Regular readers will remember I last interviewed French lawyer Perrine Fages back in 2018 when we chatted about her incredible Arch to Arc world record, which involved running 87 miles from London’s Marble Arch to Dover, swimming the English Channel and then cycling 181 miles to Paris (I know!). Since then, Perrine hasn’t stopped – she took the crown of the BikingMan Ultra 2018 women’s champion, ran the Oman by UTMB ultra, gravel biked the Annapurna route self-supported and last week completed a relay swim of the English Channel in a swimsuit.
In March this year, Perrine joined fellow ultracyclist Steven Le Hyaric in attempting a crossing of Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal by bike. Their 635km ride, which took place in -30°C temperatures, was cut short due to the unusually snowy conditions (it’s usually ice, not snow) which delayed their journey and risked Perrine missing her flight home for work. To find out more about this and Perrine’s Himalayan cycle adventure, I put some questions to her via email.
Last year you took on some cycling adventures in the Himalayas – what did this involve?
The trip to the Himalayas was actually two different trips. The first one was the Annapurnas Tour, which was self-supported over five days via Thorong La pass at 5416m. This is a hiking trail which we did on our gravel bikes – probably very few people ride gravel bike on this trail… I’m not sure it was the easiest choice but at least the bikes were easy to carry on our backs when the trail was too technical!
The second trip was Lhasa to Kathmandu via Everest base camp on the Tibet side – we covered 1200km in five days with many passes at altitude greater than 5000m+ and the whole trip between was at altitudes between 4500m and 5500m. We did this on road bikes and were assisted in the Tibetan part because it’s mandatory.
That sounds really challenging – how tough was it?
The most difficult thing was spending 6 days above 4500m and climbing very tough passes at such altitude. For the trip in the Annapurnas, it was also difficult because it was very technical and maybe it would have been easier on a mountain bike, rather than our gravel bikes!
How difficult is it to ride at altitude?
Riding in altitude is always difficult but for the trip in Tibet, we also were sleeping in altitude. It’s like sleeping at Mont Blanc altitude after a very long day and then climbing again to Mount Elbrus every day. We were OK, because we are used to high altitude, but to be honest, I can remember one day after a very tough climb… I was dying at the summit. It’s like climbing a huge pass with half the oxygen that you need. But the descents were so rewarding!
What was it like reaching Everest Base Camp by bike?
It was beautiful but my favourite Everest memory was at the top of a 5400m pass where we could see Everest, Cho Oyu, and all the Himalayan giants… priceless. It was so emotional, the scenery… I cried.
More recently you attempted a Lake Baikal bike crossing. How did it go?
Baikal Lake crossing was an amazing challenge and we learnt a lot. We cycled from the north to the south. The length is 635km, but because of the snow conditions in the north we had to ask for help to reach Olkhon Island (the middle of the ride) and then finish the trip [early]. We did 500km in total. Because of my work, we had a short schedule and there was a lot of snow which meant it was impossible to ride and we lost so much time. It’s always difficult to not ‘accomplish the mission’, but to be honest, our goal was to spend 10 days absolutely self-supported on the lake and we achieved that.
It wasn’t a good year to cross or try to break a record on the bike. It was very challenging because we had to carry all the equipment, whereas most self-supported crossings/expeditions have ice captains or people checking on them. It can be dangerous – you can experience a crack on the lake, or sometimes you can fall – but we really wanted to do this self-supported.
At the time, you lived in Doha in the Middle East – how did you prepare for riding on ice and snow?
I did some training on my bike on an ice rink in a Mall [in Doha]. Can you imagine people buying expensive clothes and watching me on my bike? So funny. Also the training I did for the Rovaniemi300 race (a 300-mile winter bike race in the Polar Circle) helped me a lot.
I also spent three weekends in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to train in the snow. It gave me the opportunity to learn about these countries and the Caucasus Mountains will definitely be a new place for training! I loved it.
How cold was it during your Lake Baikal expedition?
It was cold: -30°C. We had one terrible night in the tent where it was extremely cold and we both didn’t feel well.
How did you find riding across the ice and the snow?
It’s scary to ride on the ice, but it’s okay. The most difficult thing was the snow because we just couldn’t move our bikes on it, so we were walking and pushing them. Normally, you’re not allowed to move through the area at night but we had to keep moving at night because we didn’t want to miss our flight. I guess we still had hoped to find more ice and less snow, and ride until the end, but there was too much snow; the ice was only at Olkhon (an island on Lake Baikal) not before.
What were the high and low points of your Lake Baikal ride?
The lake is so beautiful. Even when I was freezing I was happy to be there and grateful. The best part was opening the tent on the lake, watching the mountains and the sunrise. The low point: a little disappointed to not have cycled the whole distance and to find so much snow… but we learnt a lot.
Were there any particularly tough moments?
I guess the cold one morning, and also trying to find the best ‘route’ with the least amount of snow.
And mentally to decide to ask for help to get to Olkhon [Island]… we had to take this tough decision.
How does your Baikal adventure compare to your other cycling adventures?
Nothing is comparable. I was more like an extreme cold expedition, on a different level – like you were preparing for an Antarctic expedition for example. Steven is preparing for such an expedition by bike, so it was the perfect preparation [for him].
What bikes did you use and did they stand up to the ice and snowy conditions?
I used an open one+ mountain bike with studded tyres. Many people were telling me that I was going to have issues with carbon or hydraulic breaks, that they were going to freeze, but I had no issues.
The coronavirus hit shortly after you started. Did this affect your decisions during the ride?
We cut our ride because I had to go to France for family reasons and then go back to work. But when we came back to Irkutsk we saw the news and everything. I flew back to Qatar directly before they closed the country. I landed in Doha with my expedition clothes etc. and they had just closed the country two hours before I landed (three days before the announced date) so I had to take a flight to France with just my expedition gear… and I’ve been here since March.
What’s your current situation – you’re now based in France is that right?
I’m at my parents’ home in France wearing my old clothes from college! At least I have two of my four bikes with me. I had been working from here but the country (Doha) is still closed until the end of September and they recently fired many people – including me.
So, yes, COVID-19 ruined a bit my life, but my family and me are healthy and that’s more important.
Have you any other big endurance challenges in the pipeline for when the world is safe enough to do them?
Many things in the pipeline but I don’t make plans anymore. Now [that I no longer have a job in Doha] I will start a new life somewhere else, and in the meanwhile I’m training in every part of France. Exploring my country is quite fun!
But yes, I was supposed to do a big ride in Ladakh (the Himalayas) in June, so that’s just postponed. I’ve also just registered to do Swiss Peaks, a 300km trail run with more than 22000m of elevation (crazy) in September, and still confirmed is a 2700km cycling race from South Africa to Namibia!
You can follow Perrine via her social media: www.instagram.com/perrinefage.