Words and photos by Lars Scharl2011
Way back in November 2011 I saw a video here on Pinkbike that kind of reset my perception of the term 'freeriding'. I guess I found the link to the video on Facebook or somewhere else - in any case, I noticed that the edit had already gathered quite a lot of likes and faves, so I expected another perfectly edited, expensively crafted short movie with a trendy electro pop soundtrack and some rider rattling off about how stoked he was to ride jumps that his sponsors had built for him in the craziest location and how epic all of it was. A couple of seconds later I was glued to the computer screen because the video edit turned out to be basically the exact opposite of what I was expecting. Some guy introduced himself and then started playing his own soundtrack on a clarinet. The video quality was refreshingly average and it actually featured zero scenes that were filmed with camera movement of any kind - unless you counted shaky handheld video. No cranes, no dollies, no steadycam, no techie wet dream stuff - just this guy sitting there and talking about how bad the situation in his home country, Russia, was. No sponsors, no big scene, seemingly no organisational level of any kind - and still this guy delivered some serious backcountry riding - on a hardtail! The scenes featuring two crappy roadtrips and one trip to a hospital that somehow reminded me of the movie 'Hostel' (might have been the power drill?) were the icing on the cake: this was the single most awesome combination of a middle European's typical image of Russians, a thoroughly desperate vibe, and still a perfectly visible passion that somehow survived against all odds. For those of you who haven't yet seen the edit, here it is
A couple of days later, I still had that video spooking around in my mind and I knew I had to get in touch with Kirill. I had never been to Russia, and I sensed that maybe there was an opportunity to broaden my horizon toward the east. Luckily, Kirill is also on Pinkbike, so I sent him a short message and asked him if he'd be interested in a photo shoot of some kind. I didn't have to wait very long for a reply, and fortunately Kirill was keen to get a photo shoot going. As the winter already had Europe and especially the east in its grip, we decided to plan for 2012. 2012
Timing such a self-financed trip in between lots of normal shoots proved a little difficult, so almost a full year passed before we could both work out a schedule and cover the costs for the trip. At the beginning of October I finally found myself sitting in a plane to Moscow's Domodedowo airport. Pretty exciting, flying toward Mother Russia for the first time ever...
| Kirill Benderoni in front of St. Basil's Cathedral on the Red Square. We actually took this photo on the very last evening of the trip - the crutches might already tell you that not everything went according to plan, but we'll come to that later...|
We started the trip at Kirill's home close to the Russian capitol, with our first destination, Orenburg, awaiting us a mere 1500 kilometers away. Kirill had set up a rough travel map by scouting for possible locations on Google Earth. This was quite an original approach for me and I was curious how it would work out in the field. Surprisingly for me, the first 1000 kilometers revealed a completely flat country, with occasional quarries and canyons as pretty much the only freeriding spots - exactly as Kirill had described in his video. When we left Moscow, Kirill had warned me to prepare for real rural Russia and that was definitely what I saw outside of the car windows... as a western European, I was really taken aback by how different the rural parts looked compared to the polished and luxurious big city tourist districts. Many huge, broken down industrial facilities, people sitting in front of their porches watching the traffic because they have no work and nothing to do, plastic garbage flying around everywhere and of course, lots of oil refineries and the scent of chemicals in the air. On the other hand, we passed through some crazy-beautiful landscapes, with huge forests and steppe-like areas with bone-dry ground and canyons filled with adders.
