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Inside the Trans-Siberian Extreme

In-depth
9 Mar 2018
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Cutting across the great expanse of Russia, the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme race runs from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok, close to North Korea in the east.

In 2016, not one entrant completed its 9,200 kilometres, with harsh weather and rough roads proving too much for every solo rider.

The year before, its inaugural running had seen only a slightly higher success rate, with noted ultra-distance racer Kristof Allegaert winning by dint of being the only finisher.

The longest ultra race in the world, following the route of the famous railway line, the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme’s 14 stages cover around a quarter of the earth’s circumference.

Nearly as long as all three Grand Tours combined and with riders forced to snatch sleep at the side of the road, it’s an unparalleled test of endurance and one that few entrants succeed in finishing.

Last summer saw the running of its third edition. However, as once again the riders dropped out one after the other, tales of endurance and fortitude were mixed with allegations of favouritism and undue hardship out on the road.

Into the unknown

For London-based rider Adrian O’Sullivan, both the Trans-Siberian’s wild location and the extreme distance were part of the appeal.

In 2016 he’d ridden to second place at the Race Around Ireland, bringing him to the attention of the organisers of the Extreme, who invited him to compete.

Ensconced in a Moscow hotel, and with the sheer scale of the race rearing up ahead of him, Adrian’s first thought was to try to inject a little pragmatism into the early proceedings.

‘The evening before the depart I got the other nine riders talking in the hope of establishing a truce for the first two stages as we got warmed up,’ he explains. 

Using previous years as a guide, the organisers expected the race to set off at an average speed of around 30kmh for the faster riders and 27-25kmh for the slower ones – and to continue at that pace for the entire 9,200km.

‘I thought, there’s no way that’s possible,’ O’Sullivan continues. ‘Only one rider had ever completed every stage, and his average was 27kmh. So where were these figures from? 

‘I knew I couldn’t ride that fast. So everyone’s nodding and agreeing and saying, “yes definitely, easy pace first day.”’

On the morning of the depart, the riders were deposited on a motorway somewhere outside Moscow.

Opening with a comparatively short 376km stage, the riders, support vans, and police escort were quickly flying along, but it instantly became clear that not all the riders could stay together. 

‘Only two minutes in and it’s apparent that one of the two women in the race, Thursday Gervais, isn’t that fast and I’m thinking, “Oh crap!”.

‘We’re only going slowly and she shouts out, “I’m going to need your wheel.”’

‘I slow down and let her draft. When she’s on I speed up, and look behind and she’s not on. I repeat the process and again she’s not on.

‘Then I watch the peloton disappear over the brow of the motorway.’

Panicking that he’d lost the pack, Adrian chased back on in order to get them to wait.

‘I ride up waving my arms about, and shout. “Come on, we’re in this together, it’s the first day, she’s spent a lot of time and money getting here. We can’t drop her in the first kilometres!”

‘They all nod and agree – but just carry on pushing even harder!’

Just minutes in, and one of the 10 riders is already out of contention. Within a few hours, the only other woman in the race, Shangrila Rendon, would also fall back, and over the next few days, both would push on alone.

Unable to draft, struggling to make the scheduled feed stops, and with reduced time to recoup between stages, the lack of planning for such eventualities was the first of several problems riders would flag up.

Both Rendon and Gervais battled on, eventually making it as far as stage three before dropping out.

The first cuts

Back at the front of the race, with the pace building, another rider was dropped – 30% of the field was gone in the opening hours.

‘The leaders were seeing who would crack,’ says Adrian. ‘The intensity made it hard to drink or eat – something that was exacerbated by heavy traffic.

‘As sweat ran into my eyes, I struggled to watch the wheel in front of me.’

In his head, Adrian was already ticking off single kilometres in a 9,200km race. And by the time another rider popped, he couldn’t help thinking that every kilometre would now be time gained over him. Things had got that brutal.

‘It was like when Charlton Heston is captured by the Romans in Ben Hur and chained in the boat,’ adds Adrian. ‘Two choices: row hard or die!’

Eventually, the peloton began to steady. But just as Adrian was reconciling himself to the pace and starting to believe that he might hang with the bunch, he was crippled by cramp.

Pedalling with one leg, his whole body was soon seizing up. ‘I shouted for pain killers but didn't dare stop.’

Eventually, after half an hour, the pain passed. ‘Mercifully, it stopped me crucifying myself for the next 125km,’ he says.

A single day in

Spinning alone to the finish line, it transpired that the leaders had averaged a blistering 40kmh for the stage. Adrian finished sixth, averaging 37kmh.

