Russian Madness on Wheels

Frank Ebbecke

The 2017 ‘Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme’, or the already legendary, ‘RBTSE’ is the ultra-stage race of them all. It stretches right across Russia; across two continents from Moscow to Vladivostok. From the Russian capital to the shores of the Japanese Sea. By train 7 days, by plane 9 hours, on two wheels, 24 days. 7 time zones, 5 climate zones, constant heat and cold, storms and rain. Day and night,14 stages. This is the hardest and longest race in the world.

This race stretches all of 9,2871 kilometres. 80,000 accumulated height meters. There is a lot of stress. The body and mind, muscles and courage, ambition and energy are all tested to the limit and beyond. 10 extreme athletes have qualified. For the first time, we have two power ladies: Thursday Gervais Dubina / USA and Shangrila Veniegas Grube Rendon / The Philippines. And eight tough guys: Pierre Bischoff / Germany, Michael Knudsen / Denmark, Egor Kovalchuk / Russia, Adrian O’Sullivan / Ireland, Peter Sandholt / Denmark, Alexey Shchebelin / Russia, Marcelo Florentino Soares / Brazil, Aske Søby / Denmark.

The circumference of the earth is 40,070 kilometres at the widest place. This staged race covers about a quarter of this distance, and it all takes place within a single country. There are no precedents. The route follows from Moscow-Nizhni Novgorod-Kazan-Perm-Yekaterinenburg-Tyumen-Omsk-Novosibirsk-Krasnoyarsk-Irkutsk-Ulan-Ude-Chita-Svobodny-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok.

July 18, 2017. The start in the middle of Moscow, right next to the Kremlin. 10 key players on their racing bikes are radiant with joy as their jerseys shine in all colours of the rainbow. They do not know what the road conditions will be like and weather changes will quickly catch up on them. But on this day, all conditions look rather good. The first stage is a ‘warm-up’ of 404 kilometres. Accompanying the riders is a team of 100 support staff. A well prepared, dedicated team who are doing this for the third time in a row, and are now almost like a big family. They know how to set things up and take them down, they can fine tune and repair bikes, give massages, cook and care. They film, take photographs, write and blog, encourage and cheer. Then there are the logistics. 27 accompanying Volkswagen mulitivans and three food and beverage trucks which all have to be safely moved from place to place.

Austrian Paul Bruck is so to speak the accompanying ‘founding father’ of this terribly hard and long sports competition. Up until 2013, he had not had much to do with cycling races. Hosts of road and city police, regional government bodies, local mayors and many other officials are prewarned wherever the cohort appears in their territories, and guarantee the ‘safety and health’ of all involved. It has perfectly worked. Just like the ample supply of selected food and drinks in between. Day and night. Reliably provided by the German chef Heiko Appenrodt and his six Russian kitchen bees.

The first stage out from the Moscow hustle and bustle down to the cosier city of Nizhni-Novgorod at the confluence of Volga and Oka was mildly encouraging. After a short night’s sleep again in the saddle for a 400 kilometre ride. Everybody still there. But already on the third day, one of the two ladies, Thursday from the United States decided to finish her race. She could not cope with road conditions and couldn’t keep up with the speed of the other racers. Six of the other athletes gave up for personal reasons later on into the race. Their bodies might have handled it, but not their minds.

If already during the first few days the view seems to go up to the end of the world, what can be expected during the next two weeks is the infinity of the Siberian lowlands. The emptiness and silence of the Tundra. Pristine pure nature. Deep, free breathing. Incredibly far away from our over-civilisation. Between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk suddenly a huge, prosperous rape field comes into view. The yellow glistening sunlight looks bright and glittering, almost artificial. A Chinese family has stopped to admire the view. Equally magically attracted from this spectacle of nature; Davy, a professor, his wife and daughter have already a few thousand kilometres in a brand new, domestic SUV behind them. They had travelled from Chongching via Harbin further into Russia, in the direction Moscow. They are deeply impressed by our adventures but can successfully counter it with their own adventure: their journey over the next 70 days will go much further: through East, Western and Southern Europe to Africa and somewhere from there back home by ship. A chance acquaintance of people travelling in opposite directions, in the middle of a dirt track in the vastness of Russia.

We are 12 days out from the attractive city of Irkutsk, along the steep gradients and inclinations of the well-built magistral. For experienced race bikers, this is ideal terrain. Now, it is difficult to decide which stages of the ‘RBTSE’ offer the most tempting natural stimuli. Today there are divine sections resembling the famous German Black Forest elevated highway. Dense forests, countless medium high mountains fill the horizon. Then, suddenly a last, crucial curve and we beheld a majestic view of the largest freshwater lake in the world, the pride of Russia; the crystal-clear Baikal Lake. 600 kilometres long with varying width, up to 1,642 meters deep, 25 million years old and launched in 1996 as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. In each of the isolated villages, there are stands lined up from which all kinds of berries are offered. And the hot smoked omul, of course, a fish delicacy only from this lake. If this wasn’t a serious sports competition, this tour would be one of the most beautiful leisure journeys that it is possible to experience.

August 10, 2017. The fourteenth stage; the finish in Vladivostok, which translates as ‘Fortress of the East.’ Vladivostok is close to the borders of China and North Korea. This is a true pearl of the sparsely urbanized Far East of the Russian Federation. Located on a peninsula and some scattered islands, the Soviet ‘forbidden city’ (for military security) stretches over many hills – rather like San Francisco on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. There are inviting shore promenades and beaches. Two new landmarks of the city are two bridges that are not only examples of highly developed engineering, but also of attractive modern architecture: the ‘Golden Bridge’ and the longest suspension bridge in the world over to Russkij Island. It is across this bridge that the three remaining ultra-bikers ride their last of more than 9,200,000 metres, that they have covered over the last 24 days. Pierre Bischoff from Duisburg in Germany is second. Aleksey Shchebelin from St. Petersburg is the overall winner. Marcelo Soares from São Paulo is speechless, overjoyed and keeps kissing the Russian macadam to celebrate his third place.

Siberia is a whole impressive continent in its own right. And yet has such a fierce, misanthropic reputation. This cannot be because of its nature or because of the friendly people rooted here. Admittedly, living here for good in the long months of snow and ice is difficult to imagine. Or are the sources of its dubious reputation the merciless exploitation of the almost inexhaustible natural reserves in this part of the world? Or because of the way that countless people over the last 100 years were sentenced to work here for the profit and the honour of ‘Mother Russia?’ The ‘RBTSE’ ultra-cycling experience was almost like a discovery tour to a widely unknown land. ‘Dosvidanya’ – ‘goodbye’ and ‘spacibo’ – ‘thank you’ Siberia. Your world is beautiful. Much more beautiful than I ever thought. Or was taught.

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