Cycling in Siberia. In the winter.
Sounds like fun, right? Well, sort of.
In 2004, Alastair Humpreys did just that with his friend Rob Lilwall, as part of Alastair’s trip around the world and Rob’s long ride back to England. They experienced frigid temperatures, technical problems with the bikes as plastic started snapping in the freezing cold, snow-covered roads and hospitality from some of the kindest people this world has to offer.
Siberia in the winter is something most of us will only dream about, but Alastair is here to answer 10 Questions and show us all that even the wildest of bicycle trips are possible, if you want them badly enough.
1. Siberia in the winter? Are you crazy? What inspired this part of your journey.
It was a case of trying to do the job properly – if I was going to ride across Asia I wanted the most exciting, rewarding route I could find.
2. The landscape of Siberia sounds quite grim. Swamps. Terrible roads. Abandoned towns. Did you find any beauty in it?
Yes – it was very stark and silent and powerful. It was intimidating and impressive, even oppresive. But beautiful in some sort of way…
3. What kind of extra provisions and gear did you have to take, beyond what the normal fully-loaded bike tourist has, to prepare for the cold temperatures and long distances?
Two stoves, 5 litres of petrol, “poagies” on the handlebars (like sleeping bags for the hands), an axe, loads of clothes, 2 sleeping bags, 3 sleeping mats, and huge fur hats!
4. You cycled through temperatures as low as -40C. Did your body adjust to that over time? Did you ever think ‘It’s only -10C today. How warm!’ or did it always feel cold?
The coldest I felt was when it dropped from 0 to -7 overnight. After that it was more gradual. -40 was pretty impressive but when it warmed up to -25 then it was quite warm!!
5. What was the sensation like of cycling on ice? I understand you had quite a few crashes as you were adjusting to it.
Usually was just hard snow which was OK. But when suddenly the sound of snow turned to a high-pitched squeak then we realised we were on ice! If you turn or brake at all then you crash! Horrible!
6. You, and your cycling companion Rob, talk about suffering ‘sense of humour failures’ when some of your gear stopped working in the cold temperatures. How did you keep your morale up during moments like these?
Trying to see the funny side! Trying to think of how proud we would finish at the end. Bursting into silent, angry tears helped sometimes too!
7. Tell us about a moment where you thought ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not doing this anymore.’
Taking 2 hours to fix every puncture because we had to heat the wheel in the fire of our stove to warm the tyre enough to get it off! Nightmare!
8. You experienced some wonderful kindness and hospitality from local people. Can you share one of those encounters with us?
We met a man one day who gave us vodka (as everyone does). He also let us zoom around on his skidoo! That evening we were invited to stay in a village by the native Yakut people. They fed us masses of food, brought the local TV crew round to feed us, and then the mayor phoned the mayor in the next town to tell him to look after us the next day when we arrived in that town! Probably the kindest people in the world.
9. What was the most unexpected thing to come out of your Siberian cycling?
Good question! Perhaps the realisation that the Siberian people were the kindest people in the world. The realisation that I actually want to go to the South Pole now even though it was really miserable in Russia! I must be an idiot!
10. What would you say to other cyclists, tempted by the idea of cycling in a Siberian winter?
It is hard. Very hard. Do not underestimate it. But it is also a hell of an adventure! And you will earn my respect if you do it.