The next day passed in much the same way, as almost by accident, riders started half-wheeling each other, pushing the pace up until people started to again get spat out the back.

Adrian again got dropped, but was reassured to find the cut-off for the stage, four hours after the winner, was easily achievable.

‘Time was completely irrelevant for me by now,’ he says. ‘ My only focus was survival.

‘I spun the last 230km out conservatively, thinking of the long game.’

However, with the stages increasing in length, could he keep it up for the following day’s 600km route, or the even longer route after that?

In the end, the time cut turned out to be the least of Adrian’s worries. Battling along rough roads and chasing to stay with the pack had taken their toll.

In the morning, a pus-filled blister the size of a golf ball had sprung up somewhere unmentionable. Even once dealt with, it left a raw patch of skin the size of a 50 pence piece.

A grim-looking doctor prescribed rest and treatment with white spirit.

Stage 3, from Kazan to Perm, consisted of 694km on testing roads. And although Adrian started it, he was forced to climb off after less than an hour.

With racers allowed to scratch two stages and still continue, Adrian could join back on the following day, assuming he’d regrown enough skin in the meantime.

But even in the support van, stage three proved an arduous journey, with Adrian fighting to stay in his seat as they rattled over potholed tarmac.

Had he not had the saddle sore as an excuse, Adrian was convinced that he’d have been demoted on a time penalty, as his legs had been left so wrecked by the pace of the first stages that he was barely able to walk.

That night, regularly applying white spirit to his sore had almost made him faint with pain, but he was determined to carry on. The following day he was back on the bike for Stage 4.

‘But I was so embarrassed that the others had ridden when I hadn’t,’ he recalls, ‘that I kept a low profile.’

With discomfort causing knock-on problems in Adrian’s feet, hands, shoulders, and neck there was nothing to do besides suck it up and keep pedalling.

‘There was a lot of standing, sitting, shuffling,’ he reveals. ‘Anything to get one day further into the healing process.’

But by now, the weather was also causing problems. As torrents of rain swept across the motorway, heavy spray from passing lorries battered the riders.

When the shrunken peloton stopped for a pee break one of the riders found himself left behind and was unable to get back on.

‘I met him up the road and he was so angry they’d done that,’ Adrian reveals.

Both riders resolve to take it easy until the finish, realising it might be the best strategy for actually making it to Vladivostok. 

Onwards and alone

Reaching the hotel, though, that evening the pair discovered they were too late for dinner. Despite a large crew following the race, Adrian claims the support was focused around the leaders rather than the stragglers.

Despite this, Adrian felt he could ride without the peloton’s protection and was healing well enough to keep going. His plan was working.

Stage 5 began in more comradely fashion with the remaining riders helping to nurse Adrian along.

At one point, race leader Alexey Shchebelin pushed him uphill so he wouldn’t be dropped, while second-placed Pierre Bischoff slipped back occasionally to check in on him, too.

‘This wasn’t a Sunday morning club run,’ says Adrian. ‘It was the longest, most brutal stage race in the world and yet they took the time to keep me in the game.’

Next day Adrian’s legs were back and ahead of the 614km stage he was confident in his recovery.

Finishing in Vladivostok again seemed possible. ‘I just needed to stick with the peloton as long as possible.’

Reaching the first feed station after eight hours flat-out, Adrian was low in the pecking order and found his support crew trailing kilometres behind. By the time the leaders were fed, pampered and back on their bikes, his van was just pulling up.

Rolling on through heavy traffic, across ripped-up roads and into the falling darkness towards the end of the stage, Adrian let the group slip away in order to adjust his bike.

As day broke, he found himself riding alone across a Siberian plain covered in wildflowers and insects. Beautiful but stark, its size and emptiness dizzied his exhausted head.

The last day

Stage 7 began with another night start and another 611km of rough roads up ahead.

Adrian says, ‘None of the previous problems – traffic, saddle sores, aching shoulders, no food – had fazed me. But riding into the night on that road, I wasn’t happy.’

Soon the pace was being driven hard and Adrian was back on the limit. For the past three stages the race had followed the same road. Flat and straight, even in the peloton it was mental torture.

‘Alexey, the race leader, told me he liked the night,’ says Adrian. ‘because it meant you didn’t have to look at it!’

By midday the temperature was rising and Adrian’s speed was dropping. Despite feeling strong, the hundreds of lonely hours ahead spread like an eternity as he was again dropped by the peloton.

He was 3,750km in, but there was still another 5,450km to go!

