From Oktyabriskiy resort, nr Laybtnangi, Arctic Siberia – 23rd Feb
I have just seen off our fleet of now rather careworn, and in some cases, disabled, Urals, on their return journey to Irbit and some serious reconditioning. It might have been a poignant moment if the chaps I had commissioned for the job hadn’t insisted we celebrate the deal with a bottle of vodka, so in the event it was all quite woozy, but nevertheless we toasted the bikes and their safe passage home again. I think the driver himself stayed sober…
The bikes' magnificence has been matched only by their unreliability and need for almost constant running repairs, but this combination has produced an adventure for all the teams to be proud of and something to feed off when life’s irritations threaten to rattle them; when faced with an overdone steak, or an underdone tax calculation, for example. Just a simple rootle through the extraordinary episodes they all endured, and enjoyed, probably filed under ‘Adventure’ in the recesses of their brain, and they’ll just sigh, nod sagely and say, “well it’s hardly digging your Ural out of a snowdrift, you inadvertently cannoned into, when your sidecar went rogue on you, in an ice-rut.” Or something like that.
Tales from the road revolve around two symbiotic themes; the constant need to repair the bikes, and the help and hospitality the teams enjoyed from the Siberians in doing so. In search of a new shock around 300kms from the finish, Ben and Arran of the 'Bog Hopper Express' were given a spare by a local who simply cannibalised his own Ural (“far too cold to be riding it in this weather chaps!”) and handed it over, no payment to be accepted bar a photo or two. Teams have set up camp by the roadside, but as often as not been offered food and lodgings out of the punishing cold. All teams have invariably been called absolutely barking mad by everyone they have met, but after dozens of interviews, and apparently a lot of TV exposure, hopefully the idea of an adventure, and doing something silly for no particular reason, is starting to sink in out here. Probably not though.
The police have popped up constantly in teams’ recollections, with escorts in and out of the main towns en route, and directions, mechanical assistance and rather a lot of (medicinal) vodka being forced upon the Runners. Of all the concerns the chaps had about the Russian police, not matching them in an arm wrestle or a shot drinking session must have ranked pretty low, but throughout they have been a benign, if slightly patronising presence on the adventure.
Also apparent is just how gnarly the riding itself is – I think most teams have flipped their bikes at some point, skated or skidded into each other, into snow banks, off bridges, into ditches. The bikes and their riders have taken an absolute beating, one way or another, and I am filled with admiration for both. Clutches have gone, wheel bearings gone, exhausts gone, bikes have limped on with one cylinder, windscreens have snapped off, every bolt and screw has juddered loose, in short, it’s a miracle that they made it to the Arctic at all.
The first teams in arrived on Tuesday night; the 'Real Arctic Monkeys', 'Snow Worries', 'Sub Zero' and 'Coole Runnings'. With star mechanics Will Coole and Luke Elsner among them it was somewhat ironic that Luke got towed over the line by Mark and Adrian of 'Snow Worries', and the Cooles had to get off and push, their steed finally getting her union card out just 10 metres from the podium.
It was a balmy -22 or so and the beers I had lined up were frozen almost as soon as they were opened, but the gesture was there. Also there was a big news crew who had followed the quartet up the undulating road to Oktyabriskiy, and we spent a further hour out in the cold giving interviews and pushing the local news anchorette around on the Coole’s still conked-out bike. Pat Coole gave a stellar interview, cutting a dash in a sheepskin eyepatch (every adventurer, explorer and poet should have one, Pat needs one as he lost the eye in an accident last year and the glass one kept freezing – take note any glass-eyed Ice-Runners-in-waiting). Shortly after we retired to an impromptu barbeque, in honour of the overwhelmingly Australian first wave of Ice Runners. They made light work of about 8kgs of pork, and then about 3 crates of beer.
So how did the awesome foursome manage to complete the mighty Ice Run in a mere nine days; a full day and a half clear of the next riders? It seems anyone who was witness to their making and breaking camp was awestruck at the display of competence and efficiency, which is ironic really because since they have arrived they have been perpetually drunk and/or hungover and their rooms are a mess. Will Coole is an exceptional mechanic (he should probably get his vehicle deposit back with a premium for the improvements made on the way round, needless to say he fixed it on the finish line and rode it to the finish ceremony) and he and Luke Elsner made excellent fleet managers, making repairs and adjustments before things got catastrophic, meaning that in general, when there was daylight, they were rolling. Not so the rest of the field.
