Remember our Sovietrek cyclers who set out last April Fools' Day in Minnesota to cycle around the world and for the first time traverse Siberia unescorted by bike?
Well, 10,724 miles and seven months later they're in California and their experiences along the way define adventure, true grit, determination and resourcefulness. Consider how they handled:
Day-to-day danger and illness -- In Romania, they biked through earthquakes and food riots. And then, on the long, lonely stretches between villages, "We were constantly attacked by bands of gypsy kids, like jackals attacking a fawn," says Dan Buettner, 29, trip mastermind. "They'd see us coming, run to the edge of the road and start grabbing anything off our bikes, or even off us."
At one point, two gypsies grabbed Alexander Razumenko, 31. The wiry Russian started to tumble from his bike, but righted it and kicked and punched his way loose.
On another occasion, Steve Buettner, 25, lost his only jacket to half a dozen teenagers. "Damn it, that's it," Steve said. As his brother guarded his bike, Steve, screaming like a banshee, chased the kids down on foot, grabbed the jacket and rushed back to his bike.
Near Soviet Chita, a mud slide inundated the group, threw Razumenko into a double cartwheel, and broke his arm. He hitched to a hospital, kept his cast on two days, and then decided to chip it off with his pocket knife when the cast made biking difficult.
In Odessa, Dan Buettner became violently ill and was hospitalized for three days. In a small Siberian village, Steve Buettner came down with salmonella and was hospitalized for 10 days.
At times, hundreds of miles from the smallest village or a stream, the group ran out of water. "We would take our cup," says Vladimir Kovalenko, 32, "and go into the woods looking for puddles. Maybe we would find a half-cup each of muddy water."
Biking conditions -- "Imagine sitting on a jack hammer 15 hours a day," Dan Buettner says of the dirt path just outside of Seloa. "Our hands took such a beating we couldn't pick up our cup or fork at night from shaking."
And what about the bugs? "Horseflies the size of your thumbnail," says Dan. "They have a dagger-type stinger. They want blood; you're their only food out there. We were flying along and you could see them in your shadow, see these huge black things swarming behind you, chasing you."
And then, invariably, a tire would go flat. More than 100 flat tires in this section of Siberia alone. "As soon as we'd stop, we'd get this surge of heat," Steve says, "ninety-five degrees, and then the flies would attack violently. We'd pull on our thick warm-up suits, like stepping into a sauna, fix the flats, and bike on." For three weeks they dealt with the flies in the day and equally vicious mosquitoes at night.
In Kookoy, Siberia, heat turned to bitter cold and roads literally ran out. They biked footpaths alongside the Trans-Siberian Railroad for 400 miles and then at the Shilka River, near Chita, built a raft from a military hull donated by the mayor of Kookoy. "We built a platform on the hull, and loaded 400 pounds of gear, our bikes and us," says Dan. For three days they careered at 12 mph down the deserted, rough, dangerous river. "One night we rammed an island," says Steve Buettner. "Most of the gear spilled into the river. We lost one of our two paddles. We were all soaked in ice water and the wind was screaming. We spent the night on the island doing exercises to keep warm."
And then the going really got interesting. "When the Shilka reached the Amur River, we were on the border with China. Towers, guards and guns all around us. The KGB escorted us in a covered truck through the danger zone."
For the next 800 miles even the paths ran out. "Every couple of miles, we'd have to heave our bikes on our shoulders and wade through fast-moving, freezing rivers. We did that 20 times. And then we hit the bogs.
"In the distance, you'd see beautiful birch trees and wild bears and wolves, but we'd be in mud up to our knees, holding our bikes in the air or pulling and heaving them through the mud. And then it started to rain constantly. We'd make 100 yards, cuss a little, and go on," recounts Dan Buettner.
At Muhino, Siberia, the paths picked up again. "For 700 miles we would bike an hour and then stop and repair our bikes for an hour." Near Irkutsk, Dan Buettner's front rim exploded. A Soviet engineer made him a new rim from scratch, using metal from a MiG-23 jet fighter. He still is riding on it.
Near Khabarovsk, Volodya's rim exploded. He hitchhiked to town, took a 2,000-mile train ride to buy a new one, and caught up with the group after losing five days' biking time. During the 124 days in the Soviet Union, the group had 10 showers. They traveled with one 2-liter pot for cooking and one plastic cup each for drinking and eating. For weeks on end they biked into 20 mph winds.
In Uliatka, Siberia, 80 miles from the Chinese border, they spent the night in a one-room log cabin with a family of three, and shared their meal, too: potatoes, eggs and pig fat. Called "sala," the raw pig fat became a staple for the bikers. "We ate berries a lot, and mushrooms, and always black bread," Dan Buettner says. The bikers spent 106 nights with villagers "and I have never in my life met anyone as friendly and kind as these people were."
"Today, I try to remember the worst time," Alexander Razumenko says, "and I don't find the worst."
"The worst? The plane trip," says Volodya Kovalenko. Because of a mix-up in visas, the entire group last week had to fly across the U.S.S.R. twice, 18,000 miles, to get new visas.
Why did they do it? Dan Buettner hesitates quite some time before answering. "The challenge," he says. "For me, it's one of the few things you can do that combine elements of spiritual, physical and intellectual enrichment.
"I'm thinking about biking through Africa and kayaking down the Amazon with my three brothers," he continues. That's after the group finishes this trip, that is.
All things being relative, though, what's a 2,000-mile bike trip from California to Minnesota?