Cycling Kosmostansiya, Kazakhstan
Ride 31.8 kilometers gaining 2,377 meters at 7.3% (7.8% climb only)
Introduction by our Legendary Mountains co-author, Ties Arts, Bussum, Netherlands.
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic and since 1991 independent and dependent on oil & gas as main source of income. In the south the former capital Almaty (Alma Ata) has developed into a large well developed city. To the south the Ala Tau/Tian Shan mountains separate Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These mountains are magnificent and have peaks over 4000meters. So is the Big Almaty Peak of 3680meters. Nearby the Big Almaty Peak is the Tian Shan astronomical observatory and the Physical & Technical Institute (known as Kosmostantsiya) at an elevation of 3381m. The road from Almaty to the observatory and Kosmostantsiya has been paved only since 2012.
And this creates one of the world's top 100 legendary climbs. A climb with a high steep average (7.3%+), steep sections, wonderful scenery especially Big Lake Almaty, the many hairpins, views and reminders of the old Soviet times.
Kazakhstan has become a cycling country since 2009 since the well-known Astana Pro team was created and pro’s started racing in Kazakhstan as well (e.g. Tour de Almaty). For many years, since the road has been paved, the Kosmos Uphill challenge is annually organized: www.kosmosuphill.kz
Mark Austin rode the monster climb in 2018. Tim McGhie in June 2020. Let’s dive into their experiences.
Mark is an amateur competitive cyclist and former Virgina State Road Champion (Masters) who fell in love with cycling when his father bought him a Raleigh Racing Grand Prix in Idaho Falls, ID in 1982. He currently lives with his family in Alexandria, VA, USA, and works as a global health professional as a way to fund his passion—bordering on obsession—for cycling, and he races with the incredible group of fellow addicts on the Total Construction / Battley Harley-Davidson Masters team.
Tim is the holder of the KOM (year-to-date April 2021) and currently lives in Alamaty.
Climb summary and most photos by Mark Austin, Alexandria, VA, USA & Tim McGhie, Almaty, Kazahstan;
Mark Austin Tim McGhie
I (Mark) began the day with an early 6AM departure from my apartment in downtown Almaty. It’s a gentle 12km ascending ride (1.5%) on high-quality tarmac to reach the First Presidential Park on the southside of al-Farabi highway where the beginning of the full climb starts. If you start here, you will be riding approximately 32km to reach the Kosmos facility.
First Presidential Park (start of climb, picture by Tim McGhie)
The climb basically has four sections. Bring your ID because for passing section 4 you need to identify yourself.
And to set expectations: the last section is the toughest one (8km 10% average).
That’s why this climb qualifies for being in the league of the world's toughest climbs!
SECTION 1: Presidential Park to Turnout
Distance: 9.3km / 5.8 miles
Vertical: 432m / 1420ft
Average Grade: 4.6%
The first 10 miles are around a 3-5% grade up the canyon, first riding straight up a sometimes battered road (loved my 35s here!) through smaller villages and roadside businesses and restaurants until you reach the mouth of the canyon and main entrance to the park at about 7.8km. On beautiful weekends, cars begin to arrive and a long line forms here, so get an early start (e.g. 7AM at the Presidents Park) and beat the uphill traffic...and the mountain storms that can roll in quickly. You’ll be glad you did!
After the gate, it continues rather straight for a few more miles until the road veers to the right and leads up a smaller canyon. Don’t go right. Take the left road that leads to Big Almaty Lake. There is a junction there with a nice parking lot on the side of the road where you can easily stage should you decide to start your climb here (which many do).
