Thursday, 5 April 2012

Diary of my Siberian Black Ice Adventure


I boarded the Trans-Siberian train and was immediately ushered into my cabin with bike, bags and everything I had. It was small and cramped and I could hardly fit in myself, when a Russian businessman then also came to join me. He climbed over my bike and immediately started to undress. He whipped off his tie, shirt and trousers to revel some incredibly unattractive thermals along with some hideous slippers.  He quickly turned to me and indicated that the bike was a problem and with that he then proceeded to man handle the bike. Unable to communicate with him and intervene in time he literally bent the bike in half and squash it into one of the overhead lockers, along with my bags and other belongings. All satisfied with himself he then cracked open a bottle of beer and started playing some very annoying games on his mobile phone. It was going to be a long journey!

Having hung around in Severobaykalsk now for 3 days since the finish of the Siberia Black Ice Race, I was well ready to leave. The 7 days I’d spent on the ice was a massive learning curve for me and was in fact spurring me on to think about my next adventure.

As I was beginning the reflect for the first time on everything that I’d recently been through and when I thought things couldn’t get any worse with my Trans-Siberian experience, a second business man appeared and immediately, as if it were a ritual, whipped of his clothes to reveal yet more horrendous thermals and this time stripy slippers. He climbed into his bunk and immediately began to snore which practically shock the cabin. The train began to roll away and it was now too late for me to escape! I proceeded to spend the whole night coughing loudly, which did actually stop the snoring temporarily.

15hrs into the journey and we had our first prolonged stop of 2hrs. It was the perfect time to head out, stretch my legs and get away for this train which was heated to 30 degrees and full of thermal wearing, slipper conscientious and expressionless Russians. Playing it safe I returned 30 mins later only to find that my carriage and all following carriages had disappeared. My frantic sign language led to nothing and I was left on the platform in a state of panic. At that stage I spotted my cabin companion, one of the businessmen and proceeded to run after him down the platform.  As he approached the end of the platform he jumped down off the platform and crossed over six railway lines. I didn’t hesitate to follow him and luckily he knew what he was doing as he led me straight to our carriage and the rest of the train that had split from the other section of the train. Very relived I got immediately onboard and was reunited with my sauna like cabin and for the rest of the journey I thought all about the race I had just managed to complete here in Siberia.

Following a very long commute that began at 8.00am on the 15th March, starting at the Deer Park, I finally arrived in Irkutsk. It was great to have spent this time with all the other competitors and we compared notes on kit and gear and strategies. Most of the others had been on polar training and hence this made me nervous as I’d really never had to survive in such extreme temperatures. I was fine with the distance but apprehensive about the cold and the fact that I was racing on ice. What would I do if I fell through the ice and does the ice actually just give way and then I sink to the bottom? All of these questions were making me incredibly nervous and I struggled to relax in the others company. During the commute we’d had a massive problem with all of our excess luggage and as a result only just made it through customs in time for boarding. As we landed in Moscow I was so very excited about being in Russia for the very first time and it was something I’d always wanted to do. The next flight went well and having taken some meletonium, herbal sleeping tablets, I was fast asleep. This was desperately needed, as I’d be starting the race within 24hrs of landing with 9hrs of jetlag hanging over me.

We arrived at 1.00pm in Irkutsk and the bitterly cold air was quite a shock. All of a sudden the extreme cold just added to my anxiety. We were promptly transported off to our hotel following a bit of a media frenzy at the airport and I was pleased to see it was a hotel of good standard with some excellent food. The whole afternoon was jam packed with planning, packing, last minute shopping, briefings and safety checks before hitting the pillow at just before midnight. I lay awake for most of the night, watching the minutes tick by. The last time I looked at my watch it was 6.42am. At 7.45 my alarm sounded and it was the day of the race. I’d been waiting for this moment for a whole year. On the bus to the race start other competitors were getting last minute lessons on how to use their GPS’s, which actually put me much more at ease because if some can’t use a GPS then I’m one step ahead already!
We had yet another large lunch before standing on the start line at 2.30pm. More media frenzy, some interview, lots of Russian’s questioning what we were up to and it was time for the start. The count down began and all of a sudden I felt confident, happy and ready for action. My nervousness subsided and I was ready to race hard.


