16 August 2017

Across Siberia, To The Extreme

Some say the Tour de France is the world's most difficult bicycle race.  Some have even called it the world's most challenging sporting event.  It's not difficult to understand why:  Nearly every day for three weeks, cyclists pedal through all sorts of conditions, climbing mountains, sprinting across flatlands and fighting heat, wind and fatigue.

Others might say the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana are as unforgiving as the Tour.  After all, each of those races is, like the Tour, a multi-day, multi-stage event that presents similar challenges.  

I can't help but to wonder, though, how each of them compares to the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme Race. This year's version began on 18 July in Moscow's Red Square and ended on 10 August in Vladivostok, a port city near the Chinese border.

At the starting line

Over the course of 24 days, the riders pedaled 14 stages covering 9211 kilometers (about 5700 miles).  That's nearly three times as long as any of the Big Three races in Western Europe.  And, because it goes across Russia--in contrast to the other races, whose courses are loops or rings--the riders cross seven time zones before reaching the finish line.

That feat was accomplished by only three of the ten riders who started.  Russia's Alexey Shchebelin won the general classification for covering the stages in the shortest time, followed by Pierre Bischoff of Germany and Florentino Marcelo Soares of Brazil.  They did what none of the riders could accomplish in last year's edition of the race, and what only one rider did in 2015, the first year of the Trans-Siberian Extreme.  

Interestingly, the race is open to women as well as men.   Shangrila Rendon, a Filipina and Thursday Gervais Dubina of the USA were the only two female contestants.  Paul Bruck, a race organizer, says he wants to make the race "more attractive" for women but is not sure of how to do it.  

One option he might explore is one used in the Race Across America, in which women are given 21 hours more than men (who get 12 days) to complete the 3000-mile course from California to Maryland.  Riders who do not complete the race in the required time frame are listed as "Did not finish" although they are allowed to complete the ride if they wish.

Another option might be to allow the women to compete in two-person teams rather than solo, which would give them the opportunity to hand off and get more rest.  Rendon and Gervais Dubina found that as they fell behind, they lost time for meals and recovery between stages.  

Whatever the race organizers decide for next year, the riders--whatever their gender--will have to prepare for the same sorts of weather and topographical extremes riders encounter in other big races, in addition to the roads themselves.  From what I've been reading, I gather that the road conditions are even worse than in any of the three major Tours.  If anything, they seem like the pave of the Paris-Roubaix after an earthquake.  

No, Alexey, we're not in "Breaking Away"!

Worst of all, those roads aren't closed to traffic for the race.   That, rather than the speed of the race, the weather or the mountain climbs, is what caused Gervais Dubina to withdraw from the race.  "I had three instances in which traffic was coming straight at me on the shoulder," she explained.  "It just got too much for me."

I'm not so sure changing the qualifying times or other rules would have kept her, or very many other riders, whatever their gender idenities, in a race with such conditions.

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