncontrollably, and unable to feel or think much of anything. When we stopped, I set up my tent and dove right into my sleeping bag. I just lay there, thinking that everything would be fine again if I could just wake up to a warm, sunny day. I unzipped my tent in the morning to reveal a layer of snow covering everything in sight. It was absolutely the low point for me.

Was this a rewarding sufferfest or just a rewarding trip?
The rewards certainly outweigh the suffering we experienced along the way. We signed up for it, after all. It wasn’t an overwhelmingly challenging or technical route, but we earned most every mile. A lot could have gone wrong, so we were lucky in that respect. We managed to ride across Kyrgyzstan without a single mechanical issue or injury. Things went mostly as planned and I’m thankful for that.

Why are adventures like this important to you?
I’m not really an adrenaline junkie. My palms get sweaty when I see videos of the crazy things people are riding or jumping off these days. That said, I think travel is immensely important, and I can’t think of a better way to see the world than from the saddle of a bicycle. Bicycle travel hits that sweet spot between being able to go fast enough to see a lot in a short time, but slowly enough to form a genuine connection with the people and places you pass by.


Would you do it again? And what’s next?
Absolutely! I’d heartily recommend Kyrgyzstan to anyone with and an interest in exploring serenely beautiful places by bicycle. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get back there, but I’d return in a heartbeat if the opportunity were to present itself. My time in Kyrgyzstan opened my eyes to many of the other fascinating places throughout Central Asia and I’m sure I’ll get back to the region before too long.

In the immediate term, I’ll be joining the Search Brigade for part of their ride from New York to California this June. Beyond that, I’m hoping my next travel destination will be Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. It’s another one of those areas that’s long intrigued me and I’m starting to do research for a month long ride there next year.

Getting away for weeks on end with only pedaling to worry about is important to me. It affords me a kind of reset in life. I’m at my happiest when riding along new roads and sleeping in the dirt. I find myself reliving those moments nearly every day. I look back on them if things aren’t going well in my day-to-day life.

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Showing 8 comments
  • Rick Hackett
    Reply

    More posts like this please, Steve 🙂

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    wonderful Lucas. No matter the mode, as long as it’s relatively slow, you get the great interactions with local people. I’m way old for that kind of biking now, but not too old to travel slowly and meet the locals in rural places. Makes for fulsome memories.

  • Nate Ptacek
    Reply

    Yeah Lucas!!!

  • Sean
    Reply

    Really resonate with this: “Bicycle travel hits that sweet spot between being able to go fast enough to see a lot in a short time, but slowly enough to form a genuine connection with the people and places you pass by.” Reminds me of one of the sentiments in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  • tom
    Reply

    hey lucas, in the foto with the 2 youth on horseback there is a burro off to the side. my computer resolution doesn’t let me know xactly what is on the burro’s back, but is that a riding saddle? even more intriguing, is that a “v-w” (Volkswagen) insignia on the burro’s forehead?!!! if so, whose addition was that to the foto?!

    that is some “wide open space” landscape, a sure fire remedy to clear the head of any traveler……..

    • Charles Hopton
      Reply

      Yes that’s a riding saddle on the donkey. Donkey carts are the pickup truck of Kyrgyzstan. And yes, there is “wide open space”, but Kyrgyzstan is mostly mountains. The surface of Isyk Kul, a huge lake like Lake Geneva, is a mile high and it is surrounded by 16,000 ft peaks.

  • Jeff Fujita
    Reply

    Great photos and inspiration. Articles like this are good medicine.

  • Charles Hopton
    Reply

    Lucas Winzenburg, very impressive. You make light of dragging your bike up a scree slope. You don’t mention all the mountain passes that you must have peddled over. Did you keep track of the vertical that you accumulated? It’s good that you mostly went cross country. Biking on Kyrgyz highways can be life threatening.

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