The last three days of the Pioneers Ice Run, has been a blur of drama, danger, elation, frustration and nudity.
When last I wrote the teams were camped within a day's ride of Severobaikalsk, the most northerly stop on the Run, where they intended to refuel, repair and re-thaw on dry land before the onward skate home.
Dennis and Matt from team On The Rocks decided to bivvy outside in their high-tec sponsors kit, to test it out. Success, and a comfortable night spooning under the stars for the chaps. Unlike the Italian team of Antonio and Emmanuele, who were forced to concede that their pop-up summer tent was not quite up to the job. "It was a little bit like being outside", said Antonio somewhat dolefully as he heaped Nutella onto a stale blini, a slightly haunted expression on his face.
An enormous and dangerous crack awaited teams just 1km from their campsite on the morning of the 28th. After some considerable reconnaissance by the teams a gateway was picked in the ride-up, poked it vigorously with the ice spears and had a tentative dabble on foot. This one definitely needed jumping, requiring both speed and skill.
The teams were all brave as lions, with a deep snow run-up making both speed and straightness of approach extremely difficult. Travis and Ellie took a couple of approaches to get a straight fast run-up, but undeterred, they launched The Midwife into mid-air and landed with an almost disappointing splash on the far side of the crack, to a palpable unclench of butt-cheeks across the group. The remaining 8 teams were similarly heroic.
From here is was brilliant fast snow and rallying up to Severobaikalsk; the teams have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of keeping the bikes running, in a straight line, at speed, in deep snow, with the pillion rider leaping on and off, pushing, jumping back on while the bike is rolling. "Every time we make round a bend without cannoning off the track and getting stuck is an enormous rush and sense of achievement" said Ellie of the Bandits (shortly before Another Spark Plug Breakdown).
The bikes have really shown what they can do in these conditions, and seem to raise their game when the going gets really tough. Riders have been grudgingly respectful of their abilities in the rough terrain, even as bolts and nuts work loose and the chassis physically rattles apart. These ladies like the wind in their hair, that is for sure.
As do the teams. Five teams set off ahead to go it alone and path-find, putting into practice everything they had learned during pre-run training. Cozy made an excellent path finder and crack tester, and the chaps had set up a camp that would make Baden Powell proud by the time the rear group caught them as dark fell. The elation amongst the pioneers was infectious and it was a memorable last camp on ice before the great schlep home on the coast road.
Notable casualties - the Urals
Before we get too rose-tinted about the Urals it should be stated clearly for the record that they break down on a daily basis, and are so toe-curlingly unreliable that rider selection for future Ice Runs may well include a patience and sense of humour test.
The alternator blew on the Italians' bike, Nonna Ural, meaning a desultory tow, until a better plan could be hatched. In the absence of spare Ural parts in Severobaikalsk, this plan involved sending the Italianos home with the battery charger and a spare battery, and instructions to re-charge as they went. This seems to be working well and the opportunity to stop in with buxom local babushkas and "re-charge our battery" is a winning ruse for these two.
The Bodge Jobs
We have seen some cable tie/duct tape engineering that would put a blue Peter presenter to shame. Two bikes which had lost power due to faulty wiring 'tween coil and battery are now hot wired using the power supply to the horn, brake light and something else considered sacrificial. The joy of resurrecting the girls makes their constant suicide attempts almost worth it.
Three exhausts are held on with coat hangers or cable ties.
Joseba's windshield has literally rattled off.
Uinsionn and Cathal's sidecar pinged clean off the chassis, like an ejector seat, requiring considerable engineering genius, and the notable weight of Old Man Hughy standing on the sidecar frame, to bolt it back together again.
The most extensive repair was a replacement cylinder head on Eric and Scott's bike Eva, performed by a biblically hungover Dave at a hot springs on the eastern shore of the lake.
Various mission critical bolts and pins have just popped out under the strain of high speeds, huge loads, massive jumps and knocks. A few teams have blanched at the realisation the wheels on their bus were held on by habit and gravity rather than any particular structural solution.
Nevertheless, like cockroaches these bikes are hard to kill, and sometimes, they bestow a gift when you least expect it.
Battersea, the errant partner of Dennis and Matt, who actually caught fire on day 1 of training, has had no headlight or sidelights since the get-go. Until Dennis plunged her into some serious puddles yesterday afternoon on the approach to Ust Barguziyn. At which point, they mysteriously came on.
We expect the teams to reach Irkutsk in the next 24 hours. I'll report on the bacchanalian celebrations that will inevitably follow at that point.
Here are some memorable quotes on the last few days with the Girls.
Natraj of Team Meh-Teh: "At training I lost all my confidence. I just couldn't get the bike to do what I wanted at all. But now I am coming to understand it. The handling is completely different, and they are very, very unpredictable. But now, now it is a pure joy to ride this bike. Pure joy. We have hit 100kms on the ice today".
Cathal of the Paddies: "I feckin' hate this feckin' bike" (whilst laughing). (Panzer had been running one cylinder and cut out on a hill up to Severobaikalsk. In fact her fuel filters need cleaning out and she was back on full power after some simple maintenance)
Travis of Bandits on Ice: "She's a total bitch. Why can't she just tell me what she wants?" (clue - another spark plug)
Hugh on Hugh's bike: "If in doubt, throttle OUT".
Dennis, on Hugh's bike: "Can you hear that mate? That's your lady crying. Every night I hear her weeping."