The Russian bogs have a timeless quality about them, as though millions of years of evolution have completely passed them by. A cloud of mosquitoes buzzes around my head, and somewhere through the stunted trees that dot the landscape, a single bird calls out. This is nature in its most untouched state—a scene from National Geographic.
Half an hour later, though, it’s a very definitely a scene from the Ladoga Trophy. The high-pitched whine of winches, the angry roar of big engines as the Proto cars inch their way through meter-deep mud, and the voices of a dozen determined faced men shouting instructions and insults to each other in Latvian, Finnish, and Russian. It has taken me two hours to walk here and I can’t go any further. With each step, I sink to my knees, and I only have two Snickers bars left to give me the energy I need to trudge all the way back. But this is no spectacular vantage point I have come to see with all the film crew and photographers hovering around—this is just the start of the very first Proto stage, and I didn’t even make it as far as the second waypoint out of 25. But this is the soul of the Ladoga Trophy. This is what 99 percent of the competition that people don’t get to see looks like—and I have to say it is absolutely epic.
The Ladoga Trophy is a nine-day, 1,200-kilometer-long assault around Lake Ladoga, north of St Petersburg, through just about every type of terrain possible. Besides the well documented mud bogs, there are huge river crossings, car-sized rocks to crawl over, and huge slopes to winch up. More than 160 vehicles tackled the event last year, spread over nine classes from the monster-truck Protos to beat-up standard Lada Nivas. There’s everything in these forests, from the independent-suspension, portal-axled buggies to Suzukis that look like someone’s been watching too many episodes of Scrapyard Challenge. On the start line in the center of St Petersburg, one might see a 40-year-old UAZ parked next to a Hummer H2, and Proto beasts standing proud on 40-inch tires next to an immaculate and massive Toyota Tundra—all heading off together into the endless forests.
Each evening, the leader board is pinned up in camp listing the times of those who have made it through each stage of the competition, but the numbers don’t really mean anything. “Six hours 17 minutes” can’t give you any idea of what challenges had to be surmounted, nor does the ominous “0:00:00” tell what lengths a crew is going through to get their vehicle fixed, or extricated from an inaccessible bog. It’s only back in camp, to the sounds of angle grinders and hammers pounding out bent body panels, that the stories come out. Kari Sihvonen only finished building his Discovery-based Proto the night before scrutineering and so was very happy to be Third at one point—especially as he took a wrong turn through a lake and ended up stuck with the water lapping over the roof, just 2 centimeters from the snorkel. Contrast that to the rather inactive crew behind them who were trying to work out how to get their broken-engined TR2 UAZ out through five feet of bog.
The TR1 Class was the most closely fought class this year, and came down to the penultimate stage. A group of brand-new Land Rover 90s and aging 70-series Land Cruisers were all chasing an immaculately prepared Lithuanian Suzuki Jimny, which was actually fastest of all along the spectacular beach race. The Suzuki had a lead of over an hour with two days to go, but got handed a 60-minute penalty for missing a GPS waypoint by 30 meters. That left them a scant 12-minute lead, but in the very next stage, a tree ripped up through the floorpan and cut through the electrics. A hasty repair meant that they got out of the stage, but the lead and the win was lost. Driver Ben Vanagas was very philosophical about it, though: “In this event, at every moment something can go wrong. One rock, one tree, one bad river crossing, one thing breaking on the car is all it takes.”
On a much more relaxed pace were the Belgian crew of Quentin Monteyne and Filip Van Vracem in the Grand Tourism class in a Range Rover Classic. Originally entered in TR1, they were let down somewhat by their team having to pull out at the last minute, but determined not to give up, they bravely entered the unknown GT, which is only in its second year. It’s the only class you can hope to do without a support vehicle following you with supplies and spares. The days consist of following what us Brits would call “green-lane” trails, which are liberally interspersed with winching sections while scouring the Russian landscape for clues using GPS. “The team enjoyed themselves so much that the organizers even created a special prize for them at the closing ceremony, that of “Most Optimistic Crew.” Monteyne said: “The organizers almost dismiss Grand Tourism as not real off-roading, but we were actually driving in the lake the other day, as the road went through it. There are river crossings that are knee deep—or crotch deep if you take a wrong step—diff-crunching rocks, bogs to cross, trees, and if you get stuck behind the Toyota Tundra, it leaves a right mess of the trail! The Russians just have a totally whacked idea of what ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ are. GT is hard off-roading, but it’s an excellent format, brilliantly organized, and the language barrier isn’t a problem because everyone is so eager to help all the time. Grand Tourism at Ladoga is well recommended.”
The famed Proto class was won by a Nissan Patrol-derived machine on Volvo Laplander axles and a nice homemade twin A-arm suspension setup that allows for great articulation. In the last camp, I asked co-driver Aigan Zeiza what it takes to conquer the hardest class at Ladoga: “In your car, you have to be light weight, have a low center of gravity, and have lots of underbody protection. For the drivers, you need to focus on every 10 meters that come—just think about how to get through the piece of road right in front of you as fast as you can with no damage. You just go through each stage like that, and then you see what times the others have. But you just have to hope that nothing breaks, so you need luck too. Then the last thing is the team. You have to have mechanics who know the car, people to run around getting food and making the camp, to be at the end of the stage with the trailer. Everything is important!”
Despite all the photos people see every year—the videos of drowning cars, the scale and fabled severity of the event, as well as the fact that it is held far away in the perpetually light forests of Russia—a myth status has grown up around Ladoga which means it’s not easy to define. The Tourism Class, which is supposed to be really easy, is actually a car (and in my case a few years ago) a bone breaker, and even in Grand Tourism it’s certainly not just a bit of fun in the woods. Ladoga is hard—severely hard. For those who bash and weld away at their beloved off-roaders and take part in weekend winch challenges, I would say that it has to be considered one of the world’s ultimate off-road challenges.
So what is Ladoga exactly? I’ve competed three times and watched it three more and in my experience it’s a life-enriching adventure, an expedition into the unknown and its definition is found in the hardships; you’re thoroughly mentally and physically exhausted, and the car is on its last legs . . . but the friendliness formed in the swamps, a winch line thrown, a spanner lent, mud brothers for life, the sense of achievement and electric anticipation you feel rolling up onto the start ramp, and knowing that the sight of your name on the finish board is something that you are never going to forget.
The Class System: At a Glance
TR1: 32.2-inch maximum tire size. No beadlocks. Body can only be modified to fit winch. Back seats can be taken out and back windows replaced with plastic or metal. Only one winch allowed. Original engine and transmission required.
TR2: 35.4-inch maximum tire size. Two winches allowed. Portal axles allowed but only if original (Unimog, Volvo, etc.) Engine/gearbox modifications are allowed, but have to keep the original casings. Plastic windows, beadlocks and central tire inflation systems are allowed.
Raid: Same as TR2, but tackling the stages in groups of two or three vehicles.
TR3/Proto: Unlimited, excepting tire size: 37 inches for TR3 and 40 inches for Proto.
Diff-locks are allowed in all classes.
Tourism: Same as TR1, but with 33-inch maximum tire size if the vehicle is a long wheelbase. Follows the TR1 route, but stages are not timed, just passed. Scoring comes from getting through every stage, as well as times from the Night Orienteering, Beach and Dune races.
Open Tourism: Same rules as Tourism, but following TR2 route.
Grand Tourism: GPS hunting, green-lane driving, and a winch challenge all rolled into one. The best fun in Ladoga, and you’ll also get to see a lot of the local culture. Excellent first-timer class.
Discovery: Basically for spectators.