Lake Baikal is the world’s largest and deepest lake – with a dept of up to 1642 meters – containing 20% of all the fresh water on Earth. It is located in the middle of Siberia and during the harsh winter times of -40 ℃ it earns its description as ‘Longer than England, colder than vodka and harder than granite’! And some hardcore cyclists decided to ride the entire length of the lake, over the ice, in the middle of winter!
The German couple Waltraud Schulze and Andy Heßberg in 2011 cycled more than 1000km on top of a frozen Baikal in five weeks, camping along the way.
In 2012 Maria Leijerstam became the first woman to finish the Baikal Black Ice Cycling Race.
These are their stories…..
A 1000 km Winter Baikal Cycle
Waltraud Schulze and Andy Heßberg had been exploring the far corners of the world for many years. Their main means of transport had always been their trusty bikes. After several adventures exploring high altitude regions, also involving a lot of low temperatures, they got interested in a winter bike trip. And if you are looking for a challenge in the middle of winter Siberia comes quickly to mind.
Lake Baikal is the undisputed pearl of Siberia and it is well-known for outstanding natural beauty and for its surrounding high mountain ranges. Consequently, the region offering amazing scenery. As the lake completely freezes over in winter and the locals use its surface as a winter road it seemed ideal for a winter cycling adventure. So they packed their bags, bikes and panniers and left Germany by train.
Arrival at lake Baikal
It took them five days on the Transsiberian-Baikal-Amur train to reach the starting point of the cycling tour in Severobaikalsk at the northern part of the lake.
It was a shock to the system to leave the warmth of the train and enter the minus 25ºC January day and so we took a couple of days to adapt to our new environment. From then on, our daily rhythm was defined by the outside temperature, the day length and the total time period of five weeks we had available to finish our tour to the South tip of the lake.
On 31st of January 2011 they started their trip in Nishneangarsk at the northern point of the lak.
Their first day was glorious with cold but sunny vistas all along. However on the second day they experienced the diversity of Siberian Winter with dark, portentous cloud and snow flurry.
It was hard to see the car tracks heading south to Baikalskoje in these conditions, and cycling on snow was generally very tiring. It became pretty clear that weather, wind, snow and ice conditions were the dominating factors and we would have to adapt our daily schedule to these conditions.
Moving & cracking ice
A frozen body of water that big is never in peace. The currents under the ice create movements that keep the ice in a perpetual motion.
Our first night on the lake was rather unpleasant as we were constantly wakened by the cracking and snapping sounds of the ice beneath us, sounding like thunders or earthquakes moving through the ice below us. Although the lake is frozen with a thick layer of ice, some sections of the ice are in constant movement. Especially during low night temperatures and in full moon period, cracks appear and move. One never knows how far away from the tent new cracks will open.
We quickly learned where to find “quiet” zones on the ice or we simply pitched our tent on the shore of the lake. A good night’s rest was vital for us, as we were active basically from sunrise to sunset every day.
The Cycling Route
The route they followed took them from Nishneangarsk to Baikalskoje and further south to Kotelnikovskij. From there they crossed the lake to the East coast in order to follow the car track south via Davsha and Kurbulik to Ust Bargusin. Then, another crossing of the lake brought them to Olchon Island from where they continued South along the West coast to Listvianka. Endpoint of the ice-bike adventure was in the town of Kultuk.
The Northern section of the tour was by far the hardest in terms of snow cover and on some days they had to push their bikes for many hours and kilometers through deep snow. This was often the result of losing the car track and ending up in uncompressed snow areas.
In spite of all this their daily mileage varied from 25 kilometers to 60 kilometers depending on ice and snow conditions.
Side effects of the extreme Cold
There were some unexpected side effects of traveling and camping in such extreme cold:
Temperatures dropped as the sun disappeared behind the horizon, and at these low temperatures, properties of materials changed drastically. The PVC-plastic of the panniers became rock-hard and simple procedures like packing and unpacking stuff took considerably longer than usual. Also rubber bands connecting tent poles lost their elasticity, so that putting up the tent also was more difficult and took longer than anticipated. Once the tent was set up, one of us usually took the ice axe to chop off some fresh-water ice cubes to melt for our daily water supply. Lake Baikal is one of the cleanest sweet water lakes and water is drinkable and of high quality.
These battles were compensated by stunning vistas and extreme solitude in one of the most gorgeous winter landscapes of the world.
Riding the black ice highway
A few days later Waltraud and Andy reached their dreamed off black ice conditions (without snow). South of Ust Bargusin there was a huge black plain of ice that extended all the way to the horizon. Their studded tires were just right and gave them enough riding grip to set a nice riding pace.
Patches of ice, rich in air, alternated with clear sections of ice. White cracks ran through the solid ice and we found fascinating patterns of air bubbles. In bright midday sun, the surface of the lake became a huge mirror. Finally, we enjoyed the endless freedom of being able to move in any direction.
The final part of the trip ended in a battle against the elements again with deep snow and strong headwinds. Then finally on March 2nd they reached their final destination of Kultuk after 27 days of cycling and covering a distance of 1075 kilometers on the ice of Lake Baikal.
They shot some cool videos of their cycling trip which you can check out below
Baikal’s Black Ice Race
How unique and kickass Waltraud and Andy’s trip may sound they are definitely not the only Baikal ice cyclists out there. There is even a winter cycling race across the lake named the Black Ice Race. And in 2012 Maria Leijerstam became the first woman in the world to complete that race
The extreme cycling event is completely staged on a frozen lake Baikal. The competitors traversed the entire length of Lake Baikal , covering the entire 650km length and out of 30 starters, only eight completed the race.
Maria made it to an impressively second overall place only being beaten by a local Russian participant. Over seven days she endured ferocious storms, cracking ice (just like Waltraud and Andy) and sleepless nights as she journeyed over the world’s largest freshwater lake
She might have not cycled as far as Waltraud Schulze and Andy Heßberg but she did it in only a quarter of the time!