Two teams, Rob and Jenna from 'A View to a Chill' and Ben and Arran from 'The Bog Hopper Express', arrived with their bikes on a truck, in good spirits and with some great anecdotes from the road. Driving through the night behind their truck was 'Putin Up With the Tremlin', Ben Cooke doing the lion’s share of the driving and looking like he’d spent the night being waterboarded for the next 36 hours – still, they got here, apparently in loafers.
Geordie Tait, the solo team 'Abusement Park', was elated to arrive on Thursday afternoon after a dramatic Ice Run, clutch switched to the right side, no second gear, no windscreen, having survived a proper flip, which nevertheless did not ruin his spectacularly well-coiffed hair. The electrics genius who re-wired his clutch was fellow Aussie Patrick Coleman, who with his brother Guy made 'Tsardines in a Can' an extremely competent team belying their young age. 'Cool Riders', Nick and Pat were only an hour behind them.
By Thursday night we were a full complement of Ice Runners, gathered for a boozy dinner in Labytnangi. It was infectiously joyful to see everyone back together, comparing war stories about this police chief and that stretch of ice. Mike and Zaya of team 'Zaya' and Bjorn and Rico of 'Ural Crazy' arrived in their fat-suits, fresh from battle, Mike sporting some impressive frostbite on his nose. Bjorn and Rico were still an Ural short of a team, but the bike was safely stowed just 25kms from the finish and they had a plan to retrieve it before the official finish ceremonies the following day. Beers were sunk and digits defrosted.
The Finish Party
So Friday dawned about as cold as all the other days in the Arctic circle, and it was time for one final hurrah on the Urals, for any team that could get theirs running again that is. Our destination was the Arctic Circle monument in Salekhard itself, only 25kms but the first 6 of these being the tortuously hilly and skiddy road back down the mountain from Oktyabriskiy. Six teams rose to the challenge, and the rest of us taxi’d in. Just to see the bikes out in convoy again, crossing the frozen River Ob between Labytnangi and Salekhard, was a stirring sight - when they weren’t skidding about and looking like they were about to die, anyway. A seventh, 'Ural Crazy', joined us at the ceremony itself having retrieved their bike and puttered it in on a single cylinder, poor thing.
The traditional shamans Ed and I discussed with the head of Yamal tourist board turned out to be giant inflatable Disney characters, but no-one seemed to mind too much, and we were greeted by beautiful dancers in traditional dress, and a rousing, if fundamentally inaccurate speech by a local bigwig about the adventure they had just completed, and the special draw of Salekhard as the only town located on the Arctic circle itself. I presented Geordie Tait with a pair of beautiful reindeer fur slippers, hand made by the Nenets reindeer herders of the Yamal peninsula, as a thank you for his astonishing fundraising performance for Operation Smile, the official charity of the Ice Run 2013. His £3,368 will pay for 24 cleft lip operations. The teams have raised over £10k for Op Smile overall.
We did a little dance round the monument to keep warm and once the journalists and inflatable people had dispersed, we parked up the surviving 7 Urals in front of the elegant monument for a little photo shoot of our own. There may or may not have been a few flaming donuts spun by the Andy and Adrian, video to follow soon….
Then it was time to drive the walking wounded bikes to the garage from which they would be transported home. It was a poignant moment to see the teams strip the last of their belongings from the bikes and say a final farewell. Mind you, no-one said they’d miss their Ural. We retired to the banya back as the resort for a good de-frost after a morning standing around in -20 taking photos, and then the party proper started.
We had a proper banquet laid on, which teams made light work of, but even they struggled to get to the bottom of the gallons of vodka on the table. We attempted to do a round of toasts but as is the way in Russia, dinner was accompanied by music so loud we might as well have been on the runway at Heathrow. The food was magnificent however, and when a pair of equally magnificent belly dancers came out between courses, jaws slackened to such a degree that any speech-making would be have been so slurred and incoherent, we might as well not have bothered. And so it was. Dinner was broken up by the local police chief, a fairly stout man who later left with a walking stick and noticeable limp, asked me for a dance. I just about kept up with him (and I have 2 good legs). Soon everyone was up and dancing and limbo-ing and doing the 'Gangnam Style' dance, and it was clear that the mighty fuse of party had been lit, and it was time to move out to a bigger dancefloor. Some teams partied on until breakfast and beyond.
So this morning all have been fairly subdued. As Mark Dowsett of Snow Worries said, “the Ice Run was a cinch in comparison to the partying. It the partying that’s the killer”. I think my work here is done…
Katy, Ice Run Chief, Salekhard
If this hasn't put you off, you can sign up to the 2014 Ice Run now by following this link