| Impressions of long gone industrial grandeur, splendid malls in the cities, ruins galore in the countryside and - best of all: German beer even in remote shops.|
We reached our first destination close to Orenburg, just a little bit north of the Kazakh border. It was one of the most interesting locations which Kirill had found on Google Earth: a cluster of seemingly natural white rocks. They turned out to be anything but natural: after chasing the GPS coordinates over very, very bad Russian country roads we arrived at some sort of Russian prison - and directly beside it lay an old prison quarry, where (at least in my vision) the Soviet versions of the Dalton brothers had swung their pickaxes a long, long time ago. We checked out the entire place and found some small drops, gaps and short, steep riding zones, but nothing extraordinary - except for a massive monolith that stood isolated in the middle of the quarry. "It would be so awesome to drop off that thing" was one of the first things that each of us said when we saw the rock. At first it seemed to be more of a joke than a realistic possibility, but after a closer inspection of the surroundings we found a landing zone for such a drop - a pile of small stones and gravel that had to be hit pretty spot-on in order to ride out of it in one piece. It was sketchy, but good enough for Kirill to actually consider sending the drop. The only remaining problem was: how could he get up to the top!? We had brought a climbing rope with us from Moscow and now was the time to put it to use. A couple of free climbing attempts later we decided to take a different approach and threw the rope over a rock at the side of the monolith. Now Kirill could safely climb up while I secured him with the rope from the other side of the rock.
| Climbing exercise? Russian panoramic view point? Nope, bigger things were planned here...|
After a couple of minutes' inspection Kirill shouted that a drop would indeed be possible from the top. I sent up a shovel via rope-lift and after some minutes of digging, the inrun was finished. Kirill once again came down to test the landing on his bike, then climbed up with it and prepared to drop. I have to admit, I was really nervous at that point: the drop was burly, no doubt about that! The landing was sketchy and Kirill was about to hit it on a five-inch slopestyle bike. It was the first spot of the entire trip and if anything went awry, the trip was over before it had really begun. Fortunately, Kirill didn't give me much time to worry too much and quite soon he signaled that he was ready to go: after a quick countdown he shouted "I'm going!" ... and dropped:
| Kirill Benderoni - Monolith Drop - Akbulak, Russia|
As I fired the sequence I saw through the shutter that although Kirill went a little farther than anticipated and impacted quite roughly, he rode it out without any problem. Kirill seemed quite relieved to have made it and I was really happy to have the first banger shot of the trip on camera! Even now, almost a year later, I count that shot as one of my personal favorites.
After getting the drop shot, we decided to look for some small fun stuff and kept it easy for the remainder of the day...
| Seizing the last light of the day...|
We found the next spot by chance on our way back to the main road. The location seemed to have been a quarry of some sorts - standing on top of it, we could overlook a field of dried out bushes that filled out the entire background of the setting. Kirill quickly found a nice spot to build a step down jump and after a good two hours of work a kicker was built and a landing zone was prepared. After clearing the step down with a straight air Kirill decided to pull a backflip over it - as the sun set on the horizon, he pulled and pulled... and still didn't have enough momentum which resulted in a close inspection of some Russian dirt, helmet-first. Unfortunately, the spot had won because by now the sun had set completely and there was nothing left of that golden light to make a second attempt worth it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose...
| Sometimes things just go bad - but seldom do they do so in such beautiful places...|
Our next destination was another 250 kilometers away: the area around Mednogorsk, which promised some old quarries and maybe also some natural spots in the first hills of the beginning Ural mountains. We arrived at our GPS target at nightfall and scouting was made impossible by the pitch dark, so we quickly set up the tent and went to sleep. The next morning, we began to explore the surroundings. It turned out to be a huge mining area, with lots of different quarries and small hills. After some hours of exploring, we found a wide, abandoned mine with a lake at the bottom. Some older camp fire remains and vodka bottles indicated that the place had also been used as a party location at times. At one side of the mine it seemed possible to build a step down jump, although the landing was a little sketchy because you had to brake and stop quickly before hitting a 15m+ cliff. After Kirill had dug out a small takeoff, he told me that he'd flip the step down first try since that seemed the least scary thing to do here. Said and done, five minutes later he was on top of the inrun and shouted "I'm going!" again. He over-rotated just a tiny bit, couldn't quite hold onto the bike and tumbled down the landing. Nothing happened though and soon he was good to go again and he nailed the backflip step down perfectly on the second attempt.