‘I didn’t want to get stuck alone for 12, or even 24 hours stretches on the same motorway every day, with no end to the horizon, no reason to change gear or shift position on the bike – it was torture.

‘The hours with the peloton were tough but I enjoyed them. The hours alone on that road were unbearable.

‘I pulled over and spoke to the crew. I wanted them to talk me into continuing. I needed something. The only thing I came up with was my kids.

‘My son was following and I knew he’d be disappointed, but even that wasn’t enough. I could endure another 1,000km, but not the 6,000km we had left.

‘Every ride has soulless moments but you pedal on and the situation changes. But in that instant I knew the ride was over for me.’

Adrian finished the stage and decided to sleep on it, but the next morning he woke and was still satisfied he’d made the right decision.

A tearful call to his family back home followed, and after 124 hours and 26 minutes in the saddle his race was over, his head having given out before his body. 

A very long ending

As Adrian headed home, the next stage did for rider number six, with Egor Kovalchuk also dropping out. Less than halfway in, the majority of participants had now quit.

And the endless motorways weren’t the only things starting to wear riders down.

Thursday Gervais, the first rider to drop out, described the Trans-Siberian as less a race than a ‘media stunt’.

Like Adrian, she’d been surprised by the pace. Well above that expected by the organisers, she said it meant everyone but the lead group struggled to make the time cuts or got access to the support offered to riders.

Unable to see a future for the women’s race in its current form, she also felt elements of the course were unsafe and the rules arbitrarily enforced.

Some riders also claimed the organisers had paid little attention to the roads, which were monotonous, frequently jammed with traffic, and in some riders’ opinions even dangerous.

With the race reduced to four riders, logistics were simplified. Yet as the shrunken peloton completed the next four stages and 2,957km, complaints about the fairness of the event continued, coming to a head on the huge stage 12, all of 1,386km from Chita to Svobodny.

The most difficult section of the race, no rider had completed it in 2016. Battered by wind and rain, all had been blown off the road.

With leader Alexey Shchebelin going off early to secure his position, fourth placed Peter Sandholt spent the stage trying to shake up the race behind – which amounted to just two riders, Marcelo Soares and Pierre Bischoff.

However with neither wanting to chase, Sandholt became convinced that the other riders, who shared a sponsor, had conspired with the organisers to ensure everyone made it to Vladivostok, even if it meant soft-pedalling their rivalry.

Annoyed by this, and the perceived favouritism shown to Russian-born Shchebelin, Sandholt quit towards the stage’s conclusion.

Explaining his decision in a post-race statement, Sandholt declared, ‘I felt like a puppet in a staged race for commercial purposes.’

In his opinion, the balance between spectacle and competition was weighted in the wrong direction.

Another Danish rider Aske Søby, who’d retired on stage seven following injury, backed his compatriot up.

‘Early on we ignored offences, especially by the Russian support team and media crew, that went directly against the rules, thinking the management and judges would react.

‘But nothing happened. It became clear the commercial and media setup was the most important thing in the race,’ he wrote later.

Although the organisers categorically reject the claims, some riders – having invested considerable time, money, and energy – were clearly left feeling disgruntled. 

The last leg

Now reduced to three, the remaining riders endured harsh weather on the penultimate stage before rolling into Vladivostok and the finish line.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the competitive element of the event there can be no doubting their astounding achievement in completing the gruelling 9,200km route.

Alexey Shchebelin won in 312 hours 16 minutes 58 seconds, with Pierre Bischoff in second and Marcelo Soares in third.

In doing so Shchebelin became only the second winner, and one of only four finishers from three editions.

Explaining his win, Shchebelin had one piece of advice for riders attempting the race in future: ‘Don’t be naive, don’t be overconfident, take it one day at a time, one stage at a time.’

Almost incomprehensible in its length and difficulty, the Trans-Siberian Extreme once again broke the majority the riders that dared to attempt it.

Set to return in 2018, with 20 riders signed up to test themselves against this most unforgiving of courses, the coming edition could either cement or collapse the race’s reputation.

Still with nothing else to compare it to, those few who do finish it can lay claim to being amongst an elite few who have managed to complete what is, without doubt, the toughest race in the world.

 

In numbers 

3 editions of the race • 8 time zones crossed • 80 support staff • 14 stages • 9,200 kilometres between Moscow and Vladivostok • 24 days riding • 312 hours 16 minutes 58 seconds –Alexey Shchebelin’s winning time • 0 finishers in 2016 • 1,386km longest single stage • 79,000 metres of ascent