Setting off in the deep snow was a tough start with intermittent riding and pushing. I’d managed to keep en eye on the one of the Russian bikers who was a cycle-cross champion and followed his every move. Things were going well and he obviously new the best route to take as the 2 of us steamed off at the head of the field. After about 2hrs and much to my sheer and utter dismay my right pedal fell off. All of a sudden I realised I’d made a massive error by not tightening it up sufficiently and with the first 2hrs of hard pedalling I’d managed to damage the thread on the inside of the pedal crank. Oh god, I didn’t know what to do. I removed the lose aluminium and tried 5 times to get the peddle on but it just won’t go on straight. I then decided to bind the pedal shaft in some tape and much to my delight it bit and I was able to screw it in. 20 mins had passed, I was cold and a few others had caught me up but at least it wasn’t the end of my race. As I rounded the first headland I was properly exposed to the Lake Baikal winds and they blew ferociously in my face. By now there were a few of us together, walks, skiers and bikers. The wind was too strong to ride so I had the burden of my bike, whereas the wind caught the skiers and walkers pulks and made it equally tough. We were all in it together and fighting the elements. By 7.30pm and after 5hrs on the go, the light began to diminish and so, along with a few others we fought the wind to get the tents up.
Over night the wind died down nicely but in the morning it was back. The night had been cold (approx – 27 degrees) but thanks to all my kit and clothing I was kept nicely warm. Having to get used to a deep thundering noise of the ice cracking underneath me was something that would take me a while and hence I was in and out of sleep all night.

By 9.00am I was on my way along with 2 other bikers. The snow had been cleared by the wind and now only patches remained with mainly black ice. For the first time I could experience what it was like to ride on Black Ice. It was truly petrifying being able to see straight through the ice. It didn’t take long for the wind to pick up and soon I was having to fight hard as I pedalled directly into it. I felt strong but didn’t go flat out as I was keen to stick near the others for the day. They were nice guys with lots of funny stories and a hilarious relationship resembling an old married couple!
It was a long day of 10hrs with only a 5 minute stop every hour. Progress was slow and I only managed to cover about 50km. There were still walkers in sight which caused me concern. Had I chosen the right mode of transport?? On a positive note, the wind had blown away a lot of the snow so I was preying that the next morning would present me with clear ice.
I woke early on day three, about 6.00am and shouted at the guys in the tent next to me that it was time to get up. Reluctantly they began their morning route but by this time I was all packed away and ready to go. I waved them good by and shot off. The ice was great and there was a gentle tail wind. The sun was shining and I was really happy. I hit a top speed of 47kph. Nearing the southern tip of Olkhon Island I decided to stay close to the coast, as I wanted to get a good look through the gap. This was actually a bit of error in my judgement as soon after I hit a large field of broken ice. I looked left and looked right but saw no way around and hence began the arduous task of partially carrying, partially pushing my bike. It took me about an hour until I could see clear ice again and I’d barely covered 2km. Back on the bike, my knee was beginning to give me some pain. It had been from the day before when I’d spent 10hr peddling hard into a 60 mile and hour wind.

The day was long and after 2 falls off my bike, from broken ice, one which saw me land very heavily on my helmet I arrived at the midway point on the northern part of Olkhon Island. I was third to arrive but rather disappointed that no organisers were there to greet me. After 20 minutes they appeared from their cabins. I was asked to step inside to be checked over by the medic and then given my transition bag so I could re stock up on food. I was given yet another 5 litres of fuel that I had to work out how to carry on my bike. I’d only used ½ litre of the last 3 days.

After having pitched my tent, I found out that quite a number of other competitors had already retired or been pulled off the race due to frost bite, exhaustion, burning their tent down, going the wrong way or having carried too much gear to manage. This actually made me feel like I’d achieved a lot all ready and having been re-united with the two other guys I’d previously ridden with we soon settled in for the evening and shared some wine and cheese (which I’d hidden in my transition bag!) to compliment our freeze dried food in the comfort of our tents. I was actually getting quite used to tent life and my tent routine was getting really good now.