(picture by Tim McGhie)
SECTION 2: Turnout to Switchbacks
Distance: 7.4km / 4.6 miles
Vertical: 567m / 1860ft
Average Grade: 7.5%
Turnout into the mountains (pictureTim McGhie)
From here on out, things get really pretty and the tarmac is quite nice as it gently winds up the valley into the steeper canyons ahead. It’s a fairly steady grade here with some small kickers to slow down your pace, but the overall ride is really nice here...especially if you’ve started the day in the city and had a chance to get your legs warmed up. On a clear morning, the views are nice with alpine meadows and forests, snow-capped Alatay peaks ahead, and a smooth road leading the way. Here you’ll also see a few small groups (many who are decked out in their sky blue Astana kit paying homage to their favorite pro team) heading up into the mountains with you. Make sure you give them a nice wave when you roll right by! ;-) Toward the end of this section, there is the one respite in the entire climb: a short 0.7km descent down the left side of the canyon with the switchbacks carved into the wall ahead of you. That’s when things start to get interesting.
Near the Alpine Rose Inn (Picture Mark Austin & Tim McGhie)
SECTION 3: Switchbacks to Big Almaty Lake
Distance: 7km / 4.3 miles
Vertical: 498m / 1630ft
Average Grade: 7.1%
Last switchbacks to the Big Almaty Lake (picture Tim McGhie)
Let the real climbing begin! After the brief downhill, the road kicks up and to the left to begin a series of switchbacks carved into the hillside. The first segment is exposed in some areas giving you great views of the valley you’ve ridden to get here. Then you start working your way through the forested hillside and past beautiful alpine meadows. About 2.5 miles into the climb, you will pass the Alpine Rose, a charming little alpine inn/pub that may be worth a stop—on the way DOWN!!!—not on the way UP!! :-). Keep your legs spinning, because there’s another 2 miles to go with plenty more curvy roads through the forests to keep things interesting. The last mile to the lake opens up and you can see final 4-5 switchbacks up the grassy/rocky slope of the dam that holds the lake back.
Hairpins to and beyond Big Almaty Lake in different seasons (pictures; left Google Earth, right www.uphillkosmos.kz )
SECTION 4: Big Almaty Lake to Kosmos
Distance: 8.3km / 5.2 miles
Vertical: 838m / 2750ft
Average Grade: 10%
You’ve reached the dam. If you’re legs are starting to scream, this is a great place to take a short break, refuel, rehydrate, and take a few pics of this milky-blue alpine lake. But, if you’re feeling good, keep on rolling!! My mantra is “you can always take pictures on the way down!”
The Big Almaty Lake - just ‘wow’! (pictures Tim McGhie)
Here the road crosses from the left side of the dam to the right. You can see the road pitch up from here and work its way up the left slope. This is the “crux”. Here you are above the treeline, so once again, it’s a blessing to hit this in the morning when the air is still crisp and the sun isn’t high in the sky.
Astonishing views above the lake. (pictures Tim McGhie)
About 2 km up you will pass the small turnoff on the right that leads to an observatory. After that, it’s still “onward and upward” to the Kosmos. Depending on when you arrive, there is a gate here that may be staffed with an officer or two. BRING YOUR PASSPORT!!! The first time I climbed, the gate was wide open and no one manning it, so I just rolled on by. A week later when I hit the climb again, it was manned and I did NOT have my passport. I did have my wallet with an ID...but it took about 5 minutes and a lot of “please, please, please” and my saddest puppy dog face before they finally agreed that I could pass.
Switchbacks view still 3km up to the summit (picture Mark Austin)
From here on it’s UP, UP, UP. Beautiful switchbacks with high-alpine tarmac that is certainly covered with snow for much of the year and not well maintained. Still, it’s not bad at all (not like the road on Colorado’s Mt. Evans climb around Summit Lake...giant cracked craters and huge frost heaves you can catch air off of!). A series of consistent switchbacks works its way up a steep and rocky meadow until you near the top where the road curves more to follow whatever path works best to make it to the Kosmos. There are some short-but-steep kickers here, so pace yourself accordingly. Then it straightens out and you think you’re almost there...until you hit the gate. This is where cars have to stop. You’ll probably see about 20 or so cars here on the side of the road belonging to folks who want a picture, trekkers, or whatever. Just hop off your bike and walk around the side and carry on...it’s only about 0.5km from here.
Summit! (picture taken from video at www.uphillkosmos.kz )
The summit reminds of the Old Soviet era. (picture Tim McGhie)
Thank you Mark!!
Thank You Tim!!