| Kirill Benderoni - Underworld Backflip - Mednogorsk, Russia|
Before we took off towards Mednogorsk we had already found a very nice jump spot close to the monolith drop location in Orenburg - we had kept it for the end of the trip because it was the biggest challenge by far. It was a gap jump over a canyon, about 14 meters long. Takeoff and landing required a lot of work, 14 hours of shovelling and building them earth brick by earth brick to be exact. Nevertheless, the result looked nice and clean - although the distance was still quite huge compared to the relatively small landing space. After the build was complete, we had to wait for a couple of hours for the wind to die down. Finally, with the sun already setting on the horizon, it did. Immediately, Kirill began his preparations to hit the jump. Speed checks, warm-up exercises, then it was time to send it.
| 14 hours of shovelling for a nice takeoff kicker and a short landing... would it be worth the hassle?|
| This is what it looked like from beside the takeoff... quite the voyage to the other side.|
Kirill cleared the jump twice perfectly with straight jumps, then it was time to pull some tricks on it. At this point, recall the very first picture of this post - unfortunately, the lip of the takeoff gave way when Kirill took off, which resulted in a loss of height: Kirill had about 20cm too little height when he arrived on the other side of the gap; his front wheel smacked into the lip of the landing and he went over the bar into the landing dirt. You can imagine the force of the impact - luckily, Kirill "only" hurt his knee..! Unfortunately, the crash also meant the end of the trip as Kirill could hardly walk after getting his senses back together. So we had to say good-bye to our self-built canyon gap and started the long way home towards Moscow.
| Not much of a description needed for this one I guess... 40+ft. gap, a mighty flip and then there are 20cm of height missing at the lip of the landing. Not the best feeling in the world.|
1500 kilometres, a few stops at very interesting Russian food places and some intense moments in Russian traffic later, we arrived safely at Kirill's home. With a day left to spend off the bike, we checked out the inner city of Moscow and had a beer with some of Kirill's buddies (cheers guys!) and decided to do another trip as soon as Kirill was good to go again. That was the end of the Russia adventure, on the next day it was off to Germany again...2013
Time did indeed heal the wounds, and as soon as everything was organized we started on a follow-up road trip. Only this time Benderoni went to Europe and slayed it. Our planned destinations included the area around the Bardenas Reales, some other desert locations in Spain and everything beside the roads that led us there and back again. Kirill was anxious to get more creative this time and he brought his trusted hardtail with him. A freeride trip with a hardtail? Yeah, don't worry, it's more than possible. At the beginning of June we set out on a 5.500km, 13 day trip through seven European countries. Looking back now, a couple of weeks later, the strongest memories that come to mind are almost too perfect weather throughout the entire trip, countless hours spent digging and carrying rocks for jumps, some unique spots with very creative tricks (little teaser: natural terrain oververt transfer flatspin Check it out in Freeride Magazine Issue 3/2013) and all in all a great experience for which I'm very thankful. Showing the best shots here will only be possible once they have been run in the magazines, but we can already present two sneak previews to you:
| Sunrise, time for some upper-body stretching exercises!|
This was the spot that we spent the most time at, digging and collecting rocks... only to sit out a perfect sunset because of strong side winds. Unfortunately we didn't have time to wait for another sunset, so we took this photo during the next morning sunrise and then packed everything up and hit the road towards our next destination...
| ...and a nice sunset to put a colourful finishing touch on this story...|
I hope you liked this little insight into our trip to Russia. At the end of the story, it's time for some very good news: seems like the road through Russia and Europe led Kirill to his biggest challenge yet: he finally received an invite to the Red Bull Rampage! So let's keep our fingers crossed for him and hope that he'll be ready to throw down some big a*s moves in the Utah desert in a couple of weeks.
All I have to say at this point is: Cпаcибо Kirill, it's been a blast and I'm looking forward to the next trip!
Make sure to visit Kirill's fan page
For all mid-Europeans, make sure to check out Kirill's shots in this year's issues of Freeride Magazine