The next morning I was up early again and gave the guys a shout. Again they took their time to pack up but I decided that I’d rather stick with them for the time being since the organisers had warned me that ice conditions were not great at the top of the island and that I must report any large areas of broken ice. This made me rather nervous and at this point I was really only concerned with finishing the race in one piece. I helped them with their tent and gave them some boiling water for the breakfast. After they’d spent the best part of the morning fixing their panniers, which had broken from the previous days wear and tear, we were off.

Very quickly we came across a large 200m crack in the ice where we had to find a safe passage. Luckily Matt who is a x Royal Marine loved to go first and test the ice and Jez and I were more than happy to let him do so. Each time we found an area that looked stable enough Matt would go first. We’d then push his bike across to him, then I would go and my bike and Jez’s bike would follow and then Jez would cross. We got into quite a good routine with this and I decided I really liked my new friend!!

After about 2hrs we heard a huge thunder and about 20m behind me and only 3m behind Matt, who was at the back, a massive 200m crack appeared. The ice rose up into the air and freshwater bubbled to the surface. Matt yelled and we peddled hard. Stopping a few minutes later we could see what had just happened. I’d begun to get use to the constant cracking noises but the pitch was slowly changing from a low grumbling, which is where the ice is cracking deep down to a much more high pitched crack that would happen as my wheel rode over the ice. My level of apprehension rose a few more notches and I was dead pleased to be in the others company.

My left knee was beginning to hurt again from the day before and just then we hit a massive sastrugi ice field. It was similar to that I had endured the other day but this time 20km long. I was secretly happy as it meant that I wouldn’t be riding and I could give me knee a rest. It didn’t hurt when I walked. For the next 3hrs or so, Matt, Jez and I pulled and tugged and swore and threw our bikes around trying to get them over the ice field which was practically un-walkable. The ice studs that Wayne had put in my boots worked brilliantly and I was able to precariously balance of ice slabs and jump from one to the next. I partly carried the bike but mainly pulled and pushed. Some fowl language came out of my mouth and for the first time on my journey it was time to put on my head phones and try and bury my thoughts in something else. Wayne had put some really lovely messages on my ipod for me which really helped me to keep going. Having said that quitting at the stage was just not an option, and despite the fellas having on a few occasions indicating that they would not do the full route, I just couldn’t wait too see what Lake Baikal had to throw at me next!

It was getting late in the day and we soon hit flat ice, with snowy patches. Again though we hit large 200m long cracks where we would need to test the stability and this time I decided to go and check it out. As I was standing on the left leg poking around the ice with my right, the ice gave way and I sunk thigh deep into the smashed ice and water. Matt was very quick to grab my jacket and pull me out. The water had risen above me left boot and now by socks and thermals were wet. We needed to move on quickly as it was far to unstable to camp here and so, struggling to find a good spot to cross, Matt had the genius idea of building an ice ramp that we would cycle hard towards so that we would clear the opening on our bikes. Matt went first a did a spectacular jump. Next was my turn and as I approached Matt yelled that I’d need more speed. As I turned a circle to pick up speed I’d lost the exact point of crossing and hit it a m off and before I could think my front wheel sank into the water and I winded myself badly as I landed on my chest and slide along for about 15m. Even though I was quite hurt, it was a comical situation, which we then spent the next hour saying we’d wished we’d caught it on camera. By now I was winded, had a bad knee and was cold and shivering. We cycled on until it began to get dusk and once again the wind picked up.

On the outside of my Baffin boots I had a very useful loop which each time I got my tent out I would immediately clip it on to this loop with a carbineer so that whatever happened, my tent would not blow away. Had I lost my tent, I would be pulled from the race. The wind was so ferocious that the tent would have been gone in seconds. The guys had already lost their tent bag. We tied out tents together for extra security and that night was by far the worst. The ice I’d been crossing all day had been very unstable and the cracking was loud and all around me. I could even feel reverberations of the ice moving and, whether it was in my head of not, I could feel the cold water, not far below sucking heat from my body.  Each night I made sure to dig my tent in properly, ensuring there was a good amount of snow covering each side. This was to stop the snow filling up my tent. In the morning the mounds were 4 times bigger from the over night wind. I was up early again and set to go by day break.

