Siberia’s Lake Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume. With a surface area of around 31,500km2, it plumbs more than 1,600m at its deepest point. But in winter, temperatures plummet to below -20°C, freezing its surface into a unique topography of glass-like plains and crevasse-strewn ridges. Perfect for riding across on a heavy, unwieldy, antique Russian sidecar motorcycle.
That’s the Ice Run – a 4,000km adventure through taiga forests, on winding ice roads, and across Lake Baikal’s surface. Two-man crews take on the elements, with the help of a knowledgeable local. That’s your bike – the Ural is a brutalist classic of Soviet design. Seemingly assembled from military-grade Lego, with handling somewhere between an oil tanker and a house brick, it was ordered into mass production by Stalin during World War II, having been reverse-engineered from a BMW the Red Army had acquired. Clearly, something got lost in translation.
“Their simplicity and sturdiness is what makes them suitable,” says Katy Willings, one of the Ice Run’s organisers. “They’re built like tanks or tractors, designed to be fixed in the field during battle with a hammer and an elastic band or whatever was to hand. The materials are shockingly mediocre, but they’re also kind of indestructible, often sick but never dead – it takes a lot to screw your Ural so that it never runs again.” This is good to know, because there’s lot that could screw your Ural on Lake Baikal.
“There’s ice of every kind of flavour and character,” says Willings. “Some that looks innocuous is lethal. Some looks like hell, but, amazingly, you can aim a Ural at it, give it some gas and smash your way through.”
The most important thing when riding a Ural on ice is to be aware of hazards well in advance. “When you put the brakes on, not much happens except the bike pulls really hard to the right,” says Willings. “Then the steering goes funny, the brakes lock up and you skid at a strange angle, usually straight into whatever it is you’re trying to avoid.”
During a three-day orientation, tour guide and ice whisperer Dmitry Yaskin trains riders in the art of navigating surface ice, such as testing the thickness of the frozen crust with a spear to ensure it can withstand a 215kg sidecar. Or jumping treacherous sections. This involves looking for natural ice ramps – or constructing one with a chainsaw – and smashing down rough ice on the other side to avoid a crash landing. It’s an experience that Richard Fleming, who rode the route in 2015, knows only too well.
“Our first day on the ice, we decided there was a crack we needed to jump, and in hindsight we probably didn’t need to,” he says. “It was quite a heavy landing, which sheared the bolts of our luggage rack.”
With Ice Runners expected to camp out in sub-zero temperatures, losing your luggage is a literal matter of life and death. Still, riders are not entirely without support; the organisers plot a GPS route around the lake, placing fuel drops in handy locations. Plus, everyone is connected by radio in case of emergency, and also to share navigation tips and mechanical knowledge. But the risks are very real. Two of last year’s riders, Ala and Efraim, were lucky to escape with a warped front wheel after narrowly avoiding a plunge on their rolling Ural.
“We made some rash decisions,” says Fleming. “I remember going across one particular crack and not really thinking about stopping. The back wheel went through the ice. We had enough momentum to pull through, but it was a bit of an eye-opener.”
“It’s kind of like scar tissue,” says Willings of the ice. “You often get a thick ridge pushing up like the back of a stegosaurus.” This can hide deep cracks in the ice. “Misread one of those and you can sink a mile into one of the world’s deepest lakes.”
HOT WHEELS: Bike tours of the warmer variety