Having cleared most of the unstable ice it was set to be a good day until the wind picked up a few more notches and at this point, I just could not stay on the bike. It was a rear/side wind which would all of a sudden steer my bike directly down wind and send me off at a million miles an hour in the wrong direction before wiping the bike clean from underneath me. I’d attached my bike to my boot loop to ensure I didn’t lose the bike either. The visibility also dropped down to a couple of m’s and the snow began to fall in a driving horizontal direction. I was very slow today both because of my knee pain but also not being able to stay on the bike was a major issue. I was on and off all day and after 12hrs was totally and utterly exhausted and frustrated. My left hip and left elbow were swollen to 4 times the size and I just couldn’t handle the pain of falling off anymore. This was the first time that I thought that my fast & light set up was not good and I needed more weight to stop the bike from blowing away.

That night I treated myself to some Italian Spaghetti Bolognese, Chocolate Chip pudding and lots of whey protein powder to try and rebuild my battered and bruised body. For the next 2 days I lived on extra strong paracetamol and ibuprofen, way beyond the recommended dosage but it definitely did the trick.

The following day I was greeted to over a foot of snow and the ice road that supposedly a few days early ran along the western shoreline was once again buried. I managed fairly well to ride an ordinary mountain bike in deep snow and was delighted to soon found a track from a vehicle that had recently driven on the ice. At one point I came across a truck that was trying to adopt the same concept that Matt had a few days early of building an ice ramp to jump over a crack in the ice. He reversed at an amazing speed and then with full throttle and snow spraying all over he charged for the crack and cleared with ease, leaving the ground by a good metre. These Russian’s are crazy people! I would never ever drive a car on this ice and I doubt I’d ride a bike on it again. Apparently there are hundreds of vehicles lying at the bottom of Lake Baikal!

Again I did a 12hr day only stopping every hour for a quick 5 min food and drink break. Towards the end of the day the snow got deeper and I was pushing/ pulling my bike through it. I camped very close to the shoreline and decided that tomorrow would be the last day. I was only getting 70km per day closer to the finish but actually covering almost double this distance due to the winding in and out from the coastline that the tracks were doing. These Russian’s need to learn to drive in a straight line. By following these tracks was my only possibility of riding part of the way as the deep snow meant it was now almost impossible to even push a bike through.

On the last day I kept a really close eye on my GPS. I was feeling strong again, maybe something to do with the painkillers I was taking. It was really disheartening to ride for 30 minutes and see that I’d only got 2km closer to  the finish but had actually covered 7km. At one stage I looked at my GPS and it said 13.1km left to go and 20 minutes later it said 13.7km. It killed me. The whole journey I’d been feeding myself with all my favourite things such as jelly beans, salted liquorice, salt and vinegar crisps, daim chocolate, kinder chocolate and on this day I was really enjoying it. The fact that usually I can’t eat all I want made all this pain temporarily worthwhile so each mouthful I’d say to myself it’s only because I do what I do that I can eat this stuff, this kept me going!

As I approached the finish I could not find the finish line so after entering the shoreline side of Severobaykalsk and climbing through someone’s back garden…all a bit random, I saw the finish flags.

I had completed the race but there was no one there to greet me. It was a bitter disappointment. Some local Russian’s that owned a cussack (wooden caravan type structured) ushered me inside into their + 30 degree sauna like home and fed me tea and biscuits. Because I could not communicate with them I decide to show them how my hair stood up on end due to 7 days of no attention. They laughed a lot and it broke the ice…..bad pun I know!

The organisers arrived about a hour later and the job was done. I was delighted and believe it or not, ready for more. I even joked that maybe I should cycle back again. In retrospect, given my homebound journey it would probably have been easier, quicker